1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bassoon

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3464611911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 3 — BassoonKathleen Schlesinger

BASSOON (Fr. basson; Ger. Fagott; Ital. fagotto), a woodwind instrument with double reed mouthpiece, a member of the oboe (q.v.) family, of which it is the bass. The German and Italian names of the instrument were bestowed from a fancied resemblance to a bundle of sticks, the bassoon being the first instrument of the kind to be doubled back upon itself; its direct ancestor, the bass pommer, 6 ft. in length, was quite straight. The English and French names refer to the pitch of the instrument as the bass of the wood-wind.

Fig. 1.—Bassoon with 17 keys.
Savary Model.
(Rudall, Carte & Co.)

The bassoon is composed of five pieces, which, when fitted together, form a wooden tube about 8 ft. long (93 in.) with a conical bore tapering from a diameter of 13/4 in., at the bell, to 3/16 in. at the reed. The tube is doubled back upon itself, the shorter joint extending to about two-thirds of the length of the longer, whereby the height of the instrument is reduced to about 4 ft. The holes are brought into a convenient position for the fingers by the device of boring them obliquely through the thickness of the wood. The five pieces are:—(1) the bell; (2) the long joint, forming the upper part of the instrument when played, although its notes are the lowest in pitch; (3) the wing overlapping the long joint and having a projecting flap through which are bored three holes; (4) the butt or lower end of the instrument (when played) containing the double bore necessitated by the abrupt bend of the tube upon itself. Both bores are pierced in one block of wood, the prolongation of the double tube being usually stopped by a flat oval pad of cork in the older models, whereas the modern instruments have instead a U-shaped tube; (5) the crook, a narrow curved metal tube about 12 in. long, to which is attached the double reed forming the mouthpiece.

The performer holds the instrument in a diagonal position; the lower part of the tube (the butt joint) played by the right hand resting against his right thigh, and the little bell, turned upwards, pointing over his left shoulder; a strap round the neck affords additional support. The notes are produced by means of seven holes and 16, 17, or 19 keys. The mechanism and fingering are very intricate. Theoretically the whole construction of the bassoon is imperfect and arbitrary, important acoustic principles being disregarded, but these mechanical defects only enhance its value as an artistic musical instrument. The player is obliged to rely very much on his ear in order to obtain a correct intonation, and next to the strings no instrument gives greater scope to the artist.

The bassoon has an eight foot tone, the compass extending from B♭ bass[1] to A♭ treble , or in modern instruments by means of additional mechanism to C or even F . These extra high notes are from their extreme sweetness called vox humana. The pitch of the bassoon apparently lies two octaves below that of the oboe, since the lowest note of both is B, but in reality the interval is only a twelfth, as may be ascertained by comparing their fundamental scales. On the bassoon the fundamental scale is that of F maj., obtained by opening and closing the holes; the notes downwards from F to B♭ are extra notes obtained by means of interlocking keys on the long joint, worked by the left thumb; they have no counterpart on the oboe and do not belong to the fundamental scale of the bassoon. The fundamental scale of the oboe is that of C, although the compass has been extended a tone to B♭ . Therefore the difference in pitch between the bassoon and the oboe is a twelfth. In the first register of the bassoon, seven semitones are obtained, as stated above, by means of keys in the long joint and bell; the next eight notes (holes and keys) each produce two sounds—the fundamental tone, and, by increased pressure of the breath, its harmonic octave. The remaining notes are obtained by cross fingering and by overblowing the notes of the fundamental scale a twelfth as far as A♭ which forms the normal compass. From A to E♭ the vox humana notes are produced by the help of small harmonic holes opened by means of keys at the top of the wind joint; exceptional players obtain, without additional keys, two or more higher harmonic notes, which, however, are only used by virtuosi. This then forms the intricate scheme of fingering for the bassoon, and in order to appreciate the efforts of such instrument makers as Carl Almenräder in Germany, Triebert and Jancourt in France, Sax in Belgium, Cornelius Ward and Morton in England, to introduce improvements based upon acoustic principles, it is necessary to understand what these general principles are, and why they have been disregarded in the bassoon. In all tubes the note given by the vibrating air column is influenced directly by the length of the tube, but very little, if at all, by the diameter of the bore. The pitch, however, is greatly affected by the diameter of the opening, whether lateral or at the bell, through which the vibrating column of air is again brought into communication with the outer air. The tube only sounds the normal note in proportion to its length, when the diameter of the lateral opening is equal to the internal diameter of the tube at the opening. As in most of our early wood-wind instruments the holes would in that case have been too large to be stopped by the fingers, and key-mechanism was still primitive, instrument-makers resorted to the expedient of substituting a hole of smaller diameter nearer the mouthpiece for one of greater diameter in the position the hole should theoretically occupy. This important principle was well understood by the Romans, and perhaps even by the ancient Greeks, as is proved by existing specimens of the aulos (q.v.) and by certain passages from the classics.[2]

Another curious acoustic phenomenon bears upon the construction of wind instruments, and especially upon the bassoon. When the diameter of the lateral opening or bell is smaller than that of the bore, the portion of the tube below the hole, which should theoretically be as though non-existent, asserts itself, lowering the pitch of the note produced at the hole and damping the tone; this is peculiarly noticeable in the A of the bassoon whose hole is much too high and too small in diameter.[3] To cite an example of the scope of Carl Almenräder’s improvements in the bassoon, he readjusted the position of the A hole, stopped by the third finger of the right hand, boring lower down the tube, not one large hole, but two of medium diameter, covered by an open key to be closed by the same finger from the accustomed position; one of these A holes communicates with the narrower bore in the butt joint, and the other with the wider bore. The effect is a perfectly clear, full and accurate tone. Almenräder’s other alterations were made on the same principle, and produced an instrument more perfect mechanically and theoretically than Savary’s, but lacking some of the characteristics of the bassoon. In Germany Almenräder’s improvements[4] have been generally adopted and his model with 16 keys is followed by most makers, and notably by Heckel of Biebrich.[5]

The unwieldy bass pommers of the 15th and 16th centuries led to many attempts to produce a more practical bass for the orchestra by doubling back the long tube of the instrument. Thus transformed, the pommer became a fagotto. The invention of the bassoon or fagotto is ascribed to Afranio, a canon of Ferrara, in a work by his nephew, Theseus Ambrosius Albonesius, entitled Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam . . . et descriptio ac Simulacrum Phagoti Afranii (Pavia, 1539). The illustration of the instrument, showing front and back views (p. 179), taken in conjunction with the detailed description (pp. 33-38), at once disposes of the suggestion that the phagotus of Afranio and the fagotto or bassoon were in any way related; the author himself is greatly puzzled as to the etymology of the word. The phagotus in fact, resembles nothing so much as the musical curiosity known as flûte-à-bec à colonne[6], but double and played by bellows, assigned by G. Chouquet to the 16th century. This flute consisted of a column, with base and capital, both stopped, the vent and the whistle being concealed within perforated brass boxes, in the upper and lower parts of the column. Afranio’s phagotus consisted of two similar twin columns with base and capital containing finger-holes and keys; between the columns in front was a shorter column for ornament, and at the back of it another still shorter whose capital could be lifted, and a sort of bellows or bag-pipe inserted by means of which the instrument was sounded. The first instrument was made, we are told, by Ravilius of Ferrara, from Afranio’s design.[7] Mersenne[8], who does not seem to have any difficulty in understanding the construction of Afranio’s phagotus, does not consider him the inventor of the fagotto or bassoon, but of another kind of fagotto which he classes with the Neapolitan sourdeline, a complicated kind of musette[9] (see Bag-Pipe). Afranio’s instrument consists, he states, of two bassons as it were interconnected by tubes and blown by bellows. As in the sourdeline, these only speak when the springs (keys) are open. He disposes of Theseus Albonesius’s fanciful etymology of the name by showing it to be nothing but the French word fagot, and that it was applied because the instrument consists of two or more “flutes,” bound or fagotées together. There is no evidence that the phagotus contained a reed, which would account for Mersenne calling the pipes flutes. Mersenne’s statements thus seem to uphold the theory that Afranio’s phagotus was only a double flûte à colonne with bellows. Evidence is at hand that in 1555 a contrabass wind instrument was well known as fagotto. In the catalogue of the musical instruments belonging to the Flemish band of Marie de Hongrie in Spain, we find the following: “Ala dicha prinçesa y al dicho matoto dos ynstrumentos de musica contrabaxos, que llaman fagotes, metidos en dos caos redondas como pareçe por el dicho entrego.”[10]

Sigmund Schnitzer[11] of Nuremberg (d. 1578), a maker of wind instruments who attained considerable notoriety, has been named as the probable author of the transformation of pommer into bassoon.

We learn from an historical work of the 18th century, that he was renowned “almost everywhere” as a maker of fagotte of extraordinary size, of skilful workmanship and pure intonation, speaking easily. Schnitzer’s instruments were so highly appreciated not only all over Germany, but also in France and Italy, that he was kept continually at work producing fagotte for lovers of music.[12]

An earlier chronicler of the artistic celebrities and craftsmen of Nuremberg, Johann Neudorfer, writing in 1549,[13] names Sigmund Schnitzer merely as Pfeifenmacher und Stadtpfeifer. Had he been also noted as an inventor of a new form of instrument, the fellow-citizen and contemporary chronicler would not have failed to note the fact. If Schnitzer had been the first to reduce the great length of the bass pommer by doubling the tube back upon itself, he would hardly have been handed down to posterity as the clever craftsman who made fagottos of extraordinary size; Doppelmaier, who chronicles in these eulogistic terms, wrote nearly two centuries after the supposed invention of the fagotto, the value of which was realized later by retrospection.

Fig. 2.—Old English double curtail (before 1688).

(From Harl MS 2034 in Brit. Mus.)

An explanation may perhaps be found in Eisel’s statement about the Deutscher Basson, which he distinguishes from the Basson (our bassoon). “The Deutsche Bassons, Fagotte or Bombardi, as our German ancestors termed them, before music was clothed in Italian and French style, are no longer in use” (Eisel wrote in 1738) “and therefore it is unnecessary to waste paper on them.”[14] This refers, of course, to the bombard or bass pommer, the extraordinarily long instruments which Schnitzer made so successfully. From this it would seem that our bassoon was not of German origin. In the meanwhile we get a clue to the early history of the pommer in transition, but we find it under a different name in no way connected with fagotto. In order to shorten the unwieldy proportions of the tenor pommer in C, and to increase its portability, it was constructed out of a block of wood of rather more than double the diameter of the pommer, in which two bores were cut, communicating at the bottom of the instrument which was flat. The bell and the crook containing the double reed mouthpiece were side by side at the top. This instrument, which had six holes in front and one at the back as well as two keys, was known as the dulceian, dolcian, douçaine, and also in France as courtaud and in England as the curtail, curtal,[15] curtoll, &c., being mentioned in 1582—”The common bleting musick of ye Drone, Hobius (Hautboy) and Curtoll.” The next step in the evolution produced the double curtail, a converted bass pommer an octave below the single curtail and therefore identical in pitch as in construction with the early fagotto in C. The instrument is shown in fig. 2, the reproduction of a drawing in the MS. of The Academy of Armoury by Randle Holme,[16] written some time before 1688. At the side of the drawing is the following description: “A double curtaile.[17] This is double the bigness of the single, mentioned ch. xvi. n. 6” (the MS. begins at ch. xvii. of bk. 3) “and is played 8 notes deeper. It is as it were 2 pipes fixed in on(e) thick bass pipe, one much longer than the other, from the top of the lower comes a crooked pipe of brass in which is fixed a reed, through it the wind passeth to make the instrument make a sound. It hath 6 holes on the outside and one on that side next the man or back part and 2 brass keys, the highest called double La sol re, and the other double B mi.”

We may therefore conclude that the satirical name fagotto, presumably bestowed in Italy, since the French equivalent fagot was never used for the basson, was not necessarily applied to the new form of pommer at the outset, but in any case before 1555; that the very term Phagoto d'Afranio, by which the instrument was known during its short fabulous existence, with its pretended Greek etymology, presupposes the pre-existence in Italy of another fagotto with which Afranio was acquainted, perhaps imperfectly. Afranio’s was the age of ingenious mechanical devices applied to musical instruments, many of which, like Afranio’s, being mere freaks, did not survive the inventor. A document selected from the valuable archives published by Edm. van der Straeten[18] suggests a satisfactory clue. In 1426 Louis Willay, a musical instrument maker of Bruges, sold to Philippe le Bon a triple set of wood-wind instruments, i.e. “4 bombardes, 4 douçaines and 4 flûtes,” to be sent as a gift to Nicolas III., marquis of Ferrara. The new instrument, the douçaine, we may imagine, by its unusual appearance provoked the satirical wit of some courtier, and was henceforth known as fagotto. Just a century later Ravilius of Ferrara made Afranio’s first phagotus from the inventor’s design.

The bassoon has been a favourite with all the great masters, excepting Handel. Beethoven uses the bassoon largely in his symphonies, writing everywhere for it independent parts of great beauty and originality. Bach, in his mass in B min., has parts for two bassoons. Mozart wrote a concerto in B♭ for bassoon, with orchestra (Kochel, No. 191). Weber has also written a concerto for bassoon in F (op. 75), scored for full orchestra.

See also Etienne Ozi, Nouvelle Methode du Bassoon (Paris, 1788 and 1800); J. B. J. Willent-Bordogny, Gran Methodo completo per il Fagotto (Milan, 1844), with illustrations of early bassoons (English edition, London, J. R. Lafleur & Son); Joseph Fröhlich, Vollständige Musikschule für alle beym Orchester gebräuchliche wichtigere Instrumente (many practical illustrations) (Cologne, Bonn, 1811); article “Bassoon,” by W. H. Stone and D. J. Blaikley in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.); article “Fagott” in Mendel’s Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon; for the history of the instrument, and of its prototypes, see Oboe and Bombard.  (K. S.) 

  1. At Wagner’s instigation, the wind-instrument maker, W. Heckel of Biebrich-am-Rhein, made bassoons with an extra key, extending the compass downwards to A.
  2. Macrobius in Somm. Scip. lib. ii. cap. 4. 5.
  3. Gottfried Weber, “Verbesserungen des Fagotts,” in Cäcilia (Mainz, 1825), vol. ii. p. 123.
  4. See Traité sur le perfectionnement du basson, avec 2 tableaux, par Charles Almenräder (Mayence, Schott), and also the above mentioned article by Gottfried Weber in Cäcilia, whose explanations are clearer than those of the inventor.
  5. For a description of the modern instrument see Victor Charles Mahillon, Catalogue descriptif et analytique du musée instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique (Bruxelles, 1896), vol. ii. pp. 275-276, No. 999.
  6. As far as is know only three of these curious instruments are in existence; two in the museum of the Conservatoire, Paris, and one in Brussels; all three bear a trefoil as maker’s mark; the smallest, in F, is reproduced in the Catalogue of the Musical Instruments exhibited at the Royal Military Exhibition, London, 1890, by Capt. C. R. Day (London, 1891), pl. iv. F. It is also described (without illustration) in Mahillon’s Catalogue, p. 201, No. 189. The two flutes in Paris, measuring 73 cm. and 94 cm. are described by Gustave Chouquet, Le Musée du Conservatoire National de Musique —Catalogue descriptif et raisonné (Paris, 1884), Nos. 409 and 410, p. 106.
  7. An Italian translation of the description is given by Count L. F. Valdrighi in Musurgiana, No. 4 (Milano, 1881), “Il Phagotus di Afranio,” p. 40 et seq. (without illustration). An illustration of the phagotus is given by W. J. von Wasielewski in Gesch. d. Instrumentalmusik im XVI. Jahrh. (Berlin, 1878), pl. v. and vi., text p. 74.
  8. See L'Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), part ii. p. 305.
  9. Ibid., illustred and described, bk. v. p. 293.
  10. See Edm. van der Straeten, Hist. de la musique aux Pays-Bas, vol. vii. pp. 433, 436, 448.
  11. J. J. Quantz, Frederick the Great’s flute-master, gives France the credit of transforming the bombard (pommer) into the bassoon, and the schalmey into oboe, see Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversière zu spielen (Berlin, 1752), p. 24 and again p. 241, § 6.
  12. J. G. Doppelmaier, Historische Nachricht von den Nürnbergischen Mathematicis und Künstlern (Nürnberg, 1730), p. 293.
  13. See “Nachrichten von Künstlern und Werkleuten Nürnbergs aus dem Jahre 1549,” in R. Eitelberger von Edelberg’s Quellenschriften für Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttechnik des Muttelalters (Vienna, 1875), vols. viii.-x.
  14. See J. J. Eisel, Musicus autodidactus oder der sich selbst informierende Musicus (Erfurt, 1738), pp. 104 and 100, and also J. Mattheson, Das neu-eröffnete Orchester (Hamburg, 1713), “Basson,” from whom Eisel borrowed.
  15. See the New English Dictionary, and Bateman upon Bartholinus, 423, 1, margin.
  16. British Museum, Harl. MS. 2034, fol. 207b, a reference communicated by Augustus Hughes-Hughes from his valuable appendix to part iii. (Instrumental Music and Works on Music) of a Catalogue of MS. Music in the British Museum (London, 1908–1909). The Appendix contains a list of typical musical instruments represented in illuminated MSS., or described in other MSS. in the British Museum, with brief description and full references.
  17. Compare Randle Holme’s double curtail with the dolcian in C, pl. vi. H. of Capt. C. R. Day’s catalogue, and with a dolcian or single curtail by J. C. Denner in Paul de Wit’s Katalog des Musikhistorischen Museums von Paul de Wit (Leipzig, 1903), p. 127, No. 380, and illust. p. 121 (Collection now transferred to Cologne). Consult also Mersenne, op. cit., and Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum (Wolfenbüttel, 1618), both of whom describe and figure these forms of early bassoons.
  18. Op. cit. vol. vii. p. 38.