From Academic Kids

The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that plays in the tenor ranges and below. Also called fagott, in German, from a word meaning "bundle of sticks" due to its construction: the instrument is made of an eight foot long conical piece of wood, doubled over onto itself, and split into several sections so it can be disassembled and stored. Appearing in its modern form in the 1800s after the model of its precursors, particularly the dulcian, the bassoon is a part of orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. It is known for its distinctive tone color, wide range, variety of character, and agility.


History and development

The bassoon was developed from its precursor, most often referred to as the dulcian, a wooden instrument all in one piece. Used and developed greatly in the 16th century to add a stronger bass to the wind band then consisting largely of shawms and recorders, the dulcian's origins are unknown. Scattered evidence exists for its creation at various places and times, and few early examples survive. There were eventually eight members of the dulcian family of varying size, from soprano down to bass ranges. The early dulcian had many similarities to the modern bassoon: though generally constructed of only a single piece of wood rather than sections, it too consisted of a conical bore that doubled back on itself at the bottom, with a curved metal crook leading from the instrument body to the reed. It was, like the modern instrument,frequently constructed of maple, with thick walls to allow finger-holes to be drilled obliquely, with its bell flared slightly at the end. However, there were only six finger-holes and two keys.

This instrument closely resembled a bundle of sticks, giving it the name meaning such, "fagot", in 16th century Italy. (A dance also named "fagot" dates to a century earlier.) The instrument was constructed folded back on itself, as it is to this day (giving it the name in some regions "curtall", as it was shortened significantly). The English name of "bassoon" comes from a more general term referring to the bass register of any instrument, but after Henry Purcell's call for a "bassoon" in Dioclesian (1690) referring to the wooden double reed, the word began to be used to refer to this instrument in particular.

The evolution of the early dulcian into the modern bassoon is also without precise record; the dulcian continued to be used into the 18th century (and in Spain, into the early 20th). Increasing demands on the capabilities of instruments and players in the 1800s—particularly concert halls requiring louder tones and the rise of virtuoso composer-performers—spurred on the further refinement of the bassoon. Increased sophistication both in manufacturing techniques and acoustical knowledge made possible great improvements in the playability of the instrument. A Dutch painting, "Der Fagottspieler", in the Suermondt Museum, which scholars date to the end of the 17th century, depicts the bassoon much as it appears in its current form, and a three-keyed bassoon has been dated to 1699.

Construction and characteristics

The bassoon disassembles into six main pieces, including the reed. The bell (6), extending upward; the bass (or long) joint (5), connecting the bell and the boot; the boot (or butt) (4), at the bottom of the instrument and folding over on itself; the wing joint (3), which extends from boot to bocal; and the bocal (or crook) (2), a crooked metal tube which attaches wing joint to reed (1) (Template:Audio).

The modern bassoon is generally made of maple, with medium-hardness types such as sycamore maple and sugar maple being preferred. Less-expensive models are also made out of materials such as polypropylene and ebonite, primarily for student and outdoor use; metal bassoons were made in the past but have not been in production by any major manufacturer since 1889. The bore of the instrument is conical, like that of the oboe and the saxophone, and the bottom of the instrument connects the bore in the middle with a u-shaped metal connector. Both bore and holes are precision-machined, and each instrument finished by hand for proper tuning. The walls of the instrument are sufficiently thick that the finger holes are drilled obliquely to aid in fingering, and wooden instruments are lined with a hard rubber lining along the interior of the wing and boot joints to prevent damage from moisture with extensive playing; wooden instruments are also stained and varnished. The top of the bell is frequently completed with a ring, often of plastic or ivory. The separate joints, where they connect, are wrapped in either cork or string, to aid sealing against air leaks. The bocal, which is inserted into the top of the wing joint and has one end wrapped in cork for sealing, may come in many different lengths, depending on the desired tuning.

Folded upon itself, the bassoon stands 134 cm (4.4 feet) tall, but the total length is 254 cm (roughly 8.3 feet). Playing is facilitated by doubling the tube back on itself and by closing the distance between the widely-spaced holes with a complex system of keywork, which extends throughout nearly the entire length of the instrument.

The range of the bassoon begins at B-flat1 (the first one below the bass staff) and extends upward over three octaves (roughly to the E on the treble staff). Higher notes are possible but difficult to produce and rarely called for; orchestral parts rarely go higher than the C or D, with even Stravinsky's famously difficult opening solo in The Rite of Spring only ascending to the D. Low A at the bottom of the range is possible with a special extension to the instrument (Template:Audio); as its use makes the bottom B-flat impossible to play and affects the intonation of the lower notes, it is rarely called for. The Quintet for Winds by Carl Nielsen concludes with a featured use of the low A.

Reed construction

Bassoon reeds, made of Arundo donax cane, are generally made by the players themselves. Reeds begin with a piece of cane that been left to dry. The cane is then cut and gouged into smooth strips, leaving the bark attached. After soaking, the strip of cane is cut into the desired thickness, or profiled. This can be done by hand; it is more frequently done with a machine or tool designed for the purpose. Is is then cut to the correct outline, or shaped. Making sure the cane is thoroughly soaked, to avoid cracking, the profiled and shaped strip of cane is folded over in the middle. The outer edges, where the bark remains after profiling, are secured by three coils of wire at 2 mm and 8mm from the beginning of the blade, and 6 mm from the bottom. The flat piece of cane is placed on a long, thin mandrel and pressed fimrmly around it to form into the proper shape, until the bottom of the reed is rounded enough to fit securely on the end of the bocal.

After the reed has dried, the wires are tightened around the reed, which has shrunk after drying. The lower part is sealed (generally with rubber cement or epoxy) and then wrapped with string to ensure both that no air leaks out through the bottom of the reed and that the reed maintains its shape.

To finish the reed, first, the tip (previously the center of the strip of cane) is cut, so that the blades above the bark are roughly 27 mm long. The reed is then scraped with a knife until it has the proper profile, which has a thin tip leading to a thicker back section, and the "spine" going lengthwise down the center also thick. Specific measurements differ from player to player and instrument to instrument. The very tip of a reed blade is frequently only 0.1 mm thick.


The instrument is played either by a seated player sitting on a support (usually a strap) attached to the bottom of the instrument, or is held with a neck strap and often a harness. The instrument, in either case, extends diagonally across the player's body, similar to the saxophone. The bassoon (and contrabassoon) are alone in the woodwind family in that they are both fingered with Heckel-system keywork, a descendant of the original Baroque fingering system, as opposed to the otherwise ubiquitous Boehm system. An alternate, unrelated, fingering system (Buffet) is used in France, but in the U.S. and most of Europe the Heckel system is dominant.

The Heckel-system bassoon is played with both hands in a stationary position, with six main finger holes on the front of the instrument (some of which are open, and some of which are aided by keywork). Also on the front of the instrument are several additional keys to be controlled by the pinky fingers of each hand. The back of the instrument has over a dozen keys to be controlled by the thumb (the exact number varies depending on model).

While instruments are constructed to have accurate pitch throught the scale, the player has a great degree of flexibility of pitch control through the use of breath support and embouchure. Players are also able to use alternate fingerings to adjust the pitch of most playable notes.

Works featuring the bassoon


Famous Orchestral Passages

Jazz and improvised music

While bassoon is rather rare in jazz and free improvisation, there have been a few notable players:

External links

Descriptions of various bassoon techniques with video and sound samples.

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