|Range||Bb1 - G5|
|Clefs||Bass and Tenor|
|Transposition||Sounds as Written|
The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that typically plays music written in the bass and tenor registers, and occasionally higher. Appearing in its modern form in the 19th century, the bassoon figures prominently in orchestral, concert band and chamber music literature.
The range of the bassoon begins at B-flat1 (the first one below the bass staff) and extends upward over three octaves (roughly to the G above the treble staff). Higher notes are possible but difficult to produce and rarely called for; orchestral parts rarely go higher than the C or D; even Stravinsky's famously difficult opening solo in The Rite of Spring only ascends to the High D. Low A at the bottom of the range is possible with a special extension to the instrument—see "Extended Techniques" below.
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 and 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 decreased to lower pitch or increased to raise pitch. On the bassoon, this is best done by using a different length of bocal, the curved metal piece to which the reed is attached.
Timbre and Tone
The bassoon is a non-transposing instrument known for its distinctive tone color, wide range, variety of character and agility. Listeners often compare its warm, dark, reedy timbre to that of a male baritone voice.
|Other Names||Double bassoon, double-bassoon, contra-bassoon|
|Range||Bb1 - Bb4|
|Clefs||Bass, also Tenor|
|Transposition||Sounds one octave lower than written.|
The contrabassoon, also known as the bass bassoon or double bassoon, is a larger version of the bassoon, sounding an octave lower. Its technique is similar to its smaller cousin, with a few notable differences. The reed is considerably larger, at 65–75 mm in total length as compared to 53–58 mm for most bassoon reeds. Fingering is slightly different, particularly at the register change and in the extreme high range. The instrument is twice as long, curves around on itself twice, and, due to its weight and shape, is supported by an endpin rather than a seat strap. Additional support is sometimes given by a strap around the player's neck. A wider hand position is also required, as the primary finger keys are widely spaced. The contrabassoon has a water key to expel condensation and a tuning slide for gross pitch adjustments. The instrument comes in a few pieces (plus bocal); in some models, it cannot be disassembled without a screwdriver. Sometimes, however, the bell can be detached, and in the case of instruments with a low A extension, the instrument often comes in two parts. With a range beginning at B♭0 (extending down a half-step to the lowest note on the piano on instruments with the low A extension or to A♭ in one example), and extending up just over three octaves, the contrabassoon is the deepest available sound in an orchestra (alongside the tuba). Accordingly, the instrument is notated an octave above sounding pitch in bass clef, with tenor or even (rarely) treble clef called for in high passages. The instrument has a high range extending to middle C, but the top fifth is rarely used. Tonally, it sounds much like the bassoon except for a distinctive organ pedal quality in the lowest octave of its range which provides a solid underpinning to the orchestra. Although the instrument can have a distinct 'buzz', which becomes almost a clatter in the extreme low range, this is nothing more than a variance of tone quality which can be remediated by appropriate reed design changes. While prominent in solo and small ensemble situations, the sound can be completely obscured in the volume of the full orchestra.
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. Also, using certain fingerings, notes may be produced on the instrument that sound lower pitches than the actual range of the instrument. These "impossible notes" tend to sound very gravelly and out of tune, but technically sound below the low B♭. Alternatively, lower notes can be produced by inserting a small paper or rubber tube into the end of the bell, which converts the lower B♭ into a lower note such as an A natural; this lowers the pitch of the instrument, but has the positive effect of bringing the lowest register (which is typically quite sharp) into tune. A notable piece that calls for the use of a low A bell is Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet, op. 43, which includes an optional low A for the final cadence of the work. Bassoonists sometimes use the end bell segment of an English horn or clarinet if one is available instead of a specially made extension. This often yields unsatisfactory results, though, as the resultant A can be quite sharp. 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 above. (This is impossible on a normal bassoon using an A extension as the fingering for the B-flat yields the low A.) These passages are typically realized on the contrabassoon, as recommended by the composer. Some bassoons have been 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. Bassoons with Wagner bells suffer similar intonational deficiencies as a bassoon with an A extension. Another composer who has required the bassoon to be chromatic down to low A is Gustav Mahler.
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. 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 of France. 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 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. 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. The modern symphony orchestra typically calls for two bassoons, often with a third playing the contrabassoon. Some works call for four or more players. The first player is frequently called upon to perform solo passages. The bassoon's distinctive tone suits it for both plaintive, lyrical solos such as Maurice Ravel's Boléro and more comical ones, such as the grandfather's theme in Peter and the Wolf. 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. In addition to its solo role, the bassoon is an effective bass to a woodwind choir, a bass line along with the cellos and double basses, and harmonic support along with the French horns. A wind ensemble will usually also include two bassoons and sometimes contra, 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 and no contra. The bassoon's role in the wind 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. The bassoon is also 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. The bassoon quartet has also gained favor in recent times. The bassoon's wide range and variety of tone colors make it ideally suited to grouping in like-instrument ensembles. 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, his or her 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.
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, "Jennifer Juniper" by Donovan, "59th Street Bridge Song" by Harpers Bizarre, and the oompah bassoon underlying The New Vaudeville Band's "Winchester Cathedral". From 1968 to 1978, the bassoon was played by Lindsay Cooper in the British avant-garde band Henry Cow, and in the 1970s it was used by the British medieval/progressive rock band Gryphon (played by Brian Gulland) as well as by the American band Ambrosia (played by drummer Burleigh Drummond). The Belgian Rock in Opposition-band Univers Zero is also known for their 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. 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 an as-of-yet unnamed song.