As I continue through a brief tour of historical wind instruments, I come next to yet another double reed instrument, the dulcian or curtal. Why am I spending so much time on double reeds? Because historically, double reeds made up the bulk of all woodwind instruments.
The dulcians were the predecessor of the modern bassoons, but they are significantly different in sound and range to qualify them as a separate instrument. There are two main differences. One is the shortened range. At most, a dulcian was capable of only two and a half octaves, although a range of two octaves was far more common. The second difference is the existence of a complete family of instruments. Dulcians came in no less than six sizes from the small Soprano Dulcian, for which no corresponding size of modern bassoon exists, to the large Contrabass Dulcian, which is the same range as today’s Contrabassoon.
The most popular size was by far the Bass Dulcian, which was the same size as today’s Bassoon. This was followed by the Tenor Dulcian (equivalent to the Tenor Bassoon) and the Great Bass Dulcian (equivalent to the non-existent Semi-Contrabassoon). Alto and Soprano sizes were far less common, while the Contrabass was extremely rare with possibly only one extant instrument left.
Technique on the dulcian is both impaired and at the same time simpler than on the bassoons. The bottom fifth of the instrument is completely diatonic. However, within the middle range, speed is very easy in keys close to the home key of the instrument. The speed of dulcian players is evident from the extant literature from the mid-1600s.
To my ears, the dulcian is the most pleasing of all the Renaissance wind instruments. It is a very vocal and fluid sound that is unobtrusive and expressive. Perhaps this is why it was used well into the 1800s in parts of Spain.
In a band or orchestral setting, the dulcians could be used as an easy doubling instrument for the bassoon section. Any bassoonist can learn the instrument fairly quickly. It could be used for more folksy elements or pastoral scenes. Unlike the bassoons, the dulcians can also be used in a complete family from soprano to contrabass without any gaps in the sound.
While normally used by early music specialty groups, there seems to be no reason to exclude the dulcian based on antiquity. While it may be an odd choice for sure, it could very well be an effective one.
An introduction to dulcians – Bass, Tenor, and Great Bass Dulcians
Bass Dulcian – Bertoli Sonata 1
Soprano and Bass Dulcians