Bassoon | Dulcian | Rackett | Sordune

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Albanian: fagot; Catalan: fagot; Czech: fagot; Dutch: fagot; Finnish: fagotti; French: basson; German: Fagott; Icelandic: fagott; Italian: fagotto; Japanese: ファゴット, バスーン; Portuguese: fagote; Romanian: fagot; Russian: фагот (fagót); Slovene: fagot; Swedish: fagot

[Eng.] bassoon; [Fr.] basson; [Ger.] Fagott; [It.] fagotto; [Sp.] fagot;

  A musical party: the Mathias family (detail) by William Hogarth (1697-1764).  

The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that typically plays music written in the bass and tenor registers and occasionally even higher. Appearing in its modern form in the 1800s, the bassoon figures prominently in orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. The instrument is known for its distinctive tone color, wide range, variety of character, and agility. Its warm, dark, reedy timbre has often been compared to that of a male baritone voice. Due to the complicated fingering and the problem of reeds, the bassoon is an especially difficult instrument to learn; schoolchildren typically take up the bassoon only after starting on another woodwind instrument, such as the flute, clarinet, or saxophone.


Early history The dulcian is generally considered to be the forerunner of the modern bassoon, as it shares many characteristics with the latter, including a double reed fitted to a metal crook, obliquely drilled tone holes, and a conical bore that doubles back upon itself. The origins of the dulcian are obscure, but by the mid 16th century it was available in as many as eight different sizes, from soprano to great bass. A full consort of dulcians was a rarity; its primary function seems to have been to provide the bass in the typical wind band of the time, either loud (shawms) or soft (recorders), indicating a remarkable ability to vary dynamics to suit the need. Otherwise, dulcian technique was rather primitive, with eight fingerholes and generally one key, indicating that it could play in only a limited number of key signatures.

About this time, the dulcian began to be known as fagotto in Italy. However, the usual etymology that equates fagotto with “bundle of sticks” is somewhat misleading, as the latter term did not come into general use until somewhat later (Jansen 1978). A further discrepancy lies in the fact that the dulcian was usually carved out of a single block of wood, which is to say that it was a single "stick", and not a bundle. It is tempting to say that the dulcian merged imperceptibly into the bassoon, but in fact there is circumstantial evidence to indicate that the baroque bassoon was a newly-invented instrument, with only a superficial resemblance to the old dulcian. Note that the dulcian was never entirely supplanted--it continued to be used well into the 18th century by Bach and others. The man most likely responsible for the development of the true bassoon was Martin Hotteterre (d.1712), who may also have been the inventor of the three-piece flûte traversière and the hautbois. Sometime in the 1650s, Hotteterre is believed to have conceived the bassoon in four sections (bell, bass joint, boot and wing joint), an arrangement which allowed far greater accuracy in machining the bore compared with the old dulcian. He also extended the compass downward to Bb with the addition of two keys (Lange and Thomson 1979). An alternate view holds that Hotteterre was but one of several craftsmen responsible for the development of the early bassoon; these may have included additional members of the Hotteterre family, as well as other French makers active around the same time (Kopp, 1999). No original French bassoon from this period survives, but if it did, it would most likely resemble the earliest extant bassoons of Johann Christoph Denner and Richard Haka from the 1680s. Sometime around 1700, a fourth key (G#) was added, and it was for this type of instrument that composers such as Vivaldi, Bach, and Telemann wrote their demanding music. A fifth key, for the low Eb, was added during the first half of the 18th century. Notable makers of the 4-key and 5-key baroque bassoon include J.H. Eichentopf (c.1678-1769), J. Poerschmann (1680-1757), Thomas Stanesby, Jr. (1668-1734), G.H. Scherer (1703-1778), and Prudent Thieriot (1732-1786).

Modern history 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. The modern bassoon exists in two distinct primary forms, the Buffet system and the Heckel system. The Buffet system is played primarily in France but also in Belgium and parts of Latin America, while the Heckel system is played in the majority of the world.

Heckel (German) system

The design of the modern bassoon owes a great deal to the performer, teacher, and composer Carl Almenräder, who, assisted by the German acoustic researcher Gottfried Weber developed the 17-key bassoon whose range spanned four octaves. Almenräder's improvements to the bassoon began with an 1823 treatise in which he described ways of improving intonation, response, and technical ease of playing by means of augmenting and rearranging the keywork; subsequent articles further developed his ideas. Working at the Schott factory gave him the means to construct and test instruments according to these new designs, the results of which were published in Caecilia, Schott's house journal; Almenräder continued publishing and building instruments until his death in 1846, and Ludwig van Beethoven himself requested one of the newly-made instruments after hearing of the papers. Almenräder left Schott to start his own factory along with partner Johann Adam Heckel in 1831. Heckel and two generations of descendants continued to refine the bassoon, and it is their instrument that has become the standard for other instrument makers to follow. Because of their superior singing tone quality (an improvement upon one of the main drawbacks of the Almenräder instruments), the Heckel instruments competed for prominence with the reformed Wiener system, a Boehm-style bassoon, and a completely-keyed instrument devised by C. J. Sax, father of Adolphe Sax. One latecomer attempt, from 1893, with a logical reformed fingering system was implemented by F.W. Kruspe, but failed to catch on. Other attempts at improving the instrument included a 24-keyed model and a single-reeded mouthpiece, but both were found to have adverse effects on the bassoon's distinctive tone and were abandoned. Coming into the 20th century the Heckel-style German model of bassoon dominated the field; Heckel himself had made over 1100 instruments by the turn of the century (serial numbers begin at 3,000), and the English makers' instruments were no longer desirable for the changing pitch requirements of the symphony orchestra, remaining primarily in military band use.

Except for a brief 1940s wartime conversion to ball-bearing manufacture, the Heckel concern has produced instruments continuously to the present day. Heckel bassoons are considered by many the best, although a range of Heckel-style instruments is available from several other manufacturers, all with slightly different playing characteristics. Companies that manufacture Heckel-system bassoons include: Heckel, Yamaha, Fox Products, Schreiber, Püchner, Selmer, Linton, Moosmann, Kohlert, Moennig/Adler, B.H. Bell and Guntram Wolf. In addition, several factories in mainland China are producing inexpensive instruments under such labels as Laval, Haydn and Lark, and these have been available in the West for some time now. However, they are generally of marginal quality and are usually avoided by serious players. Because its mechanism is the most primitive of all the woodwinds, there have been occasional attempts at "reinventing" the bassoon. In the 1960s the Englishman Giles Brindley began development of what he called the "logical" bassoon, which aimed to improve intonation and evenness of tone through use of an electrically activated mechanism, making possible key combinations that were too complex for the human hand to manage. However, Brindley's "logical bassoon" was never marketed.

Buffet (French) system The Buffet system bassoon achieved its basic acoustical properties somewhat earlier than the Heckel; thereafter it continued to develop in a more conservative manner. While the early history of the Heckel bassoon included a complete overhaul of the instrument in both acoustics and keywork, the development of the Buffet system consisted primarily of incremental improvements to the keywork. This minimalist approach deprived the Buffet of the improved consistency, and thus the ease of operation and increased power found in the Heckel bassoons, but the Buffet is considered by some to have a more vocal and expressive quality. For example, the conductor John Foulds lamented in 1934 the dominance of the Heckel-style bassoon, considering them to be too homogeneous in sound with the horn.

Compared to the Heckel bassoon, Buffet system bassoons have a narrower bore and somewhat simplified mechanism, requiring different fingerings for many notes. It is not possible to switch from the Heckel to the Buffet, and vice versa, without extensive "retraining". Buffet instruments are known for a reedier sound and greater facility in the upper registers, reaching e''' and f''' with far greater ease and less air pressure. French woodwind tone in general exhibits a certain amount of "edge", with more of a vocal quality than is usual elsewhere, and the Buffet bassoon is no exception. This type of sound can be beneficial in music by French composers, but it also has drawn criticism for being too intrusive. As with all bassoons, the tone varies considerably depending on the individual instrument and performer. In the hands of a lesser player, the Heckel bassoon can sound rather flat and woody, but good players succeed in producing a vibrant, singing tone. Conversely, when poorly played the Buffet can sound buzzy and nasal, but good players succeed in producing a warm, expressive sound different from but in no way inferior to that of the Heckel. Though the French system was once widely favored in England, Buffet-system instruments are no longer made there, and the last prominent English player of the French system retired in the 1980s. However, with its continued use in some regions and its distinctive tone, the Buffet continues to have a place in modern bassoon playing, particularly in France. Buffet-model bassoons are currently made in Paris by Buffet Crampon and Selmer. Some players, for example Gerald Corey in Canada, have learned to play both types and will alternate between them depending on the repertoire being played.


  Curtal. Procession in Brussels (detail, 1615). Dennis van Alsloot.  

A large double reed instrument, the curtal, was already in use by the middle of the 16th century. In fact, in Spain it was known as the bajon, so the name of the bassoon may have had its origins there. The curtal continued in use, particularly in a continuo role, into the 18th century. By that time, however, the bassoon had already emerged in Germany as a refinement, much as the oboe refined the shawm.

Whereas the curtal was made from a single, double-bored piece of wood, the bassoon was made in jointed sections. It further differed by having a taller "chimney" — that portion of the bell section that extends above the bocal, the metal tube to which the reed is attached. The earliest baroque bassoons show elaborate turnery like other woodwinds but gradually this disappears in favor of a plainer outline. Unlike their modern descendants, early bassoons to the end of the 18th century generally had just four keys, although some six key bassoons survive from before 1800.

Sometime before 1636 the one-piece instrument the curtall was changed into a separately jointed instrument in France, come be known as the bassoon. It was called the French bassoon in England and Germany. For the rest of the century the name curtall and the different variations on the name from other countries outside of France were kept to denote the difference between the old and new instruments. The larger contrabassoon was created to be the lowest member of the family.

The bassoon is a double reed wind instrument with a conical bore. The bassoon is also the bass instrument of the wind section and belongs to the oboe family. The double reed is set onto a curved metal tube called the crook or the bocal.

The pitch of the bassoon can be altered by adjusting the position of the bocal in its receiver. By pulling the bocal out you can lengthen the instrument which will lower the pitch slightly or by pushing it in you can shorten the instrument which will raise the pitch slightly.


Also [Fr.] contre-bassoon, [Ger.] Kontrafagott, [It.] contrafagotto.

Double-reed woodwind instrument with the lowest range in the woodwind family sounding an octave below a regular bassoon.

The contrabassoon is also called double bassoon.