Instrument Profile: The Bassoon

Classic Arts Features   Instrument Profile: The Bassoon
In this fourth installment in a series of in-depth looks at individual instruments, Pamela Holloway speaks with Dallas Symphony Orchestra Principal Bassoonist Wilfred Roberts.


Q: When was the bassoon created and for what purpose?

A: There were several crude forms of instruments that may have led to the bassoon, but the first musical writings for the actual bassoon date to around 1650. Interestingly, 'bassoon' is translated from the Italian word 'fagotto,' meaning 'bundle of sticks.'

Q: What other instruments are in the modern bassoon family?

A: There's really only one other: the contrabassoon, which is notated in 'C' like the bassoon, but sounds exactly one octave lower. Both instruments belong to the double-reed family, which includes the oboe, English horn, oboe d'amore and bass oboe.

Q: Explain the setup of the instrument, including the wood type, key system and difference between the French- and German-style instruments.

A: Almost all the best bassoons today are made of maple, and the key system and fingering are probably the most complicated of all the instruments: the left hand controls 16 to 17 keys and holes and the right hand controls 11 to 12 keys and holes. The best instruments these days can be as much as $30,000 _$40,000.

The bassoon is constructed of a nine-foot-long tube bent in the shape of a U, giving it the double-tube appearance. The strap you see most American bassoonists sit on is simply a means of support for the instrument. Among European players, you can still find wide usage of the neck strap.

The French and German system bassoons are two totally different instruments. If I were to pick up a true French bassoon, I wouldn't be able to play it. The music is the same, but the key system, style of reed, and acoustics are different. It's also very interesting that the famous bassoon solos of Stravinsky and Ravel that utilize the extreme high notes of the bassoon were written for and premiered on French system bassoons. The extreme high notes come much easier and more simply on the French bassoon.

Q: Reeds! Tell me about them.

A: Well: if I had an hour, we'd only be able to scratch the surface! It's simply a craft that we all must learn, and every player in the world has their own style. When the DSO audience hears the bassoon section: Scott Walzel, Peter Grenier and me: we sound very much the same, but if you were to ask me to play on one of their reeds, or them to play on mine, it would sound no less than torturous!

Q: Who are some of the most prolific and influential composers of bassoon repertoire?

A: One of the first was Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote approximately 37 concerti for the instrument during his lifetime. Following Vivaldi, the most important was undoubtedly Mozart. Not only is his B-flat Concerto for Bassoon still the most important concerto in the bassoon repertoire, but Mozart's late symphonies, late operas and late piano concerti are considered benchmarks of bassoon writing. Then, of course, came famous bassoon writing by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky: and then came Stravinsky. With Stravinsky, bassoon writing took on a totally new sound and meaning. To me, Stravinsky was the single most important composer after Mozart because he took the instrument to a whole new level: and he did it in so many different and valid ways that the players of today, almost 100 years later, are still pushed and challenged to their extreme limits.

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