Bassoons Part 6 – The Use of Tenor and Treble Clefs

A question arose recently on the Orchestration Online Facebook page about the use of the tenor and treble clefs for the Bassoon.  As a Bassoonist, I feel I can clarify this fairly well.

Bass Clef

For the first few years of a Bassoonist’s life, they will only read in bass clef.  The standard range will be around two and a half octaves from B-flat1 to F 4.  This means two ledger lines above and two ledger lines below the bass clef.  This is easy.  Once the range starts to ascend above this range, then the tenor clef is usually brought in.  Occasional high notes can be handled in bass clef, provided that the whole of the tessitura is not in the higher range.

Tenor Clef

If the passage has a tessitura of around G3 to C5, then the tenor clef is far preferred.  Notes below F3 should always be put in the bass clef.  Bassoonists do not like reading passages written in the bottom two lines of the tenor clef.  Passages below the tenor clef are virtually unheard of (though, the famous Bassoon solo in Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony does go below the tenor clef, this is an anomaly).

Treble Clef

In passages in the extreme high register, the treble clef is preferred.  This means passages that include the notes E5 to G5.  Anything within the tessitura of roughly A4 to G5 is best read in treble.  Passages that are better suited for tenor clef should never be written in treble.  Many times, inexperienced composers will write their bassoon parts in treble and bass and leave it to the editor or publisher to sort out.  This is not a good solution, as often times the publisher will leave the part as is with no changes.

Physical comments

On the physical side of things, Bassoons keep their music stand further away from them than will other wind instruments.  This is due to the size of the instrument.  This means that the player’s music will be further away and therefore slightly harder to read.  This is not usually a problem except when it comes to multiple ledger lines.  Anything over 4 ledger lines becomes difficult to read accurately (this would be B4 in bass clef and F5 in tenor).  Notes at this height are best taken in the alternative clef.

Switching between the clefs

Rapidly switching between bass and tenor clef can be done as long as it is the clearest and most effective way of writing the passage.  Tenor clef for a single note or group of notes can be done if needed, but shouldn’t be done regularly.

Contrabassoon, Tenor, and Alto Bassoons

On occasion, the Contrabassoon will be written in the tenor clef (see Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1).  This is somewhat antithetical to the point of the Contrabassoon, but when needed, it works.  In my own Contrabassoon Concerto, I even wrote passages for the Contra in treble clef (up to a written A-flat5).

The Tenor Bassoon, will use tenor clef as frequently as the regular Bassoon.  No issues here.

The Alto Bassoon really has no need for the tenor clef as the highest written note is only F4.

Alfheim part 2 – Composing for instruments that don’t exist… yet

If you’ve followed this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that I have some, let’s say, interesting ideas about how to constitute a wind section.  One of these is the inclusion of complete families of instruments.  This isn’t a new idea – in fact, it’s a very old one that dates back to at least the Renaissance.   At that time, most instruments were constructed to match every voice range: soprano, alto, tenor, bass.  This meant that any instrument could support a choir with a uniform sound.  This practice was abandoned in the Baroque era when complex polyphony gave way to newer styles.  Style started to change by the middle of the Romantic Era (especially in France) where whole families of instruments came into being (Saxophones, Saxhorns, Sarrusophones, etc.).  The pendulum swings back and forth every few generations.  Today, we are undergoing a wind instrument renaissance where makers are once again experimenting with new sounds and new varieties.

Brass instruments have always been the easiest to construct.  A good brass repairman can create a new instrument using the bodies of older instruments.  These “Frankenstein” instruments have long been used to create new sounds otherwise unavailable from traditional manufacturers.  Such instruments as the Contrabass Trumpet and the Bass Horn have been birthed in such a manner.

Woodwinds are a wholly different story.  Their acoustics and keywork can usually only be done by instrument manufacturers (though there are numerous exceptions to this).

Were I to have the money (one day I’ll win the lottery, I swear!), I could easily buy complete families of all the woodwind instruments – except the double reeds.  Double reeds have always been a thorn in the side of manufacturers, bassoons in particular.  The mainstream manufacturers usually do not even attempt to produce a bassoon, and if they do, the instrument is usually of poor quality.  Bassoons, and to some extent oboes, have always been specialty instruments.

There’s something else odd about the double reeds.  The players spend up to 50% of their time making their own reeds, which means that the time put into learning the instrument has to be divided between actually playing the instrument and crafting the device that makes the sound.  No other instrument has this.  You wouldn’t expect a Violin player to make their own bow or a trumpeter to forge their own mouthpiece.  Because of this, double reed players are the least experimental of all musicians.  It’s a rare day when you find oboists or bassoonists playing avant garde music or, heavens forbid, jazz.

All this is a long introduction as to why I want to compose for double reed instruments that don’t exist.

I’m one of those rare double reed players who likes to experiment.  My professors looked at me weirdly when I first picked up the school’s old E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone.  They turned away when I constructed extensions for my Bassoon made of PVC pipe.  They were completely baffled when I bough a real live Tenor Bassoon.  The Tenor Bassoon, which I sadly don’t own any more, was meant to fulfill a curiosity – can the Tenoroon be used as a real instrument in modern music as a voice of its own, as a real viable tone color.  I composed several works for the instrument (sadly, none were ever performed), but I was never able to answer the question completely.  My contention, with caveats is that yes, the Tenoroon can most definitely be used as a viable voice.  I think the biggest validation of this when I showed the instrument to Julliard composer Eric Ewazen.  He loved the instrument and though it was a happy, bubbly sound.  It added more levity to the Bassoon’s mellifluous sound and could make the comical sounds more so.

This leads me to the Semi-Contrabassoon.  I’ve written about this instrument several times (I even wrote the Wikipedia article some years ago).  Back in the days of the dulcian (the predecessor of the bassoon), the second most common size, after the Bass, was the Great Bass pitched a fourth lower in G.  This corresponds to a Semi-Contrabassoon.

The largest instrument in the trio is a Great Bass Dulcian.

We can hear from this clip how well the three instruments sound together.  The lowest sound is warm and rich.  It’s not, however, a true bassoon sound.  A true, modern bassoon sound would be much smoother without the constant buzz that makes the dulcian so charming.

As a bassoonist, I can attest to the perils of playing in the low register.  It is the most difficult register to play on the bassoon.  The keywork is highly awkward and makes quick playing almost impossible.*

*I circumvented some of this by having extra mechanisms added and even invented for my own bassoon that exist on no other instrument.

Once again, I feel that I’m going around the main topic, but I feel some background information has to be laid out.

Here is the nitty gritty.  The distance between the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon is really pretty great.  There are times when the two instruments don’t even feel like they are in the same family.  The Contra is gruff and edgy while the Bassoon is smooth and silky (at least in good hands).  There needs to be a bridge.  This is why I feel there is a need for a Semi-Contrabassoon.

Probably the most difficult question that can be asked is “how can you know what the instrument sounds like?”  Since I know both the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon intimately, it’s fairly easy for me to extrapolate the sound in my head.  I’m not the first person to do this.  Wagner did this when composing the Ring Cycle.  He envisioned in his mind the sound of the Wagner Tuba.  Whether or not the result is close to what he wanted is open to debate.  I’m not trying to compare myself to Wager, that would be terrible, but I am saying that it isn’t unprecedented.  Sadly (or maybe thankfully), I don’t have quite the megalomaniacal tenancies of Herr Wagner, nor do I have the necessary funding or support to make this happen.

Yet, as I’ve begun to compose my symphony, I’ve included a part for a Semi-Contrabassoon.   Here is a sample from my sketches of the opening.  As you can see, I’ve made full use of the instrument’s lower range.  It doesn’t stay in the bottom, but moves around into higher registers.  This passage is untransposed.  The final part would be written a fifth higher.

semi contra sample

This is what the transposed part looks like.  Note how much of the part lies within the bass clef.

semi contra sample UT


Note: this passage is not a finished sample!

With the low concert Gs, this passage cannot be played on a Bassoon.  The technique also makes it difficult, though not impossible, on the Contrabassoon.  It lies perfectly on the Semi-Contra.

I should really start a Kickstarter to get one built…