A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Double Bassoon

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DOUBLE BASSOON (It. Contrafagotto; Fr. Contrebasson; Ger. Contrafagott, Doppelfagott). The contrafagotto or double bassoon, in pitch an octave below the ordinary bassoon, is not by any means a new instrument; but the older instruments were of feeble rattling tone, rendered unwieldy by unsuccessful attempts to obtain the B♭ of the 32-foot octave. It has been considerably improved by Herr Haseneier of Coblenz, and subsequently by the writer, who has introduced it into English orchestras.

The double bassoon as made on the writer's design by Haseneier consists of a tube 16 feet 4 inches long, truly conical in its bore, enlarging from ¼ inch diameter at the reed to 4 inches at the bell. It is curved four times on itself for convenience of manipulation, so that the length of the instrument is about equal to that of the ordinary bassoon. Its extreme compass is three octaves, from CCC upwards to middle C—see example (a). Its ordinary range, however, should be limited to the tenor G, the notes above this being rather difficult to produce.

It possesses every semitone of the diatonic scale throughout its compass, and is therefore able to play in any key with moderate facility. The scale is founded on the octave harmonic, and continued by means of the twelfth. From CCC to FF (b), only a single sound is obtained by each key. Between the latter note and its double octave (c), the same fingering produces two sounds of an octave, simply by change of embouchure and greater pressure of wind. With the four-foot F♯ a new harmonic sound begins, using the fingering of the eight-foot B♮, and again increasing the wind-pressure. Seven semitones thus procured carry the tone up to the C above (d), which is the fourth C inclusive from the foundation note. It must be remembered, however, that the orchestral part for this instrument, like that of the double bass, is always written an octave higher than the real sound, to avoid ledger lines.

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 2/4 \clef bass \set Timing.defaultBarType = "||" c,,4^"(a)" c' c,,^"(b)" f,, f,,^"(c)" f fis^"(d)" c' }

The holes from which the sound issues are of graduated size, increasing downwards with the size of the bore. They are placed as a rule in their correct positions, so as to cut off the proper portion of tube corresponding to the elevation of the note. Mechanism is adapted to them, to bring them within reach of the fingers. To enable the player to distinguish what are called 'open' from closed holes, a different shape is given to the terminations of the levers. The first three fingers of each hand, which have to keep closed the six open notes of the ordinary bassoon, fall into saddle-shaped recesses worked in the brass of the key; whereas the two little fingers and the thumbs touch the cushion-shaped surface of keys similar to those used on other wind instruments. It is, in consequence, very easy for any person accustomed to the ordinary bassoon to adapt his playing to this. The saddle-shape of the key also serves to support the upper joints of the finger, and to throw the labour of closing the hole more on the powerful muscles of the forearm than on the weaker fabric of the hand itself.

Although this instrument was formerly used in military bands, and was played at the first Handel commemoration in Westminster Abbey, it had gone completely out of use until the Handel Festival of 1871. It is however abundantly written for by the great masters. Haydn gives it an important part in the 'Creation,' the Passion music, and other of his works. Mozart uses it in a nonet for wind instruments (already mentioned under Clarinet), as also does Spohr in a similar combination. Beethoven employs it largely in his greatest works. It reinforces the March in the finale of the C minor symphony, takes a leading part in the choral symphony, and in the Grand Mass in D. It also appears in the overture to 'King Stephen,' and has obbligato passages in the grave-digging scene of 'Fidelio'—apropos to which see a characteristic anecdote in Thayer's Beethoven, ii. 288. Mendelssohn introduces it in his overture 'The Hebrides,' in his re-orchestration of Handel's Dettingen Te Deum, in the Reformation symphony, and elsewhere. In all cases it forms a grand bass to the reed band, completing the 16-foot octave with the six lowest notes wanting on three-stringed double bases.

[ W. H. S. ]