The Classical Bassoon

by Robert Percival

The bassoon’s early development is mostly speculation and informed guesswork. Surviving bassoons from before 1700 are very rare: maple is not as hard or durable as blackwood, boxwood or ivory, and bassoons have also always been expensive and difficult to make, so players would tend to keep an instrument and use it almost to destruction, often “modernising” them with extra keys, and shortening them to keep up with rising pitch standards.

The old bass double reed instrument, variously called a curtal or dulcian, was made out of a single block of wood, with two conical bores running more of less in parallel and joined at the bottom, and with a curved brass crook to bring the reed within the reach of the player’s mouth. Larger curtals had two keys, and the bass version descended to low C. Sometime during the mid- to late-seventeenth century, possibly in France, an enterprising woodwind maker probably realised that making the bore more complex, thereby improving the intonation, could be facilitated if the instrument was made up of four separate joints. The lowest note became B flat probably because that was also the bottom note of the lowest string instrument in French groups, the basse de violon. The earliest baroque bassoon had three keys (producing low F, D and B flat), and a fourth (for A flat) became relatively common.

This famous old image of “The Woodwind-maker” from around 1700 clearly shows both a two-keyed curtal on the floor, and a three-keyed bassoon bassoon leaning against the workbench, suggesting that old and new technology happily coexisted. There was no standard pattern for how the bassoon might look cosmetically, or for the shape of the bore, so one maker’s instrument might be a good continuo instrument whilst another’s, even manufactured in the same city, might favour the tenor register. Traditions, patterns and tools were all passed on by masters to their apprentices.

Gradually, from after about 1750, in a somewhat chicken-and-egg situation, as composers’ styles of writing for wind instruments changed, and as virtuoso players made increasing demands, the bassoon began to be required to function much more as a solo instrument in the tenor range, and so makers made instruments that favoured that range too. Makers began to add more keys, to make troublesome notes easier or more reliable.

My current instrument is based on one made around 1805 by Heinrich Grenser with nine keys. With the exception of a few notes that created by bending the pitch or half-holing – notes that composers knew to avoid – the classical bassoon is a fully chromatic instrument, flexible, agile and versatile, which virtuoso players like Frans Preumayr could take from low B flat up to a high E flat.

The difference between a classical bassoon and a modern bassoon, which has far more keys, is the homogeneity of the scale, and volume. On the classical bassoon every note has its own character and colour. The most sympathetic composers and arrangers recognised and exploited this, so that for instance a passage in E flat major sounds completely different to one in D major, as a solo tenor C is very different to a solo tenor C sharp. The developments in the nineteenth century of makers Carl Almenraeder and latterly the Heckel firm that led to the modern bassoon certainly produced an instrument with more predictable intonation and greater volume. But this came, in my opinion, at the expense of character and a big increase in mass. As a result, the modern bassoon is no easier to play than the classical: it is just different.

Robert talks about and demonstrates his Classical bassoon by Peter de Koningh (c. 1990s) after Heinrich Grenser (Dresden, c. 1810). The instrument is made of stained maple with brass keys.