Bizarre: The Octobass

We’re back again with our foray into the world of lesser-known, undiscovered and sometimes bizarre instruments that we’ve scoured the archives for. We hope that these brief glances into the more unusual sides of the musical world will inspire you musically to search for new and obscure sounds. This week we bring you the Octobass.

The Inventor

Created by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume around the year 1850, the Octobass is an extremely large and extremely rare bowed string instrument. Essentially an acoustic bass with three strings, similar to the Double Bass, but standing 3.48 metres tall compared to the average 2 metre size of a Double Bass.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume was an instrument collector and maker who won numerous awards for his creations which started with him making imitations of old instruments, some being said to be undetectable from the originals, as a testament to the quality he delivered. Included in his many accolades are the Council Medal in London in 1851 and, in that same year, the Legion of Honour. A maker of more than 3,000 instruments—almost all of which are numbered—and a fine tradesman, Vuillaume was also a gifted inventor.

Among his notable inventions are a large viola, which he called a "contralto", the hollow steel bow, the 'self-rehairing' bow and other progressive innovations such as the insertion of Stanhopes in the eye of the frogs of his bows, the pédale sourdine (a kind of mute) and various machines, including one for manufacturing gut strings of perfectly equal thickness.

Which brings us to his most notable invention, The Octobass.

Feel The Bass

Working off the foundations of the Double Bass, The Octobass took things a step further! Initially, Vuillaume created three, which he exhibited at the London World Fair. Of these, only one remains, which can still be viewed (and heard) today at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. There have since been replicas created and can be found in the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona as well as the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Luthier Jean-Jacques Pagès of Mirecourt, France, created an Octobass in 2010, which was subsequently donated to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, which is now the first and only orchestra in the world to own one and can be seen in action to this day!

Range and Tuning

The Octobass owned by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is the lowest working one in the world, with a range reportedly extending more than an octave below that of the double bass! For the technically minded it is tuned to A0, compared to the C1 that a double bass can stretch to.

The aim of the Octobass in the MSO’s case, was to fill a range that was left vacant. Whilst the orchestra are tuned in to A which resonates at a frequency of 442 Hz, the lowest note of The Octobass does so at roughly 25 Hz, the limit of what the human ear is capable of perceiving. With its ghost tones, The Octobass will blast all earlier perceptions of overtones and create a distinct sound within the orchestra.

How to Play It?

The original Octobass’ three open strings were tuned C1, G1, and C2. This tuning gave it a low range one octave below the cello and equal to the modern double bass with low C extension. The Montreal Symphony Orchestras’ Octobass uses gut strings and is tuned A0, E1, B1 and has a high range to F♯2.

Due to the size of the fret and the strings, no normal sized human hand can play the notes effectively, so there is a system of levers operated by the Octobassist’s hands and feet which are attached to frets on the neck, which push the strings down to create notes. The mechanism enables each string to chromatically cover the range of a perfect fifth.

The strings are bowed as per a normal string instrument, by hand, with a huge bow and the player must stand on a stool, or similar, to be able to position themselves to bow and change notes, as you can see in the video below!


Where to See One?

There are only a handful of Octobasses in the world, as mentioned earlier you can see the original in the Musée de la Musique in Paris, or check out the replicas in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Musical Instrument Museum in Arizona o pay a visit to Montreal to see the Montreal Symphonyuse one live!!

If you’re really feeling inspired, you could take a leaf out of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume’s book and try and build your own? It’s just an oversized violin, right?!

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