The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that typically plays music written in the bass and tenor registers, and occasionally higher. Appearing in its modern form in the 1800s, the bassoon figures prominently in orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature. The bassoon is a non-transposing instrument known for its distinctive tone color, wide range, variety of character, and agility. Listeners often compare its warm, dark, reedy timbre to that of a male baritone voice.

Construction and range

The bassoon disassembles into six main pieces, including the reed. The bell, extending upward; the tenor joint, connecting the bell and the boot; the boot (or butt), at the bottom of the instrument and folding over on itself; the wing joint, which extends from boot to bocal; and the bocal (or crook), a crooked metal tube that attaches the wing joint to a reed (About this sound listen (help·info)).

The modern bassoon is generally made of maple, with medium-hardness types such as sycamore maple and sugar maple preferred. Less-expensive models are also made of materials such as polypropylene and ebonite, primarily for student and outdoor use; metal bassoons were made in the past but have not been produced by any major manufacturer since 1889. The bore of the bassoon is conical, like that of the oboe and the saxophone, and the two adjoining bores of the boot joint are connected at the bottom of the instrument with a U-shaped metal connector. Both bore and tone holes are precision-machined, and each instrument is finished by hand for proper tuning. The walls of the bassoon are thicker at various points along the bore; here, the tone holes are drilled at an angle to the axis of the bore, which reduces the distance between the holes on the exterior. This ensures coverage by the fingers of the average adult hand. Wooden instruments are lined with hard rubber along the interior of the wing and boot joints to prevent damage from moisture; wooden instruments are also stained and varnished. The end of the bell is usually fitted with a ring, either of metal, plastic or ivory. The joints between sections consist of a tenon fitting into a socket; the tenons are wrapped in either cork or string as a seal against air leaks. The bocal connects the reed to the rest of the instrument and is inserted into a socket at the top of the wing joint. Bocals come in many different lengths, depending on the desired tuning and playing characteristics.

Folded upon itself, the bassoon stands 1.34 m (4.4 feet) tall, but the total sounding length is 2.54 m (roughly 8.3 feet). Playing is facilitated by doubling the tube back on itself and by closing the distance between the widely spaced holes with a complex system of keywork, which extends throughout nearly the entire length of the instrument. There are also short-reach bassoons made for the benefit of young or petite players.

The range of the bassoon begins at B-flat1 (the first one below the bass staff) and extends upward over three octaves (roughly to the G above the treble staff).[1] Higher notes are possible but difficult to produce and rarely called for; orchestral parts rarely go higher than the C or D, with even Stravinsky's famously difficult opening solo in The Rite of Spring only ascends to the High D. Low A at the bottom of the range is possible with a special extension to the instrument—see "Extended Techniques" below.

Early history

Music historians generally consider the dulcian to be the forerunner of the modern bassoon, as the two instruments share many characteristics: a double reed fitted to a metal crook, obliquely drilled tone holes, and a conical bore that doubles back on itself. The origins of the dulcian are obscure, but by the mid 16th century it was available in as many as eight different sizes, from soprano to great bass. A full consort of dulcians was a rarity; its primary function seems to have been to provide the bass in the typical wind band of the time, either loud (shawms) or soft (recorders), indicating a remarkable ability to vary dynamics to suit the need. Otherwise, dulcian technique was rather primitive, with eight finger holes and generally one key, indicating that it could play in only a limited number of key signatures.

The dulcian came to be known as fagotto in Italy. However, the usual etymology that equates fagotto with "bundle of sticks" is somewhat misleading, as the latter term did not come into general use until later. Some think it may resemble the Roman Facis, a standard of bound sticks with an ax A further discrepancy lies in the fact that the dulcian was carved out of a single block of wood—in other words, a single "stick" and not a bundle.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that the baroque bassoon was a newly invented instrument, rather than a simple modification of the old dulcian. The dulcian was not immediately supplanted, but continued to be used well into the 18th century by Bach and others. The man most likely responsible for developing the true bassoon was Martin Hotteterre (d.1712), who may also have invented the three-piece flûte traversière and the hautbois. Some historians believe that sometime in the 1650s, Hotteterre conceived the bassoon in four sections (bell, bass joint, boot and wing joint), an arrangement that allowed greater accuracy in machining the bore compared to the one-piece dulcian. He also extended the compass down to B? by adding two keys An alternate view maintains Hotteterre was one of several craftsmen responsible for the development of the early bassoon. These may have included additional members of the Hotteterre family, as well as other French makers active around the same time. No original French bassoon from this period survives, but if it did, it would most likely resemble the earliest extant bassoons of Johann Christoph Denner and Richard Haka from the 1680s. Sometime around 1700, a fourth key was added, and it was for this type of instrument that composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, Bach, and Georg Philipp Telemann wrote their demanding music. A fifth key, for the low E?, was added during the first half of the 18th century. Notable makers of the 4-key and 5-key baroque bassoon include J.H. Eichentopf (c. 1678–1769), J. Poerschmann (1680–1757), Thomas Stanesby, Jr. (1668–1734), G.H. Scherer (1703–1778), and Prudent Thieriot (1732–1786).

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