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History of the Bassoon

Curtal, Dulcian, Fagot, Fagotto, Bajon

(1460 - 1545)
Hieronymous Bassano (1460-1545), musician and instrument maker, was born in Bassano del Grappa, Italy which is located 35 northwest of Venice. Hieronymous Bassano was the first generation of a family of musicians and instrument makers including himself, his son, Jacomo, and his grandson, Santo Griti. Although later called by the name Bassano after their birthplace, this family was originally known as Pive ("pipe"). In addition to constructing recorders and cornetts, they were among the first to make curtals (bassoni curti or Italian fagotto).

It is likely that the bassoni curti were bass reed instruments and a precursor to the bassoon. Hieronymous is credited with the invention of "a new bass wind instrument" by Lorenzo Marucini, a Venetian doctor, who wrote a brief history in 1577 of the town of Bassano del Grappa and its local celebrities.

Over the 1530s five of the six sons of Hieronymous (also "Jeronimo"), emigrated to England to work as musicians in the Court of Henry VIII. They played many instruments including the cornett, sackbutt, and curtal. In order of birth, Jacomo (who traveled to England but eventually returned to Venice), Alvise, Jasper, John, Anthony, and Baptista may have been responsible for introducing the curtal to England. (Additional link: The Dulcian.)

First historical reference to the curtal in Italy. It is believed that the curtal originated in Italy as this is where the earliest references to its use are found. When the curtal was first invented, there was already an instrument known as the phagotum or fagotto but the phagotum became obsolete and the word, fagotto, was eventually adopted for the curtal and then for its direct descendant, the jointed bassoon.

First historical reference to the curtal in Spain. The reference is made to fagotes that were brought "from the Low Countries". The instrument was thereafter known as the bajon (plural bajones), baxon or baixio. As the bajon developed it was sometimes made in two, three, or even four pieces and acquired up to five keys to help with the tuning. When the bassoon was introduced in Spain (late 1600s), it was known as the fagot. Where the bajon (curtal) was used almost exclusively in church music, the fagot (bassoon) was used mostly in secular music. Smaller sizes of the bajon were widely used and were known as bajoncillos. Musicians who played the bajon or bajoncillos were called bajonistas.

The name curtal was first used in Venice in 1559 in reference to a purchase of bassoni curti constructed by the Bassanos for 24 lira by the Doge ("magistrate") of Venice for instruments needed to play Christmas music.

The first known English use of the word curtal did not occur until 1574, but it is probable that curtals were in use in England before this date. The name curtal would have been understood by both the English and the Italians to mean "short", as in curt and curtail. Although a large bass instrument, it is "short" because the bore is doubled back on itself. The term "double curtal" refers to the bass curtal.

Santo Bassano is granted a patent for the bassanello in 1582. Bassanelli, as described in Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum, "have one single bore; have an open end; have one brass key; have a direct blown reed like the Fagotten and Pommern. The sound is like the Fagotten/Pommern, however much less loud." The bass bassanello is shown in his illustrations with a bent or curved pipe to which the reed is attached.

(1614 - 1620)
Between 1614 and 1620 Michael Praetorius, German musician and the publisher of a vast amount of music mostly for use in the Lutheran church, published Syntagma Musicum. Drawing on his great knowledge of the contemporary music of the time, he compiles and illustrates a survey of musical instruments and their use in the church. He describes "the nomenclature, tuning, and characteristics of all ancient and modern, foreign, barbarian, rustic and unfamiliar, as well as native and familiar musical instruments, together with true and accurate drawings." Among those described and illustrated are the shawm, curtal, and dulcian.

(1635 - 1660)
In 1635 instrumentalists, including a double curtal player, were being used on English sea voyages to maintain the morale of the crew. Curtals were also used in places of worship. In 1642 all English Court musicians had their appointments canceled at the start of the Civil War, but curtals were especially valued after the Restoration in 1660. This was because a whole generation of choirboys had been lost during the war and it became necessary for the singers to be provided with a solid lead from the bass part.