The Bassoon and Contrabassoon

Listen to Evan Kuhmann performing an excerpt from Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony on Bassoon. Choose one:
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Listen to Evan Kuhmann performing an excerpt from Mahler's Symphony No. 9 Contrabassoon. Choose one:
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Formerly in a family of up to five different sizes, it currently has two: the bassoon (pictured) and the double bassoon or contrabassoon, sounding an octave lower. Because of its wide compass and its range of characteristic tone-colors, it is one of the most versatile and useful members of the orchestra.

The early history of the bassoon is obscure. Its main predecessor is the dulcian, also known as the curtall. The bassoon of the 1520s was the first to incorporate the double-back design used today, which gave it the term “fagot,” meaning “bundle of sticks.” The bassoon in joints appeared in 17th-century France, and gradually, over the centuries, more keys were added. In its early role it doubled the bass line in small ensembles. It began in the 17th century to assume a more independent role — Vivaldi wrote 39 concertos for the instrument.

The reed is crucial to sound production. It is made of carved cane bound face-to-face to a S-shaped metal tube (“bocal”), and must have a very specific suppleness to vibrate properly. A bassoonist will typically spend hours each day making and refining his or her hand-made reeds.


Source: The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., [1991] ISBN 0-333-43236-3

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