Bassoon

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins
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Pitch range

Bassoon pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

It might be a low-sounding instrument, but the bassoon does more than bumble along a bass line. It gives the underneath of pieces a special character. When it’s combined with cellos, for example, its low, dry sound makes the bottom line strong and full of character.

In its middle register (when it’s playing a bit higher up), it has a lovely, singing sound – like the human tenor voice. Thanks to that, it gets some satisfying solos to play.

When it goes even higher, it can sound as if it’s crying. It can go surprisingly high for such a big instrument. Stravinsky gives its top notes a real workout at the beginning of his Rite of Spring.

The high bassoon solo at the beginning of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (extract)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Jerzy Maksymiuk. Naxos 8.554050

In Italian, the bassoon’s name is ‘fagotto’. This isn’t because someone forgot it, but because the tubes are bound together (a ‘faggot’ is a bunch of something, like twigs or rods, tied together).

Inside the orchestra

 

Plan of the orchestra showing the bassoons, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the bassoons

There are normally a couple of bassoons in the orchestra, and they have two main roles:

  1. ‘Doubling’ bass lines: The cellos might have a line of music in the bass that the bassoons will play as well, making it sound stronger.
  2. Solos: When it’s not playing very low down, the bassoon makes a smooth and gentle solo instrument.

There’s also a contrabassoon, which you can see further down this page. It is really low – like the roots of a tree, supporting everyone else.

The bassoon got a name for itself as a bit of a clown. It can sound quite funny when it plays bouncy bottom notes – they sound something like ‘bob-bob-bob’. But there is much more to its sound than comedy!

Outside the orchestra

Chamber music: Most often found in wind quintets (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn).

Solo pieces: Fewer than players would like!

Concertos: Vivaldi wrote 39 bassoon concertos. Only one by Mozart exists, but it’s one of the best.

Construction of the bassoon

Bassoon crook, courtesy of Crook and Staple

Bassoon crook

The body of French bassoons is normally made of rosewood, German bassoons of maple.

Four sections are bound together (or ‘fagotted’) with metal rings: tenor joint, butt joint, bass joint and bell.

The crook or bocal is the long, slim curve of metal that joins the reed to the bassoon. If it didn’t have this, bassoonists would look ridiculous trying to get their mouth to reach the reed. In fact, they’d probably break their nose with the bassoon before the reed touched their lips!

Bassoon reed, courtesy of Crook and Staple

Bassoon reed

The reed is made of cane. It is a double reed – like the oboe’s but bigger. Bassoonists make their own reeds, just like oboists do. Reeds make such a difference to the sound that players get really into it, carving and perfecting each one.

The keys are metal.

Every single bassoon is a bit different. If something goes wrong with a bassoon, a player can’t simply pick up another one and expect to sound the same.

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai JenkinsTo play it

The bassoon’s design makes it tricky to control and play well.

Bassoonist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Bassoonist in playing position

You play it in a very similar way to an oboe, except that you hold it diagonally across yourself. Players have a sling to support it, as it’s quite heavy.

Once you blow on the reed, the vibrating air passes through the crook, travels quickly through the joints (tenor to butt to bass), and pops out through the bell at the top. The bell faces the ceiling. Air also comes out through open key holes.

For more about special effects, go to the Woodwind Family section.

French and German makers developed the bassoon differently as they did with oboes. Even today, the two types sound quite distinct. German bassoons are seen more often than French ones.

Other bassoons

Contrabassoon
Contrabassoon, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Contrabassoon

Contrabassoon pitch, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Contrabassoon pitch

This is an enormous bassoon with fat tubes folded into four parts. It sounds very deep and plays very low down in the orchestra.

If you stretched out a contrabassoon, it would be almost 6 metres (over 19 feet) long!

Playing the contrabassoon, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Playing the contrabassoon

Unlike the bassoon, the bell of the contrabassoon faces the floor. And there’s a spike on the bottom of the instrument to prop it up on the ground, as it’s too heavy to hold in the air.

There’s even a baby bassoon called a ‘tenoroon’! It’s hardly ever used, though there are smaller bassoons for children to play and these can be called ‘tenoroons’ or ‘mini bassoons’.

Find out more about the development of the Bassoon in .

A Little History of the Bassoon

An early bassoon

An early bassoon

Nobody is actually sure where or when the bassoon was born. It’s a bit of a mystery…

We know, however, that in the 17th century an early type of bassoon was played. One of its biggest problems was the holes. A big, long tube needs big holes – far too big, if positioned simply, for human fingers to cover. If you tried it, your fingers would just fall into them like they do in a bowling ball.

Antonio Vivaldi, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Antonio Vivaldi

The solution was to put holes at an angle. The bassoon was also given a few more keys – though in Vivaldi’s time (1678–1741), the bassoon still looked a bit naked.

It was really hard to play. Vivaldi didn’t have any sympathy with that, though: he wrote a lot of difficult concertos for it and expected decent performances!

Part of a bassoon concerto by Vivaldi

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concerto in C major, RV 476. I. Allegro (extract)

Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos. Naxos 8.555937

It was thanks to Jean Hotteterre (the Frenchman famed for inventing the oboe) that the bassoon had a face-lift. He built it in four parts instead of one, which meant he could put the all-important holes into one part at a time. Everything was more accurate.

The four bits were then bound together (‘fagotted’) with metal hoops.

Once it had got more keys, so that it could play more notes, the bassoon was basically finished.

A German family called Heckel did more fiddly things to it, and even used different wood. They made it easier to play, but it lost some of its special sound.

So, like oboes, French and German bassoons developed along different paths. Even today, the two types sound different. German ones are seen more often than French ones.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 A bassoon reed fits onto the end of the…

a. Thief
b. Crook
c. Robber

 What is the name of the small piece of wood that bassoonists use as a thumb-rest?

a. The slug
b. The worm
c. The bird

 Some bassoonists play with a spike. Why?

a. For self-protection in the orchestra
b. To support the bassoon’s weight
c. To give a percussive sound

 What is a tenoroon?

a. A baby bassoon for small hands
b. A marsupial animal that sounds like a bassoon
c. A male singer

 Which section of the orchestra does the bassoon belong to?

a. Brass section
b. String section
c. Woodwind section

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Bassoon and Contrabassoon Extracts

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, K. 191: I. Allegro (extract)

Mozart knew how well the bassoon could sing.

Performers: Stepan Turnovsky, bassoon; Vienna Mozart Academy; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550345

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46: IV. In the Hall of the Mountain King (extract)

Peer Gynt sneaks away from the Mountain King – his footsteps begin steadily… The bassoon has the tune at 0.12.

Performers: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Jerzy Maksymiuk

Taken from Naxos 8.554050

Paul Dukas (1865–1935)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (extract)

The bassoon is the clever broom that works on its own!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.554463

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
The Rite of Spring (opening)

A big solo for the bassoon, playing really high, at the beginning of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Performers: BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.554060

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Ma Mère l’oye (‘Mother Goose’): Suite: Conversation of Beauty and the Beast (extract)

The low, rumbling contrabassoon is the beast!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Jean

Taken from Naxos 8.550173

Bassoon and Orchestra

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 498

Antonio Vivaldi wrote 39 bassoon concertos, although two of them are not complete. He enjoyed creating a musical interplay between the soloist and the orchestra. The bassoon, with its cheeky yet sorrowful sound, is a perfect contrast to the small string orchestra and harpsichord. He had high demands and expectations of his soloist: the concertos are technically challenging for the performer. Listen to an example of this in the first movement (track 1) at 2.15–3.00.

Performers: Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Béla Drahos

Taken from Naxos 8.555937

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, K. 191

Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto is played by nearly every bassoonist at some point! Parts of it are often used for professional orchestral auditions. It is written so well for the bassoon and is technically demanding as well as light-hearted and playful. It is also beautifully balanced with the orchestra. Listen to part of movement 1 for an example of the instrument’s huge range and elegant sound: track 1, 1.28–3.22.

Performers: Stepan Turnovsky, bassoon; Vienna Mozart Academy; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550345

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837)
Bassoon Concerto in F major, WoO 23, S63

Hummel was a child prodigy: he could read music by the age of four, play the violin at five, and the piano at six! He was a famous Austrian composer, conductor and pianist, and he didn’t even publish the Bassoon Concerto yet it is now well known and much loved by players and audiences. When Hummel wrote it in 1805, the bassoon was going through many changes and developing into a more complex and accomplished instrument. This meant that he could write harder music, demanding more from the player! Listen to this technical passage in the first movement: track 1, 9.20 to the end.

Performers: Claudio Gonella, bassoon; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Diego Dini-Ciacci

Taken from Naxos 8.554280

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Romance for bassoon and orchestra, Op. 62

Elgar’s Romance for bassoon and orchestra demonstrates what a beautiful instrument the bassoon is. It soars above the orchestra, singing sorrowfully in its higher register – at some points sounding very similar to the human voice (listen from 1.07 to 1.54). Elgar wrote this for his dear friend Edwin James, a distinguished bassoonist. It was premiered in Hereford in 1911.

Performers: Preman Tilson, Bassoon; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Judd

Taken from Naxos 8.557577

Bassoon and Piano

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Bassoon Sonata in G major, Op. 168

Saint-Saëns wrote three sonatas for woodwind instruments in 1921, the last year of his life. The Bassoon Sonata is completely different in structure from the average sonata – usually there is a slow middle movement, but in this sonata the last movement opens with a slow section. Listen to the huge range in the last movement (track 3, 4.07 to the end) – you will hear how the bassoon can play high as well as low.

Performers: Christopher Millard, bassoon; Stéphane Lemelin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570964

Nino Rota (1911–1979)
Toccata for bassoon and piano

Although Nino Rota is most famous for writing film music – particularly for The Godfather – he has also written orchestral music, chamber music and opera. The Toccata for bassoon and piano is a short piece with fast changes in mood and style – something the deft bassoon can do really well.

Performers: Michael Sweeney, bassoon; Mary Kenedi, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572778

Bassoon Chamber Music

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, FP 100

This Sextet is for a traditional wind quintet plus piano. The piece is a showcase for each instrument, and the bassoon even has a cadenza in the first movement – a section where it plays completely alone. Listen to how well it makes the transition from lively and energetic to deeply sad and mournful (track 1, 1.37–2.25).

Performers: Philippe Bernold, flute; Olivier Doise, oboe; Ronald Van Spaendonck, clarinet; Laurent Lefèvre, bassoon; Hervé Joulain, horn; Alexandre Tharaud, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553611

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Duo for oboe and bassoon

The bassoon and oboe have one important thing in common: the double reed. Bassoonists and oboists often make their own reeds from scratch, which is not usual practice for a clarinettist (who plays on a single reed). The Duo by Villa-Lobos – a Brazilian composer – is full of chitter-chatter between the two instruments: the beginning of the third movement (track 3) is a good example of this.

Performers: Jared Hauser, oboe; William Ludwig, bassoon

Taken from Naxos 9.70127

Jean Françaix (1912–1997)
Wind Quintet No. 1

The traditional wind quintet consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The bassoon usually plays the bass line and accompaniment in this genre. See if you can hear the bass line where it consists of cheeky short notes in the second movement (track 2, 0.47–2.29) – this is very typical bassoon writing. The bassoon gets a brief solo in the fourth movement (1.26–1.58) but, as you can hear, the glory doesn’t last long and the other instruments soon join in!

Performers: Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Wind Quintet

Taken from Naxos 8.557356