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History of the Bassoon


The modern bassoon has a colorful and complex past. It evolved from a 16th century instrument known by a variety of names - curtal or curtail (English), basson or fagot (French), dulcian or fagott (German), fagotto (Italian), and bajon (Spanish). This ancestor of the bassoon, which was also played with a double reed, was fashioned out of a single piece of wood rather than the four separate sections common to today's bassoon.

In the early 17th century, the curtal came in six sizes ranging in length from as short as 15" to as long as 4' 9". It was the French who later in that same century transformed the one-piece bass curtal into the four-piece instrument.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the bassoon was gradually improved and refined. It evolved from the 1713 three-key model played during the time of Mozart to six keys during Hayden's time to the the present 17 to 24 key versions of today. Two schools of bassoon-making arose in the 1880s: the French school under Buffet and the German school under Heckel. Each had it own solutions to tone production, fingering and intonation.

19th century experiments in bassoon construction resulted in many interesting variations. There were bassoons for military bands with globular and other odd-shaped brass and wooden bells, bassoons in F and G called tenoroons, semi contrabassoons, and sub contrabassoons.

When organs were banned from English churches in 1644 as monuments to superstition and idolatry, music was supplied by small groups of instruments including the bassoon. Therefore, one of the earliest places bassoonists performed was in church.

In most early music written for the bassoon, it was used merely to play the bass line and it was usually tied to the continuo part. Then, in 1678, it became part of orchestras for French opera when Lully called for bassoons in his opera, Psyche.

During the 18th century, major solo and orchestral music was written for the bassoon elevating it's importance in the orchestra and it began to break away from just playing the continuo part.

Today the bassoon is used extensively in the symphony orchestra, opera, and most recently in the contemporary musicals of the 20th century, television, and movie soundtracks. Innumerable composers have written for the bassoon, particularly during the 18th century, and the repertoire includes impressive parts in orchestral scores, woodwind ensemble music and many bassoon solo concertos.