The contrabass sarrusophone is found in three different sizes,
Eb, C, and Bb. The Eb contrabass is the most "common" sarrusophone
in the U.S., being the only one every actually manufactured here (by Conn).
Contrabasses in C or Bb are very rare (let me know if you find one!).
Parts are written as if for a saxophone of the corresponding size, transposed
in treble clef. The Eb contrabass may be written for as if it was a contrabass
saxophone. The bass sarrusophone is pitched in Bb, and is perfectly
suited for playing bass saxophone parts.
The contrabass sarrusophone has a practical (useable) range
that parallels the saxophone, from written low Bb (below middle C) to high
F (above the treble staff). With the Eb contrabass, this corresponds
to DDb (the lowest Db on the piano) to the Ab above middle C. The sarrusophone
range actually extends up to at least the written A above the saxophone's
high F, although the ease of obtaining these notes may vary from horn to
horn. The C contrabass sounds three octaves lower than written, and
the Bb contrabass sounds a step lower than the C contrabass (an octave
below the Bb bass saxophone). Now you know why you never see these
horns ;-). The notes above written high C are "altissimo",
obtained by fingering A (and higher notes) using the lower octave key.
The Bb bass sarrusophone has the same written range (to low Bb, up to altissimo
G or A), and sounds the same range as the bass saxophone (down to concert
Ab below the bass staff).
The contrabass sarrusophone sounds much like a cross between
a baritone sax and a contrabassoon. A brief example of the low register:
middle register has a more "singing" quality (like the upper register of
a bari or bass sax). It is capable of being played more loudly than
the contrabassoon. The contrabass comes in at least two different
bore styles, with correspondingly different timbres. The "big pipe"
sarrusophone has a rounder, more tuba-like sound, while the "small pipe"
sarrusophone has a much brighter, reedier, cutting tone. Wrecking
ball or chain saw: your choice ;-) I recently had an opportunity
to play bass sarrusophone on a number of concert band works, and discovered
that it blends well with bass trombone. Where the saxophone has a
euphonium or baritone-like sound, the sarrusophone has more of a trombone
It is likely that any instrument used will be an antique:
only one or two companies still make sarrusophones, and new horns are less
common than well made Buffets, Evette & Schaeffers, Gautrots, Conns
or Trieberts. However, anyone who actually has and plays a
sarrusophone has probably gone to the trouble of having the instrument
restored to proper condition. The fingering is very much like a saxophone,
although without some of the modernizations that make the sax easier to
play. In particular, older sarrusophones may not have rollers on
the LH4 and RH4 keys, which can make the following transitions awkward:
low B (or Bb) to low C#
low B or Bb to G#
low C# to G#
low C to Eb
It should go without saying: don't write trills for those
pairs of notes. Also, more importantly, the sarrusophone does not
have as many alternate fingerings as the modern saxophone. There
is only one fingering for Bb (LH1,2 + RH1 side key), which can make Bb
and Eb major arpeggios awkward. There is an alternate fingering
for C (LH1 + RH1 side key, corresponding to the saxophone's C alternate).
Finally, the G# key is not articulated as it is on the saxophone.
The bass and contrabass sarrusophones provides interesting
additions to any ensemble, and an effective substitute to the even rarer
contrabass saxophone or the sometimes overly quiet contrabassoon.
Its tone combines well with low brass (esp. tuba + trombone), providing
an edge that may otherwise be lacking. It makes an excellent addition
to the foundation of a saxophone ensemble (either alone or appearing within
a larger group), and can make up for an otherwise weak lower woodwind section.
It can be written in unison with the tuba, contrabass clarinet, and bass
sax, and may effectively double the bari sax an octave lower. As
mentioned above, the bass sarrusophone blends well with the bass trombone,
particularly in the middle and low registers. It is likely that you
will have at most one sarrusophone at your compositional disposal.
However, if you are writing for a local concentration of fanatics, you
may want to try combinations of contrabass (Eb, C, or Bb) with Bb bass
and/or Eb baritone.