Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/165
useless, harmonics might by assiduous study be exacted from this remarkable instrument.
It will thus be seen—what indeed was affirmed in the outset—that the scale of the bassoon is complicated and capricious. To this it must be added that it is variable in different patterns, and that even a fine player cannot play upon an unfamiliar instrument. Each has to be learned independently; and although the theoretical imperfection of such a course is obvious, it has a certain compensation in the fact that a bassoon-player must necessarily rely upon his ear alone for correct intonation, and that he thus more nearly approximates to the manipulation of stringed instruments than any member of the orchestra, except the trombones. In some of the most important and delicate notes there are two, three, or even four alternatives of fingering open to the performer; as these produce sounds slightly differing in pitch and quality, they may be employed by a judicious musician for obtaining accurate consonance and for facilitating difficult passages. But it must be admitted that the scale of the bassoon is a sort of compromise, for the construction of which no precise formula can be given.
Whatever its theoretical imperfections, it cannot be denied that the musical value of the bassoon is very great, and it has for about two centuries been largely used by composers. Its position in the orchestra has somewhat changed in the course of time. Originally introduced—probably first in Camberts 'Pomone' (Paris, 1671)—as a purely bass instrument, it has gradually risen to the position of tenor, or even alto, frequently doubling the high notes of the violoncello or the lower register of the viola. The cause of the change is evidently the greater use of bass instruments such as trombones and ophicleides in modern orchestral scores, on the one hand, and the improvements in the upper register of the bassoon itself on the other. There is a peculiar sweetness and telling quality in these extreme sounds which has led to their being named vox-humana notes. We have good evidence that even in Haydn's time they were appreciated, for in the graceful minuet of his 'Military Symphony' we find a melody reaching to the treble A♮. The passage affords an excellent specimen of good solo writing for the instrument, though requiring a first-rate player to do it justice.
Indeed it is between the time of Handel and Haydn that the above-mentioned change seems to have taken place. Handel's scores contain few bassoon parts, and those—with one remarkable exception, the Witch music in the oratorio of Saul—mostly of a ripieno character; Haydn on the other hand uses it as one of the most prominent voices of his orchestra. Boieldieu also, who dates a little later, has assigned to the bassoon the principal melody in the overture to the 'Dame Blanche,' repeating it afterwards with increased elaboration in the form of a variation.
Bach uses it frequently, sometimes merely to reinforce the basses, but often with an independent and characteristic part. The 'Quoniam' in the Mass in B minor has two bassoons obligate throughout, and other instances of its use will be found in the cantatas 'Am Abend aber' (No. 42), and 'Ich hatte viel Bekiimmerniss' (No. 21), in the volumes of the Bach-Gesellschaft. In the Score of the Matthew Passion the bassoon does not appear. Boyce, a writer who can hardly have known much of foreign music, gives it a fine part in the song 'Softly rise thou southern breeze,' in his 'Solomon' (1743).
Cherubini has given it a fine solo in his opera of 'Médée,' which is remarkable for its difficulty, and also for its extraordinary compass, ending on the extreme high notes.
Mozart, besides a concerto with orchestra which is hardly known, constantly employs the bassoon in his scores. It figures prominently in his symphonies, even when other wind parts are deficient; most of his masses contain fine phrases for it; in the Requiem, of which the instrumentation is peculiar, it fills a leading place, contrasting with three trombones and two corni di bassetto. All his operas moreover assign it great prominence; he seems fully aware of its beauty as an accompaniment to the voice, which it supports and intensifies without the risk of overpowering the singer.Beethoven never fails to employ it largely, reinforcing it in some works by the contrafagotto. The First Symphony is remarkable for the assignment of subject as well as counter-subject in the slow movement to first and second bassoons working independently; both afterwards joining with the two clarinets in the curious dialogue of the trio between strings and reeds. The Second Symphony opens with a prominent passage in unison [App. p.532 "union"] with bass strings; in the Adagio of the Fourth is an effective figure exhibiting the great power of staccato playing possessed by the bassoon; in the first movement of the Eighth it is employed with exquisite humour, and in the minuet of the same symphony it is entrusted with a melody of considerable length. Perhaps the most remarkable passage in Beethoven's writing for this instrument, certainly the least known, occurs in the opening of the Finale of the Ninth or Choral Symphony, where the theme of the movement, played by cellos and violas in unison, is accompanied by the first bassoon in a
- In B flat, composed 1774. Köchel, No. 191.