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The Bassoon

The Bassoon

James B. Kopp
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Bassoon
    Book Description:

    This welcome volume encompasses the entire history of the bassoon, from its origins five centuries ago to its place in twenty-first-century music. James Kopp draws on new archival research and many years of experience playing the instrument to provide an up-to-date and lively portrait of today's bassoon and its intriguing predecessors. He discusses the bassoon's makers, its players, its repertory, and its audiences, all in unprecedented detail.

    The bassoon was invented in Italy in response to the need for a bass-register double-reed woodwind suitable for marching. The author examines the acoustical consequences of various design changes to the instrument through later centuries. He also offers new coverage of the bassoon's social history, including its roles in the military and the church and its global use during the European Colonial period. Separate historical chapters devoted to contrabassoons and smaller bassoons complete the volume.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18364-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of illustrations and music examples
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xii-xiii)
  6. Author’s note
    (pp. xiv-xvii)
  7. Abbreviations
    (pp. xviii-xviii)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Among musical instruments, the bassoon is a happy accident, a biotechnical workaround that quickly became an archetype. A double-reed woodwind instrument that plays the bass register with robust volume has to have a substantial bore length – something approaching the nominal eight feet of its original lowest note, C2. This being too long for easy management by a human player, some unidentified maker, probably an Italian of the early sixteenth century, conceived the idea of folding the bore in half for convenience of carrying, fingering, and manufacture. The first seven diatonic tone holes, analogous to the first seven of the...

  9. Chapter 1 Early names; precursors; the bassoon idea; the founding myth
    (pp. 5-18)

    The rich array of historical names for different sizes of bassoons falls into four families, which overstep national boundaries of language. One refers to its shortened aspect:

    Curtal, curtail, storta, stortito, Stört, sztort, etc.

    Another refers to its supposedly gentle sound:

    Dulcian,Dulzian, dolziana, dulcin, etc.

    A third refers to its archetypical bass register (even when made in other, non-bass sizes):

    Bassoon,basson, bassono, basoncico, bajón, vajon, bajoncillo, bajica, etc.

    The fourth refers to its supposed resemblance to a bundle of sticks:

    Fagot, Fagott, fagotto, Vagot, Fagoth, facotto, fagottino, fagotilho, etc.

    But ambiguities abounded.Stortowas a common name for...

  10. Chapter 2 The dulcian family
    (pp. 19-45)

    Few laymen, let alone bassoon players, would have trouble distinguishing a one-piece dulcian from a four-piece baroque bassoon. But verbal mentions are often unaccompanied by pictures, and thus an abundance of different historical names, most of them carried over from dulcian to baroque bassoon, has led to much verbal ambiguity over the two types. In this chapter, therefore, original terminology – fagotto, fagot, dulzian, curtal, bajón, etc. – is reproduced faithfully, and some possible variations in meaning are noted. In quoted passages, ‘bassoon’ refers to the one-piece dulcian, unless otherwise noted.

    The typical dulcian was probably made by drilling a...

  11. Chapter 3 The bassoon idea: early relatives
    (pp. 46-61)

    The instruments discussed in this chapter partake of the bassoon idea, but only as cousins, rather than ancestors. Each lacked at least one of the bassoon’s essential characteristics – a direct-blown double reed; a folded, conical bore capable of overblowing; a controllable extension bore; and chimney-shaped finger holes. Many of them have nevertheless been called a ‘bassoon’ by early or later writers. The following discussion briefly compares each instrument with the bassoon concept.

    The length of a bass woodwind instrument – whether folded or not – will often require it to be held more or less parallel to the player’s...

  12. Chapter 4 The baroque bassoon
    (pp. 62-85)

    Evidence suggests that the four-piece baroque bassoon arose in France by 1668, when Nicolas II Hotteterre played ‘basson’ in the royal chapel of Louis XIV.¹ This seemingly innocuous information is significant because: (1) no bass woodwind is known to have played earlier in the royal chapel, (2) the royal chapel and opera underwent an abrupt shift in performing pitch during the years 1664–70, and (3) the Hotteterres were credited (by a writer of the eighteenth century) with a role in producing the baroque hautbois.²

    The precise form of Nicolas Hotteterre’s basson of 1668 can only be conjectured. By 1685,...

  13. Chapter 5 The classical bassoon, c.1760–1830
    (pp. 86-113)

    The development of the bassoon during this period was incremental rather than revolutionary, driven by four trends: a need to perform fluently in increasingly remote keys, a need for a more powerful sound, composers’ increasing use of the instrument’s tenor register, and changes in standard pitch (usually rising).

    Nearly all the chromatic degrees of the bassoon’s scale were obtainable on the baroque instrument through cross-fingering or half-holing. But the pitches produced by these techniques were sometimes unmatched in tone quality, limited in dynamic range, or difficult to finger at speed. An original key for E2 was included in a French...

  14. Chapter 6 The scientific bassoon, c.1830–1900
    (pp. 114-148)

    From the dawn of the symphonic era, difficult moments for bassoonists often came in transitional or developmental passages, when short motives were tossed from one woodwind to another, sometimes in extreme keys, or with chromatic alterations. Composers asked the bassoon to match the higher-pitched woodwinds in volume and fluency, in almost every tonality. The old cross-fingerings, which had sufficed in an older musical style, were less suited to the newer musical demands.¹ The more forward-looking romantic composers, including Berlioz and Wagner, subscribed to a new aesthetic, under which listeners were to be awed and even overwhelmed by larger and more...

  15. Chapter 7 A tale of two systems, 1900–1990
    (pp. 149-176)

    By the dawn of the new century, the flood of radical innovation had receded. The nineteenth-century reform bassoons were commercial failures, but they served to air the question of what was desired from the bassoon during the romantic era. Apparently the desired instrument would still be ‘majestic in the bass, touching in the tenor, full and serious in the middle’, as Jancourt had written in 1847.¹ In other words, its scale would not be homogenized into the uniformly metallic timbre heard from most of the reform bassoons. It would not match the penetrating power of the treble woodwinds, especially in...

  16. Chapter 8 The bassoonist’s world since 1990
    (pp. 177-186)

    A tremor of change in geopolitics and economics came on 9 November 1989, when the wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin was dismantled. With the ensuing reunification of Germany came a reordering of the Eastern European musical world, including the professional lives of bassoon makers and players. Meanwhile westernstyle orchestras and conservatories flourished in many Asian countries, always using the Heckel-system bassoon; use of the French system continued to wane even in its European strongholds. Octave and tenor bassoons were revived in several countries for the teaching of young children.

    Changes in the bassoon itself during these years were...

  17. Chapter 9 The contrabassoon
    (pp. 187-207)

    In the broadest usage, a contrabassoon is a conical, double-reed instrument capable of doubling the bass line of a composition at the lower octave.* (Beginning in the nineteenth century, a more restricted definition is followed; see below.) Octave doubling by winds was known to Michael Praetorius, who wrote in 1620:

    Given an ample number of instrumentalists, the tutti sections produce a magnificent sound if one assigns to the bass part an ordinary or bass sackbut, a great bass curtal or shawm, and a violone, which all sound an octave lower, as the sub- or contrabasses on the organ. This is...

  18. Chapter 10 The bassoon idea: relatives after mechanization
    (pp. 208-221)

    The invention of the rod-axle key mechanism c.1829 was an important catalyst for large woodwinds, opening the door to fully keyed (or ‘covered’) systems, which usually produced a fully chromatic scale. The astonishing variety of sixteen-foot register instruments during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sometimes had double reeds and conical bores, but at other times they had single reeds, tuba-type mouthpieces, or cylindrical bores. Only those with double reeds and conical bores are mentioned here.*

    Among keyed-system instruments (a matter of external mechanics), some also had a ‘closed’ fingering system (a matter of acoustical behavior). A closed system results when...

  19. Chapter 11 Smaller sizes of bassoon
    (pp. 222-228)

    The original reason for folding the standard bassoon was the superhuman length of its bore. In the smaller sizes this need is absent or reduced. An octave bassoon’s bore is short enough – about four feet – for it to present no great awkwardness if unfolded. The tenor bassoon would be roughly six feet long (including crook) if straightened. Meanwhile, the lowest tones of a small bassoon are not always required, especially in consort use. Hand spans are less a factor than on the standard bassoon; the chimneys are present in smaller bassoons mostly from convention. Yet it is sometimes...

  20. Epilogue
    (pp. 229-232)

    Viewed from a long and global perspective, the bassoon’s history is a series of three radiations from European origins: the dulcian from Italy, Spain, and Portugal (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries); the baroque bassoon from France (late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries); and the Heckel-type bassoon from Germany (1880s and later). This view is reductive, of course; within each of the three waves, imitators abroad eventually began exporting, while holdovers, cross-currents, incremental developments, and revivals further complicated the reality. Rather than belaboring this point, it may be more productive to ask what needs (physical, musical, and conceptual) each of these iterations of...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 233-265)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 266-284)
  23. Index
    (pp. 285-298)