The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that typically plays music written in the bass and tenor registers, and occasionally higher. Appearing in its modern form in the 1800s, the bassoon figures prominently in orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. The bassoon is a non-transposing instrument known for its distinctive tone color, wide range, variety of character, and agility. Listeners often compare its warm, dark, reedy timbre to a male baritone voice.
Music historians generally consider the dulcian to be the forerunner of the modern bassoon, as the two instruments share many characteristics: a double reed fitted to a metal crook, obliquely drilled tone holes, and a conical bore that doubles back on itself. The origins of the dulcian are obscure, but by the mid 16th century it was available in as many as eight different sizes, from soprano to great bass. A full consort of dulcians was a rarity; its primary function seems to have been to provide the bass in the typical wind band of the time, either loud (shawms) or soft (recorders), indicating a remarkable ability to vary dynamics to suit the need. Otherwise, dulcian technique was rather primitive, with eight finger holes and generally one key, indicating that it could play in only a limited number of key signatures.
The dulcian came to be known as fagotto in Italy. However, the usual etymology that equates fagotto with "bundle of sticks" is somewhat misleading, as the latter term did not come into general use until later. Some think it may resemble the Roman Facis, a standard of bound sticks with an ax A further discrepancy lies in the fact that the dulcian was carved out of a single block of wood--in other words, a single "stick" and not a bundle.
Circumstantial evidence indicates that the baroque bassoon was a newly-invented instrument, rather than a simple modification of the old dulcian. The dulcian was not immediately supplanted, but continued to be used well into the 18th century by Bach and others. The man most likely responsible for developing the true bassoon was Martin Hotteterre (d.1712), who may also have invented the three-piece flûte traversière and the hautbois. Some historians believe that sometime in the 1650s, Hotteterre conceived the bassoon in four sections (bell, bass joint, boot and wing joint), an arrangement that allowed greater accuracy in machining the bore compared to the one-piece dulcian. He also extended the compass down to B♭ by adding two keys An alternate view maintains Hotteterre was one of several craftsmen responsible for the development of the early bassoon. These may have included additional members of the Hotteterre family, as well as other French makers active around the same time. No original French bassoon from this period survives, but if it did, it would most likely resemble the earliest extant bassoons of Johann Christoph Denner and Richard Haka from the 1680s. Sometime around 1700, a fourth key (G♯) was added, and it was for this type of instrument that composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, Bach, and Georg Philipp Telemann wrote their demanding music. A fifth key, for the low E♭, was added during the first half of the 18th century. Notable makers of the 4-key and 5-key baroque bassoon include J.H. Eichentopf (c.1678-1769), J. Poerschmann (1680-1757), Thomas Stanesby, Jr. (1668-1734), G.H. Scherer (1703-1778), and Prudent Thieriot (1732-1786).
The modern bassoon exists in two distinct primary forms, the Buffet system and the Heckel system. Most of the world plays the Heckel system, while the Buffet system is primarily played in France, Belgium, and parts of Latin America;
The design of the modern bassoon owes a great deal to the performer, teacher, and composer Carl Almenräder. Assisted by the German acoustic researcher Gottfried Weber, he developed the 17-key bassoon with a range spanning four octaves. Almenräder's improvements to the bassoon began with an 1823 treatise describing ways of improving intonation, response, and technical ease of playing by 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, and he published the results in Caecilia, Schott's house journal. Almenräder continued publishing and building instruments until his death in 1846, and Ludwig van Beethoven himself requested one of the newly-made instruments after hearing of the papers. In 1831, Almenräder left Schott to start his own factory with a partner, Johann Adam Heckel.
Heckel and two generations of descendants continued to refine the bassoon, and their instruments became the standard other makers followed. 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 Charles-Joseph Sax, father of Adolphe Sax. F.W. Kruspe implement a latecomer attempt in 1893 to introduce a reformed fingering system, but it failed to catch on. Other attempts to improve the instrument included a 24-keyed model and a single-reed mouthpiece, but both these had adverse effects on tone and were abandoned.
Coming into the 20th century, the Heckel-style German model of bassoon dominated the field. Heckel himself had made over 1,100 instruments by the turn of the century (serial numbers begin at 3,000), and the English makers' instruments were no longer desirable for the changing pitch requirements of the symphony orchestra, remaining primarily in military band use.
Except for a brief 1940s wartime conversion to ball bearing manufacture, the Heckel concern has produced instruments continuously to the present day. Heckel bassoons are considered by many the best, although a range of Heckel-style instruments is available from several other manufacturers, all with slightly different playing characteristics. Companies that manufacture Heckel-system bassoons include: Wilhelm Heckel, Yamaha, Fox Products, W. Schreiber & Söhne, Püchner, The Selmer Company, Linton, Moosmann Kohlert, Moennig/Adler, B.H. Bell and Guntram Wolf. In addition, several factories in the People's Republic of China are producing inexpensive instruments under such labels as Laval, Haydn, and Lark, and these have been available in the West for some time now. However, they are generally of marginal quality and are usually avoided by serious players.
Because its mechanism is primitive compared to most modern woodwinds, makers have occasionally attempted to "reinvent" the bassoon. In the 1960s, the Englishman Giles Brindley began to develop what he called the "logical" bassoon, which aimed to improve intonation and evenness of tone through use of an electrically activated mechanism, making possible key combinations too complex for the human hand to manage. Brindley's "logical bassoon" was never marketed.
Compared to the Heckel bassoon, Buffet system bassoons have a narrower bore and simpler mechanism, requiring different fingerings for many notes. Switching between Heckel and Buffet requires extensive retraining. 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. French woodwind tone in general exhibits a certain amount of "edge", with more of a vocal quality than is usual elsewhere, and the Buffet bassoon is no exception. This type of sound can be beneficial in music by French composers, but has drawn criticism for being too intrusive. As with all bassoons, the tone varies considerably, depending on individual instrument and performer. In the hands of a lesser player, the Heckel bassoon can sound flat and woody, but good players succeed in producing a vibrant, singing tone. Conversely, a poorly played Buffet can sound buzzy and nasal, but good players succeed in producing a warm, expressive sound, different from—but not inferior to—the Heckel.
Though England once favored the French system , Buffet-system instruments are no longer made there and the last prominent English player of the French system retired in the 1980s. However, with 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 The Selmer Company. Some players, for example Gerald Corey in Canada, have learned to play both types and will alternate between them depending on the repertoire.
By mid 18th century, the bassoon's function in the orchestra was still mostly limited to that of a continuo instrument--since scores often made no specific mention of the bassoon, its use was implied, particularly if there were parts for oboes or other winds. Beginning in the early Rococo era, composers such as Joseph Haydn, Johann Christian Bach, Giovanni Battista Sammartini and Johann Stamitz included parts that exploited the bassoon for its unique color, rather than for its perfunctory ability to double the bass line. Orchestral works with fully-independent parts for the bassoon would not become commonplace until the Classical era. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Jupiter" symphony is a prime example, with its famous bassoon solos in the first movement. The bassoons were generally paired, as in current practice, though the famed Mannheim Orchestra boasted four.
Another important use of the bassoon during the Classical era was in the Harmonie, a chamber ensemble consisting of pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons; later, two clarinets would be added to form an octet. The Harmonie was an ensemble maintained by German and Austrian noblemen for private music-making, and was a cost-effective alternative to a full orchestra. Haydn, Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Krommer all wrote considerable amounts of music for the Harmonie.
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. 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 Iseult) 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. It also calls for a low A at the very end of the prelude section in the fourth bassoon part. It is written so that the first bassoon does not play; instead, his or her role is to place an extension in the bell of the fourth bassoon so that the note can be played.
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, the Brazilian bassoonist Alexandre Silverio, 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.
In the 1990s, Madonna Wayne Gacy provided bassoon for the alternative metal band Marilyn Manson as did Aimee DeFoe, in what is self-described as "grouchily lilting garage bassoon", in the indie-rock band Blogurt from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Icelandic pop band Hjaltalín also contains a bassoon player called Rebekka . The rock band Better Than Ezra took their name from a passage in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast in which the author comments that listening to an annoyingly talkative person is still “better than Ezra learning how to play the bassoon,” referring to Ezra Pound.
Bassoons also frequently provide background music for advertisements and cartoons. They give a great sense of a light and happy environment. Although, they could also give a much darker and creepier tone. Indeed, the bassoon could be used for a wide variety of tone settings. The bassoon is a unique instrument, known distinctly for its wide range (which is what allows it to produce such different moods).
The bassoon is held diagonally in front of the player, but unlike the flute, oboe and clarinet, it cannot be supported by the player's hands alone. Some means of additional support is required; the most common ones used are 1) a neck strap or shoulder harness attached to the top of the boot joint, or 2) a seat strap attached to the base of the boot joint which is laid across the chair seat prior to sitting down. Occasionally a spike similar to those used for the cello or the bass clarinet is attached to the bottom of the boot joint and rests on the floor. It is possible to play while standing up if the player uses a neck strap or similar harness, or if the seat strap is tied to the belt. Sometimes a device called a balance hanger is used when playing in a standing position. This is installed between the instrument and the neck strap, and shifts the point of support closer to the center of gravity.
The Heckel-system bassoon is played with both hands in a stationary position, the left above the right, with five main finger holes on the front of the instrument (nearest the audience) plus a sixth] that is activated by an open-standing key. Five additional keys on the front are controlled by the little fingers of each hand. The back of the instrument (nearest the player) has twelve or more keys to be controlled by the thumbs, the exact number varying depending on model.
To stabilize the right hand, many bassoonists use an adjustable comma-shaped apparatus called a "crutch" which mounts to the boot joint; players use a thumb screw to secure the crutch and vary the distance that it protrudes from the bassoon. Players rest the curve of the right hand where the thumb joins the palm against the crutch. The crutch also keeps the right hand from tiring and enables the player to keep put the finger pads flat on the finger holes and keys.
An aspect of bassoon technique not found on any other woodwind is called flicking. It involves the momentary pressing, or 'flicking', of the high A, C and D keys by the left hand thumb at the beginning of certain notes in the middle octave in order to eliminate the cracking, or brief microphonic that happens without the use of the key. Flicking is not universal amongst bassoonists; some American players, principally on the East Coast, use it sparingly, if at all. The rest use it virtually 100% of the time--it has become in essence part of the fingering.
European players in general are 'flickers'. Some hold down the appropriate key for the duration of the note, rather than just at the beginning; this is sometimes referred to as 'venting'.
A 'no-flick' octave key system is available as an add-on, invented by Arthur Weisberg. Only a few years old, it has yet to be offered as standard equipment by any of the major bassoon manufacturers.
While bassoons are usually critically tuned at the factory, the player nonetheless has a great degree of flexibility of pitch control through the use of breath support and embouchure. Players can also use alternate fingerings to adjust the pitch of many notes.
Also, using certain fingerings, notes may be produced on the instrument that sound lower pitches than the actual range of the instrument. These "impossible notes" tend to sound very gravelly and out of tune, but technically sound below the low B♭. Alternatively, lower notes can be produced by inserting a small paper or rubber tube into the end of the bell, which converts the lower B♭ into a lower note such as an A natural; this does not affect the tuning of other notes in the lower register.
Due to the complicated fingering and the problem of reeds, the bassoon is more difficult to learn than some of the other woodwind instruments. In North America, schoolchildren typically take up bassoon only after starting on another woodwind instrument, such as clarinet, or saxophone.
Bassoon reeds, made of Arundo donax cane, are often made by the players themselves, although beginner bassoonists tend to buy their reeds from professional reed makers or use reeds made by their teachers. Reeds begin with a length of tube cane that is split into three or four pieces. The cane is then trimmed and gouged to the desired thickness, leaving the bark attached. After soaking, the gouged cane is cut to the proper shape and milled to the desired thickness, or profile, by removing material from the bark side. This can be done by hand with a file; more frequently it is done with a machine or tool designed for the purpose. After the profiled cane has soaked once again it is folded over in the middle. Prior to soaking, the reed maker will have lightly scored the bark with parallel lines with a knife; this insures that the cane will assume a cylindrical shape during the forming stage. On the bark portion, the reed maker binds on three coils or loops of brass wire to aid in the final forming process. The exact placement of these loops can vary somewhat depending on the reed maker. The bound reed blank is then wrapped with thick cotton or linen thread to protect it, and a conical steel mandrel (which sometimes has been heated in a flame) is quickly inserted in between the blades. Using a special pair of pliers, the reed maker presses down the cane, making it conform to the shape of the mandrel. (The steam generated by the heated mandrel causes the cane to permanently assume the shape of the mandrel.) The upper portion of the cavity thus created is called the "throat", and its shape has an influence on the final playing characteristics of the reed. The lower, mostly cylindrical portion will be reamed out with a special tool, allowing the reed to fit on the bocal.
After the reed has dried, the wires are tightened around the reed, which has shrunk after drying. The lower part is sealed (a nitrocellulose-based cement such as Duco may be used) and then wrapped with thread to ensure both that no air leaks out through the bottom of the reed and that the reed maintains its shape. The wrapping itself is often sealed with Duco or clear nail varnish (polish). The bulge in the wrapping is sometimes referred to as the "Turk's head"--it serves as a convenient handle when inserting the reed on the bocal.
To finish the reed, the end of the reed blank, originally at the center of the unfolded piece of cane, is cut off, creating an opening. The blades above the first wire are now roughly long. In order for the reed to play, a slight bevel must be created at the tip with a knife, although there is also a machine that can perform this function. Other adjustments with the knife may be necessary, depending on the hardness and profile of the cane and the requirements of the player. The reed opening may also need to be adjusted by squeezing either the first or second wire with the pliers. Additional material may be removed from the sides (the "channels") or tip to balance the reed. Additionally, if the "e" in the staff is sagging in pitch, it may be necessary to "clip" the reed by removing from its length.
Playing styles of individual bassoonists vary greatly; because of this, most advanced players will make their own reeds, in the process customizing them to their individual playing requirements. Many companies and individuals do offer reeds for sale, but even with store-bought reeds, the player must know how to make adjustments to suit his particular playing style.