A member of the double reed family of woodwind instruments, the bassoon is built in four joints, and exists in two versions: the German or ‘Heckel’ system, and the French or ‘Buffet’ system, with differences in the construction of the bore and keys. When played, the bassoon is held diagonally across the body, and must be supported by a neck strap or harness due to its considerable weight.
The early history of the bassoon is obscure, but the dulcian is generally considered to be its precursor, and was used in Renaissance and Baroque music until its eventual abandonment by the beginning of the 18th century. The 19th-century German performer, teacher and composer Carl Almenraeder improved the design of the bassoon to enhance its intonation and response as well as expand its range to four octaves.
The bassoon is an agile instrument, and those who play it employ a variety of techniques to highlight its capabilities. It is capable of a dry staccato that is used as a form of musical humour, while its upper register produces a reedy, plaintive sound. New techniques that developed in the 20th century include pitch-bending (adjusting the embouchure to slide up or down to a nearby note) and flutter tonguing (rapidly rolling the tip of the tongue to produce a growling effect).
Early works for the bassoon include 39 concertos written by Vivaldi, outnumbering those he wrote for any other instrument except the violin. Other pieces that feature the bassoon include Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the opening passage of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which exploits the eerie quality of its upper register.
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