Bassoons Part 2 – Bassoons in the Band

Bassoon in the Band

What has happened to our lofty position in the wind ensemble?  The earliest bands were teaming with bassoons and Oboes.  Look at Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks written for twenty Oboes, twelve Bassoons, and a Contrabassoon (plus some Horns, Trumpets, and drums).  There were no other woodwinds in use at all.  No flutes, recorders, or any single reeds (granted clarinets had just been invented by 1749 but were rarely seen, and saxophones were still ninety years off).  Move this forward about one hundred years to France, and the double reeds had been entirely kicked out of the band in favor of instruments that could be heard from a great distance outdoors.

Music for the Royal Fireworks on the original instrumentation.

Today, the double reeds are what are known as a “color instrument,” an instrument outside of the band’s normal palate, a dash of red in a sea of blue.  Now, let’s compare this to the orchestra where half of the woodwinds are double reeds.  Do we see a disparity yet?

I should hope so!

The standard band has only two Bassoons (and possibly a third player on the Contrabassoon).  These scant few players cannot hope to make much of an effect in the sea of B-flat Clarinets and the fields of C Flutes.  Being a Bassoonist and a Bassoon teacher, too often have I heard the phrase (from myself, colleagues, and students) “why am I even here?”

Give the bassoons something meaningful to play!

Bassoons, unlike oboes, do well in large groups.  The bassoon ensemble is a great medium.  Why do we only stop at two Bassoons in our bands?  Yes, I know the answer is that we are scared that we won’t get enough players.  Why not four parts, or six, or even eight!  Berlioz wanted sixteen in his perfect orchestra (and that was without any Contrabassoons)!

Let’s think of an ensemble first of four bassoons.  Simplest arrangement here is three Bassoons and one Contrabassoon.  This is a very standard set up in orchestras (it’s called the 3+1 arrangement).  We could have the first bassoonist switch over to the Tenor Bassoon for a timbral change, or more adventurous still, have a section of five players (1 Tenor Bassoon, 3 Bassoons, and 1 Contrabassoon).  Now, let’s get really adventurous, a section with eight players (think back to my eight-player sections for flutes and saxophones).

Player 1. Alto Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 2. Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 3. Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 4. Bassoon

Player 5. Bassoon

Player 6. Bassoon, Semi-Contrabassoon

Player 7. Bassoon, Contrabassoon

Player 8. Contrabassoon

Player 6 is of course hypothetical.  Why so many regular bassoons?  Simple, the range of the Bassoon is huge and can cover bass, tenor, and alto ranges.  In this scenario, every player except player 8 can play the Bassoon.  At the top we can have a trio of small bassoon.  At the bottom we can have a trio of low bassoons.  (Note: both of these trios are dependent on new instruments being made: 1. a professional Alto Bassoon, 2. a modern Semi-Contrabassoon.)

I will give an alternate version of this arrangement with only six players (slightly more practical).

Player 1. Alto Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 2. Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 3. Bassoon

Player 4. Bassoon

Player 5. Bassoon (Semi-Contrabassoon)

Player 6. Contrabassoon.

In these arrangements, the bassoons are now placed on par with all of the other woodwinds.  It harkens back to the days of the dulcian (the bassoon’s direct ancestor) when there was a whole family of instruments which played together in a grand consort soprano to contrabass.  [Can you tell by this point that I really want there to be a Semi-Contra?]

Before I leave this section, I will give one other plea for the double reeds in the band.  Percy Grainger, considered by many the greatest composer for band, claimed to have written two masterpieces.  One was his massive orchestral piece The Warriors.  The other is a far lesser known work, the Hill Song No. 1.  The Hill Song is written for an unusual ensemble of 2 Piccolos, 6 Oboes, 6 English Horns, 6 Bassoons, and 1 Contrabassoon.  An ensemble with 19 double reeds!  What a glorious sound!



Bassoons – Introduction



Introduction – I have always loved the bassoons.  I have a special place for them being a bassoonist myself, so some of my observation in this chapter may be a little keener than the rest.  The bassoons have an old, almost antique sound to them.  My favorite quote about the Bassoon speaks to this very fact:

 “The bassoon is one of my favorite instruments. It has a medieval aroma, like the days when everything used to sound like that. Some people crave baseball…I find this unfathomable, but I can easily understand why a person could get excited about playing the bassoon.”

It of course was not said by a bassoonist, or a traditional classical composer, but the musician Frank Zappa.  I think Frank’s right.

Traditionally, the bassoon family has the smallest family of any woodwind instrument.  I have never understood this.  Going back to the Renaissance we had a family of bassoons (or more properly dulcians) that included six sizes.  Today, at best we see two.  Why did the other sizes die out?  Best answer I can give here is that composers never (and to this point, I literally mean never) wrote for the other sizes of bassoon.  With no literature, no one played them, and when no one played them manufacturers stopped producing them.  Then, about twenty years ago, a modern manufacturer in Germany started producing small bassoons initially for children to play, but gradually professional players are taking these instruments up.  Here for the first time, I will present the bassoon family as it should be.

Currently, five sizes of bassoon are being manufactured.  We all know the regular Bassoon and Contrabassoon, but above this are three smaller members, the Alto Bassoon, and two sizes of Tenor Bassoon.  Theoretically, a smaller size still, a Soprano Bassoon, could be manufactured (it would be the same as the old Soprano or Descant Dulcian).  I also propose here that one additional member of the family be resurrected, the Semi-Contrabassoon pitched between the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon.

Alto Bassoon

Tenor Bassoon