Created | Updated Jan 7, 2012
The bassoon is a low-pitched woodwind instrument of the orchestra generally regarded as the tenor range. It has a lower cousin, the contrabassoon or double bassoon, which, with the aid of another eight feet of tube, is able to produce an extra eight bass notes. Technically, both of these instruments are members of the oboe family.
What is the Bassoon?
In common with the oboe and cor anglais, the bassoon is a double reed instrument with a conical bore. This means that sound is produced through the vibration of two strips of reed fastened together at their base that are blown through. This reed is located on the end of the crook which, in turn, connects to the wing joint, the butt (which is at the base of the bassoon and bends the pipe through 180 degrees), the long joint and the bell. All of these pieces are made of wood, with the exception of the metal crook and the key system. Of course, different notes are produced by opening and closing keys with the fingers to alter the length of the column of vibrating air inside the bassoon, but the embouchure - the position of the mouth in relation to the reed - also has an important role to play both in maintaining the stability of notes at the wanted pitch and in phrasing.
The register of the bassoon is from the B flat two octaves below middle C, up to the E one octave above middle C. Its part is written normally in the bass clef, with the relatively unusual tenor clef used for the higher reaches. On the orchestral score, the bassoon part is located below the flute, clarinet and oboe parts but above strings and brass, and is captioned by the word 'fagotte' which is German for bassoon, literally a 'bundle of sticks'. In the modern symphony orchestra, there are two bassoon players, as well as one double bassoon: two being the same number as all the other wind instruments, an arrangement known logically as 'double wind'.
The modern bassoon is a descendant of the medieval instruments, the curtal and the bombard, which were larger sizes of the shawm family of instruments. Early bassoons had few keys, relying on the player's handspan to reach notes. Consequently, it had a reduced range and required immense dexterity on the part of the player. This state existed until 1825, when German physicist Dr G Weber was enlisted by a bassoonist named Karl Almenraeder to improve his instrument. This model was further improved by the German bassoon maker Wilhelm Heckel in 1831. The result of these changes was a considerable repositioning of the holes to make them more accessible, along with a full key system. However, these changes also changed the tone, creating a difference in sound between this type (generally called the 'German' bassoon) and the old type. By the middle of the 19th Century, the old type had itself been given a few keys by the Buffet-Crampon company and evolved into the 'French' bassoon, which is only really widespread in France now, and in many bassoonists' eyes is harder to play and maintain a note in pitch on.
These days, only the bassoon and double bassoon survive, but there was once a smaller version, known as the tenoroon, which was a fifth higher in pitch. There was even a very rare sopranino bassoon or 'fagottino' which played another fourth further up. These had all but died out by the middle of the 19th Century, although it is still possible to hear a tenoroon if you are very lucky. This is apparently a great shame; the composer Hector Berlioz said of it, 'the tenoroon has a unique timbre sadly missed in the modern orchestra.'
Use in Compositions
The bassoon, with its large range, is an incredibly versatile instrument. It has often been described as the clown of the orchestra, and indeed there are many marvellous examples of staccato or otherwise comical pieces written for the instrument or involving it. Particularly recommended are Hummel's Bassoon Concerto, Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice (famously adopted by Mickey Mouse in Disney's Fantasia) and the dance of the cygnets from Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake which shows the instrument's ability in a supportive harmonic capacity. Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionettes and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf are good examples of use in a bumbling or clown-like capacity.
However, the great solo lyric capacity of the bassoon, although not stereotypical to it, cannot be underestimated. It was much used as a solo instrument in the Baroque era: Vivaldi wrote 39 bassoon concertos and such people as Rameau, Boismortier and Besozzi also wrote for it. These are perhaps not the most well known composers today, but were actually prolific composers in that era. Since then, its use as a solo instrument has declined in later works but legato passages of any sort are not to be sneezed at - the bassoon can take on a beautiful, haunting, French horn-like timbre which is particularly suited to romantic period music. The bassoon has always been an essential orchestral instrument since the first such ensembles were conceived in the 16th Century and has a firm place at the heart of the orchestra still.