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A Yamaha YFG-812 II bassoon
(Double-reeded aerophone with keys)
|Developed||Early 18th century|
The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that plays music written in the bass and tenor clefs, and occasionally the treble. Appearing in its modern form in the 19th century, the bassoon figures prominently in orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. It is known for its distinctive tone colour, wide range, variety of character, and agility. The modern bassoon exists in two forms; Buffet (or French) and Heckel (or German) systems. One who plays a bassoon of either system is called a bassoonist.
The word bassoon comes from French basson and from Italian bassone (basso with the augmentative suffix -one). However, the Italian name for the same instrument is fagotto, in Spanish and Romanian it is fagot, and in German Fagott. Fagot is an Old French word meaning a bundle of sticks. 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. However an early English variation, "faget," was used as early as 1450 to refer to firewood, which is 100 years before the earliest recorded use of the dulcian (1550). Further citation is needed to prove the lack of relation between the meaning "bundle of sticks" and "fagotto" (Italian) or variants. Some think it may resemble the Roman Fasces, 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.
- (A1) B♭1–C5 (D5–G5)
Most orchestral and concert band parts rarely go higher than C5 or D5; even Stravinsky's famously difficult opening solo in The Rite of Spring only ascends to D5. Notes higher than this are possible, but seldom written, as they are usually strenuous and difficult to produce depending to the construction and behaviour of the reed, and at any rate are quite homogeneous in timbre to the same pitches on cor anglais, which can produce them with relative ease. French bassoon (see below) has greater facility in the extreme high register, and so repertoire written for it is somewhat likelier to include very high notes, but repertoire for French system can be executed on German system without alterations, and vice-versa.
Like the other woodwinds, the lowest note is fixed, but A1 is possible with a special extension to the instrument—see "Extended techniques" below.
Although the primary tone hole pitches are a perfect 5th lower than standard woodwinds, effectively an octave beneath English horn, the bassoon is non-transposing, meaning that notes sounded match the written pitch.
The bassoon disassembles into six main pieces, including the reed. The bell (6), extending upward; the bass joint (or long 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 joint (or tenor joint) (3), which extends from boot to bocal; and the bocal (or crook) (2), a crooked metal tube that attaches the wing joint to a reed (1) (listen (help·info)).
The bore of the bassoon is conical, like that of the oboe and the saxophone, and the two adjoining bores of the boot joint are connected at the bottom of the instrument with a U-shaped metal connector. Both bore and tone holes are precision-machined, and each instrument is finished by hand for proper tuning. The walls of the bassoon are thicker at various points along the bore; here, the tone holes are drilled at an angle to the axis of the bore, which reduces the distance between the holes on the exterior. This ensures coverage by the fingers of the average adult hand. Playing is facilitated by closing the distance between the widely spaced holes with a complex system of key work, which extends throughout nearly the entire length of the instrument. The overall height of the bassoon stretches to 1.34 m (4 ft 5 in) tall, but the total sounding length is 2.54 m (8 ft 4 in) considering that the tube is doubled back on itself. There are also short-reach bassoons made for the benefit of young or petite players.
A modern beginner's bassoon is generally made of maple, with medium-hardness types such as sycamore maple and sugar maple preferred. Less-expensive models are also made of materials such as polypropylene and ebonite, primarily for student and outdoor use. Metal bassoons were made in the past but have not been produced by any major manufacturer since 1889.
The art of reed-making has been practiced for several hundred years, some of the earliest known reeds having been made for the dulcian, a predecessor of the bassoon. Current methods of reed-making consist of a set of basic methods; however, individual bassoonists' playing styles vary greatly and thus require that reeds be customized to best suit their respective bassoonist. Advanced players even go as far as making their own reeds to specifically match their individual playing style. With regards to commercially made reeds, many companies and individuals offer pre-made reeds for sale, but players often find that such reeds still require adjustments to suit their particular playing style.
Modern 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 using a tool called a cane splitter. 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 profiled, 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 ensures that the cane will assume a cylindrical shape during the forming stage.
On the bark portion, the reed maker binds on one, two, or 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 called a reamer, 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, or replaced completely. 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). Electrical tape can also be used as a wrapping for amateur reed makers. 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. Recently, more players are choosing the more modern heat-shrink tubing instead of the time-consuming and fiddly thread. The thread wrapping (commonly known as a "Turban" due to the criss-crossing fabric) is still more common in commercially sold reeds.
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 27–30 mm (1.1–1.2 in) long. 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 reed knife may be necessary, depending on the hardness, the 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 bass clef staff is sagging in pitch, it may be necessary to "clip" the reed by removing 1–2 mm (0.039–0.079 in) from its length using a pair of very sharp scissors or the equivalent.
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 two keys, indicating that it could play in only a limited number of key signatures.
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; and, presumably for reasons of interchangeability, repertoire from this time is very unlikely to go beyond the smaller compass of the dulcian. 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 (transverse flute) and the hautbois (baroque oboe). 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).
Increasing demands on capabilities of instruments and players in the 19th century—particularly larger concert halls requiring greater volume and the rise of virtuoso composer-performers—spurred further refinement. Increased sophistication, both in manufacturing techniques and acoustical knowledge, made possible great improvements in the instrument's playability.
The modern bassoon exists in two distinct primary forms, the Buffet (or "French") system and the Heckel ("German") system. Most of the world plays the Heckel system, while the Buffet system is primarily played in France, Belgium, and parts of Latin America. A number of other types of bassoons have been constructed by various instrument makers, such as the rare Galandronome. Owing to the ubiquity of the Heckel system in English-speaking countries, references in English to the contemporary bassoon always mean the Heckel system, with the Buffet system being explicitly qualified where it appears.
Heckel (German) system
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. His employment at Schott gave him the freedom 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, with other makers following. 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 implemented a latecomer attempt in 1893 to reform the 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 20th century (serial numbers begin at 3,000), and the British 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 to be the best, although a range of Heckel-style instruments is available from several other manufacturers, all with slightly different playing characteristics.
Because its mechanism is primitive compared to most modern woodwinds, makers have occasionally attempted to "reinvent" the bassoon. In the 1960s, 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.
Buffet (French) system
The Buffet system bassoon achieved its basic acoustical properties somewhat earlier than the Heckel. Thereafter, it continued to develop in a more conservative manner. While the early history of the Heckel bassoon included a complete overhaul of the instrument in both acoustics and key work, the development of the Buffet system consisted primarily of incremental improvements to the key work. This minimalist approach of the Buffet deprived it of improved consistency of intonation, ease of operation, and increased power, which is found in Heckel bassoons, but the Buffet is considered by some to have a more vocal and expressive quality. The conductor John Foulds lamented in 1934 the dominance of the Heckel-style bassoon, considering them too homogeneous in sound with the horn. The modern Buffet system has 22 keys with its range being the same as the Heckel; although Buffet instruments have greater facility in the upper registers, reaching E5 and F5 with far greater ease and less air resistance.
Compared to the Heckel bassoon, Buffet system bassoons have a narrower bore and simpler mechanism, requiring different, and often more complex fingerings for many notes. Switching between Heckel and Buffet, or vice versa, requires extensive retraining. French woodwind instruments' 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 sound has been utilised effectively in writing for Buffet bassoon, but is less inclined to blend than the tone of the Heckel bassoon. As with all bassoons, the tone varies considerably, depending on individual instrument, reed, 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.
Though the United Kingdom once favored the French system, Buffet-system instruments are no longer made there and the last prominent British 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, where it originated. Buffet-model bassoons are currently made in Paris by Buffet Crampon and the atelier Ducasse (Romainville, France). The Selmer Company stopped fabrication of French system bassoons around the year 2012. Some players, for example the late Gerald Corey in Canada, have learned to play both types and will alternate between them depending on the repertoire.
Use in ensembles
Orchestras first used the bassoon to reinforce the bass line, and as the bass of the double reed choir (oboes and taille). 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 the newly invented double reeds. Antonio Cesti included a bassoon in his 1668 opera Il pomo d'oro (The Golden Apple). However, use of bassoons in concert orchestras was sporadic until the late 17th century when double reeds began to make their way into standard instrumentation. This was largely due to the spread of the hautbois to countries outside France. Increasing use of the bassoon as a basso continuo instrument meant that it began to be included in opera orchestras, first in France and later in Italy, Germany and England. Meanwhile, composers such as Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Michel Corrette, Johann Ernst Galliard, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Telemann wrote demanding solo and ensemble music for the instrument. Antonio Vivaldi brought the bassoon to prominence by featuring it in 37 concerti for the instrument.
By the 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, Michael 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.
Later and modern ensembles
The formation of the modern wind section in the late Classical, particularly the dominance of smaller clarinets instead of basset horn, created a preponderance of high-pitched woodwind instruments in the section, with lower auxiliaries such as bass clarinet not yet included. Therefore, scoring for the wind section meant that the bassoons would often serve as both bass and tenor, as in the chorales of Beethoven symphonies. Thus, over the Classical period and into the Romantic, although bassoon retained its function as bass, it also came to be used as a lyrical tenor as well, particularly in solos (somewhat parallel to the treatment of the cello in the strings). The introduction of contrabassoon around this time, along with lower horn writing and expanded lower brass, also alleviated the bassoons (particularly the principal) of the need to serve as a bass. The increasingly sophisticated mechanism of the instrument throughout this time also meant that it could produce higher pitches with greater facility and more expression, which also factored into the increasing frequency of bassoon solos in orchestral writing.
The modern symphony orchestra, fully established in the Romantic, typically calls for two bassoons, often with a third playing or doubling on the contrabassoon. Some works call for four or more players, typically for greater power and diversity of character. The first player is frequently called upon to perform solo passages. In the Romantic and later styles, the versatility of the bassoon's range of character meant that it would be scored in diverse styles, often particular to a composer or national culture and their notion of how to use it. It has been used for lyrical roles such as Maurice Ravel's Boléro, vocal (and often plaintive or melancholy) ones such as the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, anguished wailing as in Shostakovich's 9th, more comical characters, like the grandfather's theme in Peter and the Wolf, or sinister and dark ones, as in the later movements of Symphonie Fantastique.
Its agility suits it for passages such as the famous running line (doubled in the violas and cellos) in the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The bassoons' role in the orchestra has changed little since the Romantic; with frequent bass and tenor roles common, and, with the expanded tessitura of the 20th century, occasionally alto (or countertenor) too. The bassoons often double the celli and double basses, and provide harmonic support along with the French horns.
A wind ensemble will usually also include two bassoons and sometimes contrabassoon, 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 (sometimes played in unison by multiple bassoonists) and no contrabassoon part. The bassoon's role in the concert 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 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. An ensemble known as the "reed quintet" also makes use of the bassoon. A reed quintet is made up of an oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon. In small ensembles such as this, bassoon's bass function is in greater demand, although in repertoire from the 20th century (when bassoon's top octave and bass-register horn writing became more frequently employed) bassoon writing may call for it to play with the same agility (and often in the same register) as the smaller woodwinds, as seen in cornerstone works like Summer Music.
The bassoon quartet has also gained favor in recent times. The bassoon's wide range and variety of tone colors make it well suited to grouping in a like-instrument ensemble. Peter Schickele's "Last Tango in Bayreuth" (after themes from Tristan und 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. 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, the player's role is to place an extension in the bell of the fourth bassoon so that the note can be played.
The bassoon is infrequently used as a jazz instrument and rarely seen in a jazz ensemble. It first began appearing in the 1920s, including specific calls for its use in Paul Whiteman's group, the unusual octets of Alec Wilder, 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 (see, e.g., The Centaur and the Phoenix (1960) which features bassoon as part of a 6-man horn section, including a few solos) while Corea employed the bassoon in combination with flautist Hubert Laws.
More recently, Illinois Jacquet, Ray Pizzi, Frank Tiberi, and Marshall Allen have both doubled on bassoon in addition to their 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. Katherine Young plays the bassoon in the ensembles of Anthony Braxton. Lindsay Cooper, Paul Hanson, the Brazilian bassoonist Alexandre Silvério, Trent Jacobs 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 is even rarer as a regular member of rock bands. However, several 1960s pop music hits feature the bassoon, including "The Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (the bassoonist was Charles R. Sirard), "Jennifer Juniper" by Donovan, "59th Street Bridge Song" by Harpers Bizarre, and the oompah bassoon underlying The New Vaudeville Band's "Winchester Cathedral". From 1974 to 1978, the bassoon was played by Lindsay Cooper in the British avant-garde band Henry Cow. The Leonard Nimoy song The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins features the Bassoon. In the 1970s it was played, in the British medieval/progressive rock band Gryphon, by Brian Gulland, as well as by the American band Ambrosia, where it was played by drummer Burleigh Drummond. The Belgian Rock in Opposition-band Univers Zero is also known for its use of the bassoon.
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; and Bengt Lagerberg, drummer with The Cardigans, played bassoon on several tracks on the band's album Emmerdale.
More recently, These New Puritans's 2010 album Hidden makes heavy use of the instrument throughout; their principal songwriter, Jack Barnett, claimed repeatedly to be "writing a lot of music for bassoon" in the run-up to its recording. In early 2011, American hip-hop artist Kanye West updated his Twitter account to inform followers that he recently added the bassoon to a yet unnamed song. 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.
In 2016, the bassoon was featured on the album Gang Signs and Prayers by UK ”grime” artist Stormzy. Played by UK bassoonist Louise Watson, the bassoon is heard in the tracks "Cold" and "Mr Skeng" as a complement to the electronic synthesizer bass lines typically found in this genre.
The indie rock/pop/folk band, Dr. Bones Revival, based in Cleveland, Ohio features the bassoon in many of their songs. This instrument made its debut with the band in their 2020 charity concert in the Tremont neighborhood. The band members include four resident physicians in the Cleveland metropolitan area.
The bassoon is held diagonally in front of the player, but unlike the flute, oboe and clarinet, it cannot be easily supported by the player's hands alone. Some means of additional support is usually required; the most common ones are a seat strap attached to the base of the boot joint, which is laid across the chair seat prior to sitting down, or a neck strap or shoulder harness attached to the top of the boot joint. 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, adjusting the distribution of weight between the two hands.
The 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", or a hand rest, which mounts to the boot joint. The crutch is secured with a thumb screw, which also allows the distance that it protrudes from the bassoon to be adjusted. 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 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 left hand thumb momentarily pressing, or 'flicking' the high A, C and D keys at the beginning of certain notes in the middle octave to achieve a clean slur from a lower note. This eliminates cracking, or brief multiphonics that happens without the use of this technique. The alternative method is "venting", which requires that the register key be used as part of the full fingering as opposed to being open momentarily at the start of the note. This is sometimes called the "European Style"; venting raises the intonation of the notes slightly, and it can be advantageous when tuning to higher frequencies. Some bassoonists flick A and Bb when tongued, for clarity of articulation, but flicking (or venting) is practically ubiquitous for slurs.
While flicking is used to slur up to higher notes, the whisper key is used for lower notes. From the A♭ right below middle C and lower, the whisper key is pressed with the left thumb and held for the duration of the note. This prevents cracking, as low notes can sometimes crack into a higher octave. Both flicking and using the whisper key is especially important to ensure notes speak properly during slurring between high and low registers.
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, embouchure, and reed profile. Players can also use alternate fingerings to adjust the pitch of many notes. Similar to other woodwind instruments, the length of the bassoon can be increased to lower pitch or decreased to raise pitch. On the bassoon, this is done preferably by changing the bocal to one of a different length, (lengths are denoted by a number on the bocal, usually starting at 0 for the shortest length, and 3 for the longest, but there are some manufacturers who will use other numbers) but it is possible to push the bocal in or out slightly to grossly adjust the pitch.
Embouchure and sound production
The bassoon embouchure is a very important aspect of producing a full, round, and rich sound on the instrument. The lips are both rolled over the teeth, often with the upper lip further along in an "overbite". The lips provide micromuscular pressure on the entire circumference of the reed, which grossly controls intonation and harmonic excitement, and thus must be constantly modulated with every change of note. How far along the reed the lips are placed affects both tone (with less reed in the mouth making the sound more edged or "reedy", and more reed making it smooth and less projectile) and the way the reed will respond to pressure.
The jaw muscles are used much less for pressure than in single reeds; double reed students however often "bite" the reed with these muscles because the control and tone of the labial and other muscles is still developing, but this generally makes the sound sharp and "choked" as it contracts the aperture of the reed and stifles the vibration of its blades.
Apart from the embouchure proper, students must also develop substantial muscle tone and control in the diaphragm, throat, neck and upper chest, which are employed to increase and direct air pressure. Air pressure is a very important aspect of the tone, intonation and projection of double reed instruments, affecting these qualities as much, or more, than the embouchure does.
In a mature embouchure, the bassoonist "frames" the reed with the muscular pressure needed to produce the desired pitch, and directs air into it at a specific pressure and trajectory to optimally excite the blades and push as much air through the small aperture as possible, creating a rich and projectile sound.
It takes some time for bassoonists (and oboists) to develop the musculature, control, and stamina required to consistently produce a good sound across all dynamics, and on all reeds, which all have individual qualities of response, tone and intonation.
The fingering technique of the bassoon varies more between players, by a wide margin, than that of any other orchestral woodwind. The complex mechanism and acoustics mean the bassoon lacks simple fingerings of good sound quality or intonation for some notes (especially in the higher range), but, conversely, there is a great variety of superior, but generally more complicated, fingerings for them. Typically, the simpler fingerings for such notes are used as alternate or trill fingerings, and the bassoonist will use as "full fingering" one or several of the more complex executions possible, for optimal sound quality. The fingerings used are at the discretion of the bassoonist, and, for particular passages, he or she may experiment to find new alternate fingerings that are thus idiomatic to the player.
These elements have resulted in both "full" and alternate fingerings differing extensively between bassoonists, and are further informed by factors such as cultural difference in what sound is sought, how reeds are made, and regional variation in tuning frequencies (necessitating sharper or flatter fingerings). Regional enclaves of bassoonists tend to have some uniformity in technique, but on a global scale, technique differs such that two given bassoonists may share no fingerings for certain notes. Owing to these factors, ubiquitous bassoon technique can only be partially notated.
The left thumb operates nine keys: B♭1, B1, C2, D2, D5, C5 (also B4), two keys when combined create A4, and the whisper key. The whisper key should be held down for notes between and including F2 and G♯3 and certain other notes; it can be omitted, but the pitch will destabilise. Additional notes can be created with the left thumb keys; the D2 and bottom key above the whisper key on the tenor joint (C♯ key) together create both C♯3 and C♯4. The same bottom tenor-joint key is also used, with additional fingering, to create E5 and F5. D5 and C5 together create C♯5. When the two keys on the tenor joint to create A4 are used with slightly altered fingering on the boot joint, B♭4 is created. The whisper key may also be used at certain points throughout the instrument's high register, along with other fingerings, to alter sound quality as desired.
The right thumb operates four keys. The uppermost key is used to produce B♭2 and B♭3, and may be used in B4,F♯4, C5, D5, F5, and E♭5. The large circular key, otherwise known as the "pancake key", is held down for all the lowest notes from E2 down to B♭1. It is also used, like the whisper key, in additional fingerings for muting the sound. For example, in Ravel's "Boléro", the bassoon is asked to play the ostinato on G4. This is easy to perform with the normal fingering for G4, but Ravel directs that the player should also depress the E2 key (pancake key) to mute the sound (this being written with Buffet system in mind; the G fingering on which involves the Bb key - sometimes called "French" G on Heckel). The next key operated by the right thumb is known as the "spatula key": its primary use is to produce F♯2 and F♯3. The lowermost key is used less often: it is used to produce A♭2 (G♯2) and A♭3 (G♯3), in a manner that avoids sliding the right fourth finger from another note.
The four fingers of the left hand can each be used in two different positions. The key normally operated by the index finger is primarily used for E5, also serving for trills in the lower register. Its main assignment is the upper tone hole. This hole can be closed fully, or partially by rolling down the finger. This half-holing technique is used to overblow F♯3, G3 and G♯3. The middle finger typically stays on the centre hole on the tenor joint. It can also move to a lever used for E♭5, also a trill key. The ring finger operates, on most models, one key. Some bassoons have an alternate E♭ key above the tone hole, predominantly for trills, but many do not. The smallest finger operates two side keys on the bass joint. The lower key is typically used for C♯2, but can be used for muting or flattening notes in the tenor register. The upper key is used for E♭2, E4, F4, F♯4, A4, B♭4, B4, C5, C♯5, and D5; it flattens G3 and is the standard fingering for it in many places that tune to lower Hertz levels such as A440.
The four fingers of the right hand have at least one assignment each. The index finger stays over one hole, except that when E♭5 is played a side key at the top of the boot is used (this key also provides a C♯3 trill, albeit sharp on D). The middle finger remains stationary over the hole with a ring around it, and this ring and other pads are lifted when the smallest finger on the right hand pushes a lever. The ring finger typically remains stationary on the lower ring-finger key. However, the upper ring-finger key can be used, typically for B♭2 and B♭3, in place of the top thumb key on the front of the boot joint; this key comes from the oboe, and some bassoons do not have it because the thumb fingering is practically universal. The smallest finger operates three keys. The backmost one, closest to the bassoonist, is held down throughout most of the bass register. F♯4 may be created with this key, as well as G4, B♭4, B4, and C5 (the latter three employing solely it to flatten and stabilise the pitch). The lowest key for the smallest finger on the right hand is primarily used for A♭2 (G♯2) and A♭3 (G♯3) but can be used to improve D5, E♭5, and F5. The frontmost key is used, in addition to the thumb key, to create G♭2 and G♭3; on many bassoons this key operates a different tone hole to the thumb key and produces a slightly flatter F♯ ("duplicated F♯"); some techniques use one as standard for both octaves and the other for utility, but others use the thumb key for the lower and the fourth finger for the higher.
Many extended techniques can be performed on the bassoon, such as multiphonics, flutter-tonguing, circular breathing, double tonguing, and harmonics. In the case of the bassoon, flutter-tonguing may be accomplished by "gargling" in the back of the throat as well as by the conventional method of rolling Rs. Multiphonics on the bassoon are plentiful, and can be achieved by using particular alternative fingerings, but are generally heavily influenced by embouchure position. Also, again using certain fingerings, notes may be produced on the instrument that sound lower pitches than the actual range of the instrument. These notes tend to sound very gravelly and out of tune, but technically sound below the low B♭.
The bassoonist may also produce lower notes than the bottom B♭ by extending the length of bell. This can be achieved by inserting a specially made "low A extension" into the bell, but may also be achieved with a small paper or rubber tube or a clarinet/cor anglais bell sitting inside the bassoon bell (although the note may tend sharp). The effect of this is to convert the lower B♭ into a lower note, almost always A natural; this broadly lowers the pitch of the instrument (most noticeably in the lower register) and will often accordingly convert the lowest B to B♭ (and render the neighbouring C very flat). The idea of using low A was begun by Richard Wagner, who wanted to extend the range of the bassoon. Many passages in his later operas require the low A as well as the B-flat immediately above it - this is possible on a normal bassoon using an extension which also flattens low B to B♭, but all extensions to the bell have significant effects on intonation and sound quality in the bottom register of the instrument, and passages such as this are more often realised with comparative ease by the contrabassoon.
Some bassoons have been specially made to allow bassoonists to realize similar passages. These bassoons are made with a "Wagner bell" which is an extended bell with a key for both the low A and the low B-flat, but they are not widespread; bassoons with Wagner bells suffer similar intonational problems as a bassoon with an ordinary A extension, and a bassoon must be constructed specifically to accommodate one, making the extension option far less complicated. Extending the bassoon's range even lower than the A, though possible, would have even stronger effects on pitch and make the instrument effectively unusable.
Despite the logistic difficulties of the note, Wagner was not the only composer to write the low A. Another composer who has required the bassoon to be chromatic down to low A is Gustav Mahler. Richard Strauss also calls for the low A in his opera Intermezzo. Some works have optional low As, as in Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet, op. 43, which includes an optional low A for the final cadence of the work.
Learning the bassoon
The complicated fingering and the problem of reeds make the bassoon more of a challenge to learn than some of the other woodwind instruments. Cost is another big factor in a person's decision to pursue the bassoon. Prices range from $7,000 to over $45,000 for a good-quality instrument. In North America, schoolchildren typically take up bassoon only after starting on another reed instrument, such as clarinet or saxophone.
Students in America often begin to pursue the study of bassoon performance and technique in the middle years of their music education. Students are often provided with a school instrument and encouraged to pursue lessons with private instructors. Students typically receive instruction in proper posture, hand position, embouchure, and tone production.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bassoon.|
- Resources and Information for Bassoonists
- Documentary: The Production of a Bassoon by Francois de Rudder
- Internet Contrabassoon Resource
- International Double Reed Society
- British Double Reed Society
- Bassoon Fingering Charts
- A guide to bassoon keywork
- The Art of the Bassoon Wisconsin Public Radio's "University of the Air" hosts an hour-long program on the bassoon (RealAudio format).
- Curtal, Dulcian, Bajón — A History of the Precursor to the Bassoon Maggie Kilbey's comprehensive book
- Marvin Feinsmith's Hands on Bassoon
- The Glickman-Popkin Bassoon Camp