Repeat this mantra after me: I am not a bass instrument, I am not a bass instrument, I am not a bass instrument. The Bassoon is a tenor instrument that happens to have a range extension that takes it into the bass range. If you keep the Bassoon in the doldrums, then you aren’t using the instrument to its fullest capacity. Bassoonists have what we call the money range. This is the range in which nearly all of our major solos occur, roughly from the F in the bass clef to the G or A in the treble clef. I like to say “keep the Bassoon singing.” If you think of the instrument as you would think of an operatic tenor or baritone, then you know how to write for the Bassoon.
The low register is best for filling out harmonies. Very few solos have ever been written in the low register (Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony is one of the lone examples, and that solo makes Bassoonists cry). The lower the Bassoon goes, the louder it can become. Try and avoid writing the lowest B-natural at a soft dynamic; it is impossible to play softly. In fact, this one note is something odd among all the woodwinds. It possesses a different characteristic than does the entire rest of the instrument, harsh and blaring.
Some interesting possibilities are of course as a member of the double reed choir. I find that the Bassoon mixes quite beautifully with the saxophone family (all members). Their sound is more akin than is given credit for (when the saxophones play with a controlled sound that is!). Bassoon in it high register with flute is quite good (and a common combination for composers of the Classical era). Many Romantic composers used the Bass Clarinet as the bass voice to the Bassoon ensemble. I’ve found that when playing along with the low clarinets, that the Bassoon must alter their sound slightly to match the sound of the vibrato-less clarinets.
A study was once done to see which instruments were most alike in sound. This study took sound samples in a computer, eliminated the attack of each note, and only listened to the sustained pitch. The Bassoon, it turns out, is most closely allied with the Horn in this regard. It may be odd to think of a woodwind and a brass being the closest sound match to one another, but composers have realized this for a long time. Two Bassoons have often been used as members of the Horn section in an orchestra (often serving as “Horns” 5 and 6).
Because of range similarities, the Bassoon will often share duties with the trombones. An odd combination, but if we think all the way back to the Renaissance we will find ensembles of sackbuts and dulcians (the predecessors of trombones and bassoons respectively). Why not treat these two families like their ancient cousins? The other low brass (namely the tuba family) can mix with interesting combinations with the Bassoon. Think here the oddly effective “duet” between four Bassoon and two Tubas in the Dies Irae section of Symphonie Fantastique where the Bassoons are playing one octave below the Tubas.
Bassoon and trumpet…well it was interesting enough for Hindemith to write a double concerto for these two instruments. Muted trumpets will work far better in the mix, as will Piccolo Trumpets.
Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto played on period instruments (tuning is probably at A=430)
John Williams’ Five Sacred Trees a concerto for Bassoon and orchestra. Perhaps one of the crowning achievements of modern Bassoon compositions.
Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. Note: this opening solo is considered extremely difficult due to its low range.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring opening solo. Again, a very difficult solo due to range.
Tchaikovsky Symphony 4 2nd Movement. To me, some of the most beautiful Bassoon solos in existence. Notice the range is in the upper middle register.