Top 10 Bassoon FactsBy Charles Moehnke
It could be argued that all facts about the bassoon are little-known facts. That being said, most of them would also be pretty boring so I thought I’d focus on “facts” instead. The quotation marks mean we can have some fun while we learn!
The bassoon is not an oboe.
You’d be amazed by how many times I’ve been asked, “You play the oboe, right?” The oboe and the bassoon are both in the double reed family and we do sit near each other in the orchestra, but they are, in fact, different instruments! All musicians who are already aware of the subtle differences between an oboe and a bassoon, as a public service to all bassoonists, please pass this knowledge on to your friends and family!
The contrabassoon burns the longest.
As all musicians know, the aforementioned difference between an oboe and a bassoon is that the bassoon burns longer. But that’s nothing compared to how long a contrabassoon burns. By my calculations, with over 16 feet of thick wooden tubing, the contra would burn longer than any other instrument in the orchestra. (While double basses also contain a lot of flammable material, I speculate that the thinner wooden walls and high surface area would result in a faster burn.) Of course, with contrabassoons sporting the price tag of a luxury sedan, I haven’t really put this theory to the test.
Contrabassoon: Limbo champion!
How low can you go? Well, the contrabassoon can go lower. In fact, the contrabassoon is considered the lowest-pitched instrument in the orchestra. Burping out low A-flats that rumble a half-step below the low A on an 88 key piano, there aren’t many instruments that can compete. The Imperial Bösendorfer piano has it beat, going a 6th lower, but what orchestra nowadays can afford one of those?
It’s all thumbs.
A non-musician friend of mine was looking at my bassoon the other day and, with an incredulous look, asked, “Are all these buttons for one finger?” “Yes,” I replied, filled with an odd sense of pride, “all of those keys are for my thumb.” On my bassoon, the left thumb controls 9 keys while my right thumb gets to take it easy with just 5.
We shouldn’t be carpenters.
The bassoon has the odd distinction of being the only instrument in the orchestra that requires every finger to play. Think about it for a second. You could lose your right thumb in a tragic birdhouse construction accident and you could still play the clarinet. Pianists continue to play their instrument with only one hand. A bassoonist needs all of his/her fingers (and thumbs – see “Fact” #4) to play a chromatic scale up a single octave. Somehow this doesn’t fly as an excuse to get out of shop class in high school, though.
We have to be carpenters.
For those of you who aren’t aware, bassoonists, like oboe players (we’re different, I swear!), make their own reeds. For bassoonists like myself who have never been able to funnel our musical talent into fine woodworking skills, this is a source of constant frustration. By my estimates, I destroy approximately 1/3 acre of bamboo for every playable reed my clumsy hands produce. One of these days I just know I’m going to lose a finger, but at least then I won’t have to worry about making reeds anymore. (See “Fact” #5)
What a rackett!
While bassoons have been happily honking away since the mid-1600s, their ancestors predate them by at least 100 years. Both the dulcian and the rackett were conical-bored bass instruments played with double reeds, just like the bassoon, and both instruments likely influenced the development of the baroque bassoon. Both came in a wide variety of sizes and ranges and had a relatively soft, reedy sound. If you were to look at a dulcian today you’d probably say “Wow, that looks like a bassoon.” (Or, “wow, that looks like an oboe” if you’re one of my friends.) If you saw a rackett today you’d probably say “Wow, that looks like someone hammered nails into a piece of polished firewood.”
On the topic of relatives of the bassoon, my favorite is the sarrusophone. Developed in the 1800s to compete with the saxophone, the sarrusophone uses a double reed and has a conical bore but is made of metal instead of maple. Just in case the bassoon isn’t buzzy enough for you.
Croissant or strudel?
There are actually two very distinct types of bassoons in use today, the German system and the French system. The German system is by far the more popular, especially in North America, with the French system played mostly in France, Belgium and parts of South America. The German system was developed by a single maker in the late 1800s and has a more even and controlled tone, while the French system developed slowly over time and is considered by some to be more musically expressive. Oh, and the thinner bore of the French bassoon makes it easier to play the upper range of the instrument, which is why American college students always look like they’re about to pass out as they try to squeak out those high notes in the Jolivet.
You can never have enough bassoon.
You’ve definitely heard of the string quartet and probably heard of the woodwind quintet, but how much bassoon quartet music have you listened to? If the answer is none, you should take a listen! It’s one of the least composed for and most entertaining instrumental ensembles in existence. In my opinion, of course – and that’s a fact!
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