I often find unique instruments fairly curious and engaging: engaging due to the sound they produce, and curious as to why it may be unique or rare to see or hear it.
Recently I came across a CBC article talking about an instrument that will be used in late October for three engagements at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM). At first sight I thought of it as somewhat comical, but it turns out that it’s pretty interesting.
Check out this beast of a bass, aptly named the Octobass, the lowest sounding bass in the world. According to the CBC article above, the OSM will be the only orchestra in the world to use one, and I cannot even tell you when the last time an orchestra employed one.
It was built by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1850 Paris, and was intended to be used by players. The height of this instrument is 12’ 8” tall and according to Wikipedia, “Because of the extreme fingerboard length and string thickness, the musician plays it using a system of hand- and foot-activated levers and pedals. The instrument is so large that, sometimes, two musicians work together to play it: one to bow and the other to control the levers and foot pedals. It has never been produced on a large scale or used much by composers (though Hector Berlioz wrote favourably about the instrument and proposed its widespread adoption).” However two players are not necessarily needed. When the Octobass makes it’s debut in Montreal, it will be played by double bassist Eric Chappell.
According to an OSM press release from June 16th 2016, it’s been a twelve-year effort and a dream of OSM music director, Maestro Kent Nagano, to bring this instrument into the fold. Another fascinating fact about the Octobass, again according to the OSM press release, is that “only three instruments of this kind exist on the planet, and the two others are not in active use.” The one the OSM has acquired is a replica of the original from the 1850’s.
Written by Joey Beaudin
*edited by Kate Erickson