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The Bassoon

The Bassoon

by James B. Kopp

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This welcome volume encompasses the entire history of the bassoon, from its origins five centuries ago to its place in twenty-first-century music. James Kopp draws on new archival research and many years’ experience playing the instrument to provide an up-to-date and lively portrait of today’s bassoon and its intriguing predecessors. He discusses the


This welcome volume encompasses the entire history of the bassoon, from its origins five centuries ago to its place in twenty-first-century music. James Kopp draws on new archival research and many years’ experience playing the instrument to provide an up-to-date and lively portrait of today’s bassoon and its intriguing predecessors. He discusses the bassoon’s makers, its players, its repertory, its myths, and its audiences, all in unprecedented detail.

The bassoon was invented in Italy in response to the need for a bass-register double-reed woodwind suitable for processionals and marching. Composers were quick to exploit its agility and unique timbre. Later, during the reign of Louis XIV, the instrument underwent a major redesign, giving voice to its tenor register. In the early 1800s new scientific precepts propelled a wave of invention and design modifications. In the twentieth century, the multiplicity of competing bassoon designs narrowed to a German (or Heckel) type and a French type, the latter now nearly extinct. The author examines the acoustical consequences of these various redesigns. He also offers new coverage of the bassoon’s social history, including its roles in the military and church and its global use during the European Colonial period. Separate historical chapters devoted to contrabassoons and smaller bassoons complete the volume.

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
Yale Musical Instrument Series
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Product dimensions:
7.10(w) x 9.80(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Bassoon

By James B. Kopp

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2012 James B. Kopp
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11829-2

Chapter One

Early names; precursors; the bassoon idea; the founding myth

The rich array of historical names for different sizes of bassoons falls into four families, which overstep national boundaries of language. One refers to its shortened aspect:

Curtal, curtail, storta, stortito, Stört, sztort, etc.

Another refers to its supposedly gentle sound:

Dulcian, Dulzian, dolziana, dulcin, etc.

A third refers to its archetypical bass register (even when made in other, non-bass sizes):

Bassoon, basson, bassono, basoncico, bajón, vajon, bajoncillo, bajica, etc.

The fourth refers to its supposed resemblance to a bundle of sticks:

Fagot, Fagott, fagotto, Vagot, Fagoth, facotto, fagottino, fagotilho, etc.

But ambiguities abounded. Storto was a common name for the crumhorn, yet 'eine vergülte Stortte oder Dulcian' was purchased in Danzig in 1594. Meanwhile, the dulcina or dulzaina was apparently a cylindrical or 'still' shawm, as discussed below. Seemingly synonymous names sometimes connoted different sizes. Praetorius equated the terms Fagotten and Dolzianen, but added that 'some people would have it that the true Dolzian is the instrument called the zingel Korthol', that is, the tenor curtal or dulcian. Pietro Flaccomio scored for 'basoncico alias fagotto piccolo' in 1611. In inventories of the Leipzig Hofkapelle, four different names were seen in less than thirty years, all seeming to refer to dulcians.

Some known traps await the modern reader. For example, a 1678 inventory of instruments of the Leipzig Thomaskirche included an Octave-bombard. In the strictest usage, bombard means Pommer (a four-keyed large shawm), but here it denoted a dulcian (one of the two Octav Bomhart purchased from Johannes Bohlmann in 1668 and 1671). In a similar usage, Brossard in 1703 defined bombardo as 'our basson'.

To take a second example, the words basun in Danish and bassun in Norwegian usage during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant 'trombone'. The word dulcian or dultsian in both languages during these centuries meant 'dulcian', but later it meant 'baroque bassoon'. A third trap waits in Latin America: not to be confused with bajones – dulcians – are bajunes, parallel arrays of palm-leaf trumpets formerly played in northern Chile.

The first goal of the following discussion is to identify – it is possible in a few instances – exactly which non-bassoon was meant by some of these terms. Later, a few demonstrable misconceptions about the bassoon's origin, still seen in reference books of our day, are briefly traced back through history.

Double reeds in antiquity

In cultures where playing was generally monophonic, deep bass instruments were rare and the idea of folding the instrument's bore was unneeded. Thus the bassoon had no precise ancestor in classical antiquity. But the aulos and tibia (Greek and Roman reed-pipes, the precursors of oboes) often had an extension bore below the finger holes, drilled with holes which could be opened or closed by means of movable sleeves or rings. The result was a complicated tone-hole lattice, analogous in a rough way to the cylindrical still shawm or dulcina (described below). The aulos of ancient Greece was cylindrical in bore, but conical tibiae were known in the Etruscan culture and throughout the Roman world. Much less is known about medieval instruments than about antique ones, although some archaeological remains have been found.

Post-classical writers in Latin, including Tinctoris, Mersenne, and Kircher, often used 'tibia' as a generic term for a woodwind instrument. Classical associations were tenacious enough to cause the birth of some renaissance instruments, and to discourage the use of others, at least at times.

Plato and Aristotle had considered winds to be less noble than strings, and the tradition is carried straight through to the renaissance in two closely connected myths dear to the nobility of the late quattrocento. These are the tales of two musical contests, one between Apollo and Pan, and the other between Apollo and Marsyas. In both, Apollo's lyre is deemed superior to the wind instruments of his competitors. [In the second tale,] Pallas Athena invents the pipes, but throws them away because her fellow gods have ridiculed her because of her puffed cheeks while playing the instrument.

Given their age-old martial uses and their frequently phallic shapes, wind instruments had come to be associated with males and the cult of Dionysus. Yet classical influences were occasionally favorable to the development of wind instruments. The phagotum, discussed below, was seen as a successor to the double pipes, or auloi, of the mythical Greek musicians Hyagnis and Marsyas. A century later, Lully added the oboe (among other wind instruments) to his opera orchestra, a radical innovation at the time, in order to invoke the varied associations – shepherding and war – that the aulos had under Virgil and other writers of eclogues. The bassoon, considered the bass of the oboe family, shared these attributes and likewise joined the baroque orchestra.

The dulcina, dolzaine, and dolzaina

A large cloud of variants surrounds the term 'dulcina' (also dulzina, dolzaina, douçaine, etc.), frequently used in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries to refer to musical instruments. At one edge of the spectrum, some of the variants (dolziana, dulcin) can refer to the dulcian, at least in some sizes and locales. Yet the terms dulcina and dolzaina, at least, can be linked to other instruments; these instruments, liable to be confused with the dulcian, are discussed here.

In Naples, c.1481–3, Johannes Tinctoris contrasted the celimela (shawm) with the dulcina:

On the other hand that tibia called the dulcina, on account of the softness of its sound, has seven holes in front and one behind, like a fistula (recorder). Since not every kind of piece can be played on it, it is considered to be imperfect.

No picture was present, but the thumb hole and soft sound imply that Tinctoris's dulcina had a cylindrical bore; its 'imperfection' was presumably its narrow range – a ninth. It is widely assumed that Tinctoris's dulcina did not overblow. (A cylindrical woodwind would overblow at the twelfth; obtaining a full diatonic scale would require upper-extension keys, which were not present.) Tinctoris did not give the pitch level of the dulcina. But other instruments with similar names seem to have been pitched in the tenor or bass ranges (thus inviting confusion with the dulcian). Another theorist, Ludovico Zacconi, in 1592 gave the range of the dolzaine (again unpictured) as nine tones (C3 to D4) or, with keys, eleven tones. In its unkeyed version, then, the Zacconi dolzaine had a range as wide as that of the Tinctoris dulcina. The keys of the eleven-tone instrument may have been for an upper extension or for a lower extension. Boydell concluded that the dolzaina was primarily associated with North Italy. He also noted the loose usage of the time: Praetorius gave dolzaine/Fagotto as Italian terms for Dulcian/Fagott, and also used the following variants of dulcian without comment: dolcian, dolcesuono, dolzian.

Significant new evidence has come from a rediscovered instrument. In 1980 a cylindrical shawm was brought up from the wreck of the Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII of England, which had sunk off the south coast of England in 1545. The instrument, which has been studied and reproduced, is now thought to be the sole surviving example of the still shawm, mentioned in England in 1509–66. With two keys for the lower hand, in addition to seven finger holes and a thumbhole, the Mary Rose shawm was not identical to the Tinctoris dulcina. Foster argued, however, that it was an effort to correct the 'imperfection' Tinctoris had noted in the dulcina: the limited range. A replica, which overblows at the twelfth, has a gapped diatonic range extending from F2 to D4, plus C2 at the bottom (Ill. 3).

Some dolzaine possibly resembled the Mary Rose shawm. But the somewhat divergent information provided by Tinctoris and Zacconi makes clear that such instruments were variable in form. The following table surveys possible evidence of this sort of cylindrical, unfolded instrument.

Under liberal interpretations of the examples cited above, instruments called dulcina, dolzaina, dolzaine, or still shawm (possibly related to one another, but distinct from the dulcian) seem to have been known in England and northern Italy during more than a century (1481–1592 or later). These instruments may have shared such characteristics as a double reed and a cylindrical bore, but there is no evidence that they were identical in form. Except in lacking a windcap, the morphology of the dulcina is comparable to that of the BaΒet, illustrated by Praetorius in 1619 (Ill. 4).

Related terms shade from slight respellings into distant variants: duçayna, dulzan, Dolzian, baszdulzani, Tolzanae, etc. I have made an arbitrary decision to group all the occurrences of dolzaina, together with the helpful but incomplete evidence offered by Tinctoris, Zacconi, and the Mary Rose shawm, into this chapter. 'Dulcian' and other variants are treated in chapter 2.

The trombone

The trombone, known by the fifteenth century, shared two important virtues with the bassoon: it could play diatonically (and even chromatically) in the bass register, and it could be used while marching, thanks to its folded bore. It is not a woodwind instrument, but early players and makers of the trombone were often players of the earliest bassoons. The trombone's influence as a model is difficult to prove, but impossible to exclude.

The phagotum

The ambiguity surrounding the term dulcina/dolzaina is fully matched by the ambiguity surrounding the term fagotto. The phagotum, a bagpipe, is known largely from a description with woodcut illustration published in 1539. It had almost nothing in common with the dulcian or bassoon. It has frequently been cited as an early source of the name fagotto (originally meaning a bundle of sticks) for a musical instrument; this assertion is not without problems, as described below. By the early nineteenth century the term phagotum had been detached, in the writings of historians and bassoon teachers, from the picture that had once accompanied it. As a result, writers who had never seen the picture began to assert that the phagotum of 1539 was an early bassoon. This is demonstrably untrue.

The phagotum was in use in Italy from 1522 to 1565 and possibly a few years earlier (Ill. 5). Its two chanters were wooden cylinders, each having three connected bores and a metal single reed. As on many other double-chanter bagpipes, the cylinders were inserted into a stock, a manifold that concealed the reeds and supplied air from the bag and bellows. In this instance, however, the decorative stock was elaborate to the point of visual distraction, and was not sewn into the bag, but rather connected by a flexible air duct. Each of these chanters (essentially a sort of one-hand racket) had a thumb hole and three finger holes, plus various keys for the thumb, palm, and little finger, giving a range of a tenth. According to a fingering chart dating from 1565, the left-hand chanter had a range from G2 to F3, using one lower-extension key and one upper-extension key; the right-hand chanter had a range from C3 to E4, using four upper-extension keys. On a simplified reconstruction by Cocks, the layouts of the chanters were 1 + 3 + 3 (left chanter) and 1 + 3 + 2 (right chanter).

The invention of the phagotum has for centuries been attributed to Canon Afranio degli Albonesi. But the earliest source, described below, said only that Afranio's prototype phagotum was brought to Italy after 1521. In the absence of a clarifying illustration, period references to the term phagotum are not easy to distinguish from the term fagot or fagotto. Three references from northern Italy during the years 1516–18 may (or may not) refer to the bagpipe phagotum.

In [Ferrara in] 1516 the Frenchman Gerardo, 'sonator de fagoth', employed by Ippolito d'Este I, was paid for 'a faghotto da sonare with silver key'.... And in 1517 a further payment was made ... 'for the fagotto played by Janes de pre Michele'. [In nearby Mantua in 1518] the lutenist Giovanni Angelo Testagrosse wrote to Isabella d'Este and her husband Francesco Gonzaga II, Marquis of Mantua. He offered them a gift if they would re-employ him: '... a handsome case of recorders and another of storte, [and a] fagot [which is said to be] a very beautiful thing'.

The three references of 1516–18 are important evidence in one of two ways: any or all may refer to the phagotum, or alternatively, any or all may refer to an early dulcian.

Afranio, arriving in Ferrara in or after 1521, approached Giovanni Battista Ravilio, an artisan at the court, for help with his prototype. If a phagotum – in the sense of Afranio's bagpipe – already existed there, then Ravilio was possibly its inventor or an experienced maker of such instruments. Ravilio's contributions to Afranio's instruments were, respectively, metal reeds, silver ferrules, a trumpet-shaped brass extension to the bore, and keys. He possibly deserves credit as co-inventor of Afranio's phagotum, at least in the version shown in the 1536/9 woodcuts.

If Afranio was not necessarily the inventor of the phagotum bagpipe, he was the only identifiable player. He reportedly played solos on 'il suo fagoto' at Este family banquets in 1529 and 1532. In 1539, Teseo Ambrogio, the nephew of Afranio, illustrated and described the phagotum. The plates included were reportedly at least three years old at the time of publication. Thus the most familiar image of the phagotum, though published in 1539, can be properly dated 1536 or earlier. In another early source – a painting of the Ferrara school – a clearly detailed phagotum is seen. Its design differs slightly from that pictured by Ambrogio. The painting, Jacob and Rachel at the Well by the Master of the Twelve Apostles, has been dated to 1530–40.

Ambrogio saw the double pipes of the phagotum as a successor to the double auloi of antiquity, invoking two mythical players:

He [Afranio or another player] would appear able to rival Hyagnis (the father of Marsyas), who was the first to hold his hands apart in playing (as on the double pipes), the first to fill two pipes with one breath.... If that upstart Marsyas had in olden day used this Phagotum against Apollo, I could easily believe that he would not have met with the disgrace inflicted by the Muses.

A fingering chart and other instructions for playing the instrument, handwritten after Afranio's death by Ambrogio, is inscribed '1565'.

The bassoon idea

One essential part of the bassoon idea is the folded bore. If we seek the origin of the name fagotto, or if we ask if other woodwinds were related to the earliest bassoons, we come to grips with this seemingly straightforward idea. Canon Galpin cited Afranio's phagotum as the 'earliest known use of the doubled-back bore'. He noted that the idea might have been borrowed from the medieval trumpet.

Folded or multi-drilled woodwinds earlier than the 1536/9 woodcut of Afranio's phagotum have not been positively identified. Yet they almost certainly existed. The diary of Johannes Spießhaimer, for example, contains an entry referring to some sort of folded-bore musical instrument. Spießhaimer, also known as Cuspinian, was physician at the court of Emperor Maximilian I in Vienna. In a diary entry of 22 July 1515, describing new musical instruments recently invented or produced at court, he wrote:

And yet still more wonderful, that was recently invented by a monk, that has no pipes, but certain cavities, cut into a broad piece of wood in a serpentine fashion, which gives true musical pleasure.

This may be early evidence of some unspecified folded-bore woodwind.

There are other possibilities beyond the phagotum and the SpieΒheimer instrument. The stock of a bagpipe is a wooden socket or receptacle, typically sewn into the bag, into which the reed end of the drone or chanter was inserted. Bagpipes sometimes had two chanters, or two or more drones; multi-drilled stocks for multiple drones or chanters were known by the sixteenth century. Some traditional stocks were quite deep (perhaps 15 cm or so), as on the Hümmelchen and Dudey illustrated by Praetorius in 1619. Some hypothetical bagpipe maker, engaged in the design and fabrication of deep, multi-drilled stocks, may have opted to connect some of the parallel bores end to end. This would have saved the considerable time, labor, and material of boring and turning a straight drone of many centimeters in length. Such a drone (or chanter) might have been the first folded-bore woodwind. A depiction of a 'racket drone' dating from 1551 is known (see chapter 3), and there were doubtless earlier attempts.

Anthony Baines offered yet another hypothesis about the 'embryo' of the bassoon concept, citing a triple-drilled 'box' that shortens the drone of an early Polish or Bohemian bellows-blown bagpipe: 'Such doubling back of the tube is quite common in bagpipes, and the idea may well have originated in them. During the sixteenth century it came to be employed in various cylindrical-bore instruments....' Indeed, this triple drilling is seen in each of the chanters in Afranio's phagotum. The finger holes of Afranio's chanters, moreover, make each chanter roughly analogous to a one-hand racket (speaking hypothetically; the normal two-hand racket, known by the 1560s, is discussed in chapter 3).


Excerpted from The Bassoon by James B. Kopp Copyright © 2012 by James B. Kopp. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James B. Kopp has performed professionally as a bassoonist, contrabassoonist, and early bassoonist for more than twenty years. He has an international reputation as a clinician and maker of reeds for bassoon, contrabassoon, and early bassoon. His articles on the history and acoustics of woodwind instruments have appeared in many journals and reference books, and he is a senior editor of the forthcoming Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, second edition. 

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