The bassoon is one of the largest instruments of the woodwind family. It is made up of several smaller pieces with internal piping that fit together. The sound is produced through the use of a double reed that is placed on the end of the crook. The player (called a bassoonist) blows into the reed which sends air down through all the pipes of the instrument and produces the sound out of the top (known as the bell). Most professional bassoonists will learn how to make their own reeds according to their requirements and what repertoire they are playing. They make reeds using very expensive levelling machines and making 1 reed can take hours. It is a non-transposing instrument that can play over a range of 3 octaves, although it plays on the most part in the bass clef, but also uses the tenor clef for the higher registers. The bassoon is particularly difficult to play since it is such a large and heavy instrument and requires a large handspan to play all the keys.
The bassoon features in almost all orchestral music as the primary bass woodwind instrument, often doubling what the ‘cellos play. It has a very sonorous and morose tone, particularly in the higher registers (see the opening tune to Stravinsky’s the Rite of Spring). In the lower registers it has a very deep and powerful sound (see the theme to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice).
The origins of the instruments are thought to stem from the dulcian, a single-piece wooden instrument from the Renaissance period utilised mainly from 1550-1700, although it was likely invented before. The Dulcian is smaller and possesses fewer keys and holes, but it does use a crook and double reed setup similar to that of the modern option. it was used widely for both sacred ands secular music and even J.S Bach used it during the baroque era. However, as with many other instrument’s evolution, the bassoon evolved out of a need for better technical capabilities in light of the more virtuosic and complicated writing for the instrument. There is reason to believe that the dulcian was not formally altered; rather the bassoon was almost entirely invented off the back of the dulcian. Martin Hotteterre is considered the forefather of the modern day bassoon, historians generally considering him to have introduced the bassoon in pieces and adding two new keys to allow the range to extend to bottom B flat.
The modern bassoon uses two different systems, the German Heckel system and the French Buffet system. Most of the world’s bassoonist play on instruments of the Heckel system, and the Buffet system is now restricted in use to France, Belgium and Latin America. Henkel was Carl Almenräder’s factory partner with whom he developed the bassoon. Almenräder was a well known teacher, performer and pioneer of bassoon technique. In 1823 he wrote a treatise on how intonation and tone production could be improved with modification on the keywork. He wrote several articles after that promoting the technical advancements of the bassoon and when he set up his factory with Heckel, it was not long before their model was considered the standard in the field.
The repertoire for bassoon is quite varied and really began in the baroque era with Telemann’s Sonata in F minor and Vivaldi’s 39 Concerti for bassoon. It was given further attention by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote an entire concerto in B flat. Hummel wrote his Grand Concerto in F and Johann Christian wrote 2 concertos for the bassoon, so even at this time, there was a degree of interest amongst composers in promoting it as a solo instrument. The romantic period saw relatively little compositional output except from Saint-Saens’ Sonata for Bassoon and Piano in G major and Carl maria von Weber’s Concerto in F. The twentieth-century repertoire is much more prolific and diverse. This came about largely due to the increasing recognition the bassoon was granted as a solo instrument in its own right. Composers such as Paul Hindemith (who wrote no less than 4 works which included bassoon), Gordon Jacob (who wrote 3 works), Jean Françaix (who wrote 6 works) and Alexandre Tasman (who wrote 2 major works) all paved the way to show the bassoon in a more diverse light.