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The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that plays in the tenor range and below. It is also called Fagott in German, fagotto in Italian, and basson in French. Appearing in its modern form in the 1800s, the bassoon is a part of orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. It is known for its distinctive tone color, wide range, variety of character, and agility. A bassoon player is called a "bassoonist."
The bassoon was developed from its precursor, most often referred to as the dulcian, a wooden instrument all in one piece. Used and developed greatly in the 16th century to add a stronger bass to the wind band then consisting largely of shawms and recorders, the dulcian's origins are unknown. Scattered evidence exists for its creation at various places and times, and few early examples survive. There were eventually eight members of the dulcian family of varying size, from soprano down to bass ranges. The early dulcian had many similarities to the modern bassoon: though generally constructed of only a single piece of wood rather than sections, it too consisted of a conical bore that doubled back on itself at the bottom, with a curved metal crook leading from the instrument body to the reed. It was, like the modern instrument, frequently constructed of maple, with thick walls to allow finger-holes to be drilled obliquely, with its bell flared slightly at the end. However, there were only eight finger-holes and two keys. The dulcian later evolved into the curtal, which featured separate joints like a modern bassoon, and gained an extra key.
Some twentieth century musicologists believed that this instrument, resembling a bundle of sticks, was given the name meaning such, "fagotto", in 16th century Italy. However, this etymology is incorrect: The term "fagotto" was in use for the bassoon before the word was used for "bundle of sticks"; also, when the term first appeared, the resemblance did not exist, as the instrument at that time was carved out of one continuous block of wood (Jansen 1978). The origin of this name is therefore a mystery. (A dance also named "fagot" dates to a century earlier.) The instrument was constructed folded back on itself, as it is to this day (giving it the name in some regions "curtal", as it was shortened significantly). The English name of "bassoon" comes from a more general term referring to the bass register of any instrument, but after Henry Purcell's call for a "bassoon" in Dioclesian (1690) referring to the wooden double reed, the word began to be used to refer to this instrument in particular.
The evolution of the early dulcian into the modern bassoon is also without precise record; the dulcian continued to be used into the 18th century (and in Spain, into the early 20th). A German painting, "Der Fagottspieler", in the Suermondt Museum, which scholars date to the end of the 17th century, depicts the bassoon much as it appears in its current form, and a three-keyed bassoon has been dated to 1699. It was the Dutch maker Coenraad Rijkel whose addition of the G key for the little finger of the right hand, just after the turn of the 18th century, fixed the hand position to the current standard; previously, the instrument could be played with either hand on top. The early bassoon flourished in the Netherlands in the late 17th and early 18th century, with over half a dozen prominent woodwind makers developing the instrument. Today, only thirty-three bassoons from that era survive.
Increasing demands on the capabilities of instruments and players in the 1800s—particularly concert halls requiring louder tones and the rise of virtuoso composer-performers—spurred on the further refinement of the bassoon. Increased sophistication both in manufacturing techniques and acoustical knowledge made possible great improvements in the playability of the instrument.
The modern bassoon exists in two distinct primary forms, the Buffet system and the Heckel system. The Buffet system is played primarily in France but also in Belgium and parts of Latin America, while the Heckel system is played in the majority of the world.
The design of the modern bassoon owes a great deal to the performer, teacher, and composer Carl Almenräder, who, assisted by the German acoustic researcher Gottfried Weber developed the 17-key bassoon whose range spanned four octaves. Almenräder's improvements to the bassoon began with an 1823 treatise in which he described ways of improving intonation, response, and technical ease of playing by means of augmenting and rearranging the keywork; subsequent articles further developed his ideas. Working at the Schott factory gave him the means to construct and test instruments according to these new designs, the results of which were published in Caecilia, Schott's house journal; Almenräder continued publishing and building instruments until his death in 1843, and Ludwig van Beethoven himself requested one of the newly-made instruments after hearing of the papers. Almenräder left Schott to start his own factory along with partner J.A. Heckel in 1831.
Heckel and two generations of descendants continued to refine the bassoon, and it is their instrument that has become the standard for other instrument makers to follow. Because of their superior singing tone quality (an improvement upon one of the main drawbacks of the Almenräder instruments), the Heckel instruments competed for prominence with the reformed Wiener system, a Boehm-style bassoon, and a completely-keyed instrument devised by C. J. Sax, father of Adolphe Sax. One latecomer attempt, from 1893, with a logical reformed fingering system was implemented by F.W. Kruspe, but failed to catch on. Other attempts at improving the instrument included a 24-keyed model and a single-reeded mouthpiece, but both were found to have adverse effects on the bassoon's distinctive tone and were abandoned.
Coming into the 20th century the Heckel-style German model of bassoon dominated the field; Heckel himself had made over 4000 instruments by the turn of the century, and the English makers' instruments were no longer desirable for the changing pitch requirements of the symphony orchestra, remaining primarily in military band use.
Today the Heckel factory continues producing instruments (after a brief 1940s wartime conversion to ball-bearing manufacture) and Heckel bassoons are considered by many the best, although a range of different manufacturers exist, all with different modifications to their bassoons. Companies that manufacture bassoons are (among others): Heckel, Yamaha, Fox Products, Schreiber, Püchner, Signet, Moosmann, Kohlert, B.H. Bell. and Guntram Wolf. There are also several smaller bassoon manufacturers that make special instruments to fit special needs. In the 1960s the Englishman Giles Brindley began preliminary development of what he called the "logical" bassoon, which aimed to improve intonation and evenness of tone through use of electrically activated key combinations that were too complex for the human hand to manage.
The Buffet system bassoon, which stabilized somewhat earlier than the Heckel, developed in a more conservative manner. While the development of the Heckel bassoon can be characterized as a complete overhaul of the instrument in both acoustics and keywork, the Buffet system focused primarily on incremental improvements to the keywork. This less radical approach deprives the Buffet system bassoon of the improved consistency, and thus ease of operation and increased power, found in the Heckel bassoons, but the Buffet is considered by some to have a more vocal and expressive quality. (Conductor John Foulds in 1934 lamented the dominance of the Heckel-style bassoon, considering them to be too homogeneous in sound with the horn.)
Compared to the Heckel bassoon, Buffet system bassoons have a narrower bore and differing keywork; the Buffet instruments are known for a reedier sound and greater facility in the upper registers, reaching e''' and f''' with far greater ease and less air pressure. While specifically desirable in some music (French woodwind players traditionally produce a lighter and more reedy tone than is usual elsewhere) the more reedy sound has sometimes drawn criticism for being too distinctive. As with all bassoons the tone varies substantially from instrument to instrument and performer to performer. The Heckel system can sound rather fixed and woody, but good players strive and usually succeed in producing a warm singing tone. The Buffet can sound reedy, but many good players strive and usually succeed in producing a warm, expressive sound which is not in the least reedy.
Though the French system was once widely favored in England, Buffet instruments are no longer made there, and the last prominent English player of the French system retired in the 1980s. However, with its continued use in some regions and its distinctive tone, the Buffet continues to have a place in modern bassoon playing, particularly in France. Buffet-model bassoons are currently made in Paris by Buffet-Crampon and Selmer, with various other makers producing replica instruments. Some players, e.g. Gerald Corey in Canada, have learned to play both types and will alternate between them depending on the repertoire being played.
Construction and characteristics
The bassoon disassembles into six main pieces, including the reed. The bell (6), extending upward; the long (or bass) joint (5), connecting the bell and the boot; the boot (or butt) (4), at the bottom of the instrument and folding over on itself; the wing (or tenor) joint (3), which extends from boot to bocal; and the bocal (or crook) (2), a crooked metal tube which attaches the wing joint to a reed (1) ().
The modern bassoon is generally made of maple, with medium-hardness types such as sycamore maple and sugar maple being preferred. Less-expensive models are also made out of materials such as polypropylene and ebonite, primarily for student and outdoor use; metal bassoons were made in the past but have not been in production by any major manufacturer since 1889. The bore of the instrument is conical, like that of the oboe and the saxophone, and the bottom of the instrument connects the bore in the middle with a u-shaped metal connector. Both bore and holes are precision-machined, and each instrument is finished by hand for proper tuning. The walls of the instrument are sufficiently thick that the finger holes are drilled obliquely to aid in fingering, and wooden instruments are lined with a hard rubber lining along the interior of the wing and boot joints to prevent damage from moisture with extensive playing; wooden instruments are also stained and varnished. The top of the bell is frequently completed with a ring, often of plastic or ivory. The separate joints, where they connect, are wrapped in either cork or string, to aid sealing against air leaks. The bocal, which is inserted into the top of the wing joint and has one end wrapped in cork for sealing, may come in many different lengths, depending on the desired tuning.
Folded upon itself, the bassoon stands 134 cm (4.4 feet) tall, but the total length is 254 cm (roughly 8.3 feet). Playing is facilitated by doubling the tube back on itself and by closing the distance between the widely-spaced holes with a complex system of keywork, which extends throughout nearly the entire length of the instrument. There are also short-reach bassoons made for the benefit of young or petite players.
Bassoon players must learn three different clefs: Bass (first and foremost), Tenor, and Treble. The range of the bassoon begins at B-flat1 (the first one below the bass staff) and extends upward over three octaves (roughly to the G on the treble staff). Higher notes are possible but difficult to produce and rarely called for; orchestral parts rarely go higher than the C or D, with even Stravinsky's famously difficult opening solo in The Rite of Spring only ascending to the D. The low A at the bottom of the range first appeared in Wagner’s Tristan (1865) and is only possible with a special extension to the instrument. This extension can take the form of an extra, longer replacement bell (with additional keywork on the long joint) or a paper tube, English horn bell, or similar extension placed in the bassoon's Bb bell. Wagner frequently used low A in his operas and encouraged Heckel to construct instruments with low A capability and the A bell still exists as an option. While the extra bell preserves chromatic possibilities, the simpler alternatives make the bottom B-flat impossible to play and affect the intonation of the lower notes. The last chord of the 1922 Quintet for Winds by Carl Nielsen includes an optional low A and Gustav Mahler occasionally uses it in his symphonies.
Usage in ensembles
The modern symphony orchestra typically calls for two bassoons, often with a third playing the contrabassoon. (The first work written with an independent contrabassoon part was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, although Bach's St. John Passion and a work by Mozart called for a "large bassoon" and were written below the range of the modern bassoon.) Some works call for four or more players. The first player is frequently called upon to perform solo passages. The bassoon's distinctive tone suits it for both plaintive, lyrical solos such as Ravel's Boléro and more comical ones, such as the grandfather's theme in Peter and the Wolf. Its agility suits it for passages such as the famous running line (doubled in the violas) in the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. In addition to its solo role, the bassoon is an effective bass to a woodwind choir, a bass line along with the cellos and double basses, and harmonic support along with the French horns.
A wind ensemble will usually also include two bassoons and sometimes contra, each with independent parts; other types of concert wind ensembles will often have larger sections, with many players on each of first or second parts; in simpler arrangements there will be only one bassoon part and no contra. The bassoon's role in the wind band is similar to its role in the orchestra, though when scoring is thick it often cannot be heard above the brass instruments also in its range. La Fiesta Mexicana, by H. Owen Reed, features the instrument prominently, as does the transcription of Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances which has become a staple of the concert band repertoire.
The bassoon is also part of the standard wind quintet instrumentation, along with the flute, oboe, clarinet, and horn; it is also frequently combined in various ways with other woodwinds. Richard Strauss's "Duet-Concertino" pairs it with the clarinet as concertante instruments, with string orchestra in support.
The bassoon quartet has also gained favor in recent times, with the Bubonic Bassoon Quartet being one of the more notable groups. The bassoon's wide range and variety of tone colors make it ideally suited to grouping in like-instrument ensembles. Peter Schickele's "Last Tango in Bayreuth" (after themes from Tristan and Isolde) is a popular work; Schickele's fictional alter ego P. D. Q. Bach exploits the more humorous aspects with his quartet "Lip My Reeds", which at one point calls for players to perform on the reed alone.
The bassoon's use in the early symphony orchestra was solely as a continuo instrument. Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and his Les Petits Violons included oboes and bassoons along with the strings in the 16-piece (later 21-piece) ensemble, as one of the first orchestras to include winds. Antonio Cesti included a bassoon in his 1668 opera Pomo d'oro. However, the use of the bassoon in the concert orchestra was sporadic until the late 17th century when winds began to make their way into the standard instrumentation, largely due to improvements in the design of wind instruments that corrected tuning problems and gave them greater ability to play chromatically (as the fretless strings were easily able to do). The bassoon was introduced as a regular member of the symphony orchestra as part of the basso continuo along with the cellos and bass viols; they also filled out the choirs of wind instruments in opera orchestras, first in France and then in Italy. Johann Stamitz and his symphonies gave the winds slightly more independence by scoring them for orchestral color rather than strict doubling, but still the bassoon was not used as an independent melodic instrument.
Antonio Vivaldi brought the bassoon to prominence by featuring it in 37 concerti for the instrument. The early classical orchestra included the bassoon, it was again only filling out the continuo and often unmentioned in the score. Symphonic writing for bassoons as fully-independent parts rather than mere doubles would not come until later in the Classical era. Mozart's Jupiter symphony is a prime example, with its famous bassoon solo. The bassoons were generally paired, as in current practice, though the famed Mannheim Orchestra boasted four.
The bassoon is held diagonally in front of the player and cannot easily be supported by the player's hands alone. The most common means of support are either a neck-strap or shoulder-harness attached to the top of the butt joint, or a strap attached to the base of the butt joint which harnesses to the chair or is supported by the player's weight. More unusually, a spike similar to those used for the cello or bass clarinet is attached to the bottom of the butt joint.
The Heckel-system bassoon is played with both hands in a stationary position, with six main finger holes on the front of the instrument (some of which are open, and some of which are aided by keywork). Also on the front of the instrument are several additional keys to be controlled by the pinky fingers of each hand. The back of the instrument has over a dozen keys to be controlled by the thumb (the exact number varies depending on model).
While instruments are constructed to have accurate pitch throughout the scale, the player has a great degree of flexibility of pitch control through the use of breath support and embouchure. Players are also able to use alternate fingerings to adjust the pitch of most often played notes.
Many extended techniques can be performed on the bassoon, such as multiphonics, flutter tonguing, circular breathing, and harmonics.
Reeds and reed construction
The modern reed
Bassoon reeds, made of Arundo donax cane, are generally made by the players themselves. Reeds begin with a piece of cane that has been left to dry. The cane is then cut and gouged into smooth strips, leaving the bark attached. After soaking, the strip of cane is cut into the desired thickness, or profiled. This can be done by hand; it is more frequently done with a machine or tool designed for the purpose. It is then cut to the correct outline, or shaped. Making sure the cane is thoroughly soaked, to avoid cracking, the profiled and shaped strip of cane is folded over in the middle. The outer edges, where the bark remains after profiling, are secured by three coils of wire at 2 mm and 8 mm from the beginning of the blade, and 6 mm from the bottom. The flat piece of cane is placed on a long, thin mandrel and pressed fimrmly around it to form into the proper shape, until the bottom of the reed is rounded enough to fit securely on the end of the bocal.
After the reed has dried, the wires are tightened around the reed, which has shrunk after drying. The lower part is sealed (generally with rubber cement or epoxy) and then wrapped with string to ensure both that no air leaks out through the bottom of the reed and that the reed maintains its shape.
To finish the reed, first, the tip (previously the center of the strip of cane) is cut, so that the blades above the bark are roughly 27 mm long. The reed is then scraped with a knife until it has the proper profile, which has a thin tip leading to a thicker back section, and the "spine" going lengthwise down the center also thick. Specific measurements differ from player to player and instrument to instrument. The very tip of a reed blade is frequently only 0.1 mm thick.
As the style of reed desired varies a great deal from player to player, most advanced players will make their own reeds in order to customize them to their own individual playing style, and almost all will be familiar with the process of making one. However, several companies offer premade reeds, and several individuals also produce reeds for sale, some specializing in this over playing.
The early reed
Little is known about the early construction of the bassoon reed, as few examples survive, and much of what is known is only what can be gathered from artistic representations. The earliest known written instructions date from the middle of the 17th century, describing the reed as being held together by wire or resined thread; the earliest actual reeds that survive are more than a century younger, a collection of 21 reeds from the late 18th century Spanish bajon.
The bassoon in jazz
The bassoon is infrequently used as a jazz instrument and rarely seen in a jazz ensemble. It first began appearing at all in the 1920s, including specific calls for its use in Paul Whiteman's group and a few other session appearances. The next few decades saw the instrument used only sporadically, as symphonic jazz fell out of favor, but the 1960s saw artists such as Yusef Lateef and Chick Corea incorporate bassoon into their recordings; Lateef's diverse and eclectic instrumentation saw the bassoon as a natural addition, while Corea employed the bassoon in combination with flautist Hubert Laws. More recently, Illinois Jacquet and Frank Tiberi have both doubled on bassoon in addition to their usual saxophone performances. Bassoonist Karen Borca, a performer of free jazz, is one of the few jazz musicians to play only bassoon; Michael Rabinowitz, the Spanish bassoonist Javier Abad, and James Lassen, an American resident in Bergen, Norway, are others. Lindsay Cooper, Paul Hanson, and Daniel Smith are also currently using the bassoon in jazz. French bassoonists Jean-Jacques Decreux and Alexandre Ouzounoff have both recorded jazz, exploiting the flexibility of the Buffet system instrument to good effect.
The bassoon in art and literature
Much of the early history of the bassoon is known through its representation in painting; the only source of description for the early bassoon reed, for example, is in paintings from late 16th century Spain.
There was also a painting made by Edgar Degas in 1870, called "L'orcheste de l'opéra" ("The Orchestra of the Opera", also known as "In the Orchestra Pit"), features a bassoon player in the orchestra amongst several other orchestra members.
Recently bassoons have been featuren in art forms of the present. Recently artists have begun to use bassoonists' inside joke about the insturment being a bong. Although this is not true, it could amount to their terrible playing at some times.
A collection of samples demonstrating the bassoon's range, abilities, and tone.
- Playing Range (A1 B-flat1 E5 A-flat5) (file info) —
- Tone across octaves (B-flat1 B-flat2 B-flat3 B-flat4) (file info) —
- Chromatic scale (B-flat1 to B-flat4) (file info) —
- Articulations (staccato, legato, legato+vibrato, slurred) (file info) —
- Dynamics (file info) —
- Trills (B4 to C5 B3 to C4 B2 to C3) (file info) —
- Embouchure bending (file info) —
- Bassoon reed alone (file info) —
- Flutter tonguing (file info) —
- 1st movement (file info) —
- Bassoon performance from Beethoven's 4th Symphony
- Scheherezade (file info) —
- Bassoon solo composed by Rimsky-Korsakov
- Tu Pauperum Refugium (file info) —
- Four bassoon ensemble performing from Josquin Des Prez's Magnus es tu, Domine
- Problems playing the files? See media help.
Concerti and other orchestral literature
- Antonio Vivaldi wrote 37 concerti for bassoon
- Georg Philipp Telemann Sonata in F minor
- Johann Christian Bach, Bassoon Concerto in B flat, Bassoon Concerto in E-flat major
- Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Bassoon Concerto in F, W75
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bassoon Concerto in B flat, K191
- Carl Stamitz, Bassoon Concerto in F Major
- Johann Baptist Vanhal, Bassoon in C Major, Concerto in F Major for two bassoons and orchestra
- Carl Maria von Weber, Andante e rondo ungarese in C minor, op. 35; Bassoon Concerto in F, op. 75
- Camille Saint-Saëns, Sonata for bassoon and piano in G Major, op. 168
- Luciano Berio, Sequenza XII for Bassoon (1995)
- Edward Elgar, Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, op. 62
- Alvin Etler, Sonata for Bassoon and Piano
- Hindemith, Sonata for Bassoon and Piano (1938)
- Gordon Jacob, Concerto for Bassoon, Strings and Percussion, Four Sketches for Bassoon, Partita for Bassoon
- Francesco Mignone, Double Bassoon Sonata, 14 valses for Bassoon
- Willson Osborne, Rhapsody for Bassoon
- John Steinmetz, Sonata for Bassoon and Piano
- Richard Strauss, Duet Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon with strings and harp (1948)
- John Williams, The Five Sacred Trees: Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra (1997)
- Richard Wilson, Profound Utterances (1984) and Bassoon Concerto (1983)
Famous orchestral passages
- Béla Bartók : Concerto for Orchestra; the second movement features woodwind instruments in pairs, beginning with the bassoons, and the recapitulation of their duet adds a third instrument playing a staccato counter-melody.
- Ludwig van Beethoven : Symphony 4 in B flat major, Symphony 9 in D minor, last movement
- Hector Berlioz : Symphonie Fantastique (In the fourth movement, there are several solo and tutti bassoon-featuring passages. This piece calls for four bassoons.)
- Paul Dukas : The Sorcerer's Apprentice, widely recognized as used in the movie Fantasia
- Edvard Grieg : In the Hall of the Mountain King
- Carl Orff : Carmina Burana
- Sergei Prokofiev : Peter and the Wolf (possibly the most-recognized bassoon theme, the part of the grandfather)
- Maurice Ravel : Rapsodie Espagnole (features a fast, lengthy dual cadenza at the end of the first movement), Boléro (the bassoon has a high descending solo passage near the beginning), Piano Concerto in G Major
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov : Scheherazade, second movement
- Dmitri Shostakovich : several symphonies including #1, 4, 5 : 8, & 9, Symphony 5 in Eb major
- Igor Stravinsky : The Rite of Spring (opens with a famously unorthodox bassoon solo), lullaby from The Firebird, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (less known but just as high and difficult as The Rite of Spring)
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky : Symphony 4 in F minor, Symphony 5 in E minor, Symphony 6 in B minor
- "The Double Reed" (currently three issues per year), I.D.R.S. Publications (see www.idrs.org)
- "Journal of the International Double Reed Society" (annual since about 1972), I.D.R.S. Publications
- Baines, Anthony (ed.), Musical Instruments Through the Ages, Penguin Books, 1961
- Jansen, Will, "The Bassoon: its history, construction, makers, players, and music", Uitgeverij F. Knuf, 1978. 5 Volumes
- Langwill, Lyndesay G., "The Bassoon and Contrabassoon", W. W. Norton & Co., 1965
- Popkin, Mark and Glickman, Loren, "Bassoon Reed Making", The Instrumentalist Publishing Company, 2nd ed., 1987
- Sadie, Stanley, ed., "The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments", s.v. "Bassoon", 2001
- Spencer, William (rev. Mueller, Frederick), "The Art of Bassoon Playing", Summy-Birchard Inc., 1958
- Stauffer, George B. (1986). "The Modern Orchestra: A Creation of the Late Eighteenth Century". In Joan Peyser (Ed.) The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations pp. 41-72. Charles Scribner's Sons.
- Weaver, Robert L. (1986). "The Consolidation of the Main Elements of the Orchestra: 1470-1768". In Joan Peyser (Ed.) The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations pp. 7-40. Charles Scribner's Sons.
- Resources and Information for Bassoonists
- International Double Reed Society
- Bassoon Fingering Charts
- The Bubonic Bassoon Quartet, 1962 - 1982: A Retrospective on the Occasion of the Twentieth Anniversary of its Founding by John Miller
- The Art of the Bassoon Wisconsin Public Radio's "University of the Air" hosts an hour long program on the bassoon (RealAudio format).