The Bassoon is the largest member of the woodwind section (apart from the Contra Bassoon). It uses a double reed which gives it a rich, slightly buzzing quality in the lowest notes and a sweet sound higher up. It has a large range of three and a half octaves, or even more for very skilled players. The range begins at B♭ and extends upward over three octaves. Higher notes are possible but difficult to produce, and rarely called for.
Bassoonists (naturally) claim that it is the hardest woodwind instrument to play. They may have a point as it is the only instrument, apart from the keyboard, that uses all ten fingers and thumbs.
Bassoons can be very expressive as solo instruments and their warm vibrato enables them to sound remarkably human, a little like a baritone voice. They are also great for creating punchy rhythmic lines, and as bass instruments they help provide support for the whole orchestra. Their ability to produce a range of comic noises has led to them being known as the “clowns of the orchestra” (or sometimes, less kindly, belching bedposts). In Peter and the Wolf, the curmudgeonly Grandpa is voiced by the bassoon, and the instrument also provides the music for Mickey Mouse’s misadventures in Fantasia. Bassoons are frequently used to provide music for film and television where scariness, silliness or strangeness is required. However there is also some beautiful orchestral writing for them too, for example Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony with its bassoon solos in the first movement.
The bassoon’s predecessor was an instrument called the dulcian, a double reeded Renaissance instrument with a folded conical bore (the bore is the internal chamber of a woodwind instrument). The dulcian flourished between 1550 and 1700, but was probably invented earlier. It was known as the fagotto (meaning bundle of sticks) in Italy. Towards the end of this period it co-existed with, and was then superseded by the baroque bassoon, although it continued to be used in Spain until early in the twentieth century.
The bassoon as we now know it first appeared around 1680 and by the end of the 17th century had four to eight keys. It is amazing to think of the ability of those players who during Mozart’s time could tackle such difficult works with only a few keys at their disposal. The modern bassoon has between 17 and 24 keys, and is usually made of maple wood. The length of the internal bore is around 2.4 metres, doubled back on itself.
There are two modern forms of the bassoon; the Heckel system established in Germany (more widely used) and the Buffet system established in France. Buffet system bassoons have a narrower bore and simpler mechanism, requiring different fingerings for many notes, and are known for a reedier sound and greater facility in the upper registers.