The bassoon is the lowest of the woodwinds, unless you count the contrabassoon and similarly extra-low versions of instruments. Elementary school music teachers like to refer to it as "the clown of the orchestra." (At least mine did, and she seemed to have plenty of supporting materials...) In line with this definition, one of the best places to go looking for a bassoon sound is in cartoons, most notably classic Looney Tunes - the bassoon gets a lot more melody lines there than it does in standard musical literature. It's also prominently featured in the literature of P.D.Q. Bach/Professor Peter Schickele. (there are two very nice bassoon quartets featured on Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion) While the bassoon is one of the easiest instruments with which to get a good laugh just by walking out on stage (this is even more effective if one also walks out barefoot), it also has a lovely sound when played correctly.

When fully assembled, the bassoon makes an awfully good chin rest for anyone around five and a half feet tall. From a distance, it looks like a big stick of wood and a slightly shorter one with a curvy wire sticking out of the shorter piece. The curvy "wire" is called the bocal. It's actually a tube, and a double reed goes on the end of it. On the end of the reed goes the player. Unless the player for some reason really wishes for neck problems from trying to support the thing like a saxophone, he or she sits on a strap attached to the bottom part of the bassoon. Bassoons have tons and tons of keys; the left thumb alone is usually responsible for at least nine. As terrifying as that sounds, professionals who need extra voodoo to do neat-o trills pay lots and lots to get even more keys. Unassembled and in a case, it will fit into an overhead luggage compartment on an airplane... sort of. (By the way, trying to pass a bassoon through customs will not get you arrested in most countries, but it has been known to get one heck of a funny look.) If you are just learning to play the bassoon, it's a very good idea to take precautions to avoid conking the oboe player or other musician sitting to your left across the top of the head every time you stand up. (failure to do so has resulted in the untimely deaths of many a bassoonist!)
The bassoon is a marvelous instrument. Its length gives it a deep bass range, and the double reed renders its notes with a rich, almost human quality. Serge Prokofiev was inspired by that to score it as the grandfather in his masterpiece Peter and the Wolf--among other things, an introduction to the orchestra instruments for children.

Many recordings, and other productions of this work have been made, including one for television--the BBC, I believe--with Sting as the narrator, and puppets as the characters. It was OK, though I found the puppets not to be anything like what my imagination had responded to the production I had grown up with.

Mine was a recording made in the 60's with Peter Ustinov as the narrator. Long a fan of that laconic and sardonic voice, Ustinov's appeals to the thinking person as Charlton Heston's appeals to others. And Ustinov had a strong connection to Russia, then the Soviet Union, his family had come from St. Petersberg, and a distant cousin, Dimitri Ustinov, was for many years, the Soviet Defense Minister.

Listening to his voice, one could not help but be drawn by the raised eyebrow, the curl of the lip, the very qualitites I had grown to associate with the bassoon.

Some years later, building upon his connections, Ustinov--Peter not Dimitri--narrated the documentary series Wings of the Red Star, a fascinating history of Soviet aviation. Not a dry rendition of wood, metal, and old film this, the voice delighted the ear with its solo concerto, counterpoint to the decline and fall of its subject.

My own connection to the bassoon came in high school, long before the Soviet Union permitted the use of its film clips, but long after I had become infatuated by the voices. Having played clarinet for some years, it was suggested I might be able to use the double reed of this instrument long unused at my school.

Not the double, or contrabassoon, it wasn't that big, though its case, and weight, were some multiples of the clarinet. Learning to keep both my lips curled around my teeth, the embouchure required for its double-reed was facilitated by the plastic reed I acquired; not as good when it got good--all reeds have lives, believe it or not--but it got as good as it got more easily, and stayed there longer.

I got rather good.

So, one day, I was trusted to take it home for practice; after all, even an old instrument was not cheap.

I don't remember hassling that thing home on the bus, though it must have been a challenge; the small teenager I was, that never made it in sports, or athletics in general, must have quite a sight man-handling the suitcase like thing through the crowds of students hurrying home.

Practice was not a big thing for this long time piano student. The scales, and the pieces, the repetition, were not new to me, so I got into it with some excitement.

The Sound!

We lived in an apartment building, just down the street from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa as it happenned. A stately building, six big stories of white brick, we lived in the middle. I was aware others would hear--my hours at the piano had never gone unheard--so I began gently, though not apprehensively.

And the building rang!

Truly, the building shook, almost as if I had called up, in some harmonic resonance, an earthquake. I rather enjoyed the power I had raised. Our upstairs neighbour, as all of you who have lived in apartments will understand, was one of the noisy ones, and I imagined her floor amplifying the sound up to her this one occasion, as our ceiling amplified her heels back and forth, back and forth all day long.

When finished, my parents quietly, but firmly, told me never bring that thing home again! I was devastated. I wanted to practice!

On the bus to school the next morning, going past the Soviet embassy, I wondered if they had felt the earthquake I caused.

I wonder today if I will ever do that with my own bassoon.

Bas*soon" (?), n. [F. basson, fr. basse bass; or perh. fr. bas son low sound. See Bass a part in music. ] Mus.

A wind instrument of the double reed kind, furnished with holes, which are stopped by the fingers, and by keys, as in flutes. It forms the natural bass to the oboe, clarinet, etc.

⇒ Its compass comprehends three octaves. For convenience of carriage it is divided into two parts; whence it is also called a fagot.


© Webster 1913.

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