Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
496
BASSOON

register of the bassoon, seven semitones Bassoon music 6.png are obtained, as stated above, by means of keys in the long joint and bell; the next eight notes (holes and keys) each produce two sounds—the fundamental tone, and, by increased pressure of the breath, its harmonic octave. The remaining notes are obtained by cross fingering and by overblowing the notes of the fundamental scale a twelfth as far as A♭ Bassoon music 7.png which forms the normal compass. From A to E♭ the vox humana notes are produced by the help of small harmonic holes opened by means of keys at the top of the wind joint; exceptional players obtain, without additional keys, two or more higher harmonic notes, which, however, are only used by virtuosi. This then forms the intricate scheme of fingering for the bassoon, and in order to appreciate the efforts of such instrument makers as Carl Almenräder in Germany, Triebert and Jancourt in France, Sax in Belgium, Cornelius Ward and Morton in England, to introduce improvements based upon acoustic principles, it is necessary to understand what these general principles are, and why they have been disregarded in the bassoon. In all tubes the note given by the vibrating air column is influenced directly by the length of the tube, but very little, if at all, by the diameter of the bore. The pitch, however, is greatly affected by the diameter of the opening, whether lateral or at the bell, through which the vibrating column of air is again brought into communication with the outer air. The tube only sounds the normal note in proportion to its length, when the diameter of the lateral opening is equal to the internal diameter of the tube at the opening. As in most of our early wood-wind instruments the holes would in that case have been too large to be stopped by the fingers, and key-mechanism was still primitive, instrument-makers resorted to the expedient of substituting a hole of smaller diameter nearer the mouthpiece for one of greater diameter in the position the hole should theoretically occupy. This important principle was well understood by the Romans, and perhaps even by the ancient Greeks, as is proved by existing specimens of the aulos (q.v.) and by certain passages from the classics.[1]

Another curious acoustic phenomenon bears upon the construction of wind instruments, and especially upon the bassoon. When the diameter of the lateral opening or bell is smaller than that of the bore, the portion of the tube below the hole, which should theoretically be as though non-existent, asserts itself, lowering the pitch of the note produced at the hole and damping the tone; this is peculiarly noticeable in the A of the bassoon Bassoon music 8.png whose hole is much too high and too small in diameter.[2] To cite an example of the scope of Carl Almenräder's improvements in the bassoon, he readjusted the position of the A hole, stopped by the third finger of the right hand, boring lower down the tube, not one large hole, but two of medium diameter, covered by an open key to be closed by the same finger from the accustomed position; one of these A holes communicates with the narrower bore in the butt joint, and the other with the wider bore. The effect is a perfectly clear, full and accurate tone. Almenräder's other alterations were made on the same principle, and produced an instrument more perfect mechanically and theoretically than Savary's, but lacking some of the characteristics of the bassoon. In Germany Almenräder's improvements[3] have been generally adopted and his model with 16 keys is followed by most makers, and notably by Heckel of Biebrich.[4]

The unwieldy bass pommers of the 15th and 16th centuries led to many attempts to produce a more practical bass for the orchestra by doubling back the long tube of the instrument. Thus transformed, the pommer became a fagotto. The invention of the bassoon or fagotto is ascribed to Afranio, a canon of Ferrara, in a work by his nephew, Theseus Ambrosius Albonesius, entitled Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam ... et descriptio ac Simulacrum Phagoti Afranii (Pavia, 1539). The illustration of the instrument, showing front and back views (p. 179), taken in conjunction with the detailed description (pp. 33-38), at once disposes of the suggestion that the phagotus of Afranio and the fagotto or bassoon were in any way related; the author himself is greatly puzzled as to the etymology of the word. The phagotus in fact, resembles nothing so much as the musical curiosity known as flûte-à-bec à colonne[5], but double and played by bellows, assigned by G. Chouquet to the 16th century. This flute consisted of a column, with base and capital, both stopped, the vent and the whistle being concealed within perforated brass boxes, in the upper and lower parts of the column. Afranio's phagotus consisted of two similar twin columns with base and capital containing finger-holes and keys; between the columns in front was a shorter column for ornament, and at the back of it another still shorter whose capital could be lifted, and a sort of bellows or bag-pipe inserted by means of which the instrument was sounded. The first instrument was made, we are told, by Ravilius of Ferrara, from Afranio's design.[6] Mersenne[7], who does not seem to have any difficulty in understanding the construction of Afranio's phagotus, does not consider him the inventor of the fagotto or bassoon, but of another kind of fagotto which he classes with the Neapolitan sourdeline, a complicated kind of musette[8] (see Bag-Pipe). Afranio's instrument consists, he states, of two bassons as it were interconnected by tubes and blown by bellows. As in the sourdeline, these only speak when the springs (keys) are open. He disposes of Theseus Albonesius's fanciful etymology of the name by showing it to be nothing but the French word fagot, and that it was applied because the instrument consists of two or more "flutes," bound or fagotées together. There is no evidence that the phagotus contained a reed, which would account for Mersenne calling the pipes flutes. Mersenne's statements thus seem to uphold the theory that Afranio's phagotus was only a double flûte à colonne with bellows. Evidence is at hand that in 1555 a contrabass wind instrument was well known as fagotto. In the catalogue of the musical instruments belonging to the Flemish band of Marie de Hongrie in Spain, we find the following: "Ala dicha prinçesa y al dicho matoto dos ynstrumentos de musica contrabaxos, que llaman fagotes, metidos en dos caos redondas como pareçe por el dicho entrego."[9]

Sigmund Schnitzer[10] of Nuremberg (d. 1578), a maker of wind instruments who attained considerable notoriety, has been

  1. Macrobius in Somm. Scip. lib. ii. cap. 4. 5.
  2. Gottfried Weber, "Verbesserungen des Fagotts," in Cäcilia (Mainz, 1825), vol. ii. p. 123.
  3. See Traité sur le perfectionnement du basson, avec 2 tableaux, par Charles Almenräder (Mayence, Schott), and also the above mentioned article by Gottfried Weber in Cäcilia, whose explanations are clearer than those of the inventor.
  4. For a description of the modern instrument see Victor Charles Mahillon, Catalogue descriptif et analytique du musée instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique (Bruxelles, 1896), vol. ii. pp. 275-276, No. 999.
  5. As far as is know only three of these curious instruments are in existence; two in the museum of the Conservatoire, Paris, and one in Brussels; all three bear a trefoil as maker's mark; the smallest, in F, is reproduced in the Catalogue of the Musical Instruments exhibited at the Royal Military Exhibition, London, 1890, by Capt. C. R. Day (London, 1891), pl. iv. F. It is also described (without illustration) in Mahillon's Catalogue, p. 201, No. 189. The two flutes in Paris, measuring 73 cm. and 94 cm. are described by Gustave Chouquet, Le Musée du Conservatoire National de Musique —Catalogue descriptif et raisonné (Paris, 1884), Nos. 409 and 410, p. 106.
  6. An Italian translation of the description is given by Count L. F. Valdrighi in Musurgiana, No. 4 (Milano, 1881), "Il Phagotus di Afranio," p. 40 et seq. (without illustration). An illustration of the phagotus is given by W. J. von Wasielewski in Gesch. d. Instrumentalmusik im XVI. Jahrh. (Berlin, 1878), pl. v. and vi., text p. 74.
  7. See L'Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636), part ii. p. 305.
  8. Ibid., illustred and described, bk. v. p. 293.
  9. See Edm. van der Straeten, Hist. de la musique aux Pays-Bas, vol. vii. pp. 433, 436, 448.
  10. J. J. Quantz, Frederick the Great's flute-master, gives France the credit of transforming the bombard (pommer) into the bassoon, and the schalmey into oboe, see Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversière zu spielen (Berlin, 1752), p. 24 and again p. 241, § 6.