A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Bassoon
BASSOON (Fr. Bosson, Ital. Fagotto, Ger. Fagott). A wooden double-reed instrument of eight-foot tone. The English and French names are derived from its pitch, which is the natural bass to the oboe and other reed instruments; the Italian and German names come from its resemblance to a faggot or bundle of sticks.
It is probably, in one form or another, of great antiquity, although there exists circumstantial evidence of its discovery by Afranio, a Canon of Ferrara. This occurs in a work by the inventor's nephew, entitled 'Introductio in Chaldaicain linguam, mystica et cabalistica, a Theseo Albonesio utriusque juris doctori,' etc. (Pavia, 1539). It is illustrated by two rough woodcuts, and is termed 'Descriptio ac simulacrum Phagoti Afranii,' from which it would appear that the author, although an Italian, did not realise the etymological origin of the name. A class of instruments named bombards, pommers, or brummers, which were made in many keys, seems to have been the immediate predecessor of the bassoon. Some of the older forms are well described, with representations of their shape, in the 'Metodo complete di Fagotto' of Willent. They possess a contrivance which does not exist at the present day on any reed, though it somewhat anticipates the 'crooks' and 'transposing slides' of brass instruments. Besides the holes to be stopped by the fingers, there are other intermediate apertures stopped by pegs, and only to be opened in certain keys. No doubt in the older style of music this mechanism may have been useful; but it would hardly adapt itself to the rapid modulations of later composers.
The Bassoon is an instrument which has evidently originated in a fortuitous manner, developed by successive improvements rather of an empirical than of a theoretical nature; hence its general arrangement has not materially altered since the earliest examples. Various attempts have been made to give greater accuracy and completeness to its singularly capricious scale; but up to the present time all these seem either to have diminished the flexibility of the instrument in florid passages, or to have impaired its peculiar but telling and characteristic tone. Almenräder in Germany is credited with certain improvements, but one of the best of these efforts at reconstruction was shown in the Exhibition of 1851 by Cornelius Ward, and it has already fallen entirely into disuse. Hence bassoons by the older makers are generally preferred to newer specimens, and they therein alone resemble stringed among wind instruments. Those of Savary especially are in great request, and command high prices. The copies of these made by Samme in this country are not far inferior to them, though they lack the particular sweetness and singing tone of the French maker.
Like the oboe, of which it is the bass, the bassoon gives the consecutive harmonics of an open pipe, a fact which Helmholtz has shown mathematically to depend on its conical bore.It consists of five pieces, named respectively the crook, wing, butt, long joints, and bell. These, when fitted together, form a hollow cone about eight feet long, tapering from 5/16 of an inch at the reed to 1¾ inches at the bell end. In the butt joint this bore is bent abruptly back upon itself, both sections being pierced in the same block of wood, and united at the lower end; the prolongation of the double tube being in general stopped by means of a flattened oval cork. The whole length of the instrument, by internal measurement, being ninety-three inches, about twelve are in the crook, thirty-two in the downward branch, and the remaining forty-nine in the ascending joints. The height is thus reduced to a little over four feet, and the various holes are brought within reach of the fingers. They would still be situated too far apart for an ordinary hand if they were not pierced obliquely; the upper hole for each forefinger passing upwards in the substance of the wood, and those for the third or ring-fingers passing downwards in a similar way. There are three holes in the wing joint—so named from a projecting wing of wood intended to contain them; three others on the front of the butt joint—to be closed by the first three fingers of the left and right hands respectively; a single hole on the back of the butt joint, for the thumb of the right hand; and a series of inter-locking keys on the long joint, producing the lowest notes of the scale by means of the left thumb. It will thus be seen that the instrument is held in the hollow of the two hands, with the left uppermost, at the level of the player's breast, the right hand being somewhat below and behind the right thigh. A strap round the neck supports the bulk of the weight. The little finger of the right hand touches two keys which produce A♭ and F
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 long independent melody of the greatest ingenuity and interest.
Mendelssohn shows some peculiarity in dealing with the bassoon. He was evidently struck, not only with the power of its lower register, a fact abundantly illustrated by his use of it in the opening of the Scotch Symphony and, with the trombones, in the grand chords of the overture to 'Ruy Blas'; but he evidently felt, with Beethoven, the comic and rustic character of its tone. This is abundantly shown in the music to the 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' where the two bassoons lead the quaint clowns' march in thirds; and still further on in the funeral march, which is obviously an imitation of a small country band consisting of clarinet and bassoon, the latter ending unexpectedly and humorously on a solitary low C. In the Overture the same instrument also suggests the braying of Bottom. It is worth notice how the acute ear of the musician has caught the exact interval used by the animal without any violation of artistic propriety. As if in return for these vile uses, the same composer has compensated the instrument in numberless fine figures, of which it is unnecessary to specify more than the quartett of horns and bassoons in the trio of the Italian Symphony, the majestic opening phrases of the so-called 'Pilgrim's March,' and the flowing cantabile in octaves with the oboe which forms the second movement of the introductory symphony to the 'Hymn of Praise.'
Weber exhibits the same knowledge of its powers as his predecessors. Although the French horn, and after it the clarinet, are obviously his favourite instruments, the bassoon comes very little behind them. One of the loveliest phrases ever assigned to this instrument occurs in the 'Agnus Dei' of his mass in G.
It is absolutely alone on the telling G of the upper register; the voice following in imitation and the bassoon then repeating the passage. In the Concert-Stück, for piano and orchestra, there is a difficult but beautiful point for bassoon alone, which leads into the march for the clarinets. His two symphonies are marked by the same character, especially the first, in which the bassoon leads throughout, with some effective organ points. The overtures, and indeed all his operas, are very fully scored for bassoons. His bassoon concerto in F and his Hungarian rondo are grand works, scored for full orchestra.
Meyerbeer has somewhat neglected the bassoon for the bass clarinet—in the Prophète March for instance; but he has given it many passages of importance, and some of a grotesque character, as in the incantation scene of 'Robert le Diable.' He frequently employs four instead of two instruments.
The Italian writers use it freely. Donizetti assigns it an obbligato in the air 'Una furtiva lagrima.' Rossini opens the 'Stabat Mater' with the effective phrases—
for bassoons and cellos in unison, which again occur at the end of the work. In his latest composition, the 'Messe Solennelle' it is almost too heavily written for, and is at times comic and ineffective.
Auber writes but little for the bassoon, using it chiefly in sustaining high notes at the very top of its register. There is however a melodious passage for the two, with the horns, in the overture to the 'Sirène.'
The following list of music for bassoon, solo and concertante, may be found useful. The writer desires to acknowledge the valuable aid he has received in its compilation and elsewhere from Mr. Charles Evans of the British Museum.
Mozart, concerto in B♭; Ferdinand David, concertino in B♭, op. 12; Kalliwoda, var. and rondeau in B♭, op. 57; Weber, andante and rondo ongarese in C, op. 55, concerto in F, op. 75; Kummer, concerto in C, op. 25; Neukirchner, fantasia with orchestra; Jacobi, potpourri with orchestra; Dotzauer, quatuor, op. 36, with violin, viola, and cello; twelve pieces for three bassoons, by G. H. Kummer, op. 11; twelve trios for three bassoons, by G. H. Kummer, op. 13; forty-two caprices for bassoon, by E. Ozi; six duos concertants for two bassoons, by E. Ozi; Lindpaintner, op. 24, rondeau in B♭.Other works will be found under Clarinet, Oboe, etc.
[ W. H. S. ]
- In B flat, composed 1774. Köchel, No. 191.