The Concerto for Contrabassoon was completed on November 25, 1978 and was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra at the suggestion of Lewis Lipnick, its own contrabassoonist, who was the soloist in the premiere. Mr. Lipnick had long deplored the lack of solo material for his instrument, and in Mr. Schuller he found a sympathetic spirit, as indicated primarily in the music itself, and also in the following remarks which the composer supplied:
I had had the idea of writing such a work for a long time, inspired by such wonderful passages for the contrabassoon as are found in Strauss’s Salome, Glière’s Ilya Mourometz Symphony, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and two of the great wind Serenades—the one in D minor by Dvorák and Mozart’s Gran Partita in B-flat. But even there, with the exception of the two Serenades, the contrabassoon is generally stereotyped as an instrument limited to the depiction of evil, of monsters, beasts, etc. (the depraved and twisted Salome, the brigand Solovei in Ilya Mourometz, the Beast as opposed to the Beauty in Ravel’s Suite, and other assorted misfits and monsters in the romantic literature.) Indeed, one can measure the contrabassoon’s standing among orchestral instruments in proportion to its close relative the bassoon, which is still perceived as the “buffoon” of the orchestra. The contrabassoon fares even less well, alas, the locker room jokes, mostly unprintable, and snide asides that the instrument’s name really means ‘against the bassoon’ abound.
All of this is, I think, quite unfair, and says more about our own lack of perception than about the actual character or capacity of the instrument. An instrument is what a composer and a performer make of it . . .
There is another aspect of composing a concerto for contrabassoon that I would like to mention. Since 99.5 percent of the world’s musical ears quite naturally expect a melody or theme to occur in the upper or middle range, the composer of a contrabassoon concerto faces the special compositional/technical/acoustical problem of attracting the listener’s attention to the nether regions of the human auditory range. (The highest note at present attainable on the contrabassoon is C-sharp directly above middle C.) The simplest way to do this should be to let the contrabassoon play unaccompanied and without any distracting interference from other, more ‘normally’ voiced instruments. But such a work would quite probably be a bore, and in any case not a concerto. Thus I faced to an unprecedented extent the unusual problem of establishing for the listener the unquestioned soloistic priority of the contrabassoon, i.e., of consistently attracting the listener’s ears to that lowest range of our auditory spectrum, lest mere accompaniment or secondary passages—let us say, in the flute or violin—might be heard as primary, while the real primary material in the contrabassoon might be ignored or perceived as secondary. Tactful disposition of such elements as dynamic balance, density, degree of activity and such are old questions as the relationship between melody (or theme) and accompaniment became extremely crucial in the very composing of the piece.
The Concerto is in four movements, the third and fourth being linked by a solo cadenza and played without interruption. The first movement begins by contrasting the contrabassoon in its lowest register with the high violins, piccolos and a sprinkling of celesta, harp and glockenspiel. This more-than-five-octave registral gap is gradually filled in by the addition of other instruments (clarinets, bassoons, violas) and the gradual ascent of the contrabassoon into its highest range. All participants meet at the logical rendezvous point—middle C. A second subject puts the contrabassoon through some challenging technical paces—leaping passages, careening runs and the like—only to recapitulate the opening section, now modified and embellished, and in turn lead to a gentle, lyrical coda.
The second movement is a Scherzo, pure and simple, replete with trio (somewhat more tranquil), designed to show off not only the contrabassoon’s agility but its sense of humor. Toward the end—like the broom of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice—the contrabassoon bifurcates, figuratively at least, into two contrabassoons, the soloist being joined by a colleague in the orchestra, and the movement comes to a merry double-your-pleasure ending.
The third movement, Lento, alternates various lyrical passages with long melodic lines in the contrabassoon, all under a constant string tremolo pedal point. The aforementional cadenza leads directly to the Finale, allegro vivace, in which the contrabassoon’s material is varied and embellished in two successive recapitulations, producing in form a rather brief rondo. The last of these variations elides unexpectedly into a quiet coda which turns out to be the ending of the first movement, gently re-orchestrated and ornamented.
In addition to the solo contrabassoon, the score of the Concerto calls for 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 4 oboes, (2 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba; timpani (four players); celesta (doubling piano); harp; and strings.