The French Bassoon in the 19th Century

Making, Theory and Repertoire

By Augustin Tiffou

French edition © L’Harmattan, 2010
English edition © Tonkünstler-on-the-Bund, 2022


The French Bassoon in Peril

At the beginning of the 21st century, many problems arise, so it may seem of limited interest to ask what is happening to the French bassoon; and yet this question is quite legitimate. In the 19th century, the instrument was used in various countries, such as England, Spain and Italy, whereas in the following century it was almost exclusively played in France. What is more, some conductors went so far as to demand that the Fagott (the German bassoon) be played instead of the French bassoon, thus forcing its performers to learn a new finger technique: ‘Just recently, two French bassoonists attempted this challenge, mainly under pressure from guest conductors at the Paris Opera, who imagined that the bassoon’s timbre would be only that of the Heckel type.’1JOPPIG, Gunther, Hautbois et basson, Paris, Payot Lausanne, 1981, p. 71.

In France, at the end of the 20th century, Fagott classes were gradually created in various musical establishments, such as the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse in Paris or that in Lyon, and positions were reserved for this instrument. The term used to name the instrument is becoming increasingly ambiguous and contributes to the idea that the differences between the Fagott and the bassoon are minimal. Indeed, there is a growing tendency to use the same word to designate two different types of instrument. When used in France, it refers very specifically to the French type of bassoon, but this is not the case in other French-speaking countries. In Quebec, for example, a French-speaking province of Canada, the term bassoon refers to the German type of instrument, not the French one. This linguistic variability is interesting because it shows that Fagott has become so established that it can be called ‘basson’ in French. And yet, the French bassoon, as it stands today, is the instrument whose timbre is closest to that of the old bassoon, to which, moreover, it was intended to be faithful.

The Importance of the 19th Century

Apart from the intrinsic interest of the history and analysis of a musical instrument, the tendency of the Fagott to supplant the bassoon justifies a study of the latter; but why limit it to the 19th century? According to Gunther Joppig, ‘In France, on the contrary, no important transformation of the bassoon has taken place since the beginning of the 20th century, in particular with regard to the bore, and consequently the sound. It is true that on French bassoons too, the keys became more numerous; but in principle the bassoon was left unchanged.’2Ibid., p. 70.  The author of these few lines is certainly right to point out that the bore of the French bassoon has evolved very little since the 18th century; the fact remains that it was in the 19th century that bassoon making evolved considerably and that it was at this time that the differences between the French and German systems became apparent. This period of creativity in the history of the instrument is reflected in the prodigious increase in the number of makers devoted to its production. Constant Pierre clearly testifies to this by indicating that their number had become seven times greater than in the 18th century:

For most of the 18th century, five makers were sufficient to construct the wooden human-breath instruments (known as wind instruments). At the beginning of the 19th century, there were still only a few of them, but gradually their number increased and for a while reached 35, and then decreased only slightly. The old makers made five kinds of instruments, those of this century did the same for the most part, although some specialised in a single instrument or a family of instruments: flute, serpent, etc., or oboe, English horn, etc.3PIERRE, Constant, Les facteurs d’instruments de musique, Paris, Ed. Sagot, 1893, réédité par Minkoff Reprint, Geneva, 1976, p. 294.

This clearly shows that the 19th century was a decisive moment in the history of wind-instrument making, and particularly of the bassoon, which enabled it to retain its place in musical ensembles. Moreover, although some French bassoon makers were based outside Paris, it was in this city that the greatest activity in this field took place. The large number of makers in a favourable environment was the source of healthy emulation and fruitful competition. In fact, many of them patented the improvements they made to the instrument, in order to make a profit.

Indeed, the makers of woodwind instruments in the 19th  century, far from limiting themselves to filling the orders they were given, experimented and innovated, going so far as to show eccentricity and even unbridled imagination. This can be seen in the presentation of the most unexpected instruments at various World Fairs:

Laurent limited his manufacture to the flute and did what no one had yet attempted, substituting crystal (cast glass) for wood. He was also the first wind-instrument maker to appear at an Exposition. At the 1806 Exposition, he had his crystal flute appraised; the jury noted that the sound was not altered by the change in material and that the instrument retained its accuracy despite atmospheric variations, and gave him a silver medal.4Ibid., p. 295.
The Incomplete State of the French Bassoon

It is therefore easy to understand how decisive the 19th century was for the French bassoon. However, there are still too few books in the francophone literature that deal with the instrument during this period in a scientific way. This is surprising, given that Paris is a city that abounds in valuable sources on the instrument during this period. It is high time, therefore, that a book was written on the French bassoon in the 19th century, especially at a time when the future of this instrument is in jeopardy. In order to do this, it is essential to gather as much information as possible from sources of the time in order to fully understand the development of the instrument. A deeper knowledge of the history of the French bassoon should, in all probability, allow it to be valued at its true worth. The timbre of the instrument was more faithful to that of the old bassoon, and almost all 19th-century French composers who gave it a part had its timbre in mind, not that of the Fagott.

The Main Parts of the Study

In view of all that has been said, this research will first attempt to answer the following question: what was the situation of the French bassoon in the 19th century? In order to do this, we will address three main themes: the making of the instrument, its theory and its repertoire. The first two parts are divided into two sections each. These three parts should provide the elements that will allow us to determine satisfactorily the situation of the instrument at that time.

Bassoon Making

If we wish to tackle effectively the problems raised by bassoon making in France in the 19th century, we must sketch a rough outline of this instrument before this century. It will then be easier to determine the conditions in which it was made at the beginning of the 19th century. We will then present the various French craftsmen who distinguished themselves in its manufacture. It will then be possible to see how the French and German systems differed from each other. After the presentation of the actors, we must look at the effects of their interventions, i.e. the development of the mechanism and the keywork of the French bassoon, because it is difficult to attribute the addition of one or more keys to a single factor. Moreover, these innovations were not all the result of experiments on the bassoon itself, for it is part of a rather large family of instruments; the latter were, at the same time, the subject of similar research, which could benefit the whole ensemble and lead to the creation of new instruments. But the reed played, and still plays, as much of a role in the sound and the timbre as the body of the instrument, so it is interesting to look at the making of this object in the 19th century. But there is more: patents and World Fairs also provide valuable information, and we will try to bring out all the elements relevant to our research. As for the second section of the firstpart, it deals with other instruments related to the bassoon or rivals of it. This point will allow us to judge the difficulty the bassoon had in keeping its place within certain ensembles while others tried to take it away. First of all, we must talk about the contrabassoon, a close relative of the bassoon, which had great difficulty in finding a place for itself in the world of music in France in the 19th century. Next, we will give details of the various rival instruments of the bassoon to confirm the dangers that lay in wait for it. Finally, we will briefly discuss the bassoon’s place in military ensembles to show how difficult it was for this instrument to maintain its place given its ousting from this type of ensemble in the mid-19th century.

Methods and Writings

Now that the history of the instrument is better understood, the time has come, in a second part, to analyse all that concerns the use of the instrument, i.e. the methods for learning to play it, the theoretical writings, especially those that mention the composers’ point of view on the instrument. These are the subject of the first section. The second section deals with the history and training of the great performers, and the role played by the Paris Conservatoire in this respect. The various methods written for the instrument and in use in France in the 19th century are of the greatest interest. It should be noted that the first bassoon method in France was not published until the end of the 18th century, more precisely in 1787, with the Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson by Étienne Ozi. The information from the various methods remains crucial. By looking at several of them, it is easy to establish the development of the bassoon during the 19th century in France. In addition to methods, treatises played a considerable role in enabling composers to develop their knowledge of the instruments that made up the orchestra in the 19th  century. Among these writings, there is one whose importance cannot be questioned: Berlioz’s Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes. But the study of works more or less systematically devoted to the bassoon must be supplemented by various quotations from composers who have written down some thoughts on the bassoon. We shall have to collect from themrelevant information about the instrument. But the bassoon was not the sole object of reflection by composers; it also attracted the attention of authors such as novelists, poets, etc. It is therefore interesting to see how the bassoon in the 19th century was perceived by contemporaries outside the musical world. The second section deals, as we have already noted, with the performers and their training. Knowing the main French bassoonists of the 19th century allows us to discover the main artists who played the instrument and made it known. This cannot be done effectively without recalling how the Conservatoire significantly influenced bassoon pedagogy.

The Musical Works

The last major exposition in this study will be devoted to the bassoon’s place in the repertoire. Opera was undoubtedly the most successful musical genre in France in the 19th century. Although this genre emphasises the human voices, while the orchestra is most often reduced to the role of accompaniment, many passages for bassoons are nonetheless worthy of interest and can shed some light on their treatment and possibilities. The symphony, on the other hand, also offers valuable information about bassoons. The composers who wrote for this type of repertoire were for the most part aware of the mechanism of the instruments and some of them treated bassoons judiciously. After having dealt with these two musical genres, which call for large ensembles, we will move on to the study of chamber music, which uses lighter instrumentation. In 19th-century France, this repertoire appealed to a different audience from that of the opera and the symphony, especially because these concerts were given in more intimate settings. The first chamber music societies were founded in France in the 19th century and, thanks to them, a choice repertoire for the bassoon developed at that time. This overview of the bassoon’s repertoire in the 19th century cannot be concluded without examining the concertante works or those that feature the bassoon as a soloist. Although much less well known to the general public, these works make good use of the instrument’s various abilities and capacities. The main composers of this repertoire are themselves brilliant bassoonists who enhance the repertoire of their instrument for musical or pedagogical purposes. The analysis of the bassoons’ place in these different musical genres should make it possible to identify the progress made in the most diverse musical works. The bassoon can now occupy a place of choice in various forces thanks to the progress it has made throughout the 19th century (extension of range, exploitation of timbre, development of dynamics, technical improvement and adaptation to the demands of increasingly important orchestras).

The outline of this work that has just been proposed shows that the first two parts can, without claiming to be exhaustive, go quite far in their presentation and analysis, with the exception of the passage devoted to the bassoon’s place in the literature. On the other hand, the last part cannot have the same pretensions. The main purpose of this last part is to draw from selected texts the proof that the French bassoon acquired at the end of the 19th century all the qualities that one has the right to expect from a musical instrument. In this sense, it is the culmination of the first two parts, for without the progress in the making of bassoons, without the efforts and thoughts of performers and composers, this would not have been possible. At the end of these considerations, we can hope that the information gathered throughout the present study will contribute to shedding light on the development of the bassoon during the 19th century in France and to better understanding how it came to find a specificity that the German system could not take away from it, even if it were to end up ousting it. It would be regrettable if the great popularity of the Fagott in various ensembles around the world were to fail, not only because it is normal to deplore the disappearance of an instrument that has reached an undeniable degree of perfection, but also because it would no longer be possible to hear the unique and enchanting sound that only the French bassoon is capable of producing. As this may be the case, it is more than desirable to take an interest in this instrument, which has become so little known today and is increasingly threatened. At least such a study will ensure a certain survival of the French bassoon, should it disappear.

Part I: Bassoon Making and Its Development in 19th-Century France

Chapter 1: Bassoon and Its Making

1:1 The Bassoon before the 19th Century

Before dealing with the bassoon in 19th-century France, it is important to sketch a historical overview of the instrument in the preceding centuries. It is difficult to determine its origins, for several reasons. Nevertheless, we shall endeavour to see which are the various instruments that can be considered as ancestors of the bassoon. As for its birth, it has been attributed to a priest named Afranio; but can this be taken as a fact? Once the problem of origins has been solved, or at least cleared up, we will have to talk about the bassoon makers who worked before the 19th century, and assess their contribution, especially that of the Hotteterre family, which attached its name to the making of wind instruments, and more particularly to woodwind instruments, in the 17th and 18th centuries. It will then be time to look at the different European countries where the bassoon was used. This survey should end with a study of the effects that the variation of the pitch had on the making of the instrument. All these considerations will probably help, at least we hope so, to better understand the origins and development of the bassoon in France at the dawn of the 19th century.

1:1:1 Bassoon’s Origins

The origins of the bassoon are unclear and difficult to establish. It is equally difficult to establish the birth certificate of the first bassoon or of the instrument that could be considered as such. In addition, there is the problem of terminology: is it fair to call a bassoon an instrument that has the characteristics of a bassoon but differs from it in a more or less clear-cut way? Moreover, has an instrument that can be seen as a real bassoon not been given another name?

The history of the bassoon is further complicated by the different names which were applied to the same instrument. … Broadiy speaking, the bassoon is part of a family of instruments originating in the first part of the sixteenth century, the two main features of which are the double reed and a long tube that doubles back on itself.1CARROLL, Paul, Baroque Woodwind Instruments: a guide to their history, repertoire and basic technique, Brookfield, Aldershot, 1999, p. 13.

Among all the available sources, two are particularly important for clarity: Praetorius and Mersenne. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), in his work De organographia of 1619, does not speak of an instrument made of two tubes joined together, but of the different sizes of fagots built in one piece.2Ibid., p. 13. In 1636, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) mentions different ‘Bassons, Fagots’, but clearly considers them to be instruments of the curtal family.3Ibid., p. 13. However, according to him, what distinguishes them from the latter is that they are made up of two pieces, which resemble a bundle of branches. Moreover, it is thanks to this resemblance or because of it that they are called fagots:

The treatise on these kinds of Basses, because they can be joined to the Concert of Oboes, and they are almost different from the previous bass only in that they are broken into two parts to be carried and handled more conveniently, which is why they are called Fagots, because they resemble two pieces of wood that are bound and faggoted together.4MERSENNE, Marin, Harmonie universelle contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique, Paris, Edition facsimilé de l’exemplaire conservé à la bibliothèque des Arts et métiers et annoté par l’auteur, 1636, Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris, 1963, vol. 3, p. 298.

François-Joseph Fétis, when discussing the origins of woodwind instruments in his Revue Musicale, defines the bassoon in much the same way as Mersenne: ‘The bassoon was in one piece, and had no bell like the bass oboe; it had twelve holes, four keys, and descended lower than the bass oboe. It was also played with a bocal.’5FÉTIS, François-Joseph, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, vol. I, 1827, p. 273n. The appearance of the bassoon was a response to necessity. Before the bassoon appeared, the lack of a bass in the woodwinds was felt. Therefore, makers tried to create a bass oboe, in order to enlarge the family and especially to fill a gap in the wind instruments, especially in the woodwind section. This is how the bombard came into being, becoming an ancestor of the bassoon:

The BOMBARD of which I have just spoken was in great use in past centuries; it also belonged to the oboe family, of which it was the bass before the invention of the BASSON; its length was 10 feet; it had 4 keys and a range from bottom F below the lines to F on the 4th line of the same clef; it was played with a bocal like the Basson. It disappeared entirely three centuries ago.6JANCOURT, Eugène, Méthode théorique et pratique pour le basson en 3 parties, Paris, S. Richault, 1847, p. 1.

There are also notable similarities between the bassoon and the krummhorn. The latter instrument appeared towards the end of the 18th century; it had a double reed and a narrow cylindrical bore. It was probably created in response to the need for a wind instrument that was easy to play and capable of filling the bass part in the works of the time.7BAINES, Anthony, Woodwind Instrument and Their History, London, Faber and Faber Limited, 1967, p. 252. The krummhorn was the subject of an interesting innovation attributed, rightly or wrongly, to a German; the reed was covered with a sort of wooden mouthpiece, pierced at the end, which, while allowing the sounds to be slurred or detached as the performer wished, protected it not only from knocks, but also from excessive dampening.8Ibid., p. 253. With regard to the construction of the krummhorn:

The normal construction of a crumhorn is as follows. The body consists of a length of boxwood, turned and bored, and the lower part bent round by steaming. The last two or three inches of the bore are funnelled out as a bell.9Ibid., p. 253.

The reed of the krummhorn was similar to that of the bassoon. However, the body of the reed was more scraped, which facilitated the emission of sound without the player having to force his lips on it as on a double-reed mouthpiece, which made articulation easier on this instrument:

The reed is made up like a bassoon reed, but is more evenly scraped across, like a bagpipe reed, to respond efficiently without the application of the lips. If one were to revive the crumhorn, plastic reeds should work as well as they do on the practice-chanter, and should last almost for ever. … but the articulation, although the tongue does not touch the reed, is reasonably satisfactory.10Ibid., pp. 253-254.

Although it was thought to be too loud around 1500, the krummhorn was probably the most popular low-register woodwind instrument throughout the 16th century, and various musical institutions had from four to twelve of them in various sizes.11Ibid., p. 253.

Later on, the family of this instrument was enlarged, because at that time an instrument was built according to different measures, to establish a family of instruments that could play in a very wide range:

It should only be added that Bassons and Fagots are not all of the same length and that there are some that go down a third or a fourth lower than the others. Some call this kind of instrument Tarot, but it matters little what they are called, as long as one knows its manufacture and use, which consists in serving as a Bass for Musette and Voice Consorts, and in singing all kinds of music, according to its range, which is a tenth or an eleventh.12MERSENNE, Marin, Harmonie universelle contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique, Paris, facsimilé de l’exemplaire conservé à la bibliothèque des Arts et métiers et annoté par l’auteur, 1636, Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris, 1963, p. 299.

This ability to play different parts in a composition accounts, along with other elements, for the difficulty of distinguishing the bassoon from its ancestors. Indeed, the instruments on both sides areso numerous and often so similar that it is difficult to determine whether the specimen is a bassoon or an early instrument:

This is why I have come to the explanation of the middle figure, which is called a courtaut, although it is nothing other than a Fagot, or shortened Bassoon, which is also used as a bass for Musettes. It is made of a single piece of cylindrical wood and resembles a large stick; hence some make large Bourdons similar to those used by pilgrims to Santiago.13Ibid., p. 299.

In any case, it is probably the curtal that most resembles the bassoon among the early instruments:

Fr. KIRKER, in the 17th century, claimed to have an antique bronze in which this instrument was represented; it was almost similar to the small Courtaud used in 1580. This antique bassoon had seven holes on the side and a sort of key at the bottom. Its range was two octaves and one note from F below to G above the lines.14JANCOURT, op. cit., p. 1.

On the other hand, Mersenne makes no real distinction between bassoon, fagot and curtal, apart from the difference in size. As mentioned in note 13, these different instruments are made from a single cylindrical piece of wood. This proves that the bassoon, as described by Mersenne, could be built in one piece.15MERSENNE, op. cit., p. 299.

This instrument was constructed from a piece of wood with two conically drilled tubes placed against each other, which met at a junction point, thus representing the primitive U-shaped tube.16CARROLL, op. cit., p. 15. The wood used in the construction of most of the curtals was maple or pear, and the instrument had six holes (for the index, middle and little fingers), two holes for the thumbs, and two brass keys (the F1 and D1 keys), giving the instrument a range of two and a half octaves, from C1 to G3.17Ibid., pp. 15-16. Interestingly, the key of F1 was arranged in such a way that the instrument could be played with the left hand on the upper part of the instrument or vice versa (this feature can be seen on oboes and bassoons until the early 16th century).18Ibid., p. 16. It could be of various sizes, but the bass curtal was the most commonly used; this instrument is known as the double curtal in England and the Chorist-fagott in Germany.19BAINES, op. cit., p. 263. The instrument had about the same range as the bassoon. It looks like this: six holes and the key of F were placed on the front of the instrument, while on the back, two holes for each thumb and a key were used to produce the E, D and C of the lower register. The earliest recorded solo work for this instrument appears to be the Primo libro di canzoni, fantasie e correnti, awork in the style of theme and variations, published in Venice in 1636.20CARROLL, op. cit., p. 16. This composition is attributed to a certain Spaniard, Bartolome de Selma e Salaverde, who was employed by the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria to play the curtal.21Ibid., p. 16. It is not without interest to note, moreover, that the word curtal, as well as that of bombard, are metaphorical terms borrowed from the vocabulary of artillery. This is obvious for the bombard; as for the word curtal, it designated a short-barrelled cannon.22BAINES, op. cit., p. 263, n. 1.

The similarities between this wind instrument and the bassoon are even more striking in the case of bass curtal. These instruments were mainly used in church ensembles. Some of them were left-handed. Not only was their sound very similar to that of the bassoon, but their reeds were also very similar, which clearly underlines their relationship:

The chief curtal was the bass size, about 39 inches tall, commonly known in England as double curtal, and in Germany as Chorist-fagott (being the size most employed in church music, e.g. as bass to cornetts and trombones). It has the pitch of our bassoon. On the front there are six holes and the F key: on the back, two thumb-holes and one key, giving E, D and C (the bottom note). Some are made left-handed. The reed was like a bassoon reed except for indication (e.g. in Mersenne) that it was sometimes made with a staple, like a modem cor anglais reed. The tone was also bassoon-like, though rather bottom-heavy, and in some instruments an attempt was made to remedy this by ‘covering’ with a perforated bell cap, foreshadowing some modem bassoon mutes. Praetorius states (and experiment confirms) that the upper register was practicable up to the g’.23Ibid., pp. 263-264.

Another instrument, more curious and of small size, presents certain analogies with the bassoon: the cervelas.

The last instrument is called Cervelat, and is nothing other than a Courtaut or Fagot so shortened and so small that it can be hidden in the hand, for it is only five inches long: but as far as speaking of the arrangement of the holes and its compass, it is necessary to explain the proportions of the preceding Basson, which is one quarter lower than the ordinary ones.24MERSENNE, op. cit., p. 299.

From its overall appearance, apart from the double reed, it seems to have no connection with the bassoon, but on closer inspection this is not the case. This little known instrument is described in an interesting passage in Le musée du Conservatoire national de musique by Chouquet:

This rare instrument is strictly speaking a shortened bassoon. This one is the work of Rozet, supplier to the king’s wardrobe, who was established in Paris, Rue Neuve Saint-Eustache and still lived there in 1692.

In the last century, Bizet, who lived at 185 Rue Saint-Denis in 1789, altered the first two letters of this mark and added ‘à Paris’ to substitute his name for that of Rozet.

This bassoon-cervelas consists of a cylindrical piece of wood, covered with leather on which fleurs-de-lis have been struck, and, like the bassoon of the seventeenth century, it has three keys. The arrangement of the holes is noteworthy; the two parallel rows of holes indicate that left-handed players were considered at that time; indeed, the three holes on the right were reserved for those who played with the right hand, and the three holes on the left were for those who preferred to play with the left hand.25CHOUQUET, Gustave, Le musée du Conservatoire national de musique, 1884, réimpression avec les Ier, IIe et IIIe suppléments par Léon Pillaut, introduction et index par Florence Gétreau, Genève, Editions Minkoff, 1993, n° de catalogue 497.

Constant Pierre also discusses the cervelas which is kept in the musée du Conservatoire, and sheds some light on the subject: ‘It is a derivative of the bassoon, which was formerly used in the church and was already out of use at the end of the 17th century, according to Richelet. The sound was apparently quite similar to that produced by singing with a comb wrapped in paper.’26PIERRE, op. cit., p. 74.

From the above, it can be concluded that the bassoon has no direct ancestor, but that it is the result of a synthesis between different low-register woodwind instruments. It is certain that some of these instruments were more similar to the bassoon than others. Of all the early instruments, the curtal is certainly the one that most closely resembles the bassoon, but the others cannot be neglected without making a serious mistake that could be detrimental to a proper understanding of the bassoon’s origins.

1:1:2 Bassoon and the Phagotum

According to a number of sources, the invention of the bassoon is attributed to Canon Afranio degli Albonesi:

The BASSON, which belongs to the oboe family and forms the bass, was invented in 1539 by an ecclesiastic from Ferrara, the Abbot Afriano [sic], born in Pavia in 1480. The Italians call it FAGOTTO, in French Faisceau, asopposed to the Bombard, a previously known instrument which consisted of only one piece.27JANCOURT, op. cit., p. 1.

The name that this priest gave to this instrument is phagotum. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the term is reminiscent of fagot. In addition, like the bassoon, this instrument consisted of two tubes that met at one end.28CARROLL, op. cit., p. 17

However, other sources cast doubt on the fact that it was Canon Afranio degli Albonesi who originated the bassoon, and the arguments are strong. Indeed, Afranio took as a model for the creation of his instrument the piva, a bagpipe of Slovenian origin.29Ibid., p. 17. The differences between the two instruments are enormous: for the phagotum, the sound is produced by blowing from below; the reed was a simple metal reed, its body consisted of a double U-shaped tube 22 inches high and its bore was cylindrical. The bassoon, on the other hand, had a double reed in cane and its body was a single U-shaped conical-bore tube 4 feet high.30LANGWILL, Lyndesay Graham, The Bassoon and Contrabassoon, New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1965, p. 7. Needless to say, the differences between the bassoon and the phagotum are enormous and more similarities can be found between the latter and the bagpipe.

How, given these enormous differences, could phagotum be considered the ancestor of the bassoon? Most authors of bassoon methods in the 19th century agree that the phagotum wasthe originator of the bassoon. Moreover, they are followed by others such as François-Joseph Fétis, who goes so far as to date the birth of the instrument: ‘The bassoon, which was invented in 1539 by a canon of Pavia, named Afranio, can be considered as the bass of the oboe’.31FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Clarinette de M. Janssen. Bassons à quinze clefs de M. Adler’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, vol. II, 1827, p. 219. This date is itself open to question, even if it is easier to determine the origin of the phagotum than that of the bassoon. We can agree that the discovery of Afranio took place in the first half of the 16th century. But the exact date of 1539 must be amended. This is what emerges from information given by Langwill. According to him, Canon Afranio began his work on the phagotum before 1521,32Ibid., p. 219. but it was not until 1532 that the first known performance of this instrument, called fagotto for the occasion, was made by the priest himself in Manua during a banquet organised by the Duke of Ferrara.33CARROLL, op. cit., p. 17. According to Will Jansen, the phagotum was heard not only by the public in Manua, but also in Parma:

In an old Italian book describing in extenso the gastronomical festivities at the court of the duke of Parma, mention was made of varions musicians and their instruments who heightened the festive mood by performing music during the gluttonous feast. Among them, was mentioned one Afronio, canon of Ferrara, who performed music on ‘il sua Phagotum’.34JANSEN, Will, The Bassoon: its History, Construction, Makers, Players and Music, F. Knuf, 1978, vol. 1, p. 46.

It is difficult to establish with certainty which source first denied that Afranio was the inventor of the bassoon. However, by the end of the 19th century, doubts began to arise about the creation of the bassoon by the clergyman. Jansen refers to the Riemann Encyclopaedia, where the author of the article, Mendel, in 1870, expresses doubts about Afranio’s creation of the bassoon.35Ibid., p. 47. The French source that first denies the attribution of the invention of the bassoon to Afranio seems to be in Histoire des instruments de musique (Paris, 1921), where René Brancour mentions Afranio’s name, but expresses doubts about his invention: ‘One often attributes this operation to Canon Afranio of Ferrara, but the attribution is doubtful.’ Five years later, in the definition of the term bassoon given by Michel Brenet in the Dictionnaire pratique et historique de la Musique, new arguments are put forward to cast doubt on Afranio’s authorship of the bassoon: ‘It is inaccurate to say that the B. [bassoon] was invented by Afranio, canon of Pavia; the bizarre instrument attributed to him by Albonesio (1539), and which is called phagoto, was a sort of portable organ with two pipes fitted with free reeds and keys, and supplied with air by two bellows.36BRENET, Michel, Dictionnaire pratique et historique de la Musique, Paris, librairie Armand Colin, 1926, p. 35.

Moreover, the dating of the birth of the phagotum does not tell us anything about that of the bassoon. The differences between the two instruments are too great for us to see a direct relationship between them. How is it that authors of methods and critics have been taken in by this? It is worth noting that it was not until the 20th century that musicologists such as Langwill, Caroll and Baines questioned the similarities that people liked to see between these two instruments. It is important to understand that the authors of the 19th century methods did not have at their disposal the information on the phagotum that was subsequently made available. In the absence of documents, they were misled by a similarity that was, after all, only linguistic.

1:1:3 Bassoon in the 17th and 18th Centuries

As it is not possible to determine and date with certainty the origins of the bassoon, we owe to Eugène Jancourt, one of the most prolific musicians in the world of the bassoon, the information according to which the bassoon was introduced into French orchestras by the composer Cambert during the creation of his opera Pomone in 1671:

The BASSON was introduced into our French orchestras by CAMBERT in 1671; it was heard for the first time in the Opera of POMONE by this master; it was the only one, with the flute, of the wooden instruments in use in orchestras. At that time it had only three keys: low B, D and F. Its range stopped at high A.37JANCOURT, op. cit., p. 1.

It should also be noted that the bassoon owes a great deal to Jean-Baptiste Lully, who constantly uses it to play the basso continuo.38JANSEN, op. cit., p. 53. In his symphonic works, he often sought and obtained happy orchestral effects by opposing two oboes and a bassoon to the string ensemble. Generally assigned the role of basso continuo, which it performed jointly with the harpsichord, the bassoon was eventually entrusted with more melodic tasks by Lully, who did not hesitate to exploit its high register. Improvement of the bassoon was particularly slow until the middle of the 18th century. However, despite the defects of their instrument, many bassoonists succeeded in making their mark:

Until 1751 its improvement had been very slow, since at that time it only possessed the Key of A♭, in addition to the three primitive Keys; however, in spite of the great imperfection of the Bassoon, several Virtuosi had already distinguished themselves in the 17th century; let us mention among those JADIN, SCHUBART and RITTER.39JANCOURT, op. cit., p. 1.

The bassoon originally had only three keys: B flat, D and low F. Around 1705, a fourth key was added, that of G sharp. The fifth key, D♯, was introduced around 1765. It was not until about twenty years later that a sixth key appeared, that of low F♯, added by Étienne Ozi; this key, which appeared a little before 1787, was originally intended to raise low G♯ and was also used for high B♭, which makes the term used to describe it inappropriate. It was only after the 19th century, in 1810 to be precise, that it was possible to produce the F♯ without a fork fingering. It should be noted that the low B and C♯ were only possible on the instrument at the end of the 18th century. It is therefore likely that it was in 1795 that the first register key was created that allowed the production of notes higher than the conventional fingering.

Although the instrument had many defects in the 18th century, many composers enriched the bassoon literature. These include Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos (39 in all, of which three are fragments), Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B major, and Telemann’s sonatas. These works, written for an instrument with only 3, 4 or 5 keys, nevertheless make good use of the expressive character of the instrument and the range it had at the time.

1:1:4 Bassoon Makers before the 19th Century

The 17th Century

Although we have very little information about wind-instrument makers who made bassoons before the 19th  century, the literature allows us to mention the existence of some of them. It can be assumed that, if the literature mentions them, these makers must have made a name for themselves in some way. We have already seen that the existence of the bassoon is assured from the 17th century onwards and we know that it was at this time that Roset (or Rozet) made wind instruments. According to Letellier, he was also the inventor of the cervelas in 1662, and Abraham du Pradel, in his Livre commode (1682), refers to him as living in Paris, on the rue Saint-Eustache. The 18th century is less sparse in information than the preceding one, and we can trace the names of several wind-instrument makers. Among those who worked in Paris in the second half of this century, we can cite Jules Descorteaux in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Héron near the cathedral Saint-Honoré, Lebreton & Froment on the rue de l’Arbre-Sec, Philidor Rousselet on the rue des Assis. As for Dumont, he lived on the rue de Toumon where he worked during the last quarter of the century. Unfortunately, we have no further information and we do not know whether they made bassoons, since none of these instruments have survived.

The first major makers of woodwind instruments in France in the 17th and 18th centuries were undoubtedly the Hotteterre family. It was around the mid-17th century that the bassoon was built in several pieces, and it is apparently thanks to this family that this innovation was born in France: ‘It is apparently in France that the bassoon in joints first appeared. It is known that around the mid-17th century members of the Hotteterre circle were making flutes and oboes in joints.40WATERHOUSE, William, ‘The bassoon’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, edited by Stanley Sadie, 1980, vol. 2, p. 270. In his Traité de la Musette (Lyon, 1672, in fol., p. 38), Charles-Emmanuel Borjon [Editor: not Pierre Borjon; see BnF’s catalogue on his baptism certificate. Cohen in Grove is mistaken; MGG2 muddies the waters by allowing contributors to identify him as either Charles-Emmanuel or Pierre.] is full of praise for the members of this family: ‘Those who have made themselves the most commendable in this kingdom by their composition and their playing, and by their skill in making musettes, are Messrs Hotteterres.’ The first of them to distinguish himself in this field was Henri Hotteterre, the father. He was ‘a maker of wind instruments for the king’s chamber and chapel, and made a good name for himself in Paris in the middle of the seventeenth century with his flutes, oboes, bassoons, etc.’ He died in Saint-Germain in 1683.

His sons also distinguished themselves in the making of wind instruments, as Borjon tells us: ‘His sons are not inferior to him in the practice of this art, to which they have added a complete knowledge and a more admirable execution of the playing of the musette in particular.’ The eldest of them, Nicolas Hotteterre, entered the king’s chapel as bassoonist in 1668; he was then attached to the Grande Écurie as one of the twelve oboes and died in Paris in 1695.41FÉTIS, François-Joseph, Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique, Paris, librairie de Firmin Didot frères, fils et Cie, deuxième édition, vol. 4, 1866, p. 373. As for the youngest member of the family, Louis, Fétis says nothing about him.

However, the one who seems to have been most famous in the construction of wind instruments, especially those made of wood, is Louis Hotteterre, known as Le Romain. He was the most famous flute player of the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the next.42Ibid., p. 373. He owes his nickname, Le Romain, to a stay he made in Rome and not because he was born in that city, as some claim, such as La Borde in the third volume of his Essai sur la Musique ancienne et moderne (p. 637), later taken up in Littérature générale de la Musique, also by the authors of the Dictionnaire historique des Musiciens (Paris, 1810-1811).43Ibid., p. 373. Like all the members of his family, Louis was attached to the king’s music and had the title of flute of the chamber.44Ibid., p. 373. His theoretical works are of great historical value, especially for the history of woodwind instruments. Obviously, as Louis Hotteterre was a flautist, he wrote numerous methods for this instrument, but this did not prevent him from also writing methods for other instruments in the same register. Among these is an interesting one for the bassoon: Méthode pour apprendre à jouer en très peu de temps de la flûte traversière, de la flûte à bec et du hautbois, divisée en différents traités. Nouvelle édition, augmentée des principes de la musique et des tablatures de la clarinette et du basson.45Ibid., p. 373.Although we have the writings of the Hotteterres, unfortunately we have no surviving examples of their work as makers of low-register instruments, and in particular no bassoon.46BAINES, op. cit., p. 286. However, we can establish that a bassoon made by one of the members of the Hotteterre family must have been constructed with two keys and two ferrules: ‘Then, crossing almost a century, we find, on 14 November 1666, in the papers of the church of Couture, in Bernay, the price of a bassoon, which was 4 livres 10 sols. A few years later, we read in Richelet, (1680), a good bassoon by Hotteterre with 2 keys and 2 ferrules, was worth 4 or 5 pistols (about 40 or 50 francs).’47PIERRE, Constant, Les facteurs d’instruments de musique: les luthiers et la facture instrumentale, Paris, Sagot, 1893, Geneva, réédition Minkoff Reprint, 1976, p. 373.

Moreover, the documentation on woodwind-instrument makers in the 17th century remains rather limited, if not non-existent. This makes it difficult to attribute innovations or inventions to a particular maker:

Unfortunately, this crucial period in the seventeenth century is poorly documented from our present point of view, making it impossible for us to say definitely which individual maker or player was responsible for each of the vital woodwind inventions that originated during that time, all of them apparently in France and probably within that circle of Paris makers among whom we can dimly discern [Jean] Hotteterre as the leader. The new product included: the recorder as we know it today; the conical flute; the oboe; and the true bassoon (as opposed to the old curtal). In other words, practically the entire woodwind of the 18th-century orchestra – an astonishing output for one small group of men.48BAINES, op. cit., p. 276.
It is worth noting from this quotation that the maker who can be considered as one of the main craftsmen of woodwind instruments in the 17th century, among the circle of makers in Paris, is Jean Hotteterre. This is all the more interesting as nothing is said about this maker in Fétis’s Dictionnaire universel des musiciens. Everything suggests that he is the second son of Henri Hotteterre. The question that can be asked about this maker is the following: how is it that Fétis, when he speaks of the members of the Hotteterre family in his Dictionnaire universel, omits to mention Jean, who, according to the previous quotation, would be the principal representative of the making of woodwind instruments in Paris in the 17th century? Unfortunately, we cannot answer this question with certainty.

The 18th Century

There is a family which counts among the factors of which we have a little more than a simple mention. It is that of the Lot family which contributed, in the capital, to the manufacture of instruments throughout the 17th century. Of course, the information concerning it is not very abundant, but it is also confusing. Jansen states that Gilles Lot was the nephew and pupil of Thomas Lot. But in the biography of these two makers given by the author of The Bassoon,49JANSEN, op. cit. we learn that Gilles was a member of the Guild of makers in 1752, at the time when Thomas founded his workshop in Paris in 1754 on the rue Saint-Germain. Gilles may have been trained by Thomas, but it is surprising to see his nephew in a guild two years before his uncle opened a workshop. According to Constant Pierre, it was Gilles Lot who invented the bass clarinet, and not Grenser as some claim. Pierre also hypothesises that Martin Lot is Gilles Lot’s son, as civil documents from 1775-1783 show that both live at the same address. A certain D. Lot is said to have practised at the very end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, but we know nothing else about him, and we cannot establish with certainty a family link with the other Lots. Although the Hotteterres were active as makers in France, they were not the only ones to do so in this country; however, it will be noted that the number of their competitors in the 18th century was rather limited; it is only in the 19th century that this number will increase significantly:

For most of the 18th century, five makers were enough to build the human-breathing instruments, known as woodwind instruments. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were still only a few, but gradually their number increased to 35, and then decreased only slightly. The old makers made five kinds of instruments, those of this century did the same for the most part, although some specialised in a single instrument or family: flute, serpent, etc., or oboe, English horn, etc.50PIERRE, op. cit., p. 294.

For the 18th century, it is possible to determine more precisely what the bassoon was made for. Here again, however, the lack of sources makes itself felt, although much less so than for the previous century. It was during this century that a new era began for woodwind instruments: there are innovations in the making of the piccolo and the flute; it was at this time that the oboe was invented in France, while the clarinet owed its birth to Germany; it was also at this time that the bassoon was definitively distinguished from the curtal.51Ibid., p. 273. For most of this century, our instrument had four keys: A, F, D and low B♭. It was with this type of bassoon that the concerto intended for it by Mozart in 1774 was performed.52Ibid., p. 287. It was around this time that a fifth key was added to the instrument: E.

First of all, it must be understood that the makers of woodwind instruments in the 18th century were still few in number and did not limit themselves to making the family of a single instrument. If we refer to the quotation of note 54, the makers were dedicated to the manufacture of the family of woodwind instruments, which suggests that they made oboes as well as flutes and bassoons. However, it is possible to believe that some of them were better at making an instrument, but there are no sources to confirm this. However, it is reasonable to assume that Louis Hotteterre, being a flautist and having produced methods for this instrument, was probably more skilled at making flutes than bassoons. It was not until the 19th century that makers specialised in one type of instrument. As we shall see in the chapter on the great bassoon makers in France, those who were to distinguish themselves particularly in the making of bassoons were themselves bassoonists. Examples include the younger Savary and Karl Almenräder.

To conclude on this development, the reputation of the Hotteterres should not be misleading: however productive and innovative they were, France had to import musical instruments. The following quotation provides irrefutable proof of this:

… but the boom in French instrument making since 1789 had turned the tables. France no longer bought most of its instruments from abroad as it had previously done, but began, on the contrary, to supply highly sought-after instruments. …53PIERRE, op. cit., p. 295.

It was in the 19th century that the manufacture of woodwind instruments developed, but it is interesting to see that there was already a tradition and that the beginnings of this development could be seen as early as the end of the 18th century, since, at that time, it seems, France was already self-sufficient.

1:1:5 Other European Countries

It is the European countries where the bassoon was used in a significant way that will hold our attention. Among these, Germany and England occupy a significant place, but Holland should not be ignored. As for Italy, to which we owe Vivaldi and his 39 concertos, a quite remarkable production in the musical field that is the subject of our study, it does not seem to have played an important role in the technical improvement of the bassoon.

Among the bassoon makers who lived in Germany was Johann Christoph Denner, who worked in Nuremberg during the 17th century. It is likely that he built bassoons based on the French model:

Some 25 early three-key bassoons of this type survive: the earliest datable ones are five by J. C. Denner of Nuremberg. It is known that by 1684 he was copying in the new French recorders and oboes, and his bassoons may have been built to a French pattern. An interesting engraving by Weigel (1698) of a bassoon maker – possibly Denner – at work shows both the two-key dulcian and three-key basson being made, but soon the new instrument with its greater potentialities was to dominate.54WATERHOUSE, op. cit., p. 273.

The French character of this maker’s bassoons suggests that he must have been influenced by the Hotteterres, probably by Henri. If this is the case, it is enough to show that the fame of this family was not limited to its own country.

From this time on, as we have already noted, such remarkable composers as Telemann and Mozart were able to exploit the technical and expressive aspects of the instrument. Their works, which are still admired, show that the instrument, however limited technically, was nonetheless capable of performing demanding and inspired works.

Dresden was one of the leading centres of music in the 18th century, but it was also known for the quality of its makers. The bassoons made here were highly regarded, especially those by August Grenser and his nephew Heinrich. A portrait of a bassoonist made in 1774 shows what their instruments looked like:

In Germany, the bassoons of Dresden were considered the best, notably those made by August Grenser and his nephew Heinrich.… a portrait painted in 1774 by Horemans of Felix Rheiner … shows the earliest recorded use of a pinhole in the crook, here operated by a key. Cugnier also advocated this apparatus in 1780, but the pinhole was not to come into general use until the 19th century. Extra keys of any sort were slow in becoming standard: Koch’s lexicon of 1802 describes the five-key instrument with two octave keys ‘found on recent instruments’.55Ibid., p. 272.

While the French are credited with adding an octave key to the bassoon towards the end of the 18th century, the Germans are credited with having adopted it very quickly and even, in some cases, with not hesitating to add it to existing instruments:

A more significant advance was the addition of an ‘octave key’ on the wing joint to obtain high-register notes, first shown in the earliest tutor for the bassoon, by Ozi (Paris, 1787); this key was soon adopted in Germany, sometimes even being added to existing instruments.56Ibid., p. 272.

It was the French who were the first to add the keys in the lower register, i.e. for E♭and F♯, in order to avoid fork fingering which gave unsatisfactory results. However, it is to Heinrich Grenser’s credit that he moved the E♭key from itsoriginal position of being operated with the thumb of the left hand to one that could be operated with the little finger of the same hand:

The earliest extra keys to be added were for those low notes for which the standard ‘forked’ fingerings were less satisfactory; a chart by Hotteterre and Bailleux (c1765) first shows the fifth E♭key for the left thumb (later moved by Grenser to left little finger), and an F♯ right-thumb key followed later.57Ibid., p. 272.

Germany seems to have done little to innovate in bassoon making, but it has the merit of having very quickly integrated technical improvements and of having, in turn, improved on them. This openness to foreign influences is no small merit, and the bassoon has benefited greatly from it.

The French bassoon model was introduced to England in the late 17th century. It was at this time that the English maker Randle Holme was practising his skills. There are several reasons for the introduction of the French bassoon, but the most convincing is undoubtedly the settlement of emigrant makers from France:

The ‘French Basson’ was introduced into England by the time of Randle Holme (c1688), perhaps through the influence of the colony of French wind makers, musicians and players then thriving in London.58Ibid., p. 272.

To what can we attribute this arrival of artisans? If we consider that it occurred around 1688, it could be due to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV. This reason may not be decisive, but it is worth considering.

Although many bassoons were built throughout the 18th century in England, unfortunately only one specimen from before 1750 has survived. Among the English makers whose names deserve to be remembered are the Milhouses, based in Newark and London, who were noted for their fine craftsmanship:

In England, bassoons were made in considerable quantities throughout the 18th century; John Ashbury (fl London, 1698) is the earliest recorded maker. However, only one English bassoon has survived from before 1750 (by Stanesby jr, 1747). The Milhouses of Newark and London later became the most notable makers. The bell of these earlier English instruments has characteristic baluster contour and a pronounced inverted taper.59Ibid., p. 272.

The body of English bassoons differed slightly from that of bassoons made on the continent:60JANSEN, op. cit., pp. 92-93. the wing joint was longer, making it almost the same size as the long joint; the bore on the wing joint and the butt were wider; the distance between the holes on the instrument was generally greater; the E and C holes were narrower than their counterparts on the other side of the Channel; and the number of keys on the instrument rarely exceeded four.

These English bassoons, which, as we have just seen, had a certain originality, were ousted very early in the 19th century. The popularity which Savary’s bassoons soon enjoyed must be held responsible for this disappearance:

It conquered London music life: the Savary bassoon became a fashion. To London bassoon makers, it became a losing battle.

The Savary elbowed the English bassoon out of the orchestra: it went to the attic. From there, later, to the private collection and the museum.61Ibid., p. 91.

We could not end this survey of bassoon making outside France without mentioning Holland. Indeed, this country also saw the emergence of bassoon makers who played a leading role in the development of the instrument. The Amsterdam maker Rykel, at the beginning of the 18th century, is said to have built four-key bassoons, instruments that were in use throughout the rest of the century:

Early in the 18th century the relative position of the players hands was finally stabilized by the addition of a G♯ key for the right little finger, first shown on the trade card of the Amsterdam maker Rykel about 1705. The four-key instrument was to remain the model in standard use for the rest of the century. The baroque mouldings of the upper three joints disappeared, the keys being mounted instead on projecting bosses or on saddles. The bore of the bell was changed to an inverted taper and sometimes a small resonance hole was added.62WATERHOUSE, op. cit., p. 273.

Bassoon making abroad cannot therefore be considered negligible. It is certain that it was inspired by France, but in return it exerted its influence on the latter. This was facilitated by the movement of makers from one country to another, but also by the travels of musicians and composers, such as Berlioz, who brought back ideas about instrument making that interested them.

1:1:6 The Differences in Pitch

It is impossible to discuss the role, situation and constraints of a musical instrument in the 18th century without taking into account the effect and consequences that the development of the pitch may have had on it. The impact of this was particularly significant in the making of wind instruments:

Most of the original woodwind models were evolved in Paris, and this is presumably why a French instrumental pitch, approx. a’ = 422 (more than a semitone lower than modem pitch), became virtually a standard European pitch for the first part of the eighteenth century. But later in the century, though some institutions kept this pitch, the majority were playing sharper. For instance, a Paris bassoon player wrote in 1780 (in La Borde’s Essai) that instruments by the old makers of the time of Rameau could still be used at the Opéra, but not at the Concerts Spirituels, where the pitch had risen. Most of the later English specimens are only a shade, if that, below modem pitch, and play well at this pitch with practice, suitable reeds and so on.63BAINES, op. cit., pp. 274-275.

Moreover, this tendency to raise the pitch only increased; François-Joseph Fétis points out that in barely fifty years the pitch has risen by almost a tone: ‘In the past the pitch of the Paris Opéra was very low; it then rose considerably, for if I am well informed, the pitch of 1820 was a tone higher than that of 1770.’64FÉTIS, François-Joseph, « Variétés sur le diapason », Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, vol. II, 1827, n° 25, p. 204.

This tendency, moreover, could also influence the timbre of an instrument, and more precisely the brightness of this timbre, especially if one considers that in barely fifty years the general pitch has increased by one tone. In contrast to string instruments, where tuning is done by stretching the strings to a greater or lesser extent, the procedure is different and more complex for wind instruments, especially woodwinds. Since the tone of woodwind instruments is closely related to the bore of the instrument, it goes without saying that the makers had to adapt their method of making these instruments to these new changes. Of course, the instrument could always be tuned and a bassoonist has several techniques at his disposal. He can do this, for example, by using the reed, by changing its dimensions; he can also modify the junction of the bocal with the wing joint of the instrument, which allows him to affect the length of the instrument’s tube. But when the change of pitch is so great, these are only palliatives. Of course, this increase in pitch did not happen overnight, but however gradual it may seem, since it would have been spread out, which remains to be proven, over some fifty years, it is no less brutal. Makers faced with this problem will have to rethink the instrument and adapt it to the new conditions imposed on it.


The origins of the bassoon are admittedly obscure and bathed in a gloom where it is difficult to see clearly what may have happened. However, this is not as disappointing as it may seem at first sight. Sometimes it is possible to clearly determine the first appearance of an instrument, as is the case with the sarrussophone or the saxophone. The same cannot be said of the bassoon, and efforts to fit this case by attributing the creation of the bassoon to Afranio have not been successful. It must be admitted that the birth of the bassoon was long, laborious and prefigured by various instruments that more or less resembled it and to whose defects it is supposed to provide a solution.

However, in the 17th and 18th centuries the bassoon displaced most of the instruments, such as the krummhorn, whose role it fulfils better. It has virtuoso performers and inspired composers who write for it. Craftsmen like the Hotteterres have innovated in its construction. France was a leader in this respect, but was unable to meet the demand, so it had to import instruments from abroad. In Germany, as in England and Holland, makers produce quality instruments. However, it is clear that the bassoon has room for improvement. The development of the pitch clearly shows that it must evolve and adapt to new requirements. It will be the task of the makers of the 19th century to accomplish this task and to produce a bassoon as it is still played today.

1:2 Bassoon Makers in 19th-Century France

As we have already noted, the bassoon was lagging behind other instruments at the beginning of the 19th century. One could therefore legitimately expect that this delay would be made up for. And, in fact, it was from 1800 to 1870 that bassoon making underwent the most important development in its history. From this innovative period French instrument making was to benefit immensely; in Europe, it gained fame and its instruments were exported, particularly to England and Italy, unlike in the past when France had to import them. But one cannot have a good idea of what bassoon making was like without studying those who made it. We shall therefore endeavour to discover who they were and what they did.

1:2:1 Difficulties of Attribution

It is not easy for anyone wishing to present the makers and their work to determine with any certainty their discoveries, their innovations and sometimes to certify the paternity, as it were, of such or such instrument. Indeed, at that time, the steps taken to make an instrument varied from one maker to another:

The instrument I usually use is made by Keller in Strasbourg, it is different from the bassoons made in Paris …  The bore is larger and consequently provides a greater volume of sound by using a large-calibre bocal, which is what the instrument requires.65OZI, Étienne, Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson, Paris, Boyer, 1800, p. 3.

Moreover, unlike today when the identification of the maker of a bassoon is required, it is not always possible to know the name of the maker of an early 19th-century bassoon. This is particularly evident in the description of one instrument from this period, which states that the maker was anonymous:

Bassoon with 18 keys and 6 round wooden keys, inserted in the holes that are usually blocked by the player’s fingers. There are six of them and they are used to open the keys on the opposite side. This instrument, which has no maker’s name, dates from the first half of the 19th century.66CHOUQUET, Gustave, Le musée du Conservatoire national de musique avec les Ier, IIe et IIIe suppléments  par Léon Pillaut, Genève, Editions Minkoff, 1993, n°de catalogue 1400.

It is not uncommon to find bassoons to which later makers have added new keys or replaced parts of the instrument:

This instrument by Savary, reworked by Triébert and fitted with nine brass keys, is the one received by Jean Cokken (Paris, 14 January 1802 – 13 February 1875), when he won the first prize for bassoon in 1820. This distinguished virtuoso was appointed professor at the Conservatoire on the 1st of June 1852 and continued to teach there successfully until his death (gift of Mrs. Cokken, his widow).67Ibid., n° 506.

The instrument requires so much attention that instrumentalists have to familiarise themselves with the mechanism every time and some of them do not hesitate to make adjustments or innovations to facilitate its use:

This instrument (Savary bassoon) was given to Mr Eugène Jancourt in 1836. This bassoon is not in its original state, it has undergone numerous changes and modifications in keys and rings, notably on the wing joint and the butt. Jancourt was a professor at the Conservatoire (gift of Mrs Jancourt, his widow, March 1900).68Ibid., n° 1515.

If it is difficult to attribute an invention to one maker, it is even more difficult to determine the part played by one or the other in the manufacture or design of the generally more delicate parts of the bassoon, such as the bocal or the reed: ‘Because reeds and crooks are the most fragile part of the instrument, examples of these from the eighteenth century and before are extremely rare. Surviving instruments are rarely dated and only represent a very small part of the original picture.’69CARROLL, Paul, Baroque Woodwind Instruments: a guide to their history, repertoire and basic technique, Brookfield, Aldershot, 1999, p. 13.

1:2:2 The Parisian Bassoon Makers

We have seen that in the 18th century five makers were sufficient to produce woodwind instruments, but this number gradually increased at the beginning of the 19th century and reached thirty-five in the country, before decreasing slightly.70See n. 3. The path that some of them took by specialising in one instrument or a family of instruments, a new phenomenon at the time, had a significant impact on the development of wind-instrument making. The beginning of the 19th  century was therefore a turning point in instrument making and, as we have already argued, it is important to get to know the French makers and to determine the role they played in their field of activity. Although most of these makers resided in Paris, some great makers also distinguished themselves in the provinces, such as Simiot of Lyon. Moreover, thanks to the effervescence of industrialisation, factories with large productions of wind instruments were created outside the capital. This was the case, for example, with La Couture. All this creativity, in this first half of the 19th century, eventually won over the English, Belgian and Italian makers to the French bassoon, which they took as a model.

The Savarys

Jean Nicolas Savary senior was active from 1800 to 1826, and his son (Guise, September 1786 – Paris, February 1853) from 1820 to 1850.71JANSEN, op. cit., pp. 470-472. Between them, they were active for about fifty years. During this period, they made bassoons ranging from 5 to 17 keys; this clearly shows that they contributed fully to the development of the bassoon.Nicolas Savary is one of those players who have studied the instrument in depth and played professionally:

Nicolas Savary, his young son, devoted himself entirely to this instrument, for which he acquired a great reputation in his time, and this is not surprising, since, as first prize winner at the Conservatoire in 1808, and then principal bassoon at the Théâtre des Italiens, he was better able than anyone else to recognise the defects of the instrument and to remedy it.72PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 299-300.

It was not until 1823 that he became independent.73Ibid., p. 294. He quickly acquired a great reputation not only throughout France, but also in England, where he exported a good number of his bassoons: ‘Between 1810 and 1840 came the import of Savary bassoons from Paris, instruments of excellent quality and craftsmanship, of true pitch, beautiful tone, easy speaking and ahead of all bassoon development in France and in England.’74JANSEN, op. cit., p. 91. In 1829, his workshop was located at 64 rue Saint-André des Arts.75Ibid., p. 471.

The mechanism of his instruments was clearly ahead of its time.76Ibid., p. 470. His instruments were copied by many manufacturers, but none reached the quality of his.77Ibid., p. 470. He was one of the first bassoon makers to improve the instrument to such an extent, and the number of his innovations is impressive; among other things, he ‘introduced some innovations in the construction of the bassoon: wing joint with mechanical slide (rack), and rocking butt’.78PIERRE, op. cit., p. 300.

He was also one of the first, along with Guillaume Adler, to introduce rollers between two keys, thus making it easier to move a finger from one key to another. The younger Savary would have had an older brother who worked for a time and who can be traced from 1829 to 1833.79Ibid.; Jansen claims that Savary had a younger brother who worked from 1829 to 1833. We prefer the information provided by Pierre here. Nicolas Savary worked until 1844 and sold his workshop to Galander a year later.80Pierre states that this maker ceased his activities before 1840.


According to Constant Pierre, Galander was active only from 1835 to 1855; his name does not appear anywhere outside this period.81Ibid., p. 300. It was in 1853 that he invented a military bassoon in B♭, called the galandrome.82Ibid., p. 300. Looking at Galander’s bassoons, one notices a finesse and precision in his craftsmanship. It is clear that he too was ahead of his contemporaries, and it is not by chance that Savary gave him his workshop, for this craftsman would not have sold his workshop to the first person he met.

The Buffets

We cannot pay enough tribute to the colossal work of the Buffet firm. Denis Buffet-Auger, born in La Couture on 28 July 1783 and died in Paris on 24 September 1841, founded his workshop in 1825 at 22 passage du Grand Cerf, where woodwind and string instruments were made. His brother Louis-Auguste opened his own workshop in 1830 and became successful especially for his clarinets (he perfected the Boehm clarinet, among other instruments). From 1830 onwards, Denis Buffet’s son Jean-Louis (1813-1865) gradually took on more and more responsibility in the firm. Three years after his marriage to Zoé Crampon in 1836, his workshop received an ‘honourable mention’ at the Exposition universelle of 1839 in Paris.83Ibid., p. 310.

When Buffet-Auger died, his son succeeded him; the workshop took the name Buffet-Crampon from 1844 onwards. This change of nameallowed his firm to be distinguished from that of his uncle Louis-Auguste. His firm was awarded two bronze medals at the Paris Expositions in 1844 and 1849. It should be noted that it was from 1843 onwards that the famous bassoonist Eugène Jancourt became his advisor and collaborator:

Several skilful makers have these days contributed to its improvement; let us mention in the front line Messrs Savary, Adlher and Buffet (Crampon); the latter, still young, is called upon to push these improvements further; the care he brings to the making of the keys makes the execution easier.84JANCOURT, op. cit., p. 23.

From then on, many important improvements were made. Jean-Louis Buffet took on his brother Louis Buffet (1823-?) as a partner, as well as François Tournier, who remained a partner until his death (1869) even though he had founded a second workshop in Mantes-la-Ville in 1850. Later, Louis left this workshop to found his own, Louis Buffet & Cie. Jean-Louis replaced him with Pierre Goumas in 1851, the husband of one of his nieces; the two remained partners until 1855. On Tournier’s death, Buffet-Crampon and Goumas formed a new company, named ‘Buffet-Crampon & Cie’. When Jean-Louis Buffet died, Goumas ran the company alone, but it subsequently passed through the hands of several owners (Paul Evette, Paul-Eugène Le Seigneur, Paul Lefèvre), without this affecting its solid reputation.

Of all these partners, Denis Auger-Buffet was the only one who made bassoons; the others were mostly businessmen. He himself was concerned with the development and improvement of the French bassoon. It can be said that he is one of the two craftsmen to whom this instrument owes its qualities, for he contributed to improving the hole drilling and the key mechanism one of which was added to the bocal.

All these innovations, and especially the quality of its instruments, allowed the Buffet firm to gain fame in France, particularly at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, the productionsof this firm are greatly appreciated and are the pride of France in various World Fairs:

Progress and success increased with each exposition,85Medal of 2nd class, London 1851, of 1st class, Paris 1855, London 1862, silver medal, Paris 1867. but it was especially from 1878 onwards that the superiority of the company was brought to its height. The 42 instruments exhibited, a complete family of clarinets and saxophones, oboes, flutes and bassoons, were recognised as being of perfect accuracy and sound quality, and the gold medal was awarded to P. Goumas. A higher reward was reserved for his successors; a single grand prize was awarded, in 1889, for wind instruments and it was awarded to Messrs Evette and Schaeffer. In addition to the instruments in use, they exhibited small bassoons in E, F and G and a contrabassoon.86PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 311-312.


Among the wind-instrument makers established in Paris, there was also Pierre-Louis Gautrot. In 1845, he succeeded Guichard. He cannot exactly be considered as an innovator in the world of bassoon making, but one cannot deny him an imaginative spirit, which always pushes him to experiment, but in a discreet way. His reputation is well established in the history of wind-instrument making, as he was the first and most important maker of sarrussophones. If Sarrus, a conductor, had the idea of creating this instrument, it is Gautrot who was the main architect of its development. He made bassoons entirely in metal, as well as bass horns and ophicleides. After his death, his workshop, business and equipment were sold to Frédéric Triébert’s son on 5 August 1881.


Frédéric Triébert was born in Paris on 1 March 1813, the son of Guillaume Triébert, a German wind-instrument maker, whohad established himself early on in Paris.87JANSEN, op. cit., vol. I, p. 507. Frédéric tried to improve the bassoon, but without conclusive results. The French bassoon was mainly developed by Savary and the firm of Buffet (especially during the Tournier & Goumas, and Evette period).88Ibid., p. 507. With the advice of the bassoonist Eugène Jancourt, he made better bassoons, which earned him a certain esteem.89Ibid., p. 507. He was one of the few who attempted to make a Boehm bassoon, prompted mainly by the enthusiasm of Marzoli, bassoonist at the Opéra, who, like Berlioz, saw in it the solution to the many problems posed by the instrument. His experiments, begun in 1851, continued until 1857, when he realised that the system was doomed to failure. He is said to have made only three Boehm bassoons, which were shown at the Paris Exposition in 1855 and the one in London in 1862. Frédéric Triébert died on 19 March 1878.90Ibid., p. 507. After his death, the business continued under the management of Mrs C. Dehais, who joined forces with a former Triébert craftsman, Felix Paris. But business was not good; the firm was saddled with debts and was sold shortly afterwards. On 5 August 1881, Gautrot took over the business. For some time the firm continued to make bassoons with Triébert’s stamp on the instrument, because after the death of Triébert the firm had a good number of bassoon parts stamped in his name.

The efforts of the bassoonist and teacher Eugène Jancourt, collaborating with Triébert and later with Buffet-Crampon, led to the development in 1847 of a 22-key model which, with minor modifications, resembles the standard French bassoon. It should be noted that in the third quarter of the 19th century, the French bassoon’s keywork reached a maximum of complexity; from then on, it would undergo only slight modifications. The same applies to the physical aspects of the instrument.

The Fate of the Parisian Workshops

In Paris, it is not uncommon to see certain shops bought by businessmen, or even by wind-instrument makers, a phenomenon that is almost unique in Europe, since usually the trade and the art of the maker passed from father to son. For example, Savary’s workshop was bought by Galander in 1845, who at that time already had his own workshop, but which he closed immediately after his new acquisition. In 1854, Georges Schubert, a businessman, bought the workshops of Adler and Galander.91JANSEN, op. cit., p. 105. It is not known whether these workshops continued to operate thereafter, but it is known that they closed down permanently in 1857.92Ibid., p. 105. This is difficult to determine, given that a firm like Buffet’s had several partners and several nabars In addition, many makers in Paris combined their efforts with others. Thus, Frédéric Triébert worked in Gautrot’s business from 1845 to 1878.

In addition to the keywork, it is worth noting that a certain Mr Porthaux, a wind-instrument maker in Paris, worked on the creation of a wooden bocal. He quarrelled with Savary, who had taken credit for inventing this type of bocal, calling him a bad imitator. Porthaux had two members of the Conservatoire, Ozi and Delcambre, try out his new bocal, which, according to their judgement, provided a richer, louder and much easier-to-produce sound than the copper bocal, while retaining its accuracy.93PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 148-149.

1:2:3    Simiot, Maker in Lyon

Among the wind-instrument makers based outside the capital, the name of Simiot is worth remembering. He worked in Lyon, and the period in which he devoted himself to the bassoon extends, in all probability, from 1808 to 1835.94JANSEN, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 484. He did not limit his work to the bassoon, and it is known that as early as 1808 he made known the results of his improvements on the clarinet, consisting of ‘… the addition of two new keys and various modifications as simple as they are useful’.95PIERRE, op. cit., p. 302.

He is one of those who have significantly advanced the French bassoon, as he is responsible for a number of innovations brought to the instrument:

It was he who, before 1808, added a slide to the wing joint to facilitate tuning, and a key to make the A of the 3rd octave with ease, and others for the B natural and C sharp of the 1st octave. His bassoons, whose keys were of a new kind, prettier, lighter and stronger than the old ones, had a superior accuracy and equality to the systems known up until then. In 1817, he removed the cork plug that closed off the lower part of the butt, forming two defective angles, and replaced it with a metal tube that opened at will to allow the flow of saliva, and which preserved the round shape of the bore. At the same time Simiot made the sliding wing joint to facilitate the tuning of the instrument and he gave a flared shape to the bell to increase the strength of the sounds.96Ibid., pp. 303-304.

An important contribution that we owe to him is the making of the metal tube, which prevents saliva from accumulating in the instrument and at the same time protects the instrument from wearing out too quickly:

The bassoon of a musician of the Opéra or the Comédie-Italienne only lasts 5 to 6 years. This instrument never leaves the orchestra, it is locked up in a cupboard at the end of the performance, it does not experience any loss of humidity, it is only degraded internally by saliva which, being corrosive, forms chambers in the body of the instrument which makes it out of tune and unfit for use. The bassoons of regiment musicians, in addition to the disadvantage of saliva, which is multiplied even more through continuous use, have that of being transported on all sides and exposed to all the ravages of the air, which means that they can hardly last more than four years.97Ibid., p. 375.

As early as 1808, Simiot joined the two U-shaped tubes, which he replaced with a metal tube of the same shape in 1817; he was thus ahead of other makers of his time who built the bassoon’s butt by joining the two tubes in a cavity.98JANSEN, op. cit., p. 89. This use of a metal U-tube in the butt marks a clear advance over Almenräder and Heckel at that time.99Ibid., p. 89. Surprisingly, this innovation of the metal U-tube in the butt did not attract the attention of his compatriots, but was adopted by other makers such as Heckel, Haseneier, Griessling & Schlott.100Ibid., p. 94.

Simiot not only created, but also adopted certain innovations. He ‘gave, as others had done before him, an oval shape to the bell, with the aim of increasing the strength of the low tones’.101PONTÉCOULANT, Adolphe, Organographie: essai sur la facture, Paris, Castel, 1861, p. 109. In addition, he made a bassoon with nine keys, plus two more on the (sliding) wing joint operated by the left thumb for the high tones. He presented his instrument at the Exposition universelle of 1823, the only one in which he took part; this instrument won him a silver medal, reward by the jury for the improvements he had made to his instruments:

Mr Simiot, in Lyon, makes bassoons to which he has succeeded in giving more accuracy, more equality and a greater range of resources than an instrument of this kind has had until now. There is a rack within the slide, a piston for removing water, a key of B and a key of C sharp in the lower register, a levered key of F in the first and second octaves. This instrument also contains tubes which are arranged to prevent water from flowing through the openings. Finally, there are several improvements to increase the strength of the tubes.102PIERRE, op. cit., p. 304.

The success is all the more significant if one considers that this maker worked in Lyon, and not in Paris, where the great majority of his colleagues worked. He could at least work at his ease there, without fearing that anyone would try to appropriate his invention.However, his distance from the capital condemned him to isolation and instruments as interesting as his, which contributed considerably to the development of bassoon making, were virtually ignored.

1:2:4 Adolphe Sax, a Belgian in Paris

Adolphe Sax (Dinant, 6 November 1814 – Paris, 4 February 1894) after studying the flute and clarinet at the Brussels Conservatoire, joined his father’s business.103Charles-Joseph Sax was an exceptional man: he studied architecture, cabinet making and worked as a mechanic in a spinning machine factory. He copied a French-made serpent, which he had obtained from a musician so he could play in a wind band. He went to Brussels where he attracted attention for the quality of his instruments. He began by making serpents, and soon added the building of clarinets and bassoons. He won the first medal at the first Belgian industrial exposition in 1820. In 1822, he made brass instruments in his factory. He also won the first medal for these instruments at the industrial exposition in Harlem. He made Belgium independent from foreign countries for orchestral and wind instruments and exported his instruments. In the course of his career, he built all kinds of instruments, even violins and violas. His factory received numerous awards and distinctions. He arrived in Paris towards the end of 1842. But with very little money in his possession he went to see Berlioz, Halévy and Kastner: all three gave him encouragement, and two days after his visit Berlioz, in one of his articles, drew attention to the work of the young Belgian artist. This article, published in the Journal des débats, caused a great sensation among artists and makers. Adolphe Sax thus made a name for himself and acquired ‘allies’ in the Paris musical world. One morning, a man came to his house with the sum of 4,000 francs so that he could open a wind-instrument workshop. Others followed suit, and before long he found himself with a capital of about 12,000 francs. Sax set up shop in a sort of shed on the rue Saint-Georges. ‘The money was used to buy materials and tools, and the creator of the new system of sound instruments immediately set to work with a few workers whom he had to educate in work that was unknown to them.’

Adolphe Sax made friends with influential people, but he also made enemies in spite of himself. In fact, his well-intentioned plans could have undermined those of other makers and they reacted:

The manufacture of instruments was divided into different categories: some makers made only brass instruments; others, wooden instruments. The latter had their own specialities; some made only flutes, others clarinets, or oboes and bassoons. Various parts of these instruments were made in factories that supplied them to the makers; such were the pistons of the horns and cornets, the cylinders of the trumpets, the casting and polishing of the keys. All this formed so many distinct industries; but the very object of the reforms carried out or meditated by Sax obliged him to bring all these industries together in a single establishment. He alone made models, determined the gauges, and even forged the precision tools necessary for the realisation of his ideas. The success of his enterprise would therefore have undermined the prosperity of the industries just mentioned: it did not take much more for all interests to coalesce against him. A thousand troubles were created for him; by the lure of higher wages, his best workers were taken away from him, and manoeuvres of all kinds were set in motion to destroy his nascent credibility. The obvious inadequacy of the meagre capital with which he had begun also helped the malicious rumours spread by his adversaries, for his suppliers and workers could not be paid regularly. Other antagonists, no less dangerous, soon added new difficulties to those which Adolphe Sax opposed with heroic courage: these difficulties came from the artists. Among them were some talented men, more or less interested in the profits made by the makers to whom they rendered services. These influenced the minds of the others, and a general league was formed to reject Sax’s instruments and refuse to play them under any circumstances.104FÉTIS, François Joseph, ‘Sax’, op. cit., vol. 7, pp. 415-416.

Then a war between Sax and other musicians began. His troubles were only just beginning and the malice was felt. This was particularly noticeable at the Exposition de l’industrie’ of 1844, where Sax, according to Fétis, was not given his due:

This was the state of affairs when the time came for the French exposition, in 1844: in spite of the difficult situation in which he found himself, Sax redoubled his efforts to demonstrate the superiority of his instruments, which he was obliged to play himself, having been unable to find an artist willing to take them on. Struck by the beauty of these products of the Belgian artist’s inventive genius, the jury declared them to be in the forefront of the Exposition; nevertheless, Sax was awarded only a silver medal! The opposition Sax encountered among the performing artists made him realise that he could only find resources for his innovations in the military music corps, where discipline would shield him from special interests and systematic resistance. In the midst of the turmoil resulting from the passions he had aroused and the troubles of his business, he had retained all his strength of mind and the activity of his imagination. His tests, his studies, his meditations made him aware precisely at that time this fundamental law of acoustics: that the timbre of the sound is determined by the proportions given to the column of air by those of the body of the instrument which contains it.105Ibid., p. 416.

As we shall see in the section dealing with bassoon in 19th-century military ensembles, a commission opened a competition between the old wind-band combination and that proposed by Adolphe Sax. The latter won the jury’s and the public’s favour on 22 April 1845, which had the effect of replacing the old combination in favour of Sax’s in the great majority of military ensembles. At this competition Sax’s band had fewer players than the old system. In fact, Sax seems to have done away with horns and bassoons in this type of force. Was this a good thing? Fétis defends Sax and tries to clear him of the accusation of having removed these two instruments:

It was mistaken to think that Sax had wanted to propose the abandonment of the horn and bassoon in an absolute manner, for he himself was concerned with perfecting the latter instrument, and it was after his bassoon, which was exhibited at the world fair of London, in 1851, that Boehm conceived his own, which was later executed by Mr Triebert of Paris. It has been forgotten that the only music in question was military music, that is to say, music in the open air, intended to mark the march of the masses of soldiers by a powerful sound in which the timbre of the bassoon is absorbed. Saxhorns and saxotrombas have, in terms of volume of sound, an unquestionable advantage over horns, instruments of excellent effect in symphony and opera orchestras, as well as the bassoon and the oboe: Sax never thought of excluding them.106Ibid., p. 417.

Although he had his share of problems with the various lawsuits that were brought against him, he did not let himself be defeated and, in turn, pursued his opponents with determination, thus fuelling the war that animated the two clans. As the trials multiplied, the case dragged on and the long administrative procedures contributed to delaying the judgment:

This long and difficult case was, however, only the prelude to a multitude of lawsuits in which Sax, having become a plaintiff in his turn, demanded that the courts condemn his spoliators, so that they would be obliged to pay him compensation in proportion to the damage they had caused him. Most of the French makers had belonged directly to the coalition of spoliators, and followed its example in counterfeiting Sax’s instruments; but the law does not admit of collective legal action, unless it is a legally constituted company, in which case it represents only an individuality. Thus, the inventor had to take turns in taking one counterfeiter to task, then another They would help each other against the common enemy, exhausting every trick in the book to create new objections, and the same case, after having been judged on first hearing, first in absentia, then in the presence of the parties on objection, would be appealed to the Court of Rouen, from where the case would return to the Court of Cassation, which would send it back to the Court of Amiens, and, finally, the latter’s decision would be sanctioned by the Sovereign Court. All these rulings were in favour of Sax and branded his opponents as counterfeiters, but this did not prevent the inventor from being obliged, after having finished with one, to start again with another, and from seeing the same false allegations and the same tricks used to call everything into question, as if nothing had been done previously. Impartial people admire the genius of Adolphe Sax: the firmness of character which he displayed in this endless series of tribulations is perhaps even more astonishing.107Ibid., p. 419.

This war left its mark. Sax and his enemies tore each other apart so much that they had to pay him a lot of money and many of them went into debt. It is also likely that Sax lost valuable time that could have been spent on making his instruments because of these lawsuits. Moreover, he received almost no money from these patents because the ongoing lawsuits kept the matter in abeyance. Finally, at a time when wind-instrument makers devoted themselves to making a particular instrument, he was busy building instruments of all kinds, thus threatening the small businesses, which could only rely on their thorough knowledge of making one instrument. Justified or not, these trials, which were publicised by the media, had unfortunate effects, the consequences of which are described in the following lines by Jean-Baptiste Schiltz:

What can we say about Mr Sax, this Belgian musician-cum-manufacturer who was supported from the moment he arrived in France by all the military and administrative authorities, and against whom, to top it all off, all the makers sued for the nullity of his patents; as a result, he retaliated with a multitude of counterfeiting suits. This has been going on for 10 years, and will continue for another 10 years. All the newspapers are announcing these trials with great fanfare. Win or lose, all these judicial vilenesses have benefited Mr Sax, who has been awarded medals, decorations and special suppliers. Today he is a maker in the military house. With the capital and protectors at Mr Sax’s disposal, the slightest commercial intelligence would have earned several millions over the last 10 years. But Mr Sax, with all his medals, all his decorations, all his protectors and his ability, has found a way to ruin himself.108PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 355-356.

Adolphe Sax did not distinguish himself particularly well in making bassoons. He did, however, make a metal one with 23 keys and all the holes closed with them. Although this instrument had some innovative features for its time and served as a model for makers such as Cornelius Ward, almost none of these improvements on this instrument were used on the bassoon. It may even have been detrimental to the bassoon, for bassoon makers, preoccupied with promoting instruments of their own creation, could not afford to lose their clientele and were forced to produce inferior instruments to compete with Sax. Moreover, Sax, as we have already seen, had ostracised the bassoon from military bands, thus causing a decline in demand for the instrument. It was even feared that these reconfigurations would eventually lead to the disappearance of the bassoon from the orchestra:

Let him take care of the manufacture of his horns, let him make them lighter; let him rehabilitate the bassoon, to the proscription of which he has contributed a little and which threatens to be soon missing in our orchestras, even if he has to replace it by a new instrument of his own invention, because the soft voice, full of melancholy, of the bassoon would be missing in the instrumental discourse, would make a gap in it, and Mr Sax will have well deserved the ingenuity and the art.109BLANCHARD, Henri, ‘Exposition des produits de l’industrie’, Revue et Gazette musicale, 12 août 1849, 16e année, n° 32, p. 253.

1:2:5 Adler, a German in Paris

Frédéric-Guillaume Adler, a German wind-instrument maker, moved in 1809 to Paris where he founded his workshop:

Adler was established in Paris, on the rue Mandar, from 1809 until 1854. Instrument with 13 keys. Rack on top of the wing joint. His son, Frédéric Alexandre, born in Paris, in 1813 on 16 December, was a pupil at the Conservatoire.110CHOUQUET, op. cit., n° 1516.

He attempted, when he had time, to improve the instrument by trying to modify the measurements of the bores and by adding keys. His first experiments date back to 1809. In the same year he improved the instrument by adding keys, according to Fétis. Gifted and imaginative, this maker attracted attention from the outset for his advanced instruments, which augured well for his creative talent:

We have seen from this maker a 10-key bassoon, of a rather early date since it has no hole for the low B, nor keys for the four fingers of the left hand, and which nevertheless presents innovations that others have since thought to devise: bocal hole, 2 keys on the wing joint for the left thumb and a key with a spatula placed on the butt between the index and middle holes, which gives the trills B-C sharp, C-C sharp, C sharp-D, D-E♭of the middle register and high G-A, A-B♭.111PIERRE, op. cit., p. 301.

He presented his bassoons at all the Paris expositions. At one of them, that of 1827, visitors were able to admire a 15-key bassoon. The width of the bore was larger than normal and the bell shorter. The instrument aroused a lot of interest, especially because of the quality of its tone. Following this exposition, Fétis wrote an article in the Revue musicale the same year, in which he spoke of this maker and this instrument: ‘Clarinette de M. Janssen. Bassons à quinze clefs de M. Adler’.112FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Clarinette de M. Janssen. Bassons à quinze clefs de M. Adler’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, vol. II, 1827, p. 217-224. The following can be read in the article:

Mr Adler’s bassoon differs from the ordinary bassoon in that it is a little longer, that it ends with a small bell, and that by means of two new keys it is possible to make two more high tones: D and E. It has a very fine quality of sound, though somewhat different in timbre from that of the ordinary bassoon, to which it seems superior, especially in terms of accuracy, purity and equality of tone. Moreover, the fingering is, or rather can be, the same as that of the old bassoon; several of our most distinguished artists have hastened to adopt it. Mr Adler is worthy of the bronze medal.113PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 300-301.

Thanks to this exposition, he gained a lot of respect among artists, and there was no lack of praise for him. The various parts of this maker’s instruments are well worked and well finished in every detail:

Mr Adler, a very commendable luthier of Paris, has recognised the advantages of this, and has made some after his model, which have been tried by some of our most skilful artists, and approved by them. The instruments of M. Adler are usually distinguished by a precious finish in all their parts.114JANSEN, Will, op. cit., p. 221.

However, as this maker apprenticed as a bassoon maker in Germany, his instruments were built to different measurements from those of French bassoons, and also differed from the usual fingerings:

If the difficulty of changing the bassoon fingering almost entirely may prevent artists who have many years of experience from adopting Mr Adler’s fingering, we must at least hope that they will put it into the hands of their pupils, who do not have to overcome an acquired habit. Already Mr Gebauer, professor of bassoon at the Ecole royale de musique, has made a statement in this regard, and has recognised the necessity of using the new instrument in his class; it is therefore to be hoped that, in a few years, an instrument so superior to the old bassoon will be substituted for it in orchestras, and will attain in performance a trueness and equality of sound so long desired.115Ibid., pp. 221-222.

On 11 May 1834, Fétis wrote a new article in which he again discussed the 15-key bassoon shown at the 1827 Exposition. It can be seen that he is much less complimentary than in his 1827 article. First, Fétis explains that Adler applied the keys of Almenräder’s system. He acknowledges that Adler’s workmanship is neat, but regrets that his instruments still have defects that can only be solved by completely rethinking their principles of manufacture:

Mr Adler has adopted the fifteen keys of this artist; he exhibited in 1827 and is exhibiting this year bassoons built according to this system, with the addition of the rollers devised in the past by Mr Jansen and used today by all makers to facilitate the passage from one key to another, as well as the pump of the wing joint and the mechanical device invented a few years ago by Mr Vinnen. As they are, Mr Adler’s bassoons present the appearance of a well-made instrument; but, it must be said, many defects of tuning and unevenness of sound are still noticeable; these defects can only disappear in a complete reconstruction of the instrument.116FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Exposition des produits de l’industrie: Instruments à vent’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, 11 mai 1834, p. 148.
In fact, it can be assumed from this quote that a hybrid bassoon could not offer a satisfactory solution. Considering that the two bassoon systems are built according to different measurements, it is easy to understand the difficulties that a craftsman might encounter in building a hybrid system.

In 1839, he was accused by Neukirchner, a bassoonist who had developed his own bassoon, of plagiarising his model, but this case does not seem to have been pursued.

Other awards were to come his way at other Expositions; such was the case in 1844 for an orchestral bassoon, a bassoon, a contrabassoon, and, in 1849, for his bassoons, placed in the first rank.117PIERRE, op. cit., p. 301. In 1845, he is said to have signed a letter to the Minister of War against Adolphe Sax. He sold his workshop in 1854 to Schubert, a businessman, and retired.118Ibid., p. 300. Three years later he died and his workshop had no one to succeed him: ‘After his death in 1857, his sons who had taken up the profession of musician (one of them, Theodore, is today the first bassoonist at the Opéra) abandoned the business and the equipment was sold at the Hôtel Drouot.’119Ibid., pp. 301-302. In fact, Adler had two sons who made careers as bassoonists.120JANSEN, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 328. The elder, known as Frédéric Adler the younger, was born in Paris on 26 December 1813; the younger, named Theodore, is the one mentioned by Constant Pierre.121Ibid., vol. 4, p. 1701. Although Frédéric-Guillaume Adler did not receive the recognition he had hoped for, he nevertheless enjoyed some success, as his instruments were used abroad: ‘The Adler instrument, a little less open in tone, is well-known in England through its use by Archie Camden and Gwydion Brooke.’122BAINES, op. cit., p. 154. It can be inferd, moreover, that his appearances at the Expositions were not in vain since his instrument was used in England.

1:2:6 The German Bassoon and Its Makers

The Role of Almenräder

It is important to remember that it was in the first part of the 19th century that the difference between French and German bassoons was created. Not only do they differ in the way the keys are arranged on the body, but they also differ significantly in timbre. According to Will Jansen, the lower register of the French bassoon is less sonorous, the middle register is very pretty but more nasal, and from F3 onwards the sound is thin.123JANSEN, op. cit., p. 25.

In contrast to the French bassoon, which underwent a rather gradual development, the German bassoon underwent a real revolution. Almenräder (1786-1843) is undoubtedly the person at the origin of this parting of the ways between the two systems. Without paying any attention to the bassoon of his time, he set about creating a new instrument. In 1820, while living in Cologne, he published his Abhandlung über die Verbesserung des Fagotts. He was closely associated with Gottfried Weber (1779-1828), who was to make a name for himself with publications such as ‘Versuch einer praktischen Akustik der Blasinstrumente’. The latter was editor of a periodical, Cäcilia, in which he devoted considerable space to the proportions of Karl Almenräder in a review published in 1825, entitled ‘Wesentliche Verbesserungen des Fagottes’.As we saw earlier, Fétis wrote an article entitled ‘Clarinette de M. Janssen. Bassons à quinze clefs de M. Adler’. We can see that the author of this article is particularly interested in the development of bassoon making in Germany, and although he does not underline the name of Almenräder in the title, he nevertheless gives him an important place. It is well known that the bassoon at the beginning of the 19th  century had a number of defects:

In its ordinary state of construction, the bassoon is a very imperfect instrument; many of its notes are muffled and of poor quality of sound; it generally lacks accuracy, and the difficulties of its fingering prevent the execution of a host of runs that are difficult to avoid. For example, going rom F♯ to G♯ in a fast movement is almost impossible because the same finger is used for both notes. The bassoon method contains a list of these impractical slurrings, which fills two folio pages.124FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Clarinette de M. Janssen. Bassons à quinze clefs de M. Adler’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, vol. II, 1827, p. 220-221.

In order to overcome these defects, attempts were made to build the instrument on better acoustic principles. Karl Almenräder was responsible for the successful completion of this project in 1817:

For a long time the necessity had been felt of obviating these numerous inconveniences, by rebuilding the instrument on better acoustic principles; composers especially longed for these improvements; but the laziness of the violin-makers, in agreement perhaps with that of the performers, had staved off such legitimate wishes, when, in 1817, Mr Almenraeder, a German virtuoso on the bassoon, undertook to reform his instrument completely, and to rebuild it on better principles.125Ibid., p. 220.

However, this maker was not the only one who tried to reform the instrument. Earlier makers had tried to recreate it, but none of them fully achieved this goal as Almenräder did. The efforts of the Dresden makers the Grensers, who made some notable improvements, are worthy of note:

The renowned Dresden luthiers Messrs Grensers had already made significant improvements in some areas, but they had not completely achieved their goal.126Ibid., p. 220.

It was following this reform that Almenräder embarked on numerous trials. During this period, he took the opportunity to write Abhandlung über die Verbesserung des Fagotts in order to disseminate his improvements and to report on his work:

Mr Almenraeder conducted numerous tests in the workshops of Messrs Schott, in Mainz, and, by dint of perseverance, finally succeeded in combining all the parts of the bassoon in such a way as to obtain the greatest possible accuracy, and to facilitate the execution of slurrings which had hitherto been considered impossible. In order to make his invention more useful, in 1824 he printed a small work entitled Treatise on the Improvement of the Bassoon, in which he gave, in addition to the figure of his instrument and the table of its range in chart, valuable details on the fingering of difficult slurrings, which have ceased to present obstacles to performers since these improvements.127Ibid., p. 220.

In this article Fétis notes the main improvements of the bassoon designed by Karl Almenräder. He takes care to describe what they consist of and goes so far as to encourage French bassoonists to adapt to this instrument, thanks to which, once the difficulties have been overcome, they will derive many advantages:

Mr Almenraeder’s bassoon has fifteen keys. The one used to give C♯ and D♭had already been designed by Messrs Grensers; but it was defective because of the place it occupied, since it had to be played with the little finger. Mr Almenraeder, by placing it in such a way that it could be directed by the thumb, has made it much more useful and easier to play.

The moving of the third hole of the lower joint, and its combination with the keys, has provided a means of making the slurring from lower A to its octave with pure tone. New keys placed on this joint facilitate the trilling of A with B, and the slurring from F♯ to G, or from G to F.

Another key, placed on the long middle joint, gives the bottom C, which does not exist in ordinary bassoons. The new combinations also give the bottom B, which is also missing in the old bassoons.

With regard to the fingering of all the difficult runs, Mr Almenraeder has indicated it with such care that the performers will not be slow to become familiar with the new instrument. The complication of the means of execution may at first intimidate the performers, who by long experience will have become accustomed to the old bassoons; but six months’ work will familiarise them with Mr Almenraeder’s innovations, and when they have overcome the first difficulties they will appreciate the advantages so much that they will abandon their bad instruments and adopt the one presented to them.128Ibid., pp. 220-221.

On 11 May 1834, Fétis wrote another article on the Exposition des produits de l’industrie in which he returned to Adler’s 15-key bassoon and to the development of bassoon making in Germany:

I now come to the examination of the bassoon; two exhibitors are competing for this instrument, Messrs Adler and Vinnen.

At the 1827 exposition, I spoke of the 15-key bassoon of the former of these artists, and I reported on the work undertaken in Germany by Messrs Grenzers, of Dresden, and Almenraeder to improve a muffled and out-of-tune instrument. These improvements consisted mainly of adding keys to facilitate the production of certain notes or to eliminate fingering difficulties. Thus, successively, we have seen the appearance of the key used to give C♯ and D, and new keys placed on the lower joint to facilitate the trill of A with B, and the slurring from F♯ to G, and from the latter note to F♯; finally, new keys and new combinations have provided the means of making the bottom C♯ and the lowest B, the latter of which did not exist in the old instruments, come out of the instrument. 129FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Exposition des produits de l’industrie: Instruments à vent’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, dimanche 11 mai 1834, VIIIe année, n° 19, p. 148.

Almenräder’s bassoons became very successful not only in Germany but also abroad:

After having brought the bassoon to this point, Mr Almenraeder established a factory of instruments of this kind, and he supplies many artists from Germany, Holland and Belgium with them.130Ibid., p. 148.

From then on, the need to build the instrument according to new proportions was felt. Fétis showed a definite interest in a bassoon rebuilt according to better acoustic measurements and wished to remove the keys which, at that time, allowed certain defects of the instrument to remain hidden, thus obtaining a much more efficient system:

Like the oboe and other varieties, the bassoon will not be in tune until the bore has been properly calculated and the holes put in their proper place. The slanting holes in the lower joint are monstrosities in acoustics; but to divide the tube with mathematical accuracy, the use of fingers on the holes will have to be replaced by keys, for the fingers cannot reach the necessary distance, and other keys which have been devised only to compensate for the effects of the awkward position of the holes will have to be removed. There is reason to hope that such a necessary reform will not be delayed.131Ibid., p. 148.

The Role of Heckel

On 11 March 1831, this maker became the partner of Karl Almenräder. After the latter’s death in 1843, Johann-Adam Heckel and the two generations that succeeded him continued to run the company. The company had fruitful dealings with important composers, such as Wagner, who in 1862 lived in the vicinity of the firm and took an interest in the development of the instrument. It was he who persuaded Heckel to build a longer bell to reach the A0, a semitone lower than the lowest note in the bassoon’s range.132JOPPIG, Gunther, Hautbois et basson, Paris, éditions Payot Lausanne, 1981, p. 69. The composer held them in high esteem and recommended the instruments made by Heckel. Since then, this firm produced until the turn of the century about 4000 bassoons.133Ibid., p. 70. It is interesting to note that in the 19th century some German makers had moved abroad where they made bassoons. In England, for example, until 1830, two German bassoon makers based in London produced bassoons with as few as eight keys, probably at the request of their customers, while at the same time the bassoons of Almenräder and Heckel could be made with as many as twenty.134JANSEN, op. cit., p. 107.

1:2:7 The Differences between French and German Bassoons

The main differences between the ‘Fagott’ (the German bassoon) and the ‘basson’ are the arrangement of the keywork, particularly in the lower register, and the bore of the instrument. It is not clear whether one system is easier to play than the other because of its keywork: ‘Comparing the two types, their fingerings differ without giving either a decesive advantage’.135BAINES, op. cit., p. 154. However, the German system has a slight advantage in terms of homogeneity:

The great point in favour of the Heckel is that from top to bottom of the compass, and from piano to forte the tone is uniformly effective in the orchestra. And, going with this, it is a comparatively easy matter always to hâve a reed handy that will produce its clear, telling quality reasonably satisfactorily, without the tone becoming forced, nasal or stuffy.136Ibid., p. 154.

Both instruments have a distinct timbre and are equally valued throughout Europe. Nowadays, history has shown that the German system is the more widespread; the French bassoon is nowadays used almost exclusively in France. It cannot be said that either is easier to play or has a more beautiful tone, but the Fagott has good orchestral capabilities, as it has equality of tone and pitch almost throughout the register, and it projects somewhat better, though its tone is a little less brilliant. These characteristics help to explain why this instrument has progressively imposed itself throughout the world in orchestras, thus tending to supplant the French bassoon.Surprisingly, despite the difference in timbre of the two types of bassoons, they complement each other well in a band:

It is a curious thing that the two types of bassoon, neither of them perfect nor sounding exactly like the other, go remarkably well side by side. They have been frequently seen thus in English orchestras, and it is usually held that the best effect is when the Buffet is on the top and the Heckel underneath, though of course this also depends upon the players.137Ibid., pp. 156-157.

It should also be noted that the German bassoon was preferred to the French bassoon in certain geographical areas, but that the disappearance of the latter would only harm the world of this instrument. As Jansen remarkably points out, the French bassoon cannot be replaced by the German system, and the two systems must be seen as complementary:

Because in our time we find cases in which the French bassoon is being superseded by the German one, there may be created a common belief that the French bassoon can be replaced by a German one. This is not true: as Robert Donington rightly remarks in his excellent book: ‘The Instruments of Music’, the German and the French system are to exist side by side, the one is not there to supersede the other but they are supplementing each other. The French bassoon has its territory and the German one has its territory and there is a common one on which both can be used to advantage. Something to be grateful for: with two different bassoon types, the world of music remains richer than with only one.138JANSEN, op. cit., p. 25.

Unfortunately, there are many cases where conductors have favoured the German system in their orchestras.

1:3 Bassoon in Patents and World Fairs

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the first statistical studies dealing with the manufacture of musical instruments appeared; ‘The first industrial survey of the 19th in which statistical information relating to musical-instrument makers dates from 1847/48’.139HAINE, Malou, Musique et industrialisation à Paris au XIXe siècle, Brussels, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1985, p. 16; this study is part of ‘Statistique de l’industrie de Paris, résultant de l’enquête faite par la Chambre de Commerce pour les années 1847/48’, Paris, 1851. This survey was not the only one; others followed. The following list gives an idea of the different studies undertaken:140Ibid., p. 16.

  • a) Surveys: 1847 and 1860 (by the Paris Chamber of Commerce).
  • b) Census: 1856, 1866, 1886, 1891 and 1896.
  • c) Ad-hoc wage surveys: 1872 and 1891.
  • d) Patents: 1885 and 1891.
  • e) Motor forces:1899 and 1906.
  • f) Strikes: from 1864.
  • g) Workers’ associations: 1866, 1883, 1897 and 1899.

It was in the 19th century that a clear advance in technology was noticed. It is therefore not surprising that craftsmen began to use these new technologies to refine their work. This is how new, more efficient tools were created, which gradually improved the quality of the instruments produced, while reducing the time needed to make them, saving on materials and making more of them. It will be noted that this technological advance did not have only advantages, as it encouraged the preference for quantity over quality. In any case, patents on musical instruments developed in the 19th century. It is therefore interesting to consult them and to see if some of them shed some light on the world of the bassoon. It should also be noted that instrument making was no longer limited to the French capital, as more and more important workshops developed in the provinces. Furthermore, the importance and repercussions of the World Fairs on the bassoon-making scene cannot be overlooked. All these points considered, it should be possible to have a good idea of the effects of industrialisation on the bassoon.

1:3:1 Patents

The Birth of French Patents and Their Cost

Patents provide first-hand information on various innovations in different fields of industry. The first patents date from the end of the 18th century, in 1791 to be precise. However, the author of the Catalogue des brevets d’invention notes: ‘In everything related to the industrial arts, the principles constitute the fundamental basis either of discoveries or of improvements that art. 2 of the law of 7 January 1791 assimilates to the discoveries themselves’.141CORBIÈRE, Jacques-Joseph, comte de, ‘Catalogue des spécifications de tous les principes, moyens et procédés pour lesquels il a été pris des brevets d’invention, de perfectionnement et d’importation, du 1er juillet 1791 au 1er juillet 1825’, Catalogue des brevets d’invention: 1791-1827, Paris, Imprimerie Anthelme Boucher, 1826, p. V. As music was included in these industrial arts, it is not surprising that the first documents concerning music date from 1798.142HAINE, op. cit., p. 37. From this date to 1900, everything related to music was systematically recorded. This is why it is easy to find many patents relating to musical instruments filed by instrument makers in the patent registers. The number of music-related patents and certificates of addition in the 19th  century is 4100.143Ibid., p. 37. The authors of patents have the option to register them for a period of five, ten or fifteen years. Of course, a fee had to be paid to obtain this certification. Filing a patent was very expensive, 1500 francs for 15 years; however, for a certificate of addition, one had to pay a fee of only 20 francs.144Ibid., p. 38. In any case, those who had filed a patent tended to fight vigorously to preserve their rights, given the investment they had made to protect their discovery. But again, the high cost of patents encouraged few makers to apply for them; for example, the prolific organ builder Cavaillé-Coll subscribed for only one patent. Nevertheless, enough makers were not deterred by the expense of protecting their inventions, which provides us with a substantial amount of material to form a good idea of the creativity of the makers.

Wind-Instrument Patents in Paris

In order to identify the various patents relating to the bassoon, the patent catalogues are essential. You can find out what the patent consists of, its type (invention or improvement patent), the date of issue, the name of the applicant, the city where the applicant is active and his address. Unfortunately, very few patents from the 19th century have been filed for the bassoon. The first one concerning exclusively the bassoon only dates from the beginning of the second half of the century. However, not all the patents filed by makers related to a single instrument; they could apply to a group. In addition, it was possible to patent the improvement of a mechanism on an instrument. To this material, we can also add patents on instruments close to the bassoon or related to it. We will therefore consider other wind instruments whose patents in the first part of the 19th century provide valuable information about the bassoon. In the second half of the century, the patents provide valuable information not only on the bassoon, but also on the reeds, which were also patented.

The first patent for a wind instrument was filed for an ophicleide: ‘Bass: Changes made to a wind bass, called an ophicléide. Patent of invention and of improvement for 5 years, taken on 9 February 1822,by Labbaye, in Paris, rue de Grenelle-Saint-Germain, n. 39.’145CORBIÈRE, op. cit., p. 29.  As we will see in the section on instruments related to the bassoon in the 19th century, the ophicleide, although a brass wind instrument with a mouthpiece, has certain similarities with the bassoon in its morphology and register.

Moreover, as we have just mentioned, other makers have registered patents devoted not to a specific instrument, but to a group: ‘Wind instruments with keys. Patent for invention and of improvement of 10 years, taken on 24 March 1821, by Asté, known as Halary, in Paris, rue Mazarine, n. 37. Patent of invention and of addition of 16 August 1822.’146Ibid., p. 166. It can be seen in the supplement to the catalogue of patents that Halary transferred his rights to Antoine: ‘Wind instruments with keys. (See Catalogue p. 166) Mr Asté, known as Halary, owner of this patent, transferred the rights on 21 November 1825 to Mr Antoine, residing in Paris, rue Mazarine, n. 37.’147CORBIÈRE, Jacques-Joseph, comte de, Premier Supplément du catalogue des spécifications des principes, moyens et procédés pour lesquels il a été pris des brevets d’invention, de perfectionnement et d’importation (du 1er juillet 1825 au 31 décembre même année), Paris, Imprimerie Anthelme Boucher, 1827, p. 31. This text provides an indirect indication of the history of these two makers: as one can observe that the address is the same in both patents, it is legitimate to conclude that Halary did not only transfer his rights to Antoine, but that he bequeathed his workshop and all that was attached to it, thus making him his successor.

Wind-Instrument Patents in the Provinces

The filing of patents was not the prerogative of Parisian makers; those from the provinces were not unaware of this practice for protecting their inventions either. Such is the case of a maker from Lille who filed a patent for a flute mechanism that could be adapted to all other wind instruments: ‘Mechanism that is suited to the transverse flute, as well as to all wind instruments. Patent of invention of 5 years, taken on 23 June 1825, by Delavenna, luthier, in Lille (Nord)’.148CORBIÈRE, Jacques-Joseph, comte de, ‘Catalogue des spécifications de tous les principes, moyens et procédés pour lesquels il a été pris des brevets d’invention, de perfectionnement et d’importation, du 1er juillet 1791 au 1er juillet 1825’, Catalogue des brevets d’invention: 1791-1827, Paris, Imprimerie Anthelme Boucher, 1826, p. 109. In this case, although this patent applies to other wind instruments, it is legitimate to doubt its effectiveness for the bassoon, as the differences between it and the flute are considerable.

In Corbière’s second supplement, there is a patent for an apparently eccentric instrument, the guitar-basson: ‘Guitare-Basson. Musical instrument which the inventor calls the Guitar-basson. Patent of invention of 5 years, taken on 24 February 1826, by Warnecke (Louis-Georges), in Nancy (Meurthe)’.149CORBIÈRE, Jacques-Joseph, comte de, Second Supplément du catalogue des spécifications des principes, moyens et procédés pour lesquels il a été pris des brevets d’invention, de perfectionnement et d’importation (du 1er janvier 1826 au 31 décembre même année), 1827, p. 31. It is clear here that this is a guitar, the term bassoon referring only to the register of the instrument.

Even if the ophicleide has supplanted the serpent in the world of music, there is nevertheless a patent for it dating from 1828: ‘Serpent called by the author Ophimonocléide. Patent of invention of 5 years, taken on 2 May 1828, by Coeffet, instrument maker, in Chaumont (Oise).’150SAINT-CRICQ, Pierre, comte de, Quatrième Supplément du catalogue des spécifications des principes, moyens et procédés pour lesquels il a été pris des brevets d’invention, de perfectionnement et d’importation (du 1er janvier 1828 au 31 décembre même année), Paris, Pihan Delaforest (Morinval), 1829, p. 44. From the terminology of the patented instrument, one can see the similarity with the ophicleide. Indeed, the etymology of the name invented by the creator of this instrument is clear: ‘ophi’ means serpent, ‘mono’ alone and ‘cléide’ with keys, which suggests that it was a serpent with one key. Moreover, the maker in question, Coeffet, was from Chaumont, which suggests that the serpent may still be in use in the provinces, but apparently for a short time. Indeed, at a time when wind instruments have been considerably improved and provided with more and more keys, one can, under these conditions, wonder about the future of such an instrument.

Patents on Mechanisms

As mentioned above, some of the patents concerned not just one instrument, but several. There is one devoted to a mechanism for wind instruments: ‘Spring that can be adapted to all keys of wind instruments: Patent of invention of 5 years, taken on 22 August 1834, by Godefroy fils, wind-instrument maker, in Paris, rue Montmartre, n. 133.’151DUCHATEL, T., Dixième Supplément du catalogue des spécifications des principes, moyens et procédés pour lesquels il a été pris des brevets d’invention, de perfectionnement et d’importation (du 1er janvier 1834 au 31 décembre même année), Paris, Pihan Delaforest (Morinval), 1835, p. 66. This innovation is not without interest since the addition of springs, which improved the closing and opening of the keys, was likely to eliminate a good number of inconveniences that could be encountered on keyed instruments of this period.

In the Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1843 by Cunin-Gridaine,152CUNIN-GRIDAINE, M., Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1843 (Catalogue of inventions, imports and improvements issued from 1 January to 31 December 1843), Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1844, 193 p. two patents are worthy of mention: ‘(15498). Improvements in wind instruments. Patent of invention for five years, issued on 21 October 1843 to Halary and Belorgey, represented by Reynaud, in Paris, rue Bleue, n. 16.’153Ibid., p. 105. and ‘(15895). Position of the key of F sharp, applicable to the clarinet, the flute and other wind instruments. Patent of invention and of improvement of ten years, issued on 24 December 1843 to Martin (Félix and Jean-Baptiste), instrument makers, in Paris, rue du Petit-Carreau, n. 23.’154Ibid., p. 105. Once again, the first of these two patents concerns the improvement of a set of instruments, the wind instruments. The second, although it does not deal with a single instrument either, is morespecific because it concerns the addition of a key, F♯, to woodwind instruments. Although this patent seems to be most appropriate for the clarinet and flute, it may be extended to other instruments such as the bassoon; but in this case, it is legitimate to think that this improvement is not the most functional.

Patents on Double-Reed Instruments

Of all the patents mentioned above, none directly concerns double-reed instruments. It was not until 1844 that a patent mentioned one of these instruments, the oboe: ‘(16036). Application of movable rings to clarinets and oboes, new system. Patent of invention and of improvement of five years, issued on 19 February 1844 to Buffet the younger, instrument maker, in Paris, petite rue Saint-Roch, n. 18.’155CUNIN-GRIDAINE, M., Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1844, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1845, p. 109. Which Buffet workshop is mentioned in this patent? Let us recall that the Buffet firm, which greatly contributed to the development of woodwind instruments, was not limited to a single maker. As mentioned in the section on bassoon makers in the 19th  century, Louis-Auguste Buffet specialised more particularly in making clarinets, while his brother, who distanced himself by naming his firm Buffet-Crampon, specialised more particularly in making bassoons. It can be assumed, therefore, that it was Louis-Auguste’s firm that registered this patent, since it concerned the clarinet and the oboe.

Another patent, although it does not concern the bassoon, is of some interest because it refers to an instrument that will find its place in the world of instrument making, created by Adolphe Sax who, it should be remembered, was not very beneficial to the development of the bassoon. This is the patent registered for the saxophone in 1846: ‘(3226. 22 June 1846.) System of wind instruments called saxophones. Patent of invention of 15 years, taken on21 March 1846, by Sax known as Adolphe, manufacturer of musical instruments, in Paris, rue Neuve-Saint-Georges, n. 10.’156CUNIN-GRIDAINE, M., Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1846, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1847, p. 200.

A patent, registered in 1849 only for the oboe, mentions certain improvements to the instrument: ‘(8511. 3 September 1849.) System of combination of keys applicable to oboes of various keys and other instruments, in order to simplify the fingerings while retaining those in use, increasing the quality and accuracy of the sounds. Patent of 15 years, taken on 18 June 1849, by Triebert, manufacturer of musical instruments, in Paris, rue Montmartre, n. 132.’157Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1849, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1850, p. 149.

It was not until 1851 that the first patent for the bassoon was filed. Surprisingly, it was not a Frenchman who filed it, but an Englishman: ‘(11691. 23 July 1851.) Improved bassoon. Patent of 15 years, taken on 3 May 1851, by Ward, manufacturer of musical instruments, in London, represented by Chaussonnet, in Paris, rue Saint-Denis, n. 374.’158Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1851, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1852, p. 348. The beginning of the description of the patent begins with a review of the defects of the ordinary bassoon, more particularly with the mention of the poor position of the bore on the instrument:

My invention relates to certain improvements in the general construction of the joints or various parts of the wooden tubes composing the instruments by means of which I obtain an adequate extension of the bore by doubling the instrument as well as other advantages in the construction of the instrument.

However, this patent does not represent a significant advance in the making of the instrument. It should be remembered that Adolphe Sax had exhibited a 23-key bassoon in Great Britain ten years earlier. That instrument had a distinctly different bore from that of the bassoon in use at the time. It is likely that the English maker was inspired by Sax’s instrument to make his own. However, Cornelius Ward is to be credited with being the first to register a patent for the bassoon in France.

Patents in the Second Half of the 19th Century

In the same year, Adolphe Sax filed a patent for several instruments: ‘(11981. 15 September 1851.) Configurations applicable to wind musical instruments. Patent of 15 years, taken on 30 June 1851, by Sax, manufacturer of musical instruments, in Paris, rue Saint-Georges, n. 50’.159Ibid., p. 183. There is no need to list all the patents of this maker to understand why his relations with most of his colleagues were not the best. The vague definition of the elements supposedly protected by the patent allowed Sax to claim in many cases the innovations of other makers.

At a time when wind instruments were undergoing rapid development in the 19th century, a certain Rémusat did not hesitate to file a patent listing improvements to be made to old woodwind instruments: ‘(17893. 13 December 1853.) Improvements to old flutes, oboes, etc. Patent of 15 years, taken on 9 Nov. 1853, by Remusat, artist musician, in Paris, rue de Paradis-Poissonière, n. 6.’160Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1853, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1854, p. 363. We can assume here that some musicians had at heart the conservation of old instruments in order to play a repertoire with period instruments.

There is no shortage of patents concerning a group of instruments; let us quote again by way of example: ‘(18957. 30 April 1854.) Improvements made in the configuration of wooden musical instruments. Patent of 15 years, taken on 4 March 1854, by Nonon, flute and oboe maker, in Paris, rue Rochechouard, n. 8.’161Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1854, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1855, p. 386. This is a maker who specialised in the production of two woodwind instruments, the flute and the oboe. However, it is not known whether he had any skills in making bassoons. These also appear to be excluded from the following patent: ‘(19843. 5 August 1854.) Configuration of key applicable to clarinets, oboes, flutes and other similar instruments, to simplify fingering and reduce the complexity of the mechanism. Patent of 15 years, taken on 7 June 1854, by Lefèvre père, maker of musical instruments, in Paris, place du marché Saint-Honoré, n. 27.’162Ibid., 397. As can be seen, this patent relates to woodwind instruments, but the only instrument in this group not mentioned is the bassoon.

It was in 1855 that a Lyon instrument maker registered a patent for a low-register instrument: ‘(22516. 20 May 1855.) Musical instrument known as a müllerphone, or contrabass with reed. Patent of 15 years, taken on 3 March 1855, by Müller, instrument maker, passage Couderc, N. 10, in Lyon (Rhône).’163Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1855, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1856, p. 448. This instrument is not unimportant since, as we mentioned in the first chapter, instrument makers were always looking for a low-register woodwind instrument that could provide the bass in all instruments, and more particularly in wind instruments. Although we do not mention it in the section on bassoon-related instruments, the müllerphone has certain similarities with the bassoon, especially in its morphology. It is strangely shaped like the Russian bassoon, but with a mouthpiece and a single reed for embouchure, so that it appears to be a cross between a bassoon and a bass clarinet.

Patents on Reeds

The first patent registered on reeds dates from the same year: ‘(23404. 14 July 1855.) Rubber reeds for musical instruments. Patent of 15 years, taken on 7 May 1855, by Jobart, director of the museum of Belgian industry, residing in Paris at rue Jean-Goujon, n. 16.’164Ibid., p. 488. The material (rubber) used to make these reeds is noteworthy; it had, at the very least, the merit of being more solid than the cane used until then. However, it is doubtful that this innovation attracted much attention, since cane has its own virtues, especially that of being able to produce sounds of exceptional quality. Furthermore, a close look at the patent shows that this type of reed was of a significantly different length and width to the reeds in cane.

It was not until ten years after the filing of this first patent on reeds that we found another one, this time devoted to double-reed instruments: ‘Reeds for oboes, horns, bassoons (tubes with little blades for). Dumas, 93, 167. 66796. Patent 15 years, 31 March; DUMAS, electing domicile at Zacharie, rue de la Charité, 11, Lyon (Rhône). – Tube with little blades with mobile ferrule for reeds of oboe, English horns and bassoons, called tubes-Dumas.165Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1865, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1866, p. 286. The presence of a horn in this patent may seem surprising, but everything becomes clearer if one realises that it is an English horn that is being discussed here. Moreover, less than a week later, the same maker filed a certificate of addition to his patent: ‘Certificate of addition: (p.167) Dumas, 5 April. Patent 66796. (tube with little blades for reeds of oboe, horns, bassoons)’, but this innovation does not seem to have attracted much attention.

It was in 1878 that a new patent was registered, this time by a Frenchman, for the bassoon: ‘124886. Patent of 15 years, 3 June; IBERT, Grande-Rue, 17, Saint-Mandé (Seine) – New bassoon system (17).’ It is clear from the text that the instrument had 18 keys, the use of each of which was the subject of an adjustment by Ibert. not clear whether this patent had significant repercussions for the development of the bassoon in France, but its author can be credited with being the first Frenchman to have registered a patent for this instrument.

Later we find other patents on reeds: ‘131013. Patent of 15 years, 3 June; SMITH, represented by Armengaud the elder, rue Saint-Sébastien, 45 – Improvement of musical-instrument reeds’;166Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1879, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1880, p. 272. ‘147245. Patent of 15 years, 7 February; BRAY, represented by Armengaud the younger, Paris, boulevard de Strasbourg, 23 – Improvements in reeds and reed blades for musical instruments and in their method of manufacture’;167Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1882, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1883, p. 60. ‘156490. Patent of 15 years, 10 July; BRAY, represented by Dumas, Paris, boulevard Beaumarchais, 95. – Improvements made to the manufacture of reeds and reed plaques for musical instruments’.168Catalogue d’invention, d’importation et de perfectionnement délivrés du 1er janvier au 31 décembre 1883, Paris, Imprimerie et librairie de Mme Bouchard-Huzard, 1884, p. 364. We can infer that this craze for the manufacture of reeds is surely dictated by the need to have effective and more resilient reeds. However, even today, the type of reeds used has not improved to the extent that their design has been significantly altered.

The Lesson of Patents

At the end of this presentation, it is easy to see that all these patents testify to the desire to improve wind instruments. It should be noted that, among these, the bassoon has not been very much favoured in this respect. There are more patents on reeds than on this instrument. It is surprising that the bassoon has been the subject of so few patents, and this at a time when it has undergone the most changes and improvements in its history. How to account for this? The argument that it cost a lot of money to file a patent and that this was a deterrent to more than one maker does not seem convincing. Indeed, this argument could also apply to other instruments. Could it be that bassoon makers engaged in less competition with each other? This is very difficult to prove and also unconvincing, but can still be imagined. It is more likely, however, that the bassoon, and this is evident from earlier discussions in this work, remained technically more problematic than the other wooden instruments. The latter must have been in a state of perfection that made them more competitive. It is therefore understandable why makers were not motivated (and this is where the pecuniary argument may come into play) to protect an instrument or particular techniques of interest to them. Another probable reason is that there may not have been as large a market for the instrument as for flutes or oboes, for example. In any case, if this is the case, we can only be pleased that this did not hinder the desire to make it the fine instrument it has become today.

1:3:2 World Fairs

The first World Fair took place in 1798: ‘As for the 1798 exposition, which was the first, or rather, which was only a trial, we have not been able to obtain any information. But it is probable that the number of exhibitors would not amount to much more than zero’.169’Exposition des produits de l’industrie de 1834’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, tome 1, Paris, 1834, p. 153. During the course of the following century, expositions grew in importance and very quickly makers were able to see an opportunity to show their instruments to a wide audience and thus acquire a reputation for skill and excellence through the quality of their work. As it is the bassoon that is of primary interest to us, it is important to know which bassoon makers took part in the expositions and what awards were given to their instruments. To do this, it is necessary to examine in detail the various expositions in which bassoon makers participated. Among these, the expositions of 1827, 1834, 1851 and 1878 are worth mentioning.

The 1827 Exposition de l’industrie

It was in this exposition that Adler’s 15-key bassoon could be seen. Fétis does not fail to provide information on this exposition and on this instrument.170FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Clarinette de M. Janssen. Bassons à quinze clefs de M. Adler’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, vol. II, 1827, pp. 217-224. In particular, its maker was awarded a medal for it, which confirms that he was considered a first-rate craftsman in bassoon making in his time. The special features of this instrument can be found in the section on ‘Bassoon Makers’.

The 1834 Exposition de l’industrie

The number of participants at this exposition almost doubled compared to that of 1827: 105 exhibitors compared to 57 seven years earlier.171’Exposition des produits de l’industrie de 1834’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, tome 1, Paris, 1834, p. 153. Among them, there were no less than fifteen wind-instrument makers.172Ibid.,p. 153. On this occasion, the quality of the instruments made in France became obvious to all and, since then, this country has no longer needed to import instruments from abroad:

As for the objects of our speciality, it is already a fait accompli. Nothing is more beautiful, more finished, than the musical instruments that come out of the workshops in Paris. There was a time when France, for the greater part of these instruments, was dependent on foreign countries. Today the role has changed; it is France that supplies a good number of them to other countries. Whether it is the external elegance that makes them sought after; perhaps because the French taste, truly unique in its forms, is recognised everywhere. But this would not be a reason for expert musicians to prefer them, and it is certain that a golden piano would not make the Erards famous if it were not for the modest wooden pianos.173Ibid., pp. 153-154.

Moreover, this exposition seems to be the first in which provincial makers took part: ‘… At this year’s exposition it is no longer the makers from the capital who are competing for the prize. Those of the departments also came to take part in the fight. Marseille, Nantes, Rouen and other towns sent pianos, violins and wind instruments …’.174Ibid., p. 154.

The 1851 Great Exhibition

Thanks to Hector Berlioz we have information on the making of the instruments at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. He was appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and Trade as a member of the commission in charge of examining the musical instruments exhibited at this exposition. His ‘Rapport sur les instruments de musique’ was published by the Imprimerie impériale in 1854. The following year, he reissued his famous Traité where he added a chapter on Instruments nouveaux with some annotations.

It will be noted that at the beginning of this document Hector Berlioz is presented as librarian of the Conservatoire impérial de musique et de déclamation. It is also noteworthy that he is the only French representative on the jury assessing the various instruments:

Today these same instruments, built according to rational principles, leave very little to be desired. Their musical scale has been enriched by new sounds, their timbre has become pure, and their very families have been more or less completed.

It was in France and Germany that the two progressive movements that brought about the revolution in wind-instrument making that we are highlighting developed almost simultaneously.175The full report can be found on the Internet: [Editor: the English translation provided there is, however, unreliable.]

Once again, France is the country to have won the honours of this exposition and its dominant position in instrument making is undoubtedly confirmed:

This point admitted, the French jury can feel no embarrassment in recognising the immense superiority of the products of France in this competition open to all nations, since he was alone to defend the interests of his compatriots when England had four representatives, and that the equity of the rival nations gave the greatest share to the French exhibitors in the distribution of the prizes.

The number of prize medals awarded to French makers for the manufacture of musical instruments, as opposed to that obtained by foreign makers, officially proves the superiority of the former. If I thought the contrary, I would not hesitate to say so. Far from it, a scrupulous and, I believe, absolutely impartial examination has given me the conviction that France, today, occupies the first rank in the art of making musical instruments in general. England and Germany come next and compete for second place in some specialities. It is regrettable to say that Italy and Spain, on this solemn occasion, took no serious part in the fight, and that several German and French makers who would undoubtedly have figured with distinction, were also absent.176Ibid.

The impartiality of the jury cannot be doubted since Berlioz was the only Frenchman on it, and it must be admitted that this favourable opinion was shared by the other nations. It is clear that French makers owe much of their reputation to expositions where they won numerous awards. Was this justified, given the quality of their work and their creativity?

Berlioz was full of praise for several makers. Among others he had flattering words for Adolph Sax, both for his various brass and woodwind instruments. In particular he seems to have been won over by Sax’s metal bassoon (presumably the one made in 1849): ‘His copper bassoon, with a new system of keys and holes, is really perfect’.

It is clear that Berlioz drew from this exposition all the information he had about the instruments of the time. As will be noted in the section on ‘Major Improvements in the 19th Century’, Hector Berlioz devotes an entire paragraph to the work done by Théobald Boehm and the award he received at this exposition. The positive verdict was not short-lived, since in the new edition of his Grand traité he continued to regard Boehm’s system as the best remedy for the bassoon’s deficiencies.

The 1878 Exposition universelle and the Interest of World Fairs

Some nations were not represented in this exposition. This was particularly the case for Germany:

We have not been given the opportunity of judging German instrument making; in 1889, as in 1878, it refrained from participating. We regret this, for although we have nothing to envy it, it would have been interesting to see its progress, especially as wind instruments are highly valued in the German Empire. In 1867, the result was not the most satisfactory for her; only two honourable mentions were awarded to woodwind-instrument makers.177PIERRE, Constant, La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889, notes d’un musicien sur les instruments à souffle humain nouveaux et perfectionnés, Paris, Librairie de l’art indépendant, 1890, p. 5.

It is understandable that participating in a World Fair could be expensive, not only to get there, but also to transport the instruments. Moreover, to return from such an event without any results was not an incentive to participate. This is all the more regrettable because it would have been possible to discover the German bassoon and compare it with those built in other countries.

As industrial firms make progress in the field of woodwind-instrument making, there already seems to be a certain nostalgia for the artisanal art that characterized the French bassoon:

Like the skilled luthiers of the past, they were artists. They were not in charge of a large staff and did not try to produce a large amount of instruments; often they could not meet the demands. In the midst of a few high-flying workmen, one could see them with their tools in hand, retouching, checking to achieve perfection, jealous to preserve a reputation nobly acquired.

Such were the Almingues, the Raouxs, the Savarys, the Lots, the Buffets, the Lefèvres, the Godfroys, the Triéberts, etc.178Ibid., p. 6.

As soon as the industry made it possible to build instruments in large numbers, their purchase price dropped significantly and that of the ordinary maker could not compete. This could explain the decline in the number of bassoon makers in the mid-19th century, as the vast majority of customers who decided to learn the instrument preferred to buy a cheap instrument when they started out:

Low-cost instruments sell better and in greater numbers than premium instruments, and provide profits that the latter cannot produce, since they require more care and since with artists alone using them, a considerable number cannot be sold; this naturally gives rise to a preference for the former and an indifference to the latter, which are gradually abandoned until they are dropped altogether.179Ibid., p. 7.

The World Fairs remain a privileged opportunity for makers to prove their talents and to be recognised as among the most skilful craftsmen. However, in spite of the advantages offered by these expositions, the makers did not take advantage of them to have their instruments heard: ‘In this respect, the expositions certainly leave something to be desired, for organ and piano makers are as generous with auditions, as the makers of human-breath instruments are sparing with them.’180Ibid., p. 9.

Still at the end of the 19th century, bassoons of different sizes were being built: ‘Mr Lorée wanted to renew the family of oboes, Messrs Evette and Schaeffer did the same for the bassoon by exhibiting three instruments of different sizes and consequently of different tonalities, as well as a contrabassoon.’181Ibid., p. 25. But on the other hand, Constant Pierre continues to consider this phenomenon to be rather rare and episodic:

… but there was only one type of bassoon proper, the curtal and the cervelas, its derivatives, having no other analogy with it than the reed and not being intended to sound at the same time.

It was not until the eighteenth century that French makers built bassoons of various sizes, and then only exceptionally. The Conservatoire museum has only a seven-key soprano bassoon in F by Delusse. In 1827, Savary the younger made an ottavino bassoon which is also in the collection of this museum.

These instruments are in fact very rare in France. Formerly used in Germany to accompany choirs in church music, where each voice (discantus, altus, tenor, bassus) was faithfully doubled by an instrument (Rackett, Chorist-Fagott, etc., etc.) of similar range, they did not have the same reason to exist in France. It was only much later that they replaced the English horn and were sometimes used by soloists wishing to achieve greater virtuosity. Although the English horn made its appearance at the Opéra in 1808, the provinces were for a long time deprived of it. It was replaced by the bassoon in F, notably in Bordeaux where Reickmans established himself around 1833 after leaving the Opéra.182Ibid., p. 25-26.

Few good bassoonists have played these small bassoons. However, it is known that Eugène Jancourt, from 1838 to 1840, performed solo works on an instrument in E♭by Savary, at concerts given in the salons of the piano makers Mercié and Souffleto:183Ibid., p. 27.

We regret, however, that instead of making three instruments following each other at such a short distance, Messrs Evette and Schaeffer did not try to build one in the middle between the ordinary bassoon and the contrabassoon, not precisely to gain in low register, but to facilitate the production of the first seven bass notes, which are very much in use now and whose execution does not fail to present certain difficulties, especially for the disjunct intervals. The five keys (3 open, 2 closed) designed to produce the first seven notes are operated by a single finger: the thumb of the left hand, which must move a total of about seven centimetres from B♭to E. Under these conditions it is not possible to slur the sound in any other way than by conjunct steps, because by sliding the finger, one would hear the intermediate sounds and the slurring could often not be fast enough. But as soon as the thumb leaves the key which it had been holding closed, it reopens, causing a loss of air which interrupts the vibratory movement and impairs the good and prompt production of the next note; the small number of vibrations of the low tones absolutely requires that the air column be uninterrupted.184Ibid., p. 28.

The bassoon’s low register has a beautiful timbre, but the mechanism is not easy to handle with virtuosity. Indeed, the left thumb controls the keys allowing the first notes of this register to be sounded. This makes it difficult to execute the low-register sequences.

The lesson to be learned from the patents filed throughout the 19th century on woodwind can be found in 1:3:1; it is confirmed by the information that can be drawn from the World Fairs. We can see that constant efforts were made to improve woodwind instruments, and particularly, since this is what concerns us, the bassoon. But, on the other hand, the development of industrialisation, from which the premium products of the artisans cannot escape, clearly shows that the profitability of a product and its relatively affordable price, even if they have promoted its production, have not promoted its quality. These two seemingly contradictory trends are reconciled because the industrialisation of the product could not have been achieved without the improvements made over the course of a century. In a way, without the research and innovations of the makers, the industrialisation of woodwind in general, and that of the bassoon in particular, could not have grown. Moreover, the production of more affordable, but lower-quality instruments has not eradicated the production of more elaborate instruments. One feeds on the other, and this is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the present discussion.

1:4 Major Improvements in the 19th Century

1:4:1 The Development of Bassoon Playing in France

During the first half of the 19th century, the number of keys on the instrument was greatly increased and, during the second half of the same century, the position of the keys was considerably improved. It is worth noting that at this time about fifteen keys were gradually placed on the instrument, thus facilitating the execution of pieces that challenged the performer. This was a major innovation, since the bassoon hardly changed at all from the end of the 19th century, apart from a few minor details.

Difficulties of Dating Innovations

When the bassoon had only a few keys, fork fingering was used to produce a note. However, this type of fingering was not without its problems: it made the technique of the instrument more complex and altered the quality of the sound. This is what Kergomard describes when he explains what these fork fingerings consist of:

When you drill three successive holes in a pipe, you get three notes by opening them one after the other. But if you close, for example, the 1st and 3rd, leaving the 2nd open, you can obtain an intermediate note between those obtained by closing only the first one, and by closing the first two. This is called a fork fingering. The note is characterised by a different sound from the other notes, by less power in general, and by the fact that the partials are wrong.185KERGOMARD, Jean, ‘Le basson’, Bulletin du Groupe d’Acoustique Musicale, nos 82  & 83, décembre 1975 – janvier 1976, Paris, p. 6.

As Will Jansen points out in the short introduction to his book The Bassoon, we cannot take for granted the dates we are given for the addition of a key to the bassoon.186JANSEN, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 19. It must be remembered that improvements to an instrument must first be tried and approved by a bassoonist, and then the players must take the time to assimilate the improvement. Thus the arrangement of the keys had to be modified on the body of the instrument before finding a fixed place. All these elements suffice to prove that it is difficult to give precise dates for the major developments of the instrument’s keywork.

Bassoon’s Keywork before the 19th Century

The bassoon originally had three keys: B flat, D and low F. This was the case at the beginning of the 18th century, around 1705, when a fourth key was added, that of G♯. It was not until about fifty years later that the fifth key, D, was introduced around 1765. It was not until 20 years later that a sixth key appeared, that of low F, added by Ozi. It should be noted that the notes low B and C♯ were only attainable on the instrument at the end of the 18th century.

Consider the words of Jansen, who urges caution with regard to sources that suggest that, by the end of the 18th century, the bassoon could be raised to C4 and beyond, when the sixth and seventh keys were added:

Firstly, the then used French bassoon, mainly the Savary and imitations thereof, went naturally quite high because the instrument’s bore length, diameter and conicity caused this; secondly, the then used German bassoons, not only the Grenser but many others, did not reach up so high, even with these 6th and 7th keys; thirdly, there was no reason to have the bassoon extending its compass so high. Both composers and musicians knew that above a’ no bassoon sounded nicely (still the same today!) and rather than forcing the instrument into the ‘ octave where it (still) does not belong, makers were pressed to improve its timbre, its easy speaking, its sonority and particularity its ability to produce without problems and trouble the many required shakes, trills and legati.187Ibid., p. 54.

This quotation has the merit of pointing out that even before the German and French systems were distinguished in the 19th century, there were already notable differences between the bassoons of these two nations.

As we have also explained in the section dealing with the ‘Bassoon before the 19th Century’, it is difficult to establish with certainty the date when a key was added because, for it to be considered a real improvement, it required, as we have already noted, a trial period during which bassoonists tried it out. We shall see in the chapter on ‘Bassoon Methods of the 19th  Century’ that in his first method Ozi presents his instrument and lists its advantages. This proves, if it were necessary, that the bassoons in use at a given time were not all of the same quality.

Register Keys and the Bocal Key

The register keys allow, above all, to produce higher notes than the conventional fingering. In the bassoon, more precisely, they allow the note to be produced at the octave. They are closed keys that close the register holes. Their position on the instrument poses a problem which has occupied makers for a long time, from the creation of the first register key (1795) until 1880 when the keywork found its definitive position on the bassoon body.188KERGOMARD, op. cit., p. 16.

The first register key to appear on a wind instrument was the key of the 12th on the clarinet.189Ibid., p. 16. It was not until twenty years later that the bassoon had its own key, the key of A; it allows the production of A3 and will later be used as an octave key for the A2an octave lower (this key is, moreover, already noted in the bassoon chart in the first method of Ozi).190Ibid., pp. 16-17. Shortly afterwards, the key of C appeared, allowing the note C4 to beproduced; it was also used later as an octave key for C3 (the first to mention this key was Koch in 1802).191Ibid., p. 17.

A hole on the bocal was already present in some particular instruments in the 18th century, but the process was not generalised until the following century.192Ibid., p. 17. This innovation made it possible to correct the intonation of certain notes in the medium-high and high registers. Later, around 1830, the octave key appeared, allowing this hole to be closed.193Ibid., p. 17. In Boshner’s method of 1875, we learn that this key is dependent on other keys, because the octave key is activated when another key is pressed.194Ibid., p. 17.

This key was probably activated by the A and C keys. But as these were not used in the low register, they did not yet solve the problem of attacks in the low register, as air was leaking onto the bocal.195Ibid., p. 17. It was not until several years later (around 1875 in the time of Jancourt) that the key became independent, operated by the little finger of the left hand, since this finger was not used to close the holes for the low register.196Ibid., p. 17. This key, mentioned in Giraud’s chart, made its appearance in 1868. It should be noted that the presence of this key made it possible to enlarge the bocal hole, thus improving the treble.197Ibid., p. 17.

It is worth noting that in Germany it was not until around 1875 that this key was adopted. However, as in France, it was based on the key of the C register, which explains why this system was not very successful.

The Keys of Low B and Low C

At the beginning of the 19th century, the production of the two low notes, B and C, was always problematic and wise composers avoided writing them, especially B natural (consider, for example, Weber’s Freischütz of 1821, where the composer avoids this note by replacing it with a silence).198Ibid., p. 18.

The keys of B and C were created at the beginning of the 19th century and their invention should be attributed, according to L.G. Langwill, to Simiot. They were not widely used until around 1825. This attribution is doubtful, however, as he was cut off from the other Parisian makers; this seems all the more likely as he only participated once in an exposition, in 1824. There were several subsequent improvements to the arrangement of the bass-key mechanism, and the present system was in all likelihood developed by Jancourt around 1845. It should be noted that it is the left thumb that operates the keys for the low register of the instrument. This finger is particularly busy (eight keys for the French bassoon and nine for the German bassoon).

Keys for Removing Certain Forks

Four keys, which appeared towards the end of the 18th century or at the beginning of the 19th century, made it possible to get rid of awkward fingerings:199Ibid., p. 18.

  • 1) The F♯ key, which appeared a little before 1787, was originally used to raise the low G♯and was also used for the high B♭, which makes the term improper. However, as early as 1810 it was possible to use this key to make the G♯ without a fork fingering.

  • 2) The keys of B and C♯ appeared at the turn of the 19th  century. The first to add these keys in France was Simiot of Lyon from 1808 onwards.200JANSEN, Will, op. cit., p. 94. The position of these keys will have been fluid, varying from the butt to the wing joint. A few years later, it will be fixed on the wing joint and these keys will be operated by the little finger of the left hand.

  • 3) The key of E♭appeared around 1830. The various methods of this period mark the fork fingering and the key fingering for the note. The fork fingering will eventually prevail over the key, the latter being used only for trills.

The addition of these keys significantly advanced the technique of the instrument, giving more possibilities to composers using the bassoon. Indeed, these innovations made it easier to slur from one note to another, giving the instrument a flexibility that it had previously lacked.

Trill Keys

Already in the middle of the 19th century the addition of new keys was only intended to make trills or to facilitate the production of certain weak notes on the instrument.201KERGOMARD, op. cit., pp. 18-19. Eugène Jancourt added two keys to his bassoon around 1845. These were mainly intended to facilitate the execution of certain trills, but they were also intended to make it easier to play the high notes. Encouraged by this success, the maker added more keys around 1875.

1:4:2 The Body of the Bassoon

The Wing Joint

The wing joint is the wooden part of the bassoon with the narrowest tube, except for the reed.202JANSEN, op. cit., p. 167. For this reason, the construction of this part is particularly tricky, as the slightest scratch inside this part could ruin the bore of the joint, a scratch that would probably not have affected the long joint and the bell. To avoid this type of problem, the wing joints of the French-type bassoon were made of a more tough wood than the other wooden parts of the instrument: ‘From the very beginning, French type bassoons were made of hardwood, mostly either ebony, rose wood or pallissander wood and this, according to makers and players, did not require a lining.203Ibid., pp. 164-165.

In the middle of the 19th century, French instrument makers began to cover the junction points of the different parts of the instrument with a metallic surface, thus facilitating the connection between its different parts, and avoiding large fluctuations in pressure and density between the junction points of the tube:

Around 1850, several French makers also fitted a metal bushing into recess, firstly to facilitate fitting and withdrawing of the crook, the friction of threads or cork against polished metal is much less than against naked wood – secondly, because if of this recess bushing, the wall thickness is adequate, this tube will take up any side pressure, relieving thus the wood from the tension.204Ibid., p. 167.

Although this improvement did not bring anything in terms of sonority, timbre or dynamics, it allowed for better maintenance and avoided some inconvenience or even deterioration.

Some makers did not hesitate to launch certain innovations that may seem fanciful: to allow playing in a larger intonation region, they went so far as to build two wing jointes of different dimensions for the same bassoon.205Ibid., p. 168. Such an attempt had already been made before the 19th century, as evidenced by a bassoon made by Baumann in Paris around 1780.206Ibid., p. 168. It is not known whether other bassoons existed before this period, but the practice was to be used for almost three quarters of a century.207Ibid., p. 168. Among the first to apply this type of procedure were the French: ‘The oldest known specimen of a bassoon with two wing joints is one made by Porthaux, well before 1800. Besides him there were two other French makers who supplied bassoons with an extra wing joint, Baumann and Thierriot both in Paris.’208Ibid., p. 168. Why did the makers give up building this type of bassoon? The progress of bassoon making is the reason. Indeed, the general intonation had stabilised during the 19th century. In addition, the manufacture of two wing jointes was difficult and more costly. As the advantages of this type of bassoon were minimal or non-existent, the production of others was abandoned.

Some 19th-century bassoons have a small tuning slide attached to the wing joint of the instrument; the first maker to apply this system was Simiot.209Ibid., p. 169. It can also be noted that in the 19th century it was possible to buy a bassoon with a spare joint or a tuning slide: ‘Apart from the Opéra, we find on various price lists, letters or invoices, some other information concerning the so-called wind instruments. Already in 1830, they had undergone improvements and the number of keys had increased. … the 11-key basson with a spare wing joint, 230 fr. and 300, with the joint with tuning slide.’210PIERRE, op. cit., p. 378.

If we look at the wing joint of the instrument, we can see that the holes closed by the keys are: the octave key, the A3 key in the upper register, the key of C♯2, and at the back of the wing joint, the trill key of E and F♯ in the upper register.211JANSEN, op. cit., p. 166.

The Boot Joint

This part of the instrument connects the two parallel tubes of the instrument, that of the wing joint (the descending one) and that of the long joint and bell (the ascending tube).212Ibid., p. 171. In the old bassoons, part of the wall separating the two tubes was cut away, forming a rectangular or oval cavity. The butt is the second part of the bassoon’s wooden body through which the air passes into the instrument.213Ibid., p. 171.

The making of this piece is one of the most problematic in bassoon making. First of all, two tubes of different diameters have to be drilled and joined, trying to ensure a smooth transition between the sections to be connected.214Ibid., p. 173.

Although Simiot managed to solve many difficulties by making this type of improvement to the butt, the makers in Paris continued to build this part of the instrument in the old way in the same period. It is not clear whether Simiot was the first maker to apply this system of connecting the two tubes of the butt by a U-shaped tube, for around the same time Streitwolf of Göttingen in Germany was designing bassoons according to the same procedure, but there is no evidence that these two makers knew each other.215Ibid., p. 177.

The Long Joint and the Bell

The long joint and the bell are the last two wooden parts of the instrument. They are used, among other things, toto produce the low notes on the bassoon. The long joint is used to produce the low notes below the E1. Its construction is less complex than that of the wing joint. In fact, the position of the bore is further away and the effects on intonation are less affected than in the wing joint where a difference between the bore and its correct location would be detrimental.

The bell is the end of the tube, allowing the production of the lowest note, B♭0. On the French bassoon, the key, without being operated, covers the B hole, while on the German bassoon it is the opposite. The bell comes in different forms. Amongst other things, it can be observed that many bells are flared. Some are even made of metal.

The Bocal

Towards the end of the 19th century, Porthaux built wooden bocals. This test showed interesting sound qualities. But it can be inferred that they were not as strong as metal bocals. Moreover, the acoustic properties of the metal bocals were known. In addition, wood is more susceptible to fluctuations due to climate changes, so it is easy to understand why metal bocals were preferred

It is interesting to note that throughout the 19th century most German makers did not put a bocal key on their bassoons.216Ibid., p. 221. This procedure was used in France early in the century, as can be seen from the Savary instruments built in the 1820s.217Ibid., p. 221. Heckel did not start to install this bocal key until after 1890, but another German had preceded him, at least for some of his instruments, namely a certain Adler from Markneukirchen, who produced them until 1865.218Ibid., p. 221. He may have been related in some way to Guillaume Adler of Paris, who was aware of the process through the instruments of Savary; perhaps Guillaume Adler passed on information about Parisian bassoon making to this Adler from Markneukirchen. This cannot be answered with certainty, but it seems a plausible hypothesis.

1:4:3 The Reed

The Fragility of the Reed

The reed is one of the most delicate and important parts of the bassoon: it allows the sounds to be produced on the instrument and is largely responsible for the quality of timbre that can be obtained from the instrument. Our knowledge of 19th-century reeds is essentially theoretical; as they are very fragile, it is difficult to find old ones in good condition: ‘Actually there are very few specimens from before 1800, if any at all. And even reed specimens of before 1860 are very rare’.219Ibid., p. 722. There are many reasons for the fragility of reeds: they can only be used for a limited period of time; their life expectancy is short; once they have served their purpose, they are of no use and are most often discarded.220Ibid., p. 722. As reed cane was, then as now, the main material used to make the reed, we can infer that the fragility of the object did not allow us to have intact ancient specimens. This is all the more clear as the life of a reed depends on several factors: the quality of the cane, its age and drying time, the method of manufacture, the way the reed was moistened before playing, the life of the reed, the strength of the air flow, the way it was maintained.

Sources of Information on Reeds

The sources that provide valuable information on the reed are without doubt the bassoon methods. In the section dealing with these we will see who the great bassoonists of the 19th century were, whohave passed on first-rate information on the making of the reed, on its qualities, on the various factors that must be taken into account for its correct making. First of all, Ozi, in his first method, gives judicious advice on the choice of cane and what to do with it to obtain a good reed:

There are many things to observe in order to find a perfect Reed. 1° it is necessary to choose a Cane that is not coarse-grained and that is yellowish in colour.
2° it must be dry and not soak up water; this latter point should be noticed the second time a Reed is played, for when it is not strong enough, when the tones from below do not come out and one gets tired of playing, it would be wrong to persist in continuing with such a Reed, 3° the Ring must go in a lot, that is to say about half an inch further forward than the Ligature; I observe that when the Ring does not enter enough, the Reed gapes open too much or if one wants to tighten the Ring to close it, one makes the sounds comb; When a Reed has all the above good qualities, when the tones from above and below come out well, if it is strong enough, it must be scraped gently by the end and a little higher in both sides; and if it is dull, or does not vibrate enough, you must remove a little of the Cane’s bark, and scrape lightly all the way to the end; you must also, before playing, take care to moisten the Reed enough so that the moisture penetrates the Ligature, without this precaution you are liable to have the Reed thrown off when you turn it in the bocal to hold it.221OZI, Étienne, Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson, Paris, Boyer, 1800, pp. 6-7.

These tips on reed making are interesting and instructive; however, it would be difficult (for someone who has never made one) to construct a reed with them. They do nevertheless help to avoid many of the problems encountered when making them.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, other bassoon methods offer additional and more precise insights into the way reeds are constructed. In Frédéric Berr’s method we learn, among other things, that the reeds used in France and Germany are made in different ways:

The proportions of the Reed are not fixed. The Germans use very strong Reeds and produce unpleasant sounds. The English go beyond this harshness and it is impossible for them to play piano because their Reeds are so rough that too much air is needed to articulate the notes.

In France Reeds of all kinds are used, but there is nevertheless a desirable proportion and a form which the experience of good artists has recognised as serving as general rules.

The Reed should have the proportions shown on page 5 and should be curved at the top and bottom.

For the use of Reeds, spongy canes should be rejected, as they soak up too easily when placed in the mouth and have no bite to them.

In spite of the good quality of the cane, the Reeds are sometimes muted; they can be scraped at the heel to obtain a more brilliant sound quality, especially in the lower notes.

The proportions of the Reed being drawn up according to acoustic rules, they must not be altered; it is therefore wrong to advise shortening the tip when the Reed gets old, the sounds then become sharp and uneven because the quantity of air that was necessary for a stronger Reed becomes overabundant when it is cut, and the instrument becomes out of tune.

The students should first study with weak Reeds and then gradually learn to use those that are used to obtain rounder and brighter sounds.

It is a good idea to clean the Reed’s tip from time to time, as it is soiled by the humid air produced by the breath.

The dirt inside the Reed should be removed with a toothpick or pin from the side that enters the mouth only; the heel should not be touched.222BERR, Frédéric, Méthode complète de basson, Paris, J. Meissonnier, n.d., p. 4.

The information on the reed by Berr is very interesting. He was perhaps the first to write about the need to maintain and clean the reed. This detail is not unimportant, as this care considerably increases the life of the reed.

But it is Willent-Bordogni who, in his method, gave first-rate information on the making of reeds.223WILLENT-BORDOGNI, Joseph, Méthode complète pour le basson à l’usage des Conservatoires Royaux de Musique de Paris et de Bruxelles, dédié à son ami J. Fétis, Maître de Chapelle du roi Léopold et Directeur du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, Paris, Maison Troupenas, 1844, 103 p. The latter is not sparing with details and wrote a complete article in the 19th century on the reed. This article can be found in Appendix 1 of this study.

The Reed Trade

Bassoonists in the 18th and 19th centuries made a point of making their own reeds. However, in the 19th century wind-instrument makers began to sell reeds, and advertisements can be found in the magazines of the time. Some Paris bassoonists also engaged in the trade of reeds they had made at the same time; some even offered their services abroad: ‘Old city of London directories mention commercial reed makers and some Paris makers are mentioned in old books, like the following, where makers of reeds of … bassoon are mentioned:

  • Ballarini (et clarinettes), rue Traversière/St. Germain
  • Divoire, Fauburg St-Denis 43
  • Dossion, Quai des Augustins 49
  • Fougas, Fauburg St-Denis 64
  • Marconnot, Passage des Petits-Pères 3
  • Martin, rue de Sèvres 90
  • Testard, rue du Renard/St. Sauveur 10224JANSEN, op. cit., pp. 718-719.

In the section dealing with bassoonists in 19th-century France, it can be seen that Divoire, Dossion and Fougas were bassoonists in Paris who were well-known in their time in their circle and were attached to the Conservatoire.225Ibid., p. 719.

Innovations in Reed Manufacture

As far as the equipment used for making reeds is concerned, an interesting innovation appeared in the 19th century: reed-making machines. The first person to design this machine was Henri Brod.226JANSEN, Ibid., p. 734. From 1830 onwards, he experimented to find a machine that could make reeds that are ready to play.227Ibid., p. 734. He completed the construction of this machine and showed it on various occasions in Paris.228Ibid., p. 734. In 1834, Fétis mentions and describes it in one of his articles in his Revue musicale:

Mr Brod has just invented a very ingenious machine by means of which the least expert and least skilful artist, even a child, can make reeds as perfect for the oboe or the bassoon as the most skilful luthier, and what’s more the manufacture is done with a celerity which cannot be equalled by any other mode of making.

To put this machine into use, it is sufficient to turn a crank. This rotating movement produces the following results: 1° The cane is cut to length;

2° On the other hand, it is hollowed out with a precision that would be impossible to achieve by ordinary procedures, and which leaves nothing to be desired. Whatever the diameter of the cane tube used, it is forced to take that of the machine;

3° A tool, which can be compared to a penknife, is used to give the reeds a shape that is always the same, and that is uniformly set to the same dimensions;

4° A tube is placed on a mandrel which is turned by the same crank: the prepared reed is placed in it, so that by tightening a screw which fixes it to this same tube and which, on the other side, takes the end of a silk cord, one only has to turn by tightening the ligature; the reed cannot fail to be formed equally on each side

We have before us reeds which have been made by this process and which outweigh, in terms of finish and regularity, all those we have seen up to now. Mr Brod can provide all oboe and bassoon players with these machines which will save them a lot of trial and error and often fruitless work.229FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Machine à faire les anches de hautbois et de basson’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, Dimanche 13 juillet 1834, VIIIe année, n°28, p. 221.

From the middle until the end of the 19th century, the bassoon evolved little, as most of the improvements in its construction were made during the first half of the century. The manufacture of the instrument and its design stabilised, as did its dimensions. The general pitch of the different ensembles became more uniform. Thus the efforts of the makers bore fruit so that by the beginning of the 20th century bassoonists had a reliable instrument free of the defects that Berlioz liked to denounce.

Chapter 2: Bassoon and Complementary or Rival Instruments

2:1 The Contrabassoon in 19th-Century France

As with the bassoon, the origins of the contrabassoon are not easy to establish. The construction of such an instrument was complex, which led to its being considered the ‘bête noire’ of wind-instrument makers. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them did not attempt to make one. However, in spite of all the difficulties raised by the making of the contrabassoon, this instrument has nevertheless found its place in orchestras as well as in wind bands. As it is closely related to the bassoon, it is worthwhile to deal with it and to collect all the relevant information about it in 19th-century France for analysis.

It is important to determine, first of all, which instruments were the precursors of the contrabassoon before the 19th century. We can then go in search of the craftsmen who had the courage to tackle the making of this instrument in the 19th century. In addition, one should not neglect the treatises on instrumentation from this period, as they contain a wealth of first-rate information on musical instruments, including the contrabassoon. Following these steps, it will be easier to understand the conditions in which this instrument developed in France in the 19th century.

2:1:1 The Origins of the Contrabassoon

The origins of the contrabassoon are much more difficult to establish than those of the ordinary bassoon. First of all, if we stick to the term used to designate it, the first contrabassoon must have been created only after the ordinary bassoon had a secure existence. Since the origins of the latter lie in the late 16th or early 17th century, it is likely that the first contrabassoon came into existence no later than the 17th century. It is even possible that the maker who built the ‘first’1It is as difficult to determine the break in history that distinguishes an instrument from its ancestor as it is to determine the break that distinguishes man from ape. bassoon could have built a contrabassoon later. It was common for makers not to confine themselves to making instruments of the same range. However, there is nothing to confirm this hypothesis, especially since, as we shall see, the specimens that have survived are very rare, and the oldest ones do not go back beyond the 18th century.

Before the 19th century, musical-instrument makers did not limit themselves to making one type of instrument, but produced different types. Some of them were arguably more skilled at making one of them. Thus, as we have already seen, the Hotteterres made several types of wind instruments, but some of them were particularly good at making bassoons, flutes and oboes. It is possible that a taste for making a particular instrument might have prompted the craftsman to create specimens in a different range. However, as the bassoon was still in a particularly primitive state at the end of the 16th century, it is reasonable to assume that few of them were inclined to build a contrabassoon.

But before this instrument finally saw the light of day, old instruments testify to the will of the makers to produce an instrument of low register to ensure a good bass in a group of woodwind instruments. The contrabass bombard is one of these instruments. An article by Théodore Parmentier provides an interesting description of this family of instruments:

Figures 11, 12, 13 and 14 show various bombards (German, Pommer, Bombarde; Italian, bombardo). The bombards formed a whole family of reed instruments of very different sizes, the smallest of which, the chalumeau or pastoral fife (piffero pastorale), gaverise to the oboe. The instrument shown in figure 11 is the grande bombarde or bombarde contrebasse (German, grosse Bass-Pommer; Italian, bombardone). It was played with a bocal like the bassoon. On the front it has six holes and some keys on the upper part; in the back is a key for the thumb. The range of this instrument is two octaves from the bottom F of bassbelow the lines to F on the fourth line of the same clef.2PARMENTIER, Théodore, ‘Description de quelques instruments de musique conservés à la Bibliothèque de la ville de Strasbourg’, Revue et Gazette musicale, 28 mai 1854, 21e année, n°22, p. 178.

It is clear from this quotation that the contrabass bombard was a woodwind instrument with a lower register than the bassoon. The instrument had a bocal similar to that of the bassoon. Its lowest note is a fifth higher than that of the contrabassoon, but since its range was not much more than two octaves, it is more similar in range to the contrabassoon than to the bassoon. Moreover, as one cannot question the filiation between the bombard and the wind instruments with double reed, one can, under these conditions, consider the contrabass bombard as an ancestor of the contrabassoon.3Among the rare specimens of very low-register wind instruments that have survived is an instrument of German origin, the ‘Oktavbass’. It is, however, difficult to determine whether this instrument had as clear an affinity with the contrabassoon as the contrabass bombard.

As for the first contrabassoons that have come down to us, four are known, all of German origin.4WATERHOUSE, William, ‘Bassoon’, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan publishers limited, 2001, vol. 2, p. 892. One of them comes from Leipzig; it is signed A. Eichentopf and dated 1714. Another from Sonderhausen is neither dated nor signed, but its creation is attributed to Heyde and the year of its creation can be fixed before 1711. As for the other two, it is not known who made them. These four early contrabassoons are essentially more extended versions of the bassoon model of the maker Denner and go down to B♭1.

English makers also built contrabassoons in the early 18th century. Thomas Stanesby is said to have made one in 1727.5Ibid., p. 892. His son also made one with the special feature of being a large bassoon with four keys and measuring no less than 253 cm in height. According to the critics, this maker seems to have succeeded in making the best wind instrument of its time in the very low register: ‘A contemporary advertisement refers to ‘Two Grand or Double Bassoons, made by Mr Stanesby jun. The greatness of whose sound surpasses that of any other Bass Instrument whatsoever’.6Ibid., p. 892. In the above-mentioned article by Théodore Parmentier on the Strasbourg museum, a brief description of a contrabassoon can be found: ‘Figure 15 shows the front and back of a contrabassoon (German, Doppel-Fagott, Contra-Fagott; Dulcinum fagotto; Italian, fagottone). This instrument is made of maple wood; its mouthpiece is missing.7PARMENTIER, Théodore, op. cit., p. 178. Although not much is known about the instrument described, it is known that maple wood was used to make it. Some bassoons are made from this wood, but most French bassoons are made from ebony or rosewood, which suggests that they were probably made abroad But, again, there is no way to confirm this beyond doubt.

There is another instrument worth mentioning and whose description deserves to be mentioned. a specimen of contrabass oboe, an instrument that shows great abilities and is innovative for its time:

This last instrument is remarkable not only for its rarity – it is probably unique – but also for the innovation it represented at the time. The old complete families of instruments had long since disappeared, and it is beyond doubt that Delusse, in making this contrabass, had no thought of reconstituting it. We are therefore in the presence of a new attempt, whose aim, we believe, is to replace the bassoon, and what confirms us in this opinion is this passage reproduced for the first time in the Facture instrumentale (p. 24), according to the Almanach musical for 1781:

Mr Luce has also made a contrabass oboe. This instrument is very effective in a large orchestra. M. (Le Marchand, bassoon of the Opéra, used it for six months at this performance. The price of the contrabass oboe is 100 livres.

There is reason to believe that the instrument in the Conservatoire is the one referred to in this quotation. In this case, there would have been an error on the part of the editor of the catalogue, on the presumed date of 1760, and on the name of the instrument which would not be, as he believed, a contrabass bombard, (moreover long since out of use) whereas on the contrary its proportions and its use at the Opéra by a bassoonist, suggest an equivalent of the bassoon, which is no other thing, in terms of range, than the contrabass oboe.8PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 101-102.

The author of these lines suggests that he is identifying the contrabass oboe with the bassoon. To justify this identification, Constant Pierre points out that it is a bassoonist at the Opéra who plays this contrabass. However, if we take into account that a contrabassoon is played by a bassoonist, nothing excludes the fact that a contrabass oboe can be played by a bassoonist, without it being equivalent to the bassoon. An argument based on the instrument’s register would have been more convincing. The annotations on the contrabass oboe in Richard Strauss’s commentary of Hector Berlioz’s Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes may shed some light. If balance and homogeneity are to be achieved in the orchestras of his time, he notes, ‘at least one contrabassoon (natural woodwind bass), a bass clarinet and perhaps a contrabass oboe’9STRAUSS, Richard, Le traité d’orchestration d’Hector Berlioz: commentaires et adjonctions coordonnés et traduits par Ernest Closson, Leipzig, C. F. Peters, 1909, p. 47. are needed to ensure the bass of the woodwind instruments. It is clear that Richard Strauss makes an unambiguous distinction between the contrabass oboe and the contrabassoon. The latter has its rightful place, whereas the former seems to be used only occasionally.

Although information on the contrabassoon before the 19th century is rather limited, it can be said that the need to create a bass for wind instruments in a lower register than the bassoon was imperative. The birth of the contrabassoon was not without difficulty and it was not until the beginning of the 18th century that contrabassoons were viable enough to survive. It was during this century, moreover, that a contrabassoon was designed like a bassoon, i.e. with a tube folded over itself. This apparently obvious innovation was unanimously praised by the critics. Despite this evidence, no French contrabassoon seems to have survived, assuming one was ever built, which is still a matter of debate.

2:1:2 The Vicissitudes of the Contrabassoon

It is not certain that contrabassoons were produced in France before the 19th century; at least it is known that the instrument was little known in this country at the beginning of that century:

The contrabassoon is an instrument almost unknown in France and Belgium, but it is used extensively in all the military bands of Germany. It complements the oboe system, of which the bassoon is the tenor and the cello; it is an instrument that cannot be dispensed with if one wishes to obtain, in many cases, a variety of effects that is lacking in the ordinary wind band.10FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Considérations sur quelques instrumens et sur leur emploi’, Revue musicale, Dimanche 12 octobre 1834, p. 326.

It is clear that the making of contrabassoons in Germany was far ahead of that in other countries. Indeed, in Germany, as the quotation shows, the instrument was already used in military ensembles. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the oldest surviving examples are German. On the other hand, the contrabassoon was ‘almost unknown’ in France, which suggests that the instrument was not sufficiently convincing or attractive to be given a place in an ensemble. As Constant Pierre points out in La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889, the contrabassoon was so little used in France during the 19th century that by the end of the century it could be considered a new instrument:

The contrabassoon is certainly not a new instrument, but it can enjoy this designation because it has been so neglected in France. To our knowledge, only Triébert and Marzoli made one, some forty years ago, after a German model. The German instruments themselves have only exceptionally penetrated our country; there are some by Schuster in the Conservatoire museum, the other, whose main parts have been rebuilt in Paris, is the property of a bassoonist at the Opéra.11PIERRE, La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889…, op. cit., p. 29.

However, the author of this quotation states in another book (published only two years after La facture instrumentale) that another French maker was selling contrabasses. In Pierre’s Les facteurs d’instruments de musique, we read that this maker, named Baumann, had published an advertisement as early as 1825 to promote his instruments, which included contrabassoons: ‘Baumann from 1800 to 1830, whose 7-key bassoon was part of the Sax Museum and who has a 6-key clarinet in Brussels; he also made, according to an advertisement of 1825, contrabassoons and bass serpents.’12PIERRE, Les facteurs…, op. cit., p. 295.

As for the introduction of the contrabassoon in France, it remains difficult to trace. Some sources suggest that it dates from the very beginning of the 19th century during a performance of Haydn’s Creation, which Pierre formally refutes:

Having had to deal with the contrabassoon in our Histoire de l’orchestre de l’Opéra, we have taken a few passages relating to it.

‘We thought that the contrabassoon had been introduced into France in 1800 for the performance of the Creation, but we read in a monograph on the serpent published in 1804 that it replaced with advantage the dull and shrill contrabassoon used by the English.

Can we then trace its introduction back to the first performance of Aladin (1822), which contains a rather lengthy part? We would not dare to vouch for it in the absence of certain proof.13PIERRE, La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889…, op. cit.,pp. 29-30.

It is understandable that the contrabassoon had difficulty finding a place in France in the 19th century. Not only was this instrument unknown, but one did not hesitate to replace it ‘advantageously’ by another instrument. Nevertheless, it is clear from this quotation that at the beginning of the 19th century in France there were French works that gave the contrabassoon a place. Among the works not included in the quotation is Hector Berlioz’s overture to Les Francs-juges, which includes a contrabassoon part. It should be remembered that this work was the first large-scale work written by Berlioz. When one considers that Berlioz loved powerful orchestral forces and that he only composed a part for the contrabassoon in this overture and in his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, it is clear how much difficulty this instrument had in finding a place in an orchestra.The Société des concerts du Conservatoire has greatly contributed to bringing many works to the Parisian public, especially Beethoven’s symphonies. Pierre tells us that:

Until 1863, when the Société des concerts du Conservatoire acquired the only instrument built in France, the contrabassoon was replaced by the ophicleide when the part could not be removed. It is only in recent years that French composers have used it and that the written parts have been performed on the instrument lent by the Society. Messrs Ambroise Thomas, C. Saint-Saëns, Reyer and Massenet used it for Françoise de Rimini (1882), Henri VIII (1883), Sigurd (1884) and the Cid (1885).14Ibid., p. 30.

There is one detail in this quotation that seems very surprising: the Société des concerts du Conservatoire had the only contrabassoon made in France. This seems all the more strange since earlier Pierre mentions a contrabasson made by Triébert and Marzoli in the mid-19th century. Moreover, Baumann’s advertisement of 1825 reveals that this maker sold them. Even if these were built according to a German model, it remains that they were of French manufacture. This information needs to be reinterpreted. The contrabassoon belonging to the Société des concerts du Conservatoire was certainly not the first to be produced in France, but perhaps the first to have the features of the French bassoon. Unfortunately, the documents at our disposal do not allow us to answer these questions and to determine who was the author.

Why did the contrabassoon have such difficulty in gaining recognition? It is important to find the reasons. These are clearly set out by Pierre:

In its present state, the contrabassoon offers few resources; the sound production is slow and the necessity for the performer to play with very weak reeds in order to easily set the air column in vibration causes an unpleasant tremor; moreover, the accuracy often leaves something to be desired. This is largely due to the poor quality of the instruments in use, which date back at least fifty years and consequently have not benefited from the progress of bassoon making; they are old German instruments, more or less modified, whose mechanism and bore are not conceived according to rational principles and, as they were built before the reform of the pitch, the repairs they have undergone in order to lower them, have only added to their defects. Moreover, we would point out that in Germany, where the contrabassoon is widely used, it has not been a bassoon of double proportions for nearly twenty-five years, but another, brass instrument, very portable, built with modifications that eliminated most of the above-mentioned disadvantages, without, however, yet offering all the desirable qualities.15Ibid., pp. 30-31.

It can be seen that the criticisms made of the contrabassoon are similar to those made of the bassoon. It is not very sonorous and leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy. It is true that these disadvantages are attributable to poor-quality instruments; however, as the instrument did not have as large a market as the bassoon, it did not attract the same degree of interest from makers, and efforts to improve it were, if not futile, then at least very limited, and the contrabassoon could not, therefore, gain favour with musicians. Moreover, the instruments available were of German origin and therefore had different pitches, which complicated their use and did not help their cause in France.

Given the many problems raised by the instrument, in certain forces others instruments of the same register are preferred. Among them is the contrabass sarrussophone:

In France we have an instrument which, without being perfect and for want of anything better, could fill the role of contrabassoon with some advantage, it is the contrabass sarrussophone, which, for reasons too long to enumerate here, has not been able to take its place as worthily as the saxophone. Only Mr C. Saint-Saëns hasused it so far in the Noces de Prométhée (1867) and Étienne Marcel (Lyon 1879).

In short, with the tendency of modern composers to reconstruct the families of past centuries, a sub-bass instrument is more necessary than ever, and makers cannot afford to be uninterested in this matter any longer.16Ibid., p. 31.

As we have seen in the section dealing with ‘Bassoon Makers in 19th-Century France’, foreigners came to this country to practise their art of making bassoons. Among them, we have stressed Adler’s contribution to the bassoon. He received an award at an Exposition universelle for his instruments, in particular a contrabassoon: ‘In 1844, a similar award was given to him for an orchestral bassoon, a contrabassoon and a newly constructed bassoon with metal bell, noted for the intensity of its sounds.’17PIERRE, Les facteurs…, op. cit., p. 301.

We have also mentioned the existence and importance of the Buffet-Crampon firm in the development of the French bassoon. At the end of the 19th century, Evette and Schaeffer were at the head of this firm, and were awarded the most important prize at the 1889 Exposition universelle for their wind instruments, which included a contrabassoon:

A higher award was reserved for his successors; a single grand prize was awarded in 1889 for wind instruments and it went to Messrs Evette and Schaeffer. In addition to the instruments in use, they exhibited small bassoons in E, F and G and a contrabassoon.18PIERRE, La facture instrumentale, op. cit., pp. 25, 31; Idem, Les facteurs…, op. cit., p. 312.

As for the Boehm system, it will be remembered that it was not as successful for the bassoon as had been hoped. It is not known whether a contrabassoon was built or designed according to its principles; this seems unlikely. It is known, however, that the maker who made significant attempts to apply this system to the bassoon also built contrabassoons: ‘Marzoli, bassoonist at the théâtre Italien, who worked for some time with Triébert and tried to play at this theatre the bassoon-Boehm referred to above, also made excellent bassoons and contrabassoons.’19Ibid., p. 322. It is clear from these few lines that in this case no attempt was made to apply the Boehm system to the contrabassoon.

Among the innovations that the bassoon underwent, it will be remembered that certain makers did not hesitate to make bassoons out of metal. Thanks to Pierre, we know that at least one contrabassoon was also made of the same material:

The transformation has been accomplished and the products of the Martin Thibouville firm are now highly regarded by artists. An attempt at a metal contrabassoon, mentioned in Facture instrumentale (p. 33), was, together with a wooden Boehm flute with rings without pads (loc. cit., p. 82), the novelty of this maker’s exposition, which received a silver medal.20Ibid., p. 343.

It can be assumed that this instrument was intended for military ensembles, as metal bassoons were intended for this purpose. Metal is indeed more resilient than wood and less sensitive to certain weather conditions. Since most of these ensembles played outdoors, the choice of making a metal contrabassoon is justified.

The history of the contrabassoon is admittedly rather hazy. The making of this instrument before the 19th century seems to have flourished outside France, in Germany and England. The instrument was, moreover, almost unknown in France at the beginning of the 19th century. However, it is known that the making of this instrument developed in the country at that time and that certain French composers gave it a place in their works. Still, people did not hesitate to replace it with other instruments that had fewer drawbacks. Although it was eventually given a place in wind bands, the removal of the bassoon from these ensembles in the mid-19th century jeopardised its existence. It was only towards the end of the century that French makers produced some noteworthy contrabassoons, notably Thibouville and Evette-Schaeffer. France thus got to know this instrument in the course of the 19th century.

An almost unknown instrument at the beginning of this century, by the end of the same century it was winning awards and acquiring a place in musical groups that no one contested any more. Of course, the contrabassoon in France is still subject to improvement, but the development it has undergone is considerable.

2:1:3 The Contrabassoon in French Theoretical Works

Theoretical works, such as treatises, are important sources for the understanding of instruments. We are not aware of a method for the contrabassoon, although the existence of such a work is not ruled out. Among the various 19th-century treatises which provide information on the contrabassoon, we shall mention those of Kastner, Berlioz, and Gevært.

Among Georges Kastner’s works, two are particularly interesting for the study of the contrabassoon: the Cours d’instrumentation considéré sous les rapports poëtiques et philosophiques de l’art à l’usage des jeunes compositeurs and the Traité général d’instrumentation. In the first of these works, we read that low-register instruments, whether wind or string, are clearly more defective than all other instruments:

In all circumstances, great care must be taken in the execution of Bass instruments, whether String or Wind, such as: Double basses, Contrabassoons, Bass Trombones, Serpents or Ophicleides; for these Instruments leave so much to be desired in terms of purity and roundness of tone, that only first-rate Artists can conceal these defects and render the important part for which they are responsible in a frank, clear and satisfactory manner.21KASTNER, Georges, Cours d’instrumentation considéré sous les rapports poétiques et philosophiques de l’art à l’usage des jeunes compositeurs, Paris, A. Meissonnier, n.d., p. 5.

According to this quote, even the best artists cannot overcome some of the flaws inherent in these instruments. The contrabassoon, as has been noted, was little known and most of the specimens available to French musicians were of German origin. The fact that these instruments were imported was an additional factor of difficulty for the performer, for, as we have seen, the difference in pitch between Germany and France, coupled with the primitive nature of the instrument, meant that even the most skilled of  artists could not master the contrabassoon to an passable standard.

Although it is difficult to play the contrabassoon, some composers have not hesitated to use this instrument and to draw happy effects from it. This is what Kastner reminds us in his Cours d’instrumentation:

The Contrabassoon isnot in widespread use; it can, however, produce a good effect in a large orchestral composition. Beethoven used it in the great symphony with choruses.

In wind-band music it takes the place of the double bass.22Ibid., p. 13.

French audiences were able to hear the contrabassoon in Beethoven’s symphonies from the beginning of the 19th century, thanks in particular to the Société des concerts du Conservatoire of Paris. It is therefore not surprising that French composers subsequently used this instrument in their works. We can infer that Beethoven’s influence in France was most fortunate for the instrument.

In his Traité d’instrumentation, Kastner also deals with the contrabassoon, but in a complementary manner. He begins by giving information on the register and range of the instrument:

The contrabassoon is an octave lower than the ordinary bassoon; the range usually used begins at D of the contra-octave and goes up to D, at the maximum E of the small octave, which is represented by notes in the form: [D0 to E2] In this range, the contrabassoon contains all the tones and semitones, it can even execute trills in the simple keys.23KASTNER, Georges, Traité général d’instrumentation, 2e  édition par l’auteur et augmentée d’un supplément, Paris, E. Minier, n.d., p. 37. [Editor: the translation by Woodward should be used with caution.]

Well aware of the limitations of the instrument, Kastner then goes on to give advice on how to best use it to avoid these difficulties as much as possible:

Even fairly fast figures are easy to execute, but they should not be too frequent in the fundamental bass.

Dotted notes quickly following each other are of no value for this instrument, because they easily blend into each other due to the lowness of the sound, but in a slow movement they can be used with advantage.

The contrabassoon is most often used in the military band, it has only rarely been introduced into the orchestra.24Ibid.

Presumably the contrabassoon can perform fast runs, but this should be avoided. Like the bassoon, the contrabassoon can be used to advantage in slow movements. These two pieces of information lead to the conclusion that the contrabassoon was assigned a secondary role, particularly as an accompanist. Finally, Kastner concludes his article on the contrabassoon with an interesting remark: the instrument would only really have found its place in military ensembles. If this information can be relied upon, there is strong evidence that the metal contrabassoon mentioned above was most certainly built for military use. Furthermore, if this is the case, it will provide another reason to account for the difficulties the contrabassoon had in establishing itself in a traditional musical force.

Berlioz, in his Grand Traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, also provides valuable information on the contrabassoon. He opens his discussion of the instrument with a comparison with its string counterpart: ‘It is to the bassoon as the double bass is to the cello. That is to say, its sound is an octave lower than the written note.’25BERLIOZ, Hector, Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, Paris, Schonenberger, 1844, edited by Peter Bloom, Bärenreiter, London, 2003, p. 198. [Editor: MacDonald’s Cambridge translation represents a rather free rendition of what Berlioz wrote.] Berlioz does not add anything new to Kastner’s description of the tessitura itself. The same is not true of what follows; Berlioz provides valuable information on the instrument:

The first two notes of this scale come out with difficulty and are hardly noticeable because of their extreme lowness.

It is needless to add that this instrument, which is extremely heavy, is only suitable for great harmonic effects and the basses of a moderate movement. Beethoven used it in the finale of his symphony in C minor and in the finale of his symphony with choruses. It is very valuable for large wind orchestras, but few artists decide to play it. Attempts are sometimes made to replace it with the ophicleide, whose sound does not have the same gravity, since it is in unison with the ordinary bassoon and not in the low octave, and whose timbre, moreover, bears no relation in character to that of the contrabassoon. I therefore believe that in most cases it is better to do without this instrument than to replace it in this way.26Ibid., p. 198.

It will be remembered from this quotation that it was difficult to play the first two notes of the contrabassoon’s lower register. The composer goes on to mention the small number of instrumentalists capable or willing to play the instrument, however valuable the services it can render. But what is particularly noteworthy is Berlioz’s denunciation of the frequent replacement of the contrabassoon by the ophicleide, which does not have the same characteristics of timbre and register, and it is not without reason that he goes so far as to suggest that the contrabassoon should be dispensed with rather than replaced.

It is surprising, then, that Berlioz, despite what he says in his article, wrote little for the contrabassoon in his works. This can be explained by considering that the composer wished to do justice to an instrument that was struggling to find a place in music. But this desire did not go so far as to decide to resort to the services of an instrument of unreliable construction and neglected by musicians who were not inclined to risk playing it. This is certainly why Berlioz made so little use of it.

Nearly ten years after the second edition of the Grand traité, another treatise worthy of mention appeared, the Traité d’instrumentation: exposé méthodique des principes de cet art dans leur application à l’orchestre, à la musique d’harmonie et de fanfares etc.27GEVAERT, François-Auguste, Traité d’instrumentation: exposé méthodique des principes de cet art dans leur application à l’orchestre, à la musique d’harmonie et de fanfares, etc., Ghent, V. et C. Gevaert, 1863, 232 p. by François-Auguste Gevaert. Although this work is big, it contains so little information on the contrabassoon that one will look in vain for an article devoted entirely to it. It is only in the supplement to this treatise that one will find a short description of the instrument, which does not provide any new information that does not appear in the two other treatises that have just been mentioned. The author merely recalls the compass of the instrument and notes its use by the Germans, citing Beethoven’s 5th symphony and the finale of his Symphony with Chorus in support of his assertion.28Ibid., p. 219.


The history of the contrabassoon in the 19th century does not seem to raise any great difficulties. But this is due to a lack of information. For example, it is not known whether a contrabassoon of French manufacture and design was made. It would appear that this was the case for the instrument owned by the Paris Conservatoire, but this is not unanimously accepted by the critics. It is certain that Germany played a leading role in the genesis and development of the contrabassoon. It is certain that the taste of the nationals of this country for wind bands favoured the development of the instrument. The instrument took root in France while retaining the characteristics of its native land. But as it was, it was far from being suitable for satisfactory performances. This is whatexplains why composers were reluctant to devote highly developed parts to it. It was only at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries that it was given a place in the major musical groups. All in all, if on many particular points one is reduced to wondering, the overall view that one can have of the history of the contrabassoon remains good. However, there are still some important elements that need to be clarified; unfortunately, the documentation at our disposal is still incomplete.

2:2 Some Cognate and Derivative Instruments

Of all the instruments in the orchestra, the bassoon is without doubt the one that has undergone most experimentation. Some makers did not hesitate to give it the strangest and most exceptional shapes,29JANSEN, op. cit., p. 103. but it was in the 19th century that this instrument changed the most; at the beginning of this period, it had only a few keys, whereas some fifty years later, as we have already explained and as can be seen in the charts of Eugène Jancourt’s methods, it had nearly twenty. In order to stand out in the field of woodwind-instrument making, it had to show ingenuity and originality. From then on, instruments as bizarre as they were strange appeared and tried to find their place in various ensembles, in some cases taking the place of the bassoon.

To deal with all the more or less closely related instruments would have gone beyond the scope of this study. We have therefore had to limit ourselves by studying only those instruments which, while different from the bassoon, share several significant points in common with it. On the basis of this criterion, we excluded the quart-bassoon, because it was too similar. On the other hand, we have retained the Russian bassoon, the galandronome, the metal bassoons, the sarrussophones, the ophicleide and the Boehm bassoon. The scope of our study being thus delimited, its essential aim will be to determine the origins, the life and the reasons for the failure of these instruments.

2:2:1 The Russian Bassoon

Why Is It Called ‘Russian’?

The name of this instrument can lead to confusion, as it is in fact a serpent and not a bassoon as one would be tempted to believe at first sight. This is what is clear from this note by R. Cotte: ‘The Russian bassoon: This instrument is bassoon in name only. It is a derivative of the serpents and cornett.’30COTTE, Roger, ‘Organologie: Le basson’, L’Éducation musicale, mars 1979, n° 256, p. 193. However, this remark does not settle the question. The term bassoon cannot be used gratuitously to designate a serpent. Why was this instrument called the Russian bassoon? There is no clear answer. However, the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments notes that the instrument was successful in a number of Eastern countries and was found in Russian military bands, among others. This offers the best explanation for the name of this serpent, at least in terms of the qualifier with which it is characterised.31MORLEY-PEGGE, Reginald, ‘Russian bassoon’, The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, edited by Stanley Sadie, vol. 3, p. 278.

The Name ‘Bassoon’

Whether Russian or not, why call a serpent bassoon? This question is easier to answer. The Calendrier universel musical, published in 1789, offers first-rate information on the origins of the Russian bassoon, which makes it possible to find a satisfactory answer to this problem:

J. J. Régibo, Musician at the Collegiate Church of Saint-Pierre in Lille, has just invented a new Serpent which is made in the same way as a Bassoon; it can be dismantled into three parts and is stronger than the ordinary Serpent, and easier to play; it has the same mouthpiece, and is of the same register and scale. It was presented to Messrs du Chapitres in a large symphony and was admired by the Audience for its effect; they welcomed it into their usual band. Those who wish to obtain one can contact the Author, rue Pétérinck, Parish Saint-Pierre in Lille. The price is three louis.32Calendrier universel musical,Almanach musical, tome X, année 1788, Genève, Minkoff Reprints, n.d., pp. 2573-2574.

In the light of this quotation, a definition of this instrument is necessary. The Russian bassoon is a variety of straight serpent made of three or four parts. Two of them resemble the butt and the wing joint of the bassoon. The bell consists of two parts: one made of wood that attaches to the butt, the other made of metal, flared or with a dragon’s head (this part is occasionally called an ophibariton). Several of these instruments with a dragon-headed bell were made in Lyon by Sautermeister, Jeantet and Tabard during the second quarter of the 19th century. The instrument, with six holes closed by the fingers, has three or four keys and its bocal is curled up.33MORLEY-PEGGE, op. cit., p. 278.

The Disappearance of the Instrument

But at a time when the creation of new instruments was commonplace, this serpent’s days were numbered:

The Russian bassoon is a bass instrument of the serpent species, which in my opinion could be removed from the family of wind instruments without the slightest damage to the art. … There are only detestable effects to be expected from trills. Russian bassoons can be found in military bands, but it is to be hoped that they will no longer appear there when the bass-tuba becomes better known.34BERLIOZ, Hector, Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, nouvelle édition revue, corrigée, augmentée de plusieurs chapitres sur les instruments récemment inventés, et suivie de L’Art du chef d’orchestre, Paris, Henri Lemoine, 1855, p. 230.

After the first publication in 1844 of Berlioz’s Grand traité, the instrument continued to live on for some time, particularly in the East. It can be seen that when the Grand traité was republished in 1855 the article on the Russian bassoon was still there, suggesting that the instrument was still in favour during this period. It is worth recalling that it was at this time that Berlioz undertook some musical journeys which took him to various countries in the East, including Germany and Russia. He may well have heard and examined some of the models of these instruments during his trips.

In any case, the life of the Russian bassoon was not very long and did not exceed a hundred years, at the end of which it quickly fell into oblivion. We are fortunate to have several specimens on display in various museums, including the Paris Conservatoire de musique.

2:2:2 The Galandronome


The galandronome is a peculiar instrument, which at first sight is different from the bassoon and which was created by a maker called Galander. The origins of this character are unclear.35The lack of information and sources, which in some cases are contradictory, makes it impossible to shed satisfactory light on the origins of Galander. In the article on the galandronome by Will Jansen (The Bassoon: its History, Construction, Makers, Players and Music, F. Knuf, 1978, vol. 1, p. 131 ), that the activity of this factor covers a period of 14 years (1840-1854), while Constant Pierre (op. cit., p. 300) indicates that Galander’s period of activity is 20 years (1835-1855). Given that Jansen based himself on Constant Pierre’s work, it can be inferd that he has misinterpreted some of the information, especially since in Constant Pierre’s text the date of 1854 corresponds to the purchase of the Adler collection by Georges Schubert (information given in the same paragraph). Moreover, Pierre does not specify the exact date when Galander took over the workshop of the young Savary, but informs us that the latter stopped making bassoons before 1840; however, Jansen marks the beginning of the activity of the maker in 1840. These are errors of detail which do not detract from the value of Will Jansen’s book, which is rightly regarded as the most important and best documented treatise on the bassoon. We know very little about him. First of all, the only information from the 19th century concerning him can be found in Constant Pierre’s book Les facteurs d’instruments de musique. We learn that Galander took over the business of the younger Savary and that he worked from 1835 to 1855.36PIERRE, op. cit., p. 300. Pierre lists two instruments by this maker; the first was a military bassoon in B♭called a galandronome and created around 1853; the second was a bassoon-shaped serpent, with a copper bell and bocal, fitted with three keys.37Ibid., p. 300. Shortly after the creation of this instrument, Galander’s business passed, probably around 1855, into the hands of a businessman, Georges Schubert.38Ibid., p. 300.

Description of the Instrument

The galandronome is a bassoon in B, halfway between the conventional bassoon (in C)and the semi-contrabassoon (in F or G).39JANSEN, op. cit., p. 130. It is a wooden bassoon with a slightly larger sounding tube than the conventional instrument and a very impressive flared metal bell.40Ibid., p. 130. The instrument is made of a harder maple wood than is usually used for bassoons, which makes the surface slightly rougher to the touch. The instrument has no less than 19 keys and two open holes. The mechanism follows the keywork principle of the French system of the mid-19th century, but not completely; the distance between the keys on the instrument is greater, requiring a different mechanism. While all the holes of the conventional bassoon are generally open at this time, those of the galandronome are closed with keys.41This development is closely traced by W. Jansen (op. cit., p. 130). From this description, one can see in this instrument a prototype of the Boehm bassoon. Justified or not, this association between these instruments remains premonitory, for neither of them will survive.

What Was the Need for the Galandronome?

The question arises as to why Galander created a military bassoon, given that it was during this period that the bassoon itself was ousted from this type of ensemble, where the players were called upon to march?42GIRAUD, Joseph Frédéric, Le polycorde ou Nouvelle méthode théorique et pratique de musique vocale et de musique instrumentale, Paris, 1869, p. 3. It is possible that this maker wanted to build a bassoon to ensure its reintroduction into these ensembles; perhaps it was a commission for an ensemble that continued to use the bassoon. Pierre’s definition of the galandronome is also questionable. Is this instrument really a military bassoon? In this regard, Jansen makes the following remark: ‘Clearly, the galandronome was not intended for military use. It was not for outdoor use. With its enormous flared bell, perhaps the widest flared bell ever made on a bassoon, it was a potential rain catcher.’43JANSEN, op. cit., p. 131. Jansen’s argument has weight; however, it is not sufficient to rule out this instrument from military use. If one thinks of other instruments in this type of ensemble, several of them, including the brass, have a well-flared bell, and this does not prevent them from being part of such ensembles.

Galander or Savary?

To our knowledge, there is only one galandronome, which can be found in the United States, in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.44Ibid., p. 131. This raises the question of whether Galander built a unique example. Since he probably invented the instrument in 1853 and stopped making it around 1855, one is tempted to answer in the affirmative. One important detail may, however, call this hypothesis into question; one can read, in fact, on the back of the butt an engraved text: ‘Innové/par Galander/Rue de Constantine 27/a Paris./I. C.’.45Ibid., p. 131. It cannot be denied that ‘innover’ and ‘inventer’ do not have the same meaning. If Galander made an innovation, it must be admitted that he exercised his talents on an already existing instrument. As the owner of the workshop of the younger Savary, he could have perfected and developed a model that Savary had sketched out. In the present state of our knowledge, nothing allows us to decide in this sense.

2:2:3 Metal Bassoons

Reasons for Their Creation

In the 19th century, makers, especially those working in Paris, showed a particular interest in making metal bassoons. Since wooden bassoons were not very loud,46Ibid., p. 132. it then became necessary to design a metal wind instrument that could play the role of the bassoon in a stable manner. The main advantages that metal bassoons had over wooden ones were certain; they were more weather-proof and had a fuller sound.47Ibid., p. 132. Also, as the wooden bassoon had lost its place in military ensembles,48As we can see in the section dealing with ‘the bassoon in military ensembles’, Adolphe Sax, in 1845, was one of the main culprits in the ousting of the bassoon from these ensembles. a bassoon that could play louder and be more weather-proof would undoubtedly have favoured the reintroduction of the instrument into this type of ensemble. However, no information allows us to state with certainty that the creation of such an instrument was due to the requirements of military bands, and this is all the more true since the makers, whether in their workshops or at the World Fairs, tried to convince bassoonists of symphony orchestras to use such instruments.49JANSEN, op. cit., p. 132. At the same time, it is possible that the makers, who were in constant contact with the musicians, were encouraged to design a louder bassoon. But they should have known that it would be difficult for such an instrument to fit into the various ensembles; it is a well-known fact among specialists that double-reed instruments do not fit well into a metal body. The challenge to be taken up was impossible.

The Makers

Although there was a great deal of interest in metal bassoons in the 19th century, few makers actually attempted to make them. In 1817, Halary submitted four instruments to the Académie des beaux-arts, including a metal bassoon: ‘… the quinticlave or fifth and bass trumpet in F, E, C or B, in theform of a bassoon, with 9 or 10 keys and a range of three octaves’.50PIERRE, op. cit., p. 334. Halary is said to be the first maker in France to have made bassoons entirely of metal. These did not have a beautiful tone colour, but they still met the requirements of a military orchestra better than the wooden ones; they could be dragged through mud and fall into a puddle without losing their playing ability, although in some cases the key pads became soaked.51JANSEN, op. cit., p. 107. Adolphe Sax, the father of the instrument that bears his name, also worked on the construction of these instruments over a ten-year period from 1841 to 1851. In 1842 he made a metal bassoon with all the holes closed with keys; in some respects one of the principles of the Boehm system had governed its design, that of the holes being entirely closed with keys. In 1849 he made a similar metal bassoon, this time with 23 keys.52This instrument can be seen today in the museum of the Conservatoire de musique in Paris. This instrument was presented, shortly after its creation, at the World Fair in London. According to the critics of the time, it made a great impression, and this is not surprising: this success was largely due to the considerable number of keys, no less than twenty-three, as we have said, and all the more so as English bassoons of the same period did not have half as many.53JANSEN, op. cit., p. 138. However, these instruments did not find a place in ensembles and from then on Sax devoted his time more seriously to his other instruments.

Labbaye, in his turn, became interested in the metal bassoon, but he did not go beyond the stage of experimentation, for, to date, no one has been able to get to know any of his specimens, if any existed. Louis Gautrot, on the other hand, was developing metal bassoons from 1855 to 1870.54Ibid., p. 133. Arsène Zoë Lecomte made both wooden and metal bassoons. He produced some of the latter, not because they had a beautiful tone, because they were cheaper to produce or because they were more resilient, but because they were much louder.55Ibid., p. 133. This seems to be the first time that a wind-instrument maker started making metal bassoons because they made more noise. All other makers seemed to have had other motives for making metal bassoons. Lecomte, for example, presented a metal bassoon at the Exposition universelle of 1889 on 29 June of that year. The instrument made a good impression, as it had an extraordinary sound and possessed uncompromising accuracy. Constant Pierre reveals that Lecomte’s metal bassoon did not differ in principle from wooden bassoons, except for the material of which it was made; the bore was exactly the same and the keywork had the same arrangement as that found in wooden bassoons.56Ibid., p. 135.

When he began his career, Frédéric Triébert had intended to work on the manufacture of metal bassoons; it was to these that he devoted his first efforts, but he soon gave up and tackled the Boehm bassoon, probably at the repeated insistence of the bassoonist Marzoli.57Ibid., p. 133. This pivot tends to support the thesis that the Boehm bassoon was, at that time, at the heart of the preoccupations of makers and instrumentalists.

As we have seen, metal bassoons were built by Zoë Lecomte as late as the end of the 19th century. This did not prevent these instruments from being forgotten in the following century. One might assume that they were made to meet specific needs of the time. This idea should not be overlooked, but the bassoon, at the beginning of the 20th century, had undoubtedly become more efficient than those of the early 19th century. The qualities acquired by the instrument explain why the craze for metal bassoons was no longer the case.

2:2:4 The Sarrussophone

The sarrussophone was invented in 1856 by Louis Gautrot, urged on by Sarrus, later chef de musique at the 13th regiment of line infantry.58JOPPIG, Gunter, Hautbois et Basson: Leur histoire, leur famille et leur répertoire, Editions Payot Lausanne, Paris, 1981, p. 104. This instrument seems to have been modelled on new instruments, especially those made of metal: ‘Others tried to build the instrument [the bassoon] in metal (HALARY, in copper, in 1818 in Paris, Adolphe Sax, in various metals, in Paris, in 1851), which led to the genesis of another instrument, the Sarrusophone’.59COTTE, Roger, ‘Organologie: Le basson’, L’Éducation musicale, février 1979, n° 255, p. 165.

The Sarrussophone and the Saxophone

Indeed, the sarrussophone is the culmination of various instruments, and more particularly of metal bassoons.60JANSEN, Will, op. cit., p. 64. It should be noted that it differs from these bassoons in its bore: ‘The bore of the sarrussophone was conical but different from the bassoon bore’.61Ibid., p. 64. To return to the previous quotation from Roger Cotte, it should be noted that the latter omits Gautrot from the number of makers he mentions. This is not a minor detail, for it is Gautrot, as noted earlier, who is credited with having invented this instrument.62Texts from the 19th century support this statement. For example, the first sentence in Giraud’s Polycorde (GIRAUD, J. Frédéric, op. cit., p. 35) reads as follows : ‘The sarrusophones are new brass instruments invented by M. Gautrot, of Paris.’ In the next issue of L’Éducation musicale, the author presents the instrument as follows:

The sarrussophone: This instrument, or rather this family of instruments, was developed from the saxophone … by Mr SARRUS, head of the music of the 13th line regiment. The very simple idea of the latter consisted in the substitution of a double reed of bassoon or oboe for the single-reed mouthpiece of the saxophone.63COTTE, Roger, op. cit., p. 193.

This information is very surprising. It is true that there is no denying the morphological resemblance between high-register sarrussophones and saxophones of the same register (sopranino and soprano), but the same cannot be said of other sarrussophones; for example, sarrussophones in the lower registers, such as tenors or basses, undoubtedly bear more resemblance to ophicleides than to saxophones.

Reasons for Their Creation

It should be remembered that in the 19th century interest in the military band was particularly strong.64It is important to understand that these orchestras made music accessible to the population which otherwise could only be heard in opera houses, concert halls and churches. The repertoire of these ensembles was much broader than one might think: it was not limited to marches, but also included fashionable songs, overtures, medleys from well-known operas, adaptations of famous symphonies and concertos (cf. JOPPIG, op. cit., p. 103). Instruments such as oboes and bassoons were not popular in these types of ensembles65It can be seen in Giraud’s Polycorde (op. cit., p. 3) that in the composition of military bands after the decree of 1860, whether in foot troop bands or in mounted troop bands, the bassoon and oboe no longer appear. and the sarrussophone family was an effective substitute.66JOPPIG, op. cit., p. 103. In fact, the instrument owes its existence to the competition between Adolphe Sax and Gautrot, both of whom were trying to overcome the lack of deep basses. With this in mind, Gautrot teamed up with the military conductor Sarrus and created a family of all-metal instruments with a more conical sounding tube on the basis of the oboe and bassoon, thus enhancing the sound in all registers. However, in 1856 Gautrot had great difficulty in patenting his family of sarrussophones. He owed this difficulty to Adolphe Sax, who had presented his saxophones ten years earlier.67Ibid., p. 104. Although the sarrussophones differed from Sax’s instruments, they shared certain points with them, which explains why Gautrot was condemned to laborious efforts.

The Sarrussophone Family

The sarrussophones make up a large family of instruments that cover almost the entire orchestral range. There are up to eight instruments in this family, but some of them were hardly used at all. This is the case of the high-register sarrussophones, which have hardly featured in so-called ‘serious’ music.68Ibid., p. 106. The most widely used instruments in this family are the low-register sarrussophones, and more particularly the contrabass sarrussophone: ‘Only the contrabass had a place in the symphony orchestra for about fifty years, replacing the contrabassoon, which had disappeared from French orchestras since the beginning of the 19th century.’69KERGOMARD, op. cit., p. 25. This instrument was used in certain symphonic works. For example, in Paul Dukas’s Apprenti sorcier, at the beginning of the second part, the motif part is played by a contrabass sarrussophone or a contrabassoon. This is not an isolated example. Indeed, as R. Cotte notes: ‘In the orchestra, the contrabass sarrussophone in C was used for some time to replace the contrabassoon. Saint-Saëns and Massenet used it.’70COTTE, op. cit., p. 193. It is clear that the sound of this instrument was distinct from that of the contrabassoon, and as late as 1957-58, in Stravinsky’s dodecaphonic work Threni, there isa part for contrabass sarrussophone that places rhythmic accents played mostly at the same time as the piano.71JOPPIG, op. cit., p. 106. It is understandable that in this work this instrument was more appropriate than the contrabassoon to produce the kind of effect the composer was looking for.

It is regrettable that this family of instruments is no longer in use, as it offered an excellent sound that was unique to it. It is to be hoped that one day these instruments will be played again, thus recapturing the spirit of the works of the 19th and 20th centuries which used them. This type of listening should not only allow us to better understand the original creative idea of the composer, but also to discover aspects of the work that the substitution of another instrument may have helped to conceal. Moreover, it is hard to understand why, at a time when efforts have been made to rediscover the conditions and techniques of the performance of ancient works, particularly baroque ones, there has been so little interest in restoring the honour of instruments that are sometimes strange, and which can even often be disconcerting, but which had the good fortune to attract the attention of great composers, whose works are still played and admired.

2:2:5 Ophicleide

At a time when people were looking for an instrument with a beautiful sound in the lower register, the ophicleide enjoyed some success with various ensembles. But its existence was short-lived, barely fifty years: ‘The need for bass instruments was felt for the romantic works of the 19th century, and the ophicleide was very popular with composers when it appeared around 1820. Fifty years later, this instrument was gradually disappearing from the orchestra and many composers sought to replace it advantageously.’72GÉRARD, Thérèse, ‘L’Ophicléïde en France’, Instruments et musique du XIXe siècle, R.I.M.F. (Revue Internationale de Musique Française), n° 13, 5e année, février 1984, Slatkine, Genève-Paris, p. 49. How did the ophicleide make its appearance? This is what we will try to determine.

The Origins of Ophicleide

It is always difficult to establish with certainty the origins of instruments and those of the ophicleide are no exception to the rule. The etymology of the word for this instrument is clear; it is formed from the Greek words ophis, serpent, and kleis, keys.73Ibid., p. 49. The ophicleide is certainly not a serpent with keys, but perhaps the similarity of its shape to that of the Russian bassoon, considered in some respects to be a serpent, helps to explain the image offered by its etymology.74Ibid., p. 49. Perhaps the ophicleide could be seen as a logical development of the Russian bassoon. If we take into account the words of Will Jansen, this hypothesis is not as risky as it seems:

The ophicléide (the name meaning: ‘snake with keys’) embodied an endeavour to make a tuba in the shape of bassoon. At the time however the tuba had not yet been invented. The ophicléide resulted from the desire to add to the brass group a low-pitched instrument with a comparatively large compass. … The shape of the instrument was principally that of the bassoon and it was played with a mouthpiece that today we would call that of a tuba.75JANSEN, op. cit., p. 70.

This hypothesis, moreover, is all the more necessary as the Russian bassoon has the body of a bassoon and the mouthpiece of a serpent (thus that of a brass instrument); it seems difficult to doubt its affinities with the ophicleide.

As for the actual origins of the ophicleide, there are several hypotheses:’For some historians, the ophicleide originated in Germany, in Hanover; for others, it was introduced into France by German or English troops in 1815; others still, more precise, attribute its invention to Joseph Halliday, an Irish maker, creator of the keyed bugle, the principle of which was taken up for the ophicleide.76GÉRARD, op. cit., p. 52.

The country of birth of the ophicleide cannot be established with certainty. Is its origin German, English or Irish? Can Joseph Halliday claim the paternity, as it were, of ophicleide on the grounds that he created the keyed bugle? This argument is not convincing, because the fact that the ophicleide has similar, or even identical, principles to those of the keyed bugle is not enough to convince us of Halliday’s paternity.

Moreover, according to some, the real inventor of the ophicleide is a French maker named Frichot:

For Fétis, the true precursor of the ophicleide was Frichot, a French musician based in London. He invented the bass-horn, an instrument equipped with keys whose timbre is similar to that of the serpent. According to Constant Pierre, Frichot, who returned to France after the peace of Amiens, presented this instrument in 1806 and a commission composed of professors from the Conservatoire examined it. It was not yet the ophicleide, but the principle of the keys, an essential element of this instrument, had already been found.77Ibid., p. 52.

It is also interesting to observe Pierre’s point of view on this bass horn of Frichot, in which he believes to see the origin of the ophicleide:

Obviously this instrument is not yet the ophicleide proper, but it gives a hint to it and it is to it that the latter certainly owes its origin, the ophicleide being nothing other than a keyed serpent as its name indicates. As we have seen, in 1800, 1806 and 1810, Frichot’s instruments were already equipped with keys, so it is not to the foreign invasion that France is indebted for this type of keyed instrument, and if in this case the true origin of the ophicleide cannot be determined, the attempts we have just mentioned are sufficient to overturn the established legend on this subject, because no one has bothered to look.78PIERRE, Constant, La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889, op. cit., p. 292.

In this respect, a Frenchman may well have been responsible for the birth of the ophicleide. The reasons given for Halliday’s paternity are less convincing. Already in the 19th century, Frichot was known to have built brass instruments with keys, which refutes the hypothesis that it was English or German troops who introduced this type of instrument in 1815.

Ophicleide Makers

In any case, if the sources do not seem to agree on the origins of the ophicleide, they do, however, seem to agree on the first French ophicleide maker:

‘The first French ophicleide builder is Jean-Hilaire Asté, known as Halary, and on this point all historians are unanimous. He was born in Agen and came to Paris around 1796, and took over a business in 1804. In 1817 he submitted four new instruments, including the ophicleide, to the Académie des beaux-arts; he did not patent them until 1821 (patent no. 1849 of 24 March 1821). The ophicleide was presented with nine keys; the following year, Halary improved it by adding three other keys to improve the accuracy of D sharp, F sharp and G sharp (patent of improvement of 16 August 1822).79GÉRARD, Thérèse, op. cit., p. 54.

The improvements mentioned above explain the enthusiasm of makers for the ophicleide and, among them, many Frenchmen patented their innovations on the instrument:

‘In 1822, Labbaye fils also applied for a patent for a ten-key ophicleide, which had the advantage of being easily transposable (the bell could be dismantled) and of changing key by means of a pump (patent no. 39 of 9 February 1822). This instrument had the sonority of the horn, the bassoon and the serpent.Guichard the elder was the first to use valves for the ophicleide; he took a patent on 14 June 1836. His instrument had three valves and could be set in C and B, whereas the natural key was E flat.

In 1852, Jacques Couturier used a rotary valve to replace the last four keys of the instrument: this was the cylinder or piston ophicleide (patent no. 14657 of 13 October 1852).

But the ophicleide model perfected in 1822 by Halary is the one that seems to have been the most successful.80Ibid., p. 54.

The Problems of the Instrument

The instrumentalists and pedagogues who devoted themselves to the ophicleide are little known because documents concerning them are rather rare.81Ibid., p. 54. On the other hand, it is known that ‘Pavart and Lahou played the ophicleide in the orchestra of the Société des concerts du Conservatoire: the first as early as 1828, the second from 1859 onwards’.82ELWART, Antoine, Histoire de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire Impérial de la Musique, Paris, Castel, 1860, p. 101. However, it seems that the instrument was not easy to handle. According to Berlioz, too few of the musicians who played the ophicleide were able to handle it properly: ‘Out of a hundred or a hundred and fifty individuals blowing at this time in Paris on this difficult instrument, there are hardly three who can be admitted to a well composed orchestra. Only one, M. Caussinus, is of great strength.’83BERLIOZ, Mémoires, Paris, Lévy, 1881, tome 2, pp. 239-240.

Moreover, ‘As for the training of these instrumentalists, it was provided by the Gymnase musical militaire or by private teachers, as the Conservatoire did not have an ophicleide class.’84GÉRARD, Thérèse, op. cit., p. 54. This may explain the difficulties the instrument had in integrating into the orchestra. Moreover, as it was new, a tradition had not been established for it to be taught properly. It is true that its use was developing in military bands. However, it was taught in accordance with the needs of military bands. This must have been a hindrance to the integration of the ophicleide into the orchestras.

In an article in the Gazette musicale, ‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’, Berlioz reports that in provincial orchestras the shortage of instruments in the ensembles forced them to fill in certain parts by using various instruments, including the ophicleide:

But what provincial conductors are always sure of not missing, for the performance of modern operas, is the ophicleide, the fat body. There is always, if not in the town itself at least in the neighbourhood, some garrisoned regiment whose military band abundantly supplies the theatres with these crude instruments. In such a place, you will have neither oboes, nor clarinets, nor bassoons, but their absence will be compensated for by a gigantic ophicleide, bellowing like a five-year-old bull …85BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’, Revue et Gazette musicale, Paris, 2e année, n° 28, p. 130.

2:2:6 The Boehm Bassoon

Théobald Boehm, a flautist, applied J. C. G. Gordon’s system, which basically consisted of placing the bore in its exact place, with the bore widths exactly calculated according to the tube, and fitting the instrument with a system of keys that closed all the holes and opened when operated. This principle was a real revolution in the world of woodwind instruments. Unfortunately, as we shall explain, this system on the bassoon was doomed to failure. In order to better understand the reasons for this failure, we will see later on what this system consists of, after having presented the instruments that introduced it. It will be of interest to mention the makers who worked on the construction of a bassoon equipped with this system, before giving the reasons for its failure.

The Origin of the System and Its Principle

In 1831, Théobald Boehm was accused of stealing ideas from Gordon, an amateur flautist, who later assisted him in his Munich workshop. In 1832 the first Boehm flute was created, but despite the advantages it offered, it met with strong opposition. From 1833 to 1846, the maker had to supervise the Bavarian steel industry, which forced him to give up his musical activities for a while. Freed from this task and still dissatisfied with certain fundamentals of the flute, under the guidance of Dr C. von Schafhäutl, he devoted himself throughout 1846-47 to the study of acoustics. It was during this second period of activity that his interest turned to the bassoon. The principle of the system he was trying to develop concerned, as we have already noted, the correct placement and size of the bore on the sounding tube of woodwind instruments. It will also be recalled that the instruments designed during this second period had a feature worth noting: all the holes were covered by the key mechanism.86BATE, Philip, ‘Boehm, Théobald’, New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, London, edited by Stanley Sadie, second edition, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980, vol. 2, p. 839.

This system having been so successful with the flute, clarinet and, to some extent, the oboe, many musicians, including Berlioz, hoped for the same for the bassoon: ‘This instrument [the bassoon] leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy, and will perhaps benefit more than any other of the wind instruments from being built according to the Boehm system’.87BERLIOZ, Hector, Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, Paris, Henri Lemoine, 1844, p. 128. Moreover, as the other woodwinds had successfully adopted this system, the bassoon’s defects were even more striking.

The Boehm System and the Bassoon

Considering that in the first half of the 19th century a lot of experimentation was being done on the bassoon to improve it, one might think that the makers had a strong interest in this system, but this was not the case. Only a few outsiders really dared to experiment seriously with it. These included Frédéric Triébert of Paris, Cornelius Ward of London and Haseneier of Coblenz. Of these three, two of them yielded to the urgings of certain bassoonists; thus Ward was encouraged by Giuseppe Tamplini and Triébert by Marzoli. Haseneier, on the other hand, worked alone, without the enthusiasm of an instrumentalist to support and motivate him in his undertaking.

However, some bassoons had elements that are found in the Boehm system. Firstly, Charles-Joseph Sax was the first maker to have a bassoon with all the holes closed by the keys of the instrument; this bassoon was sent to the city of Haarlem exposition in 1825.88JANSEN, Will, op. cit., p. 137. In 1842, Adolphe Sax, son of Charles-Joseph, made a metal bassoon with the same type of key mechanism; these two instruments do not seem to have received the attention from musicians that their maker had hoped for, and fell into oblivion.89Ibid., p. 137. Seven years later, Boehm took his idea and applied it to a metal bassoon with 23 keys, which this time was quite successful. Boehm is said to have seen this instrument and to have praised the maker: ‘… whatever the source of his information, when after the closing of the Exhibition he happened to be in Paris, he went to Sax workshop to see the brass bassoon and after inspecting it “he loudly heaped praise on the maker’s hand in the presence of several witnesses”.’90Ibid., p. 138.

In England, Cornelius Ward, the first to make metal bassoons in 1847, exhibited the first instrument of this type which he made at the London World Fair in 1851.91Ibid., p. 138. He later copied the principle of Sax’s metal bassoon and was naturally inspired by the Boehm system in building a new instrument with 23 keys and all the holes closed.92Ibid., p. 109. Moreover, Boehm had written a short article ‘De la construction du hautbois et du basson’, in which he gave the calculation of the holes for the bassoon. It seems that he himself built an instrument according to his principles, as can be seen from another article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik dated 1850.93KERGOMARD, op. cit., p. 24.

But it was Frédéric Triébert who was the first to apply the Boehm system to the bassoon around 1854. Boehm himself is said to have visited Triébert in that year to convince him to create the instrument according to his calculations and sketches.94JANSEN, Will, op. cit., p. 139. The instrument, which was fully completed, was exhibited in 1862 at the London World Fair. It was a great success, with critics agreeing that it had a good homogeneous sound. It was this instrument that Marzoli used to play in orchestras.95KERGOMARD, op. cit., p. 24.

Interestingly Berlioz, ten years after the first edition of his Grand Traité, mentions the award given to Théobald Boehm at the 1851 London World Fair in his report of 1854:

Mr BOËHM (of Munich) has obtained a large medal for the application of a new system of bore to wind instruments with holes, such as flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The real inventor of the system is named Gordon; but the ingenious application that Mr Boëhm has made of it, especially for flutes, undoubtedly deserved to be brought to the attention of artists and the public by the distinction that has been awarded to him. Mr Boëhm makes most of his flutes in silver. The sound of these instruments is soft and crystalline, but less full and less loud than that of wooden flutes. The advantage of this new system is that it gives wind instruments with holes an almost irreproachable accuracy, and allows players to play without difficulty in keys that are almost impracticable on old instruments.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in the second edition of the Traité, in 1855, Berlioz maintained his position on the application of the Boehm system to the bassoon.

Problems Raised by the System

The first misgivings appeared with Jancourt who, with Buffet’s close collaboration, also looked into the Boehm bassoon. For the famous bassoonist, the Boehm system represented a vague possibility of improvement, which it was worth not neglecting whatever the results: ‘I worked for a long time with Mr BUFFET before obtaining this satisfactory result. We tried the BOEHM system, which we were forced to give up’.96JANCOURT, Eugène, Méthode théorique et pratique pour le basson, en 3 parties op. 58, Paris, S. Richaut, 1847, p. 17.

It was Buffet who quickly persuaded him to abandon the system by providing sufficient arguments to prove its failure; it was clear that the sound colour, compared to that of the bassoon, was completely distorted and that the instrument was losing its unique expressiveness. This was all it took for the system to fail and for all experiments to come to an end.

Boehm, having been careful to let the bassoon makers first try to apply the system to the instrument, decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1854, he visited Triébert to encourage him to build a bassoon according to his sketches and calculations. Triébert, as already mentioned, was really the first to attempt to create an instrument that fully respected the principles of the system. As with others who had tried, it was a failure. The writings on the instrument seem to have neglected its musical aspect, but they do not fail to point out its technical shortcomings: excessive length of the keys, a key system that tends to bend or detach easily from the instrument, the sound of the keys’ clicking being too loud, and the keys needing to be readjusted too frequently on the instrument’s parts. Thus, it is not easy ‘to apply the system of rods and rings to the bassoon, the length of the rods causing an unpleasant noise, a kind of spluttering harmful to the instrument.’97KERGOMARD, op. cit., p. 24. But these are not the only drawbacks of the instrument:

A bassoon built to Boehm proportions, which is nothing like Sax’s, whatever has been said about it. Unfinished in 1855 (only the chromatic scale of the sounding tube could be heard, the addition of the keys having been completed only after the exposition), the Triébert-Boehm bassoon could be properly judged in London in 1862. The mechanism was well-designed and the sound better in tune and more homogeneous than that of the ordinary bassoon, but it had the disadvantage of differing ‘a little too much from the old one in its timbre and fullness’. Let us add that the very high price of this instrument 1200 fr., made its sale difficult.98PIERRE, Les facteurs, op. cit., p. 319.

The price of the bassoon, as stated in the previous quote, was high, which must have limited the number of bassoons made. But, in fact, why was its cost higher than that of ordinary bassoons? Chouquet, in his description of a Boehm bassoon made by Triébert, allows us to understand the reason: ‘It was made by Frédéric Triébert, who only made three instruments of this kind, because the very complicated mechanism made it too expensive to build.’99CHOUQUET, op. cit., n° de catalogue 510. This instrument can be admired in the Paris Conservatoire’s museum.

It is clear that the mechanism of this instrument was complex, which explains its high price. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that, because of the size of the instrument, the mechanism could not be as stable as on the flute and clarinet. It was not inconceivable that a considerable sum of money would be invested in such an instrument; still, the mechanism would have to be sturdy, which was not the case. It is not surprising, therefore, that the sale of a Boehm bassoon cannot be established with certainty. It is highly probable that its price and its lack of sturdiness condemned this instrument to remain in the prototype state.

In his method for the bassoon published in 1879, Eugène Jancourt gives a convincing account of Triébert’s failure with the Boehm system:

The attempt made by Frederick Triebert to apply the Boehm system to the Rassoon did not succeed although the talent of this eminent maker promised better results. The mechanism was well conceived although very complicated, but the want of two very essential points viz quality of tone and simplicity of fingering marred its success.

It is therefore of the greatest importance carefully to preserve its quality and character in any modifications or alterations intended to give the instrument more equality and accuracy without changing the fingering or injuring the tone.100JANCOURT, Eugène, Etude du basson perfectionné à anneaux mobiles, plateaux et 22 clés op. 58, Paris, Goumas, 1879, p. 2. [Editor: the English version is Jancourt’s own.]

While the vast majority of makers and performers admit that the Boehm system is doomed to failure, a few continue to hope. This was the case with Tamplini, who had spent several years in England and returned to his native Bologna in 1888. He continued to extol the merits of the instrument, publishing in the same year a method for the bassoon and for the Boehm bassoon. But these were only the final spurts of effort for an instrument that was soon to disappear.

By the end of the 19th century, French and German bassoons were no longer as bad as they had been at the beginning of the century. They now met the requirements of the musicians. The interest in applying the Boehm system to the bassoon was therefore no longer justified. If it is necessary to add to the reasons for its failure, it is worth recalling its price and the re-learning imposed by the fingering on the instrument,101It is understandable that a player who has reached a certain level of mastery on his instrument is more reluctant to change his entire technique. Moreover, the ordinary bassoon was well on the way to overcoming its defects. which differed from that of the conventional bassoon. Moreover, this fingering, as Jancourt pointed out, lacked simplicity. This was all it took for any further attempts or experiments on the instrument to be definitively abandoned.Most of the instruments presented above did not, in fact, constitute serious competition for the bassoon. With the exception of the sarrussophones, they have hardly survived. Be that as it may, the 19th century remains such a rich and interesting period for the bassoon that anyone interested in the history of bassoon making cannot ignore what happened to its ersatz instruments. Many of these instruments, although they did not go beyond the experimental stage, answered a certain demand, thus filling certain gaps in the bassoon of the time. The study of the bassoon’s parents may seem marginal; in fact, it is essential. Indeed, what was expected of them and the adjustments that had to be made to them allow us to better understand the problems of the bassoon, and the information that can be drawn from their history helps to shed light on bassoon’s own history. However, the interest in studying an instrument for its own sake should not be overlooked. It is to be hoped that the interest in these instruments will nowadays be taken seriously. We will certainly gain much from this kind of study, not only to better understand the instruments of an era, but also to better grasp the intentions of the composers who called on their services.

On the other hand, as we have seen, makers made a considerable effort to create instruments that could meet a demand. The defects of the bassoon at the beginning of the 19th century were obvious, and ingenuity and originality were required to attract customers and meet their expectations. Related instruments all tried to overcome some of the bassoon’s inherent defects, but in turn were exposed to certain disadvantages, which eventually hindered their development or were simply the cause of their demise. These include the high sales price of the instrument, the distortion of the bassoon’s own timbre, the lack of simplicity in fingering, etc. The bassoon, at the end of the 19th century, finally reached a satisfactory balance; this is the main reason why makers were not so eager to design new instruments.

2:3 The Bassoon in Military Ensembles

The previous chapter has shown that attempts to create instruments from the bassoon that would displace it have been unsuccessful. But this did not mean that the threat was over. The military band offered a excellent arena in which this could be achieved. Indeed, outdoor music requires tough and loud instruments. Although the strength of woodwinds is not comparable to that of brass instruments, it was not a decisive reason. This is not the case with the sound, and it is clear that the bassoon’s sound cannot compete with most of the instruments that make up a wind band. It is not surprising, therefore, that the bassoon was the object of attacks aimed at eliminating it from this type of ensemble. It is these attempts and the resistance to them that will be the subject of one of the main points in this chapter.

2:3:1 Bassoon’s Place in Wind Bands

The military band occupies an important place in the history of music. We will therefore look at the use of bassoons in the various military ensembles. The main group in which the bassoon is used is the wind band. The difference between the wind band and the brass band lies in the fact that ‘The orchestra which is called Brass Band, is composed of the same instruments as the wind band, except for the woodwinds, i.e. Flutes, Clarinets, Oboes, Bassoons.102CLODOMIR, Pierre, Traité théorique et pratique de l’organisation des Sociétés Musicales: Harmonies et Fanfares; suivi d’une instruction détaillée sur les concours de musique avec les divers documents qui s’y rattachent, Paris, Alphonse Leduc, 1873, p. 2.

In wind band, the bassoon shares a peculiarity with three other instruments that distinguish it from the others:

Among all the instruments we have just mentioned, there are only four, the Large Flute, the Oboe, the Bassoon and the Trombone, which are strictly speaking non-transposers, i.e. they perform exactly the music written according to the pitch.103Ibid., p. 3.

The fact that the bassoon is not transposing is not negligible. It avoids extra work, because the performer can read and play the notes as they are written in the score and get the same real sounds.

Bassoon as Described by a Wind-Band Specialist

Clodomir, in his treatise, gives a description of the bassoon and presents it as follows:

The bassoon is written on the F clef. It fulfils the role of singing bass; its part is similar to that of the cello in the symphony orchestra. It doubles the bass melodies, the arpeggios of the 2nd clarinets, or holds in the soft passages. Its tone is very noticeable.104Ibid., p. 7.

One may wonder what this definition adds to other works, such as treatises, methods or dictionaries. It is interesting to note that the author does not mention the fourth-line C clef, which suggests that the wind band repertoire made little use of this clef (the same applies to the orchestra; the bassoon can be written in the G clef, but few treatises mention this clef in its register). This instrument has a double function: it fulfils the role of the singing bass; it can also be used as doubling. If this is the case, we can infer that this instrument was called upon to assume a subordinate function, which did not highlight its various abilities within an ensemble. It is therefore desirable to introduce the instruments of military ensembles, since the methods devoted to them are intended for potential composers of music.

Defects and How to Remedy Them

As we have seen under ‘Bassoon Makers’ and ‘Major Improvements in the 19th Century’, one of the main faults of the bassoon was its lack of sound within the mass of other instruments.

Everyone knows that in the state of development that instrumentation has achieved in recent years, the bassoon is an instrument of weak sound whose effect disappears in the midst of noisy masses. Such is the tenuousness of its sound that the bassoon has disappeared from many military bands; but the absence of this instrument results in a very great evil, for since there is no longer an intermediary between the high parts of the clarinets and the formidable Russian ophicleides or serpents, the harmony presents gaps that are only imperfectly filled by the muffled third and fourth clarinet parts. The horns, with their brassy sound, can no more fill this void than the trombones in a multitude of effects. In the orchestral symphony, the weakness of the bassoon is also noticeable whenever the mass of instruments attacks with force. However, the expressiveness of this instrument are such that in many circumstances they would not be replaced by others without disadvantages. It was therefore necessary that there should be an improvement in the construction of this instrument with regard to the volume of sound, and this improvement could only be obtained by giving the sounding tube stronger dimensions.105FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Exposition des produits de l’industrie: Instruments à vent’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, 11 mai 1834, pp. 148-9.

As this could lead to the disappearance of the bassoon from the military ensembles of the time, various efforts were made. Nicolas Winnen, for example, tried to remedy this problem by building a bassoon that could play louder, while retaining the characteristics of the instrument, which he named bassonore. Fétis does not fail to mention this in the following terms:

This is what Mr Vinnen [sic]106Editor: cf. PIERRE, Les facteurs, op. cit., p. 305. did. But the new proportions he had to give to his bassonore brought about some changes in the vibration nodes, and obliged him to make various changes in the fingering of the instrument. However, these changes are not so important that an artist accustomed to the ordinary fingering of the bassoon cannot, in less than a fortnight, accustom himself to that of the bassonore, which does not require a stronger reed than the bassoon.107FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Considérations sur quelques instrumens et sur leur emploi’, Revue musicale, Paris, publié par M. Fétis, 12 octobre 1834, p. 326.

Fétis, in concluding a later article, addresses points of capital importance. Firstly, he recalls that he had pointed out in the previous article that Winnen’s bassoon had been displayed to the French industry. This bassoon had a stronger sound than the others and was made more to contrast with large loud masses than to take part in a traditional orchestra where such intensity of sound was not always necessary:

I will not end these considerations on the bassoon and contrabassoon without recalling what I said about the bassoon exhibited last May among the products of French industry by Mr Winnen. This bassoon, of a larger diameter than the one usually used, has a much greater strength of sound. In the ordinary orchestra this intensity of sound is not always necessary, but it is invaluable for wind-band music. I cannot insist too much on the necessity of obtaining, for this genre of music, instruments of this kind; the wind-band societies which make use of them will not be slow to recognize their superiority.108Ibid., p. 326.

Moreover, one could envisage increasing the number of bassoons in wind orchestras to compensate for the weakness of the sound of this instrument, which is drowned out by that of the others that mercilessly cover it. Fétis did not fail to point this out:

One part that is likely to acquire great importance in the wind band, and which is most often in a state of almost complete worthlessness, is the bassoon. Two bassoons! That is about all that is to be found in military bands, and in the largest wind-band societies there are hardly more than four. I had thirty bassoons in the orchestra of 25 September; perhaps it would have been necessary to have more, but in the end this number, as it was, produced a very good effect in many passages. I had only managed to gather so many because, having been forced to take only a few musicians from the band of a certain number of regiments, I had asked that good clarinettists and bassoonists be sent to me in preference.109Ibid., p. 326.

Since Fétis had a wind orchestra of no less than thirty bassoonists at his disposal, it is easy to understand his enthusiastic desire to have a large number of these instruments in this type of ensemble. Moreover, if composers are encouraged to neglect the use of the bassoon, it is probably because of their small numbers in a force. This contributes to the impression that they have a meagre sound and convinces one of their limited usefulness. However, the instrument has undoubted resources to exploit. Fétis convincingly shows that at least eight bassoons are needed for this instrument to compete with the rest of the ensemble:

The bassoon would have had a double function in wind music, for it can be both the tenor and the bass of the oboe, and it fills the intermediate parts of the other sections of wind band. I have noticed that composers do not always use it intelligently, and that they make it unnecessarily double the parts of ophicleides, serpents and Russian bassoons, instead of giving them what they place in the parts of third and fourth clarinets. It is true that the small number of bassoonists makes them fear the thinness of the effect, and this is not without reason. Everything must therefore point to the need to find the best proportions for this instrument. I believe that there should never be less than eight bassoons in a complete wind orchestra.110Ibid., p. 326.

Its Ousting from Military Ensembles

In spite of all these efforts and despite the improvements made to the instrument, the bassoon disappeared from the wind band by the middle of the 19th century. Adolphe Sax played a decisive role in this disappearance. He proposed a new combination of instruments for this type of ensemble to replace the old one, which required a larger number of players:

Before giving its opinion, this commission demanded a competition between the old system of combination and that proposed by Adolphe Sax; it indicated the Champ de Mars as the place where the trial would take place, and the day fixed was 22 April 1845. The teachers and pupils of the gymnasium of military music, directed by Carafa, were charged with demonstrating the old system; the number of these artists was forty-five; that of the musicians assembled by Sax amounted to only thirty-eight; nevertheless, the advantage of the new system over the old one could not be doubted, in a vast open-air site, since it was a question of power of sound only. More than twenty thousand people attended this session. Sax’s triumph was complete in the opinion of this audience, for enthusiastic applause broke out on all sides. According to the opinion of the commission enlightened by this test, the minister of war took a decision on 9 August 1845, included in the Moniteur of the following day, by which the organisation of military music corps, proposed by Sax, was adopted. This victory for the artist, so ardently desired, cost him fifteen years of unheard-of persecution and lawsuits that ruined him and deprived him of his rest, for from that moment on his enemies swore his doom.111Ibid., p. 416.

One may wonder why, at a time when woodwind instruments were considered military instruments, one of them, the bassoon, was excluded from the wind bands. It is known that for a good part of the first half of the 19th century, many musicians reproached the instrument for its lack of sound. During this period, however, ensembles began to have increasingly large numbers. As a result, wind bands saw their numbers increase considerably. Faced with such a phenomenon, and knowing the bassoon’s main flaw, it is easy to understand why the instrument’s place was threatened by others who tried to supplant it. In addition to this, its place was threatened by its under-representation in the ensembles; according to Fétis, there were no more than four in the major military corps. Because of this lack of balance, bassoons could not claim to occupy a place of first rank in an ensemble. All this makes it easier to understand why the bassoon’s place in military ensembles was threatened.

Adolphe Sax, who, following in the footsteps of his father in Brussels, worked on both kinds of instruments, was certainly a leading figure in the field of instrument making, but the effectiveness and usefulness of his work, as well as its influence on the progress and development of instrument making, are debatable. He misjudged the value of his discoveries and it can be said that he himself was responsible for the disappointments and setbacks that plagued the end of his life. It is to be regretted that this ingenious maker did not make better use of his abilities, and that he was foolish enough to want to concentrate all the making in his own hands. It is for having tried to dominate everything and to substitute himself for everyone that he attracted the lawsuits which were the beginning of violent struggles, equally fatal to both parties. In vain, one would try to incriminate the Parisian makers; they defended their existence and it was not without reason that they branded as an intruder the foreigner who, under the pretext of improvement often more apparent than real, had his hands on everything, and wanted to monopolise, by means of the patent, the manufacture of instruments for the use of military bands. One cannot plead in his favour the interest of art, the matter of business and private interest was not indifferent to him, otherwise he would not have left his homeland, where he could have peacefully produced his discoveries.112PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 349-350.

In addition, the manufacture of instruments used by the military underwent major transformations. As Haine reminds us:

It was in the 1840s that military musicians underwent a great revolution in their organisation. Most woodwind instruments were replaced by brass ones, and new types of instruments were used, notably saxhorns and saxophones. Military bands were an important outlet for wind-instrument makers; and these bands were given pride of place and there was considerable development of infantry, cavalry and artillery bands, etc. Public auditions and competitions were organised very frequently in front of a devoted public. This enthusiasm for the military bands encouraged the formation of civilian instrumental societies, brass bands and wind bands, which multiplied and were rapidly introduced into every town and village in France, and more particularly in the North.113HAINE, Malou, ‘Les facteurs d’instruments de musique’, La musique en France à l’époque Romantique 1830-1870, Paris, Harmoniques Flammarion, 1991, p. 107.

The tendency in these bands was to have loud instruments, and metal ones were better suited to this kind of need. In addition, they were less fragile, which is important in a band that not only plays outdoors, but also travels. All of this was clearly not in favour of the bassoon.

Resistance to This Ousting

Although Sax imposed this new strategy, the fact remains that the removal of the horn and bassoons from these ensembles shocked many. For some, such as Clodomir, the replacement of this instrument by the saxophone in wind bands was unsatisfactory:

In full wind bands, the Bassoon is indispensable. It is wrong to think that it can be advantageously replaced by the Saxophone family.

The Bassoon’s voice is too powerful and characteristic to be dispensed with, especially in a serious, well-organised band, capable enough to interpret the works of our great masters.

The role of the Bassoon in classical music is sufficiently well defined; it is not permissible, in transcribing it, to sacrifice its importance for the benefit of this or that other instrument.

The saxophone, it is true, has a new voice, of recent creation, which can occasionally be used to advantage, but its range is too restricted for it to be able to strictly execute the passages written especially for the Bassoon. In this case one is obliged to have recourse to several saxophones staggered in different keys.114CLODOMIR, op. cit., p. 7.

Moreover, the removal of the bassoon from the wind bands did not only provoke regrets, but also resistance. The media in particular protested against the possible disappearance of the instrument from the various ensembles.

This omission would be all the more regrettable as the bassoon is the instrument with the widest range in the band, a not inconsiderable detail. Moreover, one can only deplore the fact that an instrument with so many virtues is being abandoned:

It is religious in character, tender, melancholy, and of a sweet and pleasant tone. The bassoon is both a recital instrument and an accompaniment instrument, sometimes used to sing alone, sometimes to double the cello, oboes, clarinets and horns, and sometimes to reinforce the bass part in unisons, fugue entries, and polished marches: it is an instrument of great resource in the instrumentation. It is truly regrettable that it has been driven out of the military band, to which this instrument gave a more pleasant and less strident colour: a character that no other instrument has come to restore. In its origin the bassoon was imperfectly constructed, leaving something to be desired in terms of accuracy in the lower notes, but the keys with which it has been successively endowed have corrected these defects and made it an instrument of the highest order.115GIRAUD, J. Frédéric, Le polycorde ou Nouvelle méthode théorique et pratique de musique vocale et de musique instrumentale, Paris, Schott, 1869, p. 30.

So while some people have no objection to new timbres being added to these ensembles, they are against the idea of removing the bassoon:

We must never lose sight of the fact that the richness of a music is acquired through the integration of as many timbres as possible in the whole.

We must always add, but never subtract. Let us therefore admit the saxophone, if we recognise its usefulness, but let us not remove the bassoon.116CLODOMIR, op. cit., pp. 7-8.

Whether this type of argument was decisive in maintaining the bassoon’s presence in this kind of force is not known, but there is no doubt that it contributed whatever strength it was given.

Part II: Theory and Practice

Chapter 3: Bassoon in Methods and Theoretical Writings

3:1 Bassoon Methods of the 19th Century

The methods are very important sources for the study of the bassoon in the 19th century. They contain information on various aspects of the instrument: history, construction, condition, fingering chart and the main defects to be corrected. The oldest bassoon method available is the Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson of 1800 by Étienne Ozi,1OZI, Étienne, Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson, Paris, Boyer, 1800, 28 p. who was the first professor to teach the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire de musique. He wrote one in 1787 but we have not been able to find it. However, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that other methods for the instrument existed earlier. Furthermore, methods written for other instruments may have contained information about the bassoon and how to teach it. We can say this with certainty. Indeed, we have been able to discover the existence of a version of Louis Hotteterre’s Principes, with L’art de préluder sur la flûte published in Paris, without date (around 1763), under the title: Méthode pour apprendre à jouer en très peu de temps de la flûte traversière, de la flûte à bec et du hautbois, divisée en différents traités. Nouvelle édition, augmentée des principes de la musique et des tablatures de la clarinette et du basson.2No book on the bassoon seems to cite this work. However, this method is cited in the article on the Hotteterres in FETIS, François-Joseph, Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie de la musique, op. cit., p. 379. This source can also be found at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in the music department at Richelieu. It is clear from this very explicit title that the author of this treatise devoted certain discussions to the instrument which is the subject of our study.

Given the rapid development of wind-instrument making, and particularly that of the bassoon, during the first part of the century, the writing of a new method intended to update the information and new techniques brought to this instrument was necessary. It was in this spirit that Eugène Jancourt wrote his Méthode théorique et pratique pour le basson en 3 parties, published in 1847, and he does not fail to mention it in these terms:

The great Work that has dealt with this instrument, as a Theory and practice, is the Method of Ozi. It appeared more than half a century ago, and since then instrumental music has undergone so many changes, the style has made such rapid progress, that, despite the great merit of this work, it has become essential to conform to the requirements of our time.3JANCOURT, Eugène, Méthode théorique et pratique pour le basson en 3 parties, op. cit., p. 1.

Indeed, the progress made by the bassoon since Ozi’s method cannot be denied. In France, while this instrument had only six keys at the beginning of the 19th century, in 1847, when Jancourt’s method was published, it had two fingering charts, one for the sixteen-key bassoon, the other for the seventeen-key bassoon. It goes without saying that the information on fingerings and passages that were not attainable in Ozi’s time and had become attainable in Jancourt’s had to be updated.

It is easy to understand, then, what a study of the main bassoon methods can contribute to our knowledge of the instrument. We will therefore examine Ozi’s methods, starting with that of 1787, because, although it was written at the end of the 18th century, it was used by bassoonists throughout the following century. We will discuss Frédéric Berr’s method before turning to Willent-Bordogni’s. These studies will allow us to better understand the interest of Eugène Jancourt’s two methods, especially as they contain an impressive amount of information of all kinds on the bassoon.

3:1:1 Ozi’s Methods

The 1800 Method

The oldest bassoon method still available today is Ozi’s Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson, written in 1800. Although it is not extensive (it is only 28 pages long), it offers information of inestimable historical value. First of all, the title suggests that there were probably other methods for the instrument. Indeed, Ozi is known to have made a method in 1787 (about which no information is available), which suggests that his méthode nouvelle is an improvement on his own method for his students at the Conservatoire. The words ‘nouvelle’ and ‘raisonnée’ suggest that the method is an innovation on the previous one. In fact, these two words are the subject of very enlightening details in the rest of the title:

New and Structured METHOD FOR THE BASSOON in which a clear and easy explanation is given of the way to hold this instrument, observations on the ancient and modern Bassoon; in which its range, its embouchure, the qualities of the reeds to be chosen from, the way of acquiring a beautiful sound, the strokes of tongue and, in general, everything relating to the Bassoon are discussed.

This METHOD also contains Examples for the different strokes of tongue in all movements and measures, according to the genre of Music; several Examples for telling the principal Notes from the borrowed Notes, the Fingering to be used for the restricted trills[;] several two-part Lessons for the Beginners[;] six Lessons with Preludes to familiarise oneself with the fingering in all the restricted Keys of the Bassoon, twelve little tunes and six duets the first three of which are very easy and the last three concertante.4OZI, op. cit., p. 1.

Following this text is the name of the author and his title: Premier Basson de la Musique du Roy. Among other things, this reference was intended to guarantee the seriousness and professionalism of the work.

Position of the Body

The first article of the method concerns the position of the body. Although it may seem obvious, the way in which one stands and holds the instrument is so important and plays such a role in the technique and quality of sound that can be obtained from the instrument, that it was only right that it should be the subject of a discussion devoted exclusively to it. The rather large size of the instrument and its relatively heavy weight demanded that special attention be paid to the position to be taken before a piece is played:

This article is all the more useful as the Instrument is very heavy, and it is essential to hold it in such a way that the weight does not prevent the ease of two hands and the agility of the Fingers; it is therefore necessary, in order to avoid all discomfort, to take care that the Cord which carries the Bassoon, is neither too short nor too long, so that the Reed which is at the end of the Bocal is just in the Mouth, without being obliged to raise or lower the head, which would do great harm to the embouchure and to breathing.5Ibid., p. 2.

This quotation requires a slight clarification. As the musician could play standing up at the time, he tried to lighten the weight of the instrument by means of a thin cord which he attached to the butt of the instrument and which he hung from a button on his jacket. Étienne Ozi then set about describing very precisely the position of the player’s fingers on the holes and the distance that he should keep between his elbows and his body:

You must make yourself master of the instrument by resting the bone under the index finger of the right hand next to the first hole of the low piece, which rests with the lower belly of the right side; and the bone under the index finger of the left hand next to the first hole of the lower joint. The thumb of the right hand should be extended over the hole of low E, and that of the left hand is held between the Keys of B, and low D, i.e. always ready to close low B, C, D. The elbow of the right Arm should be held six inches from the Body, and that of the left Arm two inches; as the Key of low D is placed precisely where the Bassoon should be supported, it is necessary to surround the playing of the key with Railings, or guard Key … So that the Key is not closed involuntarily: many people neglect this precaution; they are also often exposed to missing several tones and playing out of tune.6Ibid., pp. 2-3.

The Instrument

In the second article, the author presents the instrument. He first describes the one he uses, recalls the name of its maker and shows how it differs from the others (more particularly from those in Paris):

The Instrument I usually use is made by Keller in Strasbourg, and differs from the Bassoons made in Paris in that 1° it has a Key for G Sharp or A Flat … and consequently requires a different Scale. It makes the G Sharp or A Flat, surer, louder, and better in tune than the others; it is also used for several tones like high F, high A … 2d° the bore is larger and consequently provides a greater volume of sound by using a large-caliber Bocal, which is what the Instrument requires. I have also added a small Key to the Instrument, which is used with the thumb of the right hand to raise the low G Sharp, which is usually flat on all Bassoons, and which cannot be made right without damaging some other tone. This Key is also used for the high B Flat … I will not speak of the Key built in the wing joint; it is almost universally used. Those who want to go up to B, C &c. without this Key, are very wrong because these tones are not natural and they can only come out by force of pinching the Lips; it is also necessary to find Reeds that go up very easily and rarely these reeds are good for low tones; instead of by means of the Key, the above tones should come out as easily as the high F, G, A.7Ibid., pp. 3-4.

However, given his experience in this field, Ozi can be trusted to say that other bassoons are not necessarily bad and that these observations are only intended to inform the student so that he can make a wise choice of instrument:

I do not mean by this Article to imply to the Reader that the Bassoons of other Makers are not good, and I can give an example that I think the contrary, coming from the fact that I had several made by Mr Porteaux, an instrument Maker in Paris (he is true to the model of mine) but each one can make a choice on one or other Maker of this Instrument, and my purpose is not to damage anyone, for habit is everything, and if I have written this Article, it is only to leave a choice to the Pupil.8Ibid., p. 4.

Although he claims that his article is intended to enable the student to choose his instrument as wisely as possible, one nevertheless gets the impression from reading it that his preferences lie with Keller’s bassoons. Ozi explicitly lists the advantages of the Strasbourg instruments, but does not recall those that can be found in the instruments of the Parisian makers, while acknowledging however the quality of the bassoons of the maker Porteaux.

The Embouchure and the Reed

In the third article of his treatise, Ozi deals with the embouchure. He begins by stressing the vital role played by the embouchure on the quality of the sound, which is all the more commendable as it is close to the timbre of the human voice:

The Bassoon is of all Instruments the one that requires the most attention to acquire a beautiful Embouchure, in that it is from this that the good or bad quality of the sound comes; and as the sound of the Bassoon carries by its lowness coldness in its part, one must try to make up for this defect, by seeking to imitate a beautiful human voice; and I dare say that it is of all Instruments, the one that is most likely to approach it: it is my experience that an Accompaniment, or a Bassoon Solo performed with taste and a beautiful sound, becomes as interesting as any other wind Instrument; but if it is so gratifying with a beautiful sound, it becomes very unpleasant with a bad sound.9Ibid., pp. 4-5.

Given the importance of the embouchure in producing a beautiful sound, it is not without interest to specify the location of the lips in order to have a good embouchure; this is what Ozi does in these words:

Therefore, to acquire a good quality of sound, one must not use strong or too weak Reeds … The Reed must be entered into the Mouth at two or three Lines from the Ring, and squeezed with both Lips without drawing them in too far, as this would put the tones in danger of being jerky, and would prevent the Tongue from being used to advantage. The Reed must not be straight in the Mouth; it would give too much vibration to the Cane, it would prevent the Embouchure from being controlled, and would undoubtedly make the sounds sour. Many people lean the Reed out, I am of the opposite opinion; I have seen by experience that by leaning the Reed a little inwards, i.e. towards the instrument, one acquires more strength in the Embouchure; consequently one becomes master of the Reed in the whole compass of the Instrument, the sounds become softer, instead of, in any other way, being obliged to turn the Head to the right and to the left, pinching the Lips to seek the tones especially in the upper range, the Pupil who starts and does not have the Embouchure made, soon has tired Lips.10Ibid., p. 5.

The end of this article is devoted to the performer’s resilience. Playing for too long tires the lips; it is therefore necessary to develop the muscles involved and to equip oneself with good reeds which should be neither too strong nor too weak:

It is not necessary to play for long, but to work often on the range of the Scales … When one has acquired a little of the Embouchure, one should continue with the following Lessons … One should not wear oneself out trying to play the last Notes of the Scale, A, B, C, D; this can serve no purpose for Beginners, except to strain the Lips a great deal, which would deprive them of the strength to seek the softness of the Embouchure; and one should only try to make use of these tones when one has worked through the Lessons indicated above. And when the pupil can easily go through all the tones, he will feel the degree of strength that the Reed to be used should have, and it should be observed with the greatest exactness that whenever one is obliged to change Reeds, to scrape them and arrange them so that they are neither stronger nor weaker than the one one one is throwing away: these are the means of acquiring firmness in the Embouchure and purity in the sounds.11Ibid., pp. 5-6.

The fourth article is devoted by Ozi to the qualities of the reeds to be chosen.

The Sound

Having given all the material details, it was time to deal with what all this is about. This is what the fifth article does, which asks how to acquire a beautiful sound. It is this, and Ozi insists on it, that should be the goal of the bassoon student. Acquiring a beautiful sound is essential; otherwise the instrument quickly becomes monotonous:

The first aim of the Pupil is to work solely on acquiring a beautiful Sound, a quality all the more essential to the Bassoon, as this Instrument is monotonous in itself. He must avoid the fault so common to most of those who study the Bassoon, who as soon as they can play a simple Bass want to play Concertos, and the Pupil, on the contrary, must apply himself to working hard on the simple Melody and avoiding all difficulties until he has achieved the quality of sound: it is only the bad taste of Bassoon Players and the premature desire to play difficult Pieces that has led to the belief that this Instrument is unrewarding.12Ibid., p. 7.

It is important to understand that the quality of sound is much more important than the finger technique. The above quote clearly suggests that the sound you are looking for can only be achieved through a long apprenticeship, so before tackling brilliant works, you need to be sure that the required sound quality is already in place. But how can this be achieved? Ozi answers this question in four points:

It is therefore necessary to 1° seek out the accuracy which can only be acquired by making a special study of the Mechanism of the Instrument; and one will only succeed in playing in tune by becoming familiar with all the keys. There is no wind Instrument that is not out of tune by itself; it can therefore only be mastered and tuned by practising a lot in all keys.

2° You must not get used to playing bad Reeds.

3° One must take great care at the beginning to playing all the keys of the Scale honestly.

4° One must try to master one’s Embouchure, by holding the sounds of the Piano to the Forte: according to this study which leads to making sounds soft and sonorous, one must only work on the Adagio, imitating the good Method of the Cantabile.13Ibid., p. 8.

The conclusion of his article clearly summarises the author’s thinking:

By following this Method, the Pupil will manage to furnish his Head, and will work without weariness, instead of being the one who wants to do everything at once, soon bores himself with fruitless work which only results in farting and whose effect is so unpleasant and so tiring for the Listeners, ends up giving them an aversion to an Instrument so beautiful and so pleasant when well played.14Ibid., p. 8.

Ozi’s treatise does not neglect any of the fundamental elements in the training of a bassoonist. Does it present the latest state of its author’s thinking on the subject? According to one source, this method was republished almost ten years later (probably in 1809); we have not been able to verify whether this information is true, as we have been unable to get hold of this work in order to observe whether there are any significant differences.

The 1843 Method

In any case, the information that one could hope to draw from this document, assuming it still existed, should be relatively limited, for it was in 1843 that another method by Étienne Ozi was published: Méthode de basson contenant la tablature, des gammes, des leçons progressives et 12 petits airs avec accompagnement d’un 2e basson, nouvelle édition.15OZI, Étienne, Méthode de basson contenant la tablature, des gammes, des leçons progressives et 12 petits airs avec accompagnement d’un 2e basson, nouvelle édition, Paris, J. Messonnier, 1843, 24 p. This hypothesis is confirmed by the content of the work. The latter can unquestionably be considered as a complement to his first method. Indeed, one finds only one page devoted to theoretical reflections and another dealing with the bassoon chart to studies allowing the development of the various skills required to play the bassoon. It should be added that the author of the method was no longer alive at the time of its publication, which suggests that Étienne Ozi’s influence continued beyond his lifetime.

As in his Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée, Ozi first addresses the problem of the position of the body. In this chapter, this point is treated more succinctly than in the other method, but there are some new elements: ‘Before placing the Reed in the Bocal, one must moisten it a little between the lips to remove the natural dryness of the cane. The Bocal should be turned a little outside the line parallel to the Bassoon, so that it is in front of the mouth.’16Ibid., p. 1.

Secondly, he returns to the quality of sound that one has a right to expect from an instrumentalist, but he is content to make a brief remark without elaborating:

In order to make beautiful sounds, one must inhale a sufficient amount of air and then exhale it with a stroke of tongue directed towards the Reed.

The action of the tongue could be imitated by saying that it seems to throw a small piece of thread out of the mouth as it directs the air into the instrument.

The Reed must be covered by the lips to within three lines of the first ring, so that the air cannot escape through the corners of the mouth, and the stroke of tongue directs it into the instrument.17Ibid., p. 1.

The second page of the method gives the chart for the 16-key bassoon. The rest, as already noted, offers exercises to develop a beautiful sound, to work on the various articulations as well as the various major, minor and chromatic scales. The book ends with graded lessons, followed by 12 short tunes, and 4 études.

This method aroused great interest among both teachers and students. This interest is all the more significant since it was published after the death of its author. But however great the interest in the work, this did not discourage good people with pedagogical intentions to offer new methods. This was, moreover, more than desirable at a time when progress in bassoon making was significant. It was therefore necessary that the methods and the presentation of the fingering charts be updated.

We owe it to Ozi to have equipped both teachers and students with adequate material by publishing his methods, thus ensuring that the latter would have a solid learning experience and the former would have the means to provide a good training. This is how the level of bassoonist began to become higher and higher because, it should be remembered, the technical defects of the instrument were too often deplored. Progress in the making of the instrument was certainly called for, but bassoonists still had to acquire a certain level that would allow them to make the most of the instruments that the ingenuity of the makers would make available to them.

3:1:2 Berr’s Method

Although Frédéric Berr was most famous for his work on the clarinet, he was first and foremost a bassoonist.18Editor: see also James Kopp, ‘Frédéric Berr and the Savary Bassoon of 1836’. We owe him a Méthode complète de basson which must have been used in particular in military bands, as the title page reads:

This Method is adopted for Teaching in the classes of the Gymnase Musical Militaire’.19BERR, Frédéric, Méthode complète de basson, Paris, J. Meissonnier, n.d., 113 p. It also states that this ‘Method [is] Dedicated to his friend Barizel, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, 1st Bassoon of the Académie Rle de Musique, by F. Berr, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, Professor at the Conservatoire and Director of the Gymnase Musical Militaire’.20Ibid., title page. It would seem that the author benefited from the precious advice of two bassoonists, Baumann and Barizel, who is the dedicatee of his work.21Ibid., title page.

Some General and Historical Considerations

Berr devotes the four pages of his introduction to the principles of the bassoon. First of all, he recalls the origins of the instrument and lists the different bassoons that existed in his time:

The Bassoon (in Italian FAGOTTO) an instrument of the Oboe type, was invented in 1539 by a Canon of Pavia named Affranio. At first it was made up of several parts like the present bassoon. It was then divided by species. There were bassoons with 12 holes and 3 keys; others with the same number of holes without keys; in these instruments the holes were closed with plugs that were removed or put in to play in certain keys. The Bassoon of the 3rd kind was called COURTAUD because it was smaller than the others, it had eleven holes and three key: it was used as a bass for the musettes.22Ibid., p. 2.

As we explained in the section dealing with the bassoon before the 19th  century, it seems that the attribution of the invention of the bassoon to Canon Afranio is doubtful, or even erroneous, but it should be noted that at that time the only sources available for the history of the bassoon gave only this information. For as far back as the instrument goes, it is no less imperfect; this is what Berr reminds us: in the ordinary state of its construction, he notes, the bassoon is still an imperfect instrument because ‘many of its notes are muffled and of poor quality of sound; it generally lacks accuracy and the difficulties of its fingering stand in the way of the execution of a host of passagework that are often encountered in modern music.’23Ibid., p. 2. We learn that the instrument in France at the beginning of the 19th century had fewer keys than in Germany: ‘The use of the seven-key bassoon continued for a long time in France, even though the Germans had already adopted nine or ten keys.’24Ibid., p. 2. Berr goes so far as to mention the reforms of the German maker Karl Almenräder: ‘However, the need was felt to overcome the disadvantages of accuracy and fingering, and in 1817 a German virtuoso, Mr Almenräder, undertook a complete reform of his instrument and rebuilt it to better proportions.’25Ibid., p. 2. But he adds that despite the shortcomings of the instrument at their disposal, the French were able to overcome many of its disadvantages without having to reform it: ‘The French makers have not been left behind, and the successive improvements that the Bassoon has undergone have given more accuracy to doubtful sounds at the same time as it is now possible to perform passages that had hitherto been regarded as unmanageable.’26Ibid., p. 2.

Body Position and Fingering

The plan of Ozi’s method was a good one, since, like him, Berr addresses the question of body position and deals with the way of holding the bassoon. He first justifies the importance of playing standing up when starting to learn the instrument:

It is essential from the beginning of the study to get used to playing standing up; this position facilitates the emission of sound, and it is easy to clear the chest to help the lungs play. The body should remain upright and motionless. As the bassoon is made up of two main parts fitted together, it is necessary to fix them with a hook.27Ibid., p. 2.

Following Ozi’s lead, Berr focuses on how to hold the instrument. After mentioning the cord of the instrument attached to the suit, which allows it to be supported, he comes to the reed, insisting that it must be moistened.

On all these points, Berr cannot be said to be innovative; where he does show originality compared to other methods is when he comes to fingering and remarks on the left thumb:

In some methods one has been advised to hold the left thumb fixed; this prescription is contrary to the principle of good execution, since it requires a useless movement each time the thumb has to press on another key, whereas by holding it up it is always ready to move one of the nine keys in the middle of which it dominates.28Ibid., p. 3.

The formation of the sound is the subject of the following discussion: ‘The action of forming the sound and fingering at the same time’, he writes, ‘must be carried out in one go; above all, it is necessary to avoid groping for the sounds, as this hesitation is detrimental to the accuracy.’29Ibid., p. 3. Taking up word for word the words of the corresponding passage in Ozi’s method of 1843, Berr reminds us that one must take in a sufficient quantity of air to exhale it with a stroke of tongue towards the reed, which leads him to develop the way in which one must work in order to produce a detached sound on the instrument:

To express the noise produced by this stroke of tongue it is erroneously said that he who performs it must pronounce the syllables TU TU. The action of the tongue might be imitated by saying that it seems to throw out of the mouth a small piece of thread as it directs the air into the instrument.30Ibid., p. 3.

Here again, we can see that Berr borrowed from Ozi’s method of 1843 the expression ‘rejeter de la bouche un petit bout de fil’. It is important to get into the habit of doing this from the start, otherwise it will be difficult to correct oneself. This warning is all the more salutary in that it should prevent bassoonists from falling victim to the bad habits they have got into when playing a run:

Clumsy efforts, the action of puffing the cheeks instead of giving a stroke of tongue, are the sign of a performer who does not know how to direct his breath. This explains why, in ensemble music, performers who play wind instruments are blamed for being late; the time they lose by giving a stroke of throat was intended for the execution of a note that is no longer heard at the right moment, and instead of conducting the air in a straight column as one would do with a piston, they spend it all by exhaling it in spray, and cannot form sounds equal to straight sounds.31Ibid., p. 3.

The Embouchure and the Reed

The third item of the method is devoted to the embouchure. A good treatment of the embouchure cannot be done without a good position of the head:

The head should be held high and the Reed should not be pressed with the upper lip. The Reed rests on the lower lip, forming an angle with it to modify the tone of the cane. This tilting is very necessary, it gives the means to direct the embouchure and to play with equal assurance all the notes of the compass.

The Reed must be covered by the lips to within three lines of the first ring so that the air cannot escape through the corners of the mouth, and the stroke of tongue directs it into the instrument.32Ibid., p. 4.

The last paragraph of the quotation exactly reproduces the discussion in Ozi’s method of 1843, which appears in the section dealing with the formation of sound.

The end of Berr’s method distances itself from that of Ozi. The considerations he devotes to the reed are interesting. It is worth noting that the measurements for making reeds are not fixed:

The proportions of the Reed are not fixed. The Germans use very strong Reeds and produce unpleasant sounds. The English go beyond this harshness and it is impossible for them to play piano because their Reeds are so rough that too much air is needed to articulate the notes.

In France Reeds of all kinds are used, but there is nevertheless a desirable proportion and a form which the experience of good artists has recognised as serving as general rules.33Ibid., p. 4.

It is clear that the quality of the sound depends on the quality of the reed. Berr gives practical advice on how to choose the right reed; he warns against unpleasant surprises, even when the reed is of good quality, and indicates how to remedy the situation; but whatever the solution, one must never forget to respect the rules of acoustics, without which one cannot produce a beautiful sound:

For the use of Reeds, spongy canes should be rejected, as they soak up too easily when placed in the mouth and have no bite to them.

In spite of the good quality of the cane, the Reeds are sometimes muted; they can be scraped at the heel to obtain a more brilliant sound quality, especially in the lower notes.

The proportions of the Reed being drawn up according to acoustic rules, they must not be altered; it is therefore wrong to advise shortening the tip when the Reed gets old, the sounds then become sharp and uneven because the quantity of air that was necessary for a stronger Reed becomes overabundant when it is cut, and the instrument becomes out of tune.34Ibid., p. 4.

It can be seen that much of the information in this method was closely inspired by Ozi’s methods. However, this work is not a mere copy. The discussions on the origins of the instrument are not without interest. Although the attribution of the invention of the bassoon to an Italian priest is refutable, this history at least tries to give the student an idea of the origin of the instrument and allows him to understand why, from the very beginning, there have been different types of bassoon. The article on the reed is also interesting. Indeed, we learn that the measurements are not fixed and that the dimensions can vary from one country to another; this is understandable, since the differences from one bassoon to another were such that it would have been surprising if the technical and acoustic requirements of any instrument could have been perfectly met. In view of these, Berr’s method, which cannot claim to rival those of Ozi (or even those of his predecessors), is no less deserving of a certain respect, if only because of the historical value it cannot be denied in the world of the bassoon.

3:1:3 Willent-Bordogni’s Method

Preliminary Remarks

It was during the same year as Ozi’s Méthode de basson, that is in 1843, that Willent-Bordogni’s Méthode complète pour le basson à l’usage des Conservatoires Royaux de Musique de Paris et de Bruxelles appeared.35WILLENT-BORDOGNI, Joseph, Méthode complète pour le basson à l’usage des Conservatoires Royaux de Musique de Paris et de Bruxelles, dédié à son ami J. Fétis, Maître de Chapelle du roi Léopold et Directeur du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, Paris, Maison Troupenas, 1844, 103 p. Like Berr, he discusses the origins of the bassoon, which he also attributes to ‘Affranio’. This discussion is followed by a presentation of the three types of bassoon that were used at that time. He notes, however, that these bassoons are hardly higher than two octaves, unlike Berr, who makes no mention of this in his method. Interestingly, Willent-Bordogni attributes the first use of the instrument in an ensemble in France to Lully: ‘Lulli was the first to add some wind parts to his orchestra. In various places in his works we find the indication of Flutes, Oboes, Bassoons and Trombones.’36Ibid., p. 2. This introduction may seem late, but the former bassoon professor at the Brussels Conservatoire gives an account of it by recalling a passage from Étienne Ozi’s method, which suggests that the instrument required, at the very least, certain improvements:

According to the famous Ozi, who was the leading Bassoonist of his time, the Bassoon was already one of the most perfect wind instruments, not to say the least defective, but since then there have been several men of genius who have in turn revolutionised the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic systems, as well as the instrumentation.37Ibid., p. 3.

Reflections on the Instrument

Thus reporting on the manufacture of woodwind instruments in the early 19th century, Willent-Bordogni nevertheless notes that the bassoon has fallen behind the instruments of its section. He therefore proposes solutions to solve the problem:

Unfortunately, the Bassoon was the only one of this category of instruments which, in the midst of so many different revolutions, did not undergo any notable improvement, so it is still the most backward of all.

It is therefore urgent that an intelligent maker modify or rather remake this magnificent instrument, and even that the commission of the Conservatoire Royal de musique in Paris offer an incentive to the one who presents the most perfect Bassoon according to a new system. If this advice were taken into account, Mr Adolphe Sax fils would already have certain chances of success in that he has today acquired a new Bassoon made according to my ideas from a man named Bachmann, who, on his death, left it to his heirs; moreover, I can guarantee that by completing the Bassoon, to which very little remains to be done, it could serve as a model for the making of all other wind instruments.38Ibid., p. 3.

He then discusses the different types of bassoons used in his time. He distinguishes four of them:

The 1st kind is the one opposite the chart.

The 2nd larger than the 1st is a fifth lower, not a fourth as the Encyclopédie musicale erroneously states in the article on Bassoon.

The 3rd which is even larger than the previous one, is called Contre-Basson: it is just one octave lower than the first kind.

The 4th species, smaller than the previous ones, is called Basson-quarte; the C sounds [ascending] F.39Ibid., p. 3.

Character of the Bassoon

These reflections on the instrument lead him to deal with a point that had not yet been discussed in the other methods: the character of the bassoon. Willent-Bordogni points out that the instrument has a range of three and a half octaves, in which it can be played diatonically or chromatically. The timbre of the instrument is nonetheless ‘rich and colourful’.40Ibid., p. 3. The instrument has three nuances; they are ‘quite distinct and … have at the same time Bass, Baritone and Tenor voices, a property which offers soloists and especially composers precious and innumerable resources’.41Ibid., p. 3. It should come as no surprise, then, that the author of the method is full of praise for the role of the bassoon in the orchestra:

In the orchestra, the Bassoon fulfils, so to speak, the most important role, for its mission is to bind together all the wind instruments and to give fullness to the harmony. Its timbre is delicious and imbues the music with a melancholy colour and an inexpressible sweetness; this is what made a man of great spirit, Mr Castil-Blaze, say that the voice of the Bassoon in the orchestra is to the listener what the violet hidden under a leaf is to the walker.42Ibid., p. 3.

The importance of the instrument’s resources is not self-evident, but Willent-Bordogni brings to the attention of his reader, and this is worth noting, that it is through the study of a great master that one becomes aware of the importance of the instrument’s resources:

It is especially in the study of the great masters that one can realise the importance of the Bassoon in the orchestra, for all of them have treated it in turn and with equal success in what is serious, melancholic, pastoral, dramatic and sometimes even in the comic and bizarre genre.43Ibid., p. 3.

Moreover, according to him, today’s composers have too often neglected the resources that the bassoon offers to the orchestra, so we must observe how some great composers have treated it:

The beautiful qualities of the Bassoon have been generally neglected by young composers today; I therefore strongly urge young composers who consult this method to study carefully the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Auber and Meyerbeer.

The introduction to the method ends not only in a very positive way, but also with some sound advice. On the fourth page, Willent-Bordogni discusses his method itself, which is divided into seven articles. The first is devoted to how to hold the instrument. Although he is very precise about this, he adds nothing new to what was said in the previous methods. There is only one terminological difference; he uses another word for the bocal, which he calls the ‘S’.44He will write this term as ‘esse’ later.

Sound Formation and Embouchure

The second article is devoted to the formation of sound. This relatively short discussion does not add anything new to the subject: ‘The sound is the result of the introduction of the performer’s breath into the body of the instrument through the reed, which for this purpose must be placed between the lips in such a way that the air cannot create any other outlet.’45Ibid., p. 4.

The question of the embouchure is dealt with in the third article. Willent-Bordogni explains precisely how the reed should be physically placed in order to have a good embouchure:

The reed should be placed on the lower lip in such a way as to leave the head in complete stillness.

The reed must be slightly tilted and form an angle with the lip on which it is placed. This tilting is necessary to play at the octave and modify the vibration of the cane at will.

To make the instrument resonate, the reed must be pressed so that the lips are about four lines from the 1st ring; then move forward the tongue as if to block the reed, and then, introduce air into the instrument by blowing, taking care to withdraw the tongue as one would do to pronounce the word tu strongly.46Ibid., pp. 4-5.

A difference between the article by Berr and that of Willent-Bordogni can be seen here. It can be seen that the latter speaks of placing the lips on the reed four lines from the first ring whereas Berr speaks of three lines. Is this difference due to a difference in the way the two bassoonists made the reeds, or is it simply a difference in taste in timbre that explains this difference? The second hypothesis seems more convincing, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

The article ends with practical advice, particularly on the faults to be avoided: ‘The first note that one should try to get out of the instrument is G. … One must avoid puffing the cheeks; this fault is unsightly and moreover can have unfortunate consequences which I will explain in due course.’47Ibid., p. 5.

Reed, Fingerings and Articulations

Like Berr, Willent-Bordogni addresses the question of the reed in the fourth place. But here he deals with it from a completely different, but not contradictory, point of view:

The reed should be neither too strong nor too weak; however, it should be rather strong in order to avoid producing sharp and unpleasant sounds. The reed must not have too much wood, which would make it muted and deprive it of the vibration it should have, either to play at the octave with ease, or to cover the whole range of the instrument: this drawback can be remedied by lightly scraping the cane on both sides, and even by removing some of the bark that the maker usually leaves next to the 1st ring. If, on the other hand, the reed is too weak, it should be cut off a little at the end to give it more strength; but this method can harm the instrument if it is not used intelligently.

The next article deals with fingering. There is a chart and practical advice on how to gain the neatness of the execution:

The chart on plate 1st presents the best fingering available for playing in tune, although it presents some difficulties, and I urge students to get used to it from the beginning.

I would observe that the pupils should not keep their fingers too far away from the holes or keys, but should hold them constantly opposite them so that they can act freely and effortlessly as required, and that in their action they strike the holes rather than slide into them. The S must also be turned a little to the right.

These observations, if followed exactly, will give neatness to the execution.48Ibid., p. 5.

The penultimate discussion is concerned with ‘articulations divided into four species. Articulation helps to determine the different characters of the music; it also produces neatness, lightness and aplomb. There are four main kinds of articulation: the Coulé, the Détaché, the Piqué and the Louré; these four kinds are determined more or less by the action of the tongue on the reed.’49Ibid., p. 5. Willent-Bordogni then explains more precisely what these articulations consist of, before adding a few recommendations to follow for correct execution: ‘In these last three articulations, one must avoid puffing the cheeks, giving throat sounds and moving the chin; these faults deprive the tongue of the means of agility which are necessary to it and they make one contract the bad habit of jerking the sounds.’50Ibid., p. 6.

Pedagogical and Practical Advice

The last article is essentially pedagogical as it is addressed to teachers so that the advice given in the book does not go unheeded:

Before demonstrating to the students the application of the preceding articles, it is agreed that the teachers will have to explain to them, with the Bassoon in hand, all the advantages and disadvantages that these articles reveal, and this before making them draw a sound from their instrument: only, the teachers will be able to train their students in handling the instrument.51Ibid., p. 5.

At the very end of his method, the author tackles two new points: the ‘Means of Maintaining the Instrument’ and the ‘Instruction on How to Make Reeds’. The instrument must be well maintained; this is very important for Willent, who explains how to do it:

Dampness and dust form silt which, attaching itself to the inner walls of the bassoon, alters its resonance, and makes its sounds soft and thick; this cause for destruction of the instrument is indicated when the sounds come out with difficulty, and are out of tune or when the instrument becomes too flat.

To avoid these disadvantages: one must take care to dismantle all the parts of the bassoon after playing, so that the air can penetrate into the body of each part; one must wipe the joints to prevent moisture from saturating them and rotting them afterwards; after playing, one must invert the butt in order to drain off the water that remains in the bottom of the instrument.52Ibid., p. 102.

Moreover, he adds, it is not enough to let the water drain out of the instrument; he teaches very precisely how to clean the interior and how to oil the parts:

To clean the inside of the joints, first a cloth must be inserted into them, taking care that it scrubs sufficiently to remove the first silt, then by means of a feather, it is soaked in good olive oil, the oil is left to penetrate for twenty-four hours until it removes the rest of the dirt attached to the walls of the instrument; then a dry cloth is passed through again until the cloth comes out clean from each joint.

It is necessary to take the precaution of dismounting the keys before oiling the parts because the oil soaking the skin, which covers each key, softens and spoils it. Before putting oil in the butt, it is necessary to take out the cork which forms the lower part with a kind of stick whose tip must be fitted like that of a ramrod in order to be able to attach the cloth which must be used to clean the interior of the joints of the bassoon.53Ibid., p. 102.

As for the ‘Instruction on How to Make Reeds’, the text can be found in the section dealing with reeds in the 19th century. One will learn there that the French reed is, according to Willent-Bordogni, superior to the Italian reed on account of its robustness and its waterproofness. Such information is precious for getting a good idea of the reeds that were made in France in the 19th century.

The Value of Willent-Bordogni’s Method

Willent-Bordogni’s method is consistent and convincing. It contains many good and new tips, as well as a good update of the information given almost fifty years earlier in Ozi’s first method. This was all the more necessary as during this period many improvements had been made to the instrument. It was no longer possible to stick to the traditional approaches. A different approach for learning the instrument is called for.

3:1:4 Jancourt’s First Method

Eugène Jancourt’s 1847 method, Méthode théorique et pratique pour le basson en 3 parties,54JANCOURT, Eugène, op. cit., 234 p. [Editor: there exists an unpublished translation of this treatise by Emilian Badea.] is without question one of the most monumental in the world of the bassoon. From the outset, the author recognises the importance of the method of Ozi, written fifty years earlier, and notes that the instrument has undergone so many changes since then that it was necessary to readjust and supplement certain information. The first page of the method is devoted to the history of the instrument.55Much of this information can be found in the discussion on ‘The Bassoon before the 19th Century’. If one refers to it, one will notice that Jancourt presents much more information on the subject than the authors of previous methods.

The Character of the Bassoon

Following these historical considerations, the first section of the method is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the character of the bassoon. Here the author praises the merits of the instrument, emphasising that it is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice:

The BASSOON, which has become one of the most perfect wind instruments, performs in all keys without any crooks; its range, which is three and a half Octaves from low B♭to high E♮, allows the artist to deploy its resources and richness in solos.

Just as the different nuances of the human voice express feelings, so the difference in the sound of instruments gives each of them its character and what is called the soul of an instrument. The more nuanced the sound, the more feelings that instrument can express. The touching voice of the Bassoon places it in the first rank, for it is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice. Its sound is majestic in the lower register, touching in the upper, full and serious in the middle register. These qualities give it a greater advantage over other instruments in conveying the beauties of an Adagio, for the Bassoonist must concentrate on singing rather than on overcoming a host of unattractive difficulties that rob it of its character. This does not, however, exclude all kinds of difficulties; a song that is too continuous would become monotonous, and a graceful or brilliant passage deftly thrown into a piece can only make the song stand out, and the merit of the performer appreciated.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a talented artist with sensitivity should be able to produce marvellous and assured effects on his listeners with his dramatic and religious accents on this instrument. It is also indispensable in the make-up of an orchestra.

Now an all-purpose instrument, it modulates a Solo with as much grace as sweetness, and then carries its voice to all the points where it can usefully serve, either to link the different parts of the Harmony which in great effects would be too weak if left to the Viola, or to reinforce a Staccato.56Ibid., p. 2. [Editor: this paragraph was lifted from this page in Castil-Blaze’s Dictionnaire de musique moderne.]

But the bassoon is not only suitable for solo performance; it can be used happily as a richly-endowed accompaniment instrument; great composers had a particular taste for the instrument:

Possessing the timbre that is best suited to all the registers, it successively doubles the Bass, the Viola, the Clarinet, the Flute and the Oboe;57Editor: this sentence was again lifted from Castil-Blaze’s Dictionnaire de musique moderne. ‘Viola’ translates ‘Viole’; ‘J’ai adopté celui de viole, comme nom de famille,’ explains Castil-Blaze. Kopp failed to translate the word when quoting Castil-Blaze on p. 92 of his Bassoon. it fulfils the role of both Tenor and Bass of the reed instruments; it follows the rapid march of the Violins or the peaceful slowness of the Horns. Its accents are full of vigour and feeling; they invite contemplation and inspire sweet piety when they accompany a religious song. In the make-up of a military Band, no instrument can replace it, especially when one has a Wind Band, either of eight, twelve, or twenty, &c. &c…

GLUCK, HAYDN, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, BOIELDIEU and SPONTINI had a distinct predilection for the Bassoon, and it was with regret that they were sometimes forced not to use it. Our great modern Masters, Messrs AUBER, ROSSINI, HALEVY, CARAFA, ADAM, ONSLOW, use it principally in the middle voices, to reinforce the Basses for the Fugue entries, the unisons &c. &c… They frequently use it as tenue with Horns and Clarinets.58Ibid., p. 2.

This reminder of the role that the bassoon is called upon to play leads Jancourt to insist, at the end of his first chapter, on the basic qualities that the bassoonist must possess even before beginning to study the instrument.

Making and Maintenance

In the second chapter, Jancourt addresses the question of the manufacture of the various parts of the bassoon, giving valuable information on the making of the instrument in his time:

The BASSOON is generally made of maple wood. It is the size of an 8-foot Organ pipe; however, as it would be inconvenient to handle a pipe of this length, it is divided into two parallel pieces so that it can be held and controlled easily with hands.

Several Artists now use the rosewood wing joint No. 2, and this is another improvement; the sound comes out better, has more brilliance and is less tiring for the performer. I do not believe that the Bassoon should be made entirely of rosewood, as the lower tones would lose their roundness and mellowness, without adding anything to the high register; the rosewood joint alone is therefore suitable in every respect.59Ibid., p. 3[5].

The bassoon can therefore be made of different woods, which makes one think about the fact that the instrument has several parts. Jancourt distinguishes five of them: ‘1°. The Bocal, a copper tube in the shape of a Ƨ, 2°. The small Body, 3°. The Butt, 4°. The large Body, 5°. The Cap or Bell.’60Ibid., p. 3[5]. After showing how to assemble the instrument, he goes on to explain the main characteristics of each of these parts:

First, the Butt is taken, and after putting the small Body and the large Body into it, the Cap is added, and then the Bocal.

The Bocal is one of the most essential parts, and requires a great deal of attention in its use, for it is on it that the accuracy of the sounds and the ease with which they are raised and lowered depend.

The modern Bassoons have 16 Keys, sometimes more, but 16 is enough, because the more holes drilled in an instrument, the less sound you get; these 16 Keys are:

On the small Body: the Keys of A, high C, high E♭, C♯, Key of Bocal and E♭,

On the Butt: the Keys of B♭, F, G♯, F♯,

On the large Body: the Keys of D, E, C natural, C♯ and B♭,

On the Cap: the Key of B♮.

Most of these Keys make the tones better in tune and the instrument easier.

The Bassoon, thus assembled, only lacks the Reed, the most essential and delicate part; it is on it that the quality of the sound and the lightness of the Staccato depend, so it is very urgent to devote much attention to it.61Ibid., p. 3[5].

How to keep the instrument in good condition? This is the question that the third chapter seeks to answer:

Like all instruments, the Bassoon requires a lot of care to keep it in good condition.

After playing, each part should be dismantled, the water drained and cleaned with a brush made for this purpose. The instrument should not be left in places that are too wet or too dry, as the wood may rot or bend. The parts that do not contain water should also be cleaned, especially the holes, which would lose their accuracy if they were not opened properly.

Another operation that is at least as useful is to oil the parts that retain water 3 or 4 times a year. Before this operation, the Keys must be removed first, to avoid soaking the lining with oil, which must be preserved, and secondly to facilitate cleaning.

The Bocal must be cleaned at least every 15 days with hot water and a small flexible wire brush with a horsehair brush; care must be taken not to insert a needle larger than the hole when unblocking the small hole at the side, as the lower notes would lose their volume of sound and be unreliable.

The Reed, themost subtle and delicate part of the instrument, must also be cleaned with great care. Only when it has become too silted should it be cleaned with hot water and the upper barb of a feather. A little dirt in the interior is necessary to make it sound easily, for when it is too dry or new it produces a noisy and unpleasant sound. Above all, take care to keep all dust away from it, which I recommend especially to those who take tobacco, because it only takes one grain in the reed to intercept the emission of sound.

The Keys also require a lot of care. As soon as you find it difficult to close them, you must put a drop of oil on the spring, and above all avoid bending them when dismantling the Bassoon parts. Finally, it is essential to take good care of the tenons, so that they close tightly without requiring effort; when assembling the instrument for this purpose, they must be oiled, and above all you must avoid moistening them with saliva, which would saturate the wood and could gradually rot it.62Ibid., p. 8.

The Staff of Notes and Musical Keys

In the fourth chapter of his book, Jancourt deals with ‘the staff of notes and musical keys’. The reminder of the general notions of music that the bassoonist must know adds nothing that Ozi had not already discussed in his first method. However, Jancourt insists on the importance of mastering the fourth-line C clef: ‘The Bassoonistmust know the Bass Clef and the Tenor Clef, and must practise early on to read them easily; for he frequently plays in both. … In the past the G Clef was used for the higher notes, but it has been abandoned in order to facilitate the reading of the music.’63Ibid., p. 8. Jancourt, after following up these remarks by giving a 17-key bassoon chart, ends the first section of the method by discussing the notion of transposition.

General Preparations for the Instrument and How to Hold It

The second section of the method consists of 17 chapters. The first chapter deals with ‘General Preparations for Playing the Bassoon’.64Ibid., p. 14. In this regard, Jancourt strongly emphasises the need for a good physical condition: ‘The BASSOON requires a good constitution. The student must carefully avoid anything that could have an unfortunate influence on his health; he must not study too long. When he feels his lips or lungs are tired, he should stop immediately. It is also harmful to play immediately after eating, because of the pressure of the lungs. An interval of an hour or possibly two should be allowed; the same applies to all other wind instruments.’65Ibid., p. 14.

The second chapter is naturally concerned with ‘How to Hold the Instrument’.66Ibid., p. 14. While repeating what has already been said in the previous methods, it tackles new aspects. It warns against the slackening of physical posture: ‘The Artist must give his body a noble and easy attitude, and above all avoid making faces; there is nothing more unpleasant than to see the head swaying, the body drooping or the legs bending, which most bassoonists so often do when a difficult passage presents itself. These contortions are not only offensive to the sight, they hamper the performer. I particularly recommend the student to keep his head straight at all times.’67Ibid., p. 14. It is also necessary to pay attention to the position of the feet, without which one cannot have the ideal posture: ‘As for the feet, it is better to place the left foot a little forward; the body will thus be more steady, and the right hip being raised a little more, the thumb of the right hand will act easily.’68Ibid., p. 14.

The conclusion of this chapter provides some very interesting information from a musicological point of view:

Some Artists simply attach their Bassoon to a button on their dress, by means of a thin cord hanging from the ring; this position is wrong; it is preferable to have a thick cord at the end of which is a small snap-holder, passed through the ring of the butt, and the length of which is regulated by means of a buckle; In this way, by bringing the reed close to the mouth, it is placed just on the lower lip, the Performer is more at ease, and his execution becomes easier.69Ibid., p. 14.

Jancourt’s advice on the equipment to be used for stand-up playing is in significant contrast to previous methods. The description of the cord corresponds very obviously to the neck-strap used today. It is therefore possible, since earlier treatises do not mention it, to establish, thanks to this passage, the introduction of the neck-strap into the bassoon world around the middle of the 19th century.

The Formation of Sound and Its Vibrations

The third chapter is entitled ‘On the Embouchure and the Formation of Sound’.70Ibid., p. 15. Jancourt points out that the position of the lips on the reed has a direct impact on the quality of the sound. Furthermore, ‘… as the lower lip is the one that presses the reed, the largest part of the reed must be turned downwards’. It should also be remembered that there are five embouchures for the different registers:

Example 1st. [G1 to F♯2]

In this case, the lower and upper lip are pressed equally hard against the reed.

Example 2nd.[F♯1 to B♯0]

The lower the notes, the more vibrations the reed should produce, so the lower lip should hardly press the reed, and only touch it.

Example 3rd. [G2 to G3]

In this range, the lower lip must be pressed a little more against the upper than in other embouchures, especially when there are jumps from one octave to a higher one, which should be executed with the same fingering; the embouchure in this case is quite special.

Example 4th. [A3  to E♯4]

In this case, the reed must be pushed a little further into the mouth; the lips should be pressed together tightly and closer to the teeth; this naturally makes the reed fit a little further into the mouth.

These different pressures, although not very sensitive in a scale comprising the bassoon’s range, are more sensitive mainly in the jumps from a low note to a high note.

Example 5th. [3-octave ascending intervals, B♭, C, D]

The pressure for low B♭, C and D should be very low and the lips should be squeezed strongly for high B♭, C and D, without
altering the sound; (See Example 2 for the low notes and 4 for the high notes.)

These transitions from the 1st to the 3rd Octave are sure to have an effect on an audience, but they should not be abused; doing them once at the end of an organ point or at the end of a variation is sufficient in a piece.71Ibid., pp. 15-16.

The student, Jancourt insists, must be careful not to lose air through the corner of the lips; his fingers must be neither too close nor too far from the holes.72Ibid., p. 16. As for the attack itself, it must be done with the tongue. At the beginning of the learning, the first note to be drawn from the instrument is C2,73Ibid., p. 16. according to Jancourt, who invites the pupil to consult the chart and concludes this chapter by noting that ‘Until the embouchure is perfectly formed, the pupil must not practise ascending to high tones’.74Ibid., p. 16.

The fourth chapter deals with and is entitled ‘On the Quality of the Reed’. It contains nothing beyond what we learn on this subject in the other methods. More interesting is the chart of the improved 16-key bassoon that Jancourt offers his reader.75Ibid., p. 17 ter. The following four chapters will be omitted, as none of them differs significantly from the corresponding passages in the other methods.

The ninth chapter deals with ‘the Vibration of Sound’.76Ibid., p. 44. Jancourt provides some very interesting information on how to make the sound of the instrument vibrate at that time:

The VIBRATION of the sound must not be confused with the ornaments. It is not an ornament dictated by taste, but the result of a deep feeling expressed on the instrument. When an Orator is deeply penetrated by the subject of his speech, and when he speaks according to his soul, his voice experiences a kind of pleasant vibration; it is the same for the singer who feels vividly what it expresses. What nature has done for the orator and the singer, art and feeling together must do for the Bassoon, this instrument which is so wonderfully suitable, since it is, we repeat, the closest of all to the human voice.

This vibration is obtained by means of the tremor of the right hand over the holes, for G and F♯ above the lines, these are two notes whose resounding timbre produces a pleasant effect; the same applies to high C, C♯ and D

However, it must not be abused, for its effect is lost as soon as it seems calculated; the Artist who feels deeply and whose soul is moved, alone can make the Listener understand the emotion he is experiencing; it is then that the tremor produces a sure effect, for it is dictated by feeling, otherwise it becomes ridiculous.77Ibid., p. 44.

It can be seen that this vibration produced by the bassoonist is obtained by the trembling of one of the two hands depending on the note played. This practice is no longer common today and seems to have been abandoned in favour of the vibrato produced by a fluctuation of air controlled by the diaphragm.


For the record, the tenth chapter deals with ‘Syncopated Notes’.78Ibid., p. 45. More interesting is the eleventh chapter, which deals with breathing, an essential theme in bassoon playing:

A long BREATH is one of the greatest advantages that an instrumentalist can possess. Although it is, in general, a gift of nature, it can nevertheless be acquired by the ordinary study of slow and sustained movements. it is therefore of the utmost importance to know how and when to breathe, so as to always have the necessary amount of breath to perform.

Breathing consists of Inhalation, which is the introduction of air into the chest by dilating the lungs and collapsing the belly, and Exhalation, which is the expulsion of the air that has been introduced into the chest: this produces the opposite result of dilating the belly and collapsing the lungs.

The Pupil must practise inhaling with ease, and without being noticed, for there is nothing so tiring for the Listeners as to hear them breathing in with a noisy effort. Inhalation should be practised in two ways: long, when one begins a phrase or tenue of several bars, one has time to take it well; short, when one is obliged to take it suddenly in the middle of a phrase where there is no silence.79Ibid., p. 45.

It follows from this valuable advice that in working on breathing one must also master the way in which one exhales: ‘Exhalation thus presents another major fault, which cannot be avoided too much: it is that of letting the rest of the air contained in the chest escape forcefully, when the phrase is not long enough to release it in its entirety gradually; this produces a sort of very unpleasant hiccup: it is by the way in which the Exhalation is moderated and sustained that one recognises a skilful instrumentalist.’80Ibid., p. 46. Having clarified the way to breathe, it is necessary to know when to do so, as this varies according to the tempo of the score:

It is therefore, as I said earlier, very important to know where to breathe. Silences, phrase endings, what comes before very long sustained notes, or an organ point, are possibly the only places where you can take a full breath.

Half-breaths are tolerated after a long note or during a long musical phrase, especially in the runs, but this is only possible insofar as value is taken away from the note on which one breathes. The question is, therefore, in what cases these breathing licences are permitted. It is up to the Artist’s taste to decide, for the Artist who has a weaker chest is naturally forced to take more breathing time.

In the execution of prolonged rapid runs, without breaking up the run, the least necessary note must be deftly withheld, if there are no notes that can be made shorter. This is done mainly when two notes of the same pitch and especially of the same value follow each other rapidly; in this case, the first is not played, and the breath is taken during its value.81Ibid., p. 46.

The eleventh chapter concludes the theoretical instruction given to the student. The last chapters draw out the applications by offering exercises on musical phrases, scales and graded exercises. As for the third section of the method, it is in fact only comprised of ‘Three Great Sonatas for Bassoon with Accompaniment by 2nd Bassoon or Cello’.82Ibid., pp. 148-188. The author ends his method with ‘36 Melodic Études for Bassoon’.83Ibid., pp. 189-234.

3:1:5 Jancourt’s Second Method

Theoretical Content

1876 saw the publication of a second method by Jancourt: Étude du basson perfectionné, à anneaux mobiles, plateau et 22 clés, comprenant des exercices pour l’emploi des nouvelles clés, op. 58.84JANCOURT, Eugène, Étude du basson perfectionné, à anneaux mobiles, plateau et 22 clés, comprenant des exercices pour l’emploi des nouvelles clés, op. 58, Paris, Pierre Goumas, 1879, 36 pp. This work is much smaller than the first. It may therefore be assumed that it is in fact a supplement to the first method. The book opens with a long introduction full of reflections aimed at explaining the failure of the application of the Boehm system to the bassoon:

The attempt made by Frederick Triebert to apply the Boehm system to the Rassoon did not succeed although the talent of this eminent maker promised better results. The mechanism was well conceived although very complicated, but the want of two very essential points viz quality of tone and simplicity of fingering marred its success.

It is therefore of the greatest importance carefully to preserve its quality and character in any modifications or alterations intended to give the instrument more equality and accuracy without changing the fingering or injuring the tone.

Many shakes were impossible on the old Bassoon; but with the assistance of three additional keys placed on the Tenor joint and two on the butt, 10 shakes are obtained on the former and 12 on the latter; in all 22 new shakes. Rapid passages from F♯ to G♯ in the middle octave were impossible before; but a key is now placed on the bottom joint so as to close the low F key with the thumb of the left hand, so that the little finger of the right hand has only to move the G♯ or A♭ key.

Two rings, one for the right hand and one for the left hand give more sonorousness and equality to the weak notes of the middle octave, a plate under the third finger of the right hand on the bottom joint by altering the hole of the old A,  the position of which was mathematically wrong, makes this note safer and better in tune as also the F♯ in the 3rd  octave, this plate has moreover the advantage of diminishing the stretch of the fingers.

With the assistance of a key to elose the hole in the crook the lower notes not only gain in power but can also be attacked very softly.

The actual compass of the Bassoon is 3 octaves and 4 notes from the lower B♭ to the top F.

The object of these improvemenls which have long been desired by all performers is thus attained in every respect.

The explanations <of> the new system which follows below will demonstrate the advantage of these important modifications.85Ibid., pp. 2-3. [Editor: the English version is Jancourt’s own.]

There is an English translation of this introduction. There is every reason to believe that the author wished to make his views on the making of the instrument known beyond France. The choice of language is surely not accidental, since there were a number of bassoonists in England who used a French type of instrument.

If Jancourt was not won over by Boehm’s system, he was, on the other hand, won over by certain improvements made to the conventional bassoon. He tells his reader about the ‘Advantages of the Perfected Bassoon’86Ibid., p. 4. by enumerating the various advantages it offers:

1° The quality of the tone and character of the Bassoon is not in any way altered.

2ly  Two rings for the right and left hands respectively closing two extra holes give to the notes of the middle octave such as E♭ and E♮ (left hand) and B♭ with the fork (right hand) more tone and equality; they also do away with the necessity for using the A♭ or G♯ key for the C♯ and D♯ of the 3rd octave: this simplifies the fingering; the B♭ in the 2nd and 3rd octaves  is better in tune without the assistance of the B♭ key.

3ly  The fingering is not changed; it is only simplified as in shewn by the scale for the C♯ D♮ E♮ and G♯ of the 3rd octave.

4ly  The lower C which is generally so bad on the old Bassoon is an excellent full note well in tune with the assistance of the double mechanism opening the lower B♮ key, and the lower B♮ is also well in tune and full.

5ly  The 15th, 16th et 17th keys augment the compass of the Bassoon to the top F♮; the 15th key is especially very useful for the shakes indicated farther on.

6ly The 18th key which closes the hole in the crook <is> taken by the little finger of the left hand from the lower B♭ to the C of the 2nd octave,  and these notes can be tongued as piano as possible besides being freer and fuller.

7ly  The 20th key fingered by the middle finger of the right hand gives the E♭ and D♭ of the 2nd and 3rd octaves, as well as the top A and is of great importance for several shakes which were quite impossible on the ordinary Bassoon; the use of this key is shewn in the exercices which follow, and the number of shakes it makes is eleven.

8ly  The 21st key played with the thumb of the left hand is used for the F♮ and G♯ shake in the 3rd octave.

9ly  The 22nd key on the bottom joint renders the passage from F♯ to G♯ in the 2nd octave very easy and is played with the thumb of the right hand.87Ibid., pp. 4-5.

Like the introduction to this method, these considerations on bassoon improvements have also been translated into English. This translation also offers a chart of the 22-key bassoon. Indeed, Jancourt is not content to criticise the Boehm system; the bassoon virtuoso is interested in the improvements made to his instrument. These make it possible to overcome many of the shortcomings with which the performer is confronted and which prevent him from exploiting his abilities and talent as he would like to do.

The Exercises

This interest in an improved bassoon naturally leads the author to propose exercises for mastering the instrument’s new fingerings. The following étude is, in fact, only a summary exercise of the previous ones. It precedes a whole discussion on the trills as they can be performed on the new instrument: the 15th, 16th, 20th, 21st and 22nd keys (for a total of 23 new trills). The rest of the method ends with a series of exercises and études, the execution of which was to be problematic on less improved bassoons.

3:2 Bassoon in Treatises on Instrumentation and Orchestration

The treatises on instrumentation give an interesting perspective on the various instruments, especially those of the orchestra. There are detailed descriptions of each of them, which give a good idea of their different possible uses and how they can be used. These books were intended for composers to recognize the mechanism of the different instruments, so there must be valuable information about bassoons.

The Cours d’instrumentation published by Georges Kastner in 1836 and his Traité général d’instrumentation offer a good description of the various orchestral instruments and harmonies in use in the first quarter of the 19th century. All the passages dealing with the bassoon will be examined. Berlioz, for his part, undoubtedly made a major contribution to the world of instrumentation. To better understand his famous Grand traité, an analysis of two of his publications published before this work is necessary: a study entitled ‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’, a critique of Meyerbeer’s work, published in 1835, and a series of articles on the various instruments of the orchestra written for the Revue et Gazette musicale during the composer’s first stay in Germany in 1841-42 and published under the title ‘De l’instrumentation’. This, together with his Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, published in 1844, will give a better idea of Berlioz’s thinking on the bassoon from the point of view of instrumentation, and will allow us to follow the progression of the master’s thinking by noting all the elements of the treatise that were not included in the two earlier publications or that differed from them. In 1855, a new edition of the treatise was published, with a few additional annotations and a new section entitled ‘Le chef d’orchestre’. To all these works was added the Traité d’instrumentation by the Belgian François-Auguste Gevaert, which shed additional light on the bassoon. It is indeed the French bassoon that is discussed in the last book. One might have thought that in Belgium the German bassoon would have been able to dominate. This is not the case. To conclude the inventory of treatises relevant to the present study, it should not be forgotten that two great composers took up Berlioz’s Traité and updated it: Richard Strauss in 1904 and Charles-Marie Widor in 1905. Their work makes it possible to determine the development of the bassoon up to the beginning of the 20th century.

3:2:1 The Theoretical Works of Kastner

The Cours d’instrumentation

Georges Kastner’s Cours d’instrumentation considéré sous les rapports poétiques et philosophiques de l’art à l’usage des jeunes compositeurs88KASTNER, Georges, Cours d’instrumentation considéré sous les rapports poétiques et philosophiques de l’art à l’usage des jeunes compositeurs, Paris, A. Meissonnier, n.d., 122 p. can legitimately be considered a treatise, for it contains not only a description of the various instruments of the orchestra, but also a wealth of information on instrumentation and the way in which the instruments are arranged

On Instrumentation and the Use of Instruments in Orchestra

Kastner entitles chapter 1 of part 1 ‘Aperçu historique sur l’instrumentation depuis son origine jusqu’à nos jours’.89Ibid., p. 1. It states, among other things, that ‘In 1730 the Clarinet and the Horn were invented in Nuremberg; the Bassoon soon replaced the Bombarde, and the Cello the old Viols …’90Ibid., p. 1. In chapter 3 of the same part, the book deals with the make-up and use of instruments in the orchestra. It warns about the use of low-register wind instruments:

In all circumstances great care must be taken in the execution of bass Instruments, whether string or wind, such as Double Basses, Contrabassoons, bass Trombones, Serpents or Ophicleides; for these Instruments leave so much to be desired in terms of purity and roundness of tone, that only first-rate Artists can conceal these defects and render in a frank, clear and satisfactory manner the important part of which they are in charge.91Ibid., p. 5.

This clearly shows the lack of a wind instrument in the lower register that can have a ‘purity and roundness of tone’. Still in chapter 3, Kastner distinguishes between the different families of instruments and groups the oboe and the bassoon in the same category: oboe, English horn, bassoon and contrabassoon.92Ibid., p. 7. It can be seen here that these four instruments have one thing in common: they are double-reed woodwind instruments. When the author discusses the general use of wind instruments later on, he points out:

The same applies to the first Bassoon, unless it is expressly desired to bring out the Bass, in which case it is played in unison with the second Bassoon and the Bass.

Sometimes more than two Bassoons can be used in the Orchestra, Méhul, for example, in the Ouverture d’Adrien, uses up to four.93Ibid., p. 9.

The Character and Properties of Instruments

It is in chapter 4 of the first part that Kastner discusses the character as well as the properties of the instruments.94Ibid., p. 10. When describing the bassoon, he points out that this instrument, at the time of its creation, replaced the bombard: ‘The Bassoon invented in 1539 replaced the old Bombard; in tone it is at the level of the cello; its high notes are very loud, but those of the middle range are a little muffled.’95Ibid., p.13. He then recalls some of its properties: ‘The Bassoon should execute held notes rather than figures; it can sustain a pianissimo sound, which moreover it shares with the clarinet; and it renders very well any kind of nuance such as staccato, legato, etc. The two bassoons in the orchestra are often played in thirds or sixths; they are also given runs and solos.’96Ibid., p. 13. This information shows that the bassoon has definite uses, but one should nevertheless refrain from entrusting it with a fast run, which indicates a technical deficiency of the bassoon. As for its character, we learn that:

The tone of the Bassoon is soft and expressive; it can convey a wide range of feelings such as: love, sadness, irony, desire etc.

Mozart in Don Juan, Nicolo in Les Rendez-vous bourgeois, Adam in Une Bonne Fortune, Meyerbeer in several passages of Robert, Berton in Montano (Bénédiction du père) have used it in turn in these various meanings.97Ibid., p. 13.

It is important to emphasise here that the bassoon lends itself to the interpretation of feelings. This detail is far from negligible, since we are no longer dealing with a simple description of the bassoon from the point of view of instrumentation, but are considering the role it can play in orchestration. Indeed, what distinguishes orchestration from instrumentation is the fact that it is primarily concerned with the character of an instrument when it is part of an ensemble.

With regard to the notation of the bassoon score in an orchestra, we learn that: ‘The two Bassoons are often written on the same staff, F clef; but if the first one rises into the Tenor clef, one is obliged to give it a separate staff.98Ibid., p. 21.


Chapter 8 deals with the performance of an instrumental composition. According to Kastner, the most difficult section to tune in the orchestra is the wind section:

The most difficult part of the orchestra to tune is the wind instruments. It is necessary to warm up the instrument as much as possible before tuning, and then to finish adjusting it for the Flutes, either by means of the pump, or by lengthening or shortening one of the bodies; for the Oboes, by pushing in the reed or by making it come out; for the Clarinets, by pushing or pulling back the mouthpiece a little; for the Bassoons, also by the position of the reed; it should be noted that the lower part of the Bassoon warms up with difficulty without any artificial help, and every means must be used to bring it to the same temperature as the upper part, in order to balance all the registers.99Ibid., p. 27.

Kastner’s advice to warm up the bassoon by making sure that the lower part of the bassoon is at the same temperature as the upper part, may seem surprising. Indeed, Le cours d’instrumentation seems to be the only source that describes this way of tuning the bassoon.

The Traité général d’instrumentation

Kastner’s Traité général d’instrumentation comprenant les propriétés et l’usage de chaque instrument précédé d’un résumé sur les voix à l’usage des jeunes compositeurs was published in 1836 (eight years before Berlioz’s).100KASTNER, Georges, Traité général d’instrumentation, 2e édition par l’auteur et augmentée d’un supplément, Paris, E. Minier, n.d., 64 p. + supplément. In this work certain instruments are divided into groups; wind instruments are subdivided into two branches: woodwind instruments and metalwind instruments:

This instrument is called bassoon (of the oboe), because it is considered the bass of the oboe and derives its origin from this instrument, as we have already said. It is in unison with the cello; it is written in the clef of 4th-line F, and all its tones have the same effect as the notes express. The highest notes are most often written in the tenor clef and even in the G clef.101Ibid., p. 36.

In this description one can note some pertinent observations in connection with his Cours d’instrumentation. The author directly addresses the relationship between the oboe and the bassoon, presenting the bassoon as the ‘bass sound of the oboe’, which he did not do in his first work. In addition, Kastner mentions a new staff clef for the bassoon which he does not mention in his Cours, that of G.

The range of the instrument, he notes, is from B♭0, below the clef of F, to the altissimo F4, on the fifth line of the clef of G.102Ibid., p. 36. Itis unlikely that in 1836 the bassoon was capable of reaching altissimo F. In all probability it was not until the Étude du basson perfectionné that it was possible to achieve this note.103See in JANCOURT, Eugène, Étude du basson perfectionné, à anneaux mobiles, plateau et 22 clés, comprenant des exercices pour l’emploi des nouvelles clés, op. 58, Paris, Pierre Goumas, 1879, 36 p. It should be remembered that Berlioz was wise enough not to write a note for the bassoon higher than altissimo E flat. It should therefore come as no surprise that Kastner suggests that the bassoon should be restricted to a range between B♭0 and B♭3 when playing in the orchestra.

Kastner mentions an old problem with the bassoon, that of producing the B0and C♯1. He mentions that older bassoons cannot link these two notes together, but that newer bassoons, with many more keys and increasingly common, no longer have this problem. However, he points out that the effect of linking these two notes is hardly satisfactory and that one should be careful not to use them in a fast run. These considerations are original because, in the Cours d’instrumentation, Kastner does not mention this problem, which can be encountered on the old bassoons.

He also studies the tricky or impossible trills: F2-E♭2; F♯2-E2; F3-E3.104KASTNER, op. cit., p. 36. It can be assumed that in addition to these three trills, there were others of equally problematic execution, but Kastner does not mention them and prefers to list the different keys for which the instrument is suitable: E-flat major, B-flat major, F major, C major, G major, D major, A major and their relative minor.105Ibid., p. 36. As regards the other keys, he suggests that composers avoid them.

As for the bassoon’s high tones, Kastner states that they ‘are as piercing as those of the cello.106Ibid., p. 36. On the other hand, he notes, there is a tendency to write for two bassoons, with the lower part given to the second. He suggests avoiding doubling the upper part in the lower register and advises more use of long tones rather than rapid runs.107Ibid., pp. 36-37. The solos for two bassoons are of good effect:

It should be given more long tones than figures, and if these long tones can be played pianissimo, they often produce the most beautiful effect.

Solos for the two bassoons at intervals of thirds or similar, serve their purpose well, especially if they are doubled by other instruments, or if the orchestral accompaniment is very weak, for in the middle-register tones the bassoon is so easily covered that its effect becomes almost nil. The dotted notes are very easy to play.108Ibid., p. 37.

Kastner repeats his advice about avoiding writing solos for two bassoons at intervals of thirds or sixths. He adds, however, that in order to hear the bassoons well, the accompaniment must be rather weak.

The author of the treatise points out that the bassoon is less and less frequently encountered in military group.109Ibid., p. 37. The discussion devoted to the bassoon ends with the mention of three methods for the instrument, those of Ozi, Frölich and Almenräder.110Ibid., p. 37.

Reprint of the Traité général d’instrumentation

A few years later, Kastner produced a second edition of his Traité général d’instrumentation, adding new comments. The author mentions in particular the need to make some adjustments or additions, so that the information in the treatise is up to date:

The progress made in the art of Instrumentation since the publication of my traité d’instrumentation comprenant les propriétés et l’usage de chaque instrument, précédé d’un résumé sur les voix, as well as the invention of several new instruments and the improvement of old ones, have led me to write a supplementary part to my work, and at the same time I have seized this opportunity to revise the whole of the first work and make it even more complete.111Ibid., p. 1 of supplement.

There is also some new information in Kastner’s discussion of the bassoon. he mentions an event that brought him into the presence of the bassoonist Neukirchner, who could play the bassoon’s three and a half octaves with ease thanks to his talent, but certainly also because the bassoons designed by himself had all the advantages required for the use of the instrument over its full range:

We heard a German artist Mr Neukirchner give on the bassoon a range of three and a half octaves with the greatest ease, the greatest purity and the greatest accuracy; the sound of this artist is of a magnificent quality and of great volume thanks to the improvements he has managed to make to his instrument, which consist mainly in the addition of several keys (his bassoon has 17) and in the flaring of the Bell; Mr Neukirchner renders with marvellous ease all the trills and slurs impracticable on the old bassoon. It is to be hoped that this instrument will be generally adopted; it would be a great advantage for composers and artists.

The bassoon improved by Mr Ad. Sax fils has all the same advantages and gives chromatically all the notes from low B♭ … trills and the most difficult slurs are executed with ease.

This shows that one could play three and a half octaves on the bassoon with ease, purity and accuracy. History does not tell us whether Neukirchner reached the highest note of the instrument, the F4, but it can be assumed that not many people at the time when the second edition of the treatise was written were able to master the instrument as he did.

Furthermore, Kastner notes and at the same time informs his reader that some large ensembles had up to four bassoons:

In very large orchestras, such as at the Opéra, four bassoons are used, which allows four distinct parts to be written, or three, with the remaining bassoon doubling the lowest part at the octave.

In general, the low notes of the Bassoon provide an excellent bass for the woodwind choir.

This annotation is not unimportant since at the Paris Opéra in the 19th century there were four bassoons, whereas the other instruments in the woodwind section were in pairs. He specifies that they can be written in four distinct parts or, better still, in three, by doubling the lowest part in the lower octave. This is reminiscent, as will be seen later, of what Berlioz says in his Grand traité, which suggests that this reprint of Kastner’s Traité was published after Berlioz’s (justification for this assumption will be found later in the section dealing with Berlioz’s L’Instrumentation).

Kastner’s theoretical works give a good idea of the possibilities and character of the bassoon in the first third of the 19th century. It is worth noting that the instrument had a range of three and a half octaves, although it was preferable to refrain from going higher than B♭3, especially in an orchestral force. It also teaches that the bassoon is an instrument subject to the constraints of its technique; thus, long tones should be preferred to fast ones. Nevertheless, the instrument can be used to good effect on a variety of occasions. All of this information is valuable, but of all that, what is most worthy of attention is the reminder in Kastner’s supplement that four bassoons may be present in some ensembles and that, when this is the case, one can write for the instrument in three or four individual parts.

3:2:2 Two Articles Prior to Berlioz’s Grand traité

Having observed the discussions on the bassoon in Kastner’s theoretical works, it is interesting to compare this information with that given on the instrument by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz contributed greatly to the development of instrumentation and orchestration. Before turning to his Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, it isnecessary to mention other sources by Berlioz which preceded and announced this work. It is therefore appropriate to turn our attention to the bassoon in two articles published in the Gazette Musicale: ‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’ and ‘De l’instrumentation’.

‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’

On 12 July 1835 Berlioz published a review in the Gazette Musicale de Paris entitled ‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’, which is composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer.112BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘De l’instrumentation de Robert le Diable’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, 12 juillet 1835, p. 229-232. While admitting that he had no great taste for this kind of work, Berlioz recognised the composer’s talent. In this opera he was impressed by the originality of the instrumentation of Meyerbeer, whom he had met in 1829 and with whom he will keep cordial relations. In this article Berlioz analyses the instrumentation of the piece. It may be seen as a precursor of the future articles with the same title, ‘De l’instrumentation’, which in 1844 gave rise to the Grand traité.

In the first passage concerning the bassoon, the composer notes its absence from the orchestra and the presence of its substitute, an ophicleide, in the following terms: ‘In such and such a place you will have neither oboe, nor clarinet, nor bassoon, but their absence will be compensated for by a gigantic ophicleide, bellowing like a five-year-old bull.113Ibid., p. 230.

In the second passage on the bassoon, Berlioz humorously compares the sound effect of the instrument to a clucking sound. The turkey is a mysterious animal, and Berlioz must think that the same is true of the bassoon:

Then after each of these horrible stanzas, two bassoons alone come to cluck a more animated rhythm, which already foreshadows the movement of the dances, to which the half-resuscitated Nuns will soon give themselves up; but it is so pale, so dreary, so dazed, the hand of death still weighs so heavily on these wretched creatures, that one thinks one hears the dull sound, the cracking of the joints of galvanised corpses, and sees the hideous movements that develop there. Horrible! Horrible! Abominably grotesque! These few pages are in my opinion the most prodigious inspiration of modern dramatic music.114Ibid., p. 232.

He adds a little further down: ‘The bassoon duet especially is inexpressible; nothing can give an idea of it but … two bassoons’.115Ibid., p. 232. This musical passage which uses the two bassoons is found in one of the musical examples provided in the discussion devoted to the bassoon in the Grand traité.

‘De l’instrumentation’

During his first stay in Germany Berlioz wrote a series of articles in the Revue et Gazette musicale in1841-42 entitled ‘De l’instrumentation’. Each article was devoted to one or more instruments of the orchestra. As a result all these instruments were treated, thus providing an overview of the capabilities and characteristics of each of them.

Berlioz devotes three paragraphs to the bassoon,116BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘De l’instrumentation’, Revue et Gazette Musicale, 1841, p. 551. distinguishing between three types: the conventional bassoon, the tenoroon and the contrabassoon. From the first line of the article on this instrument, Berlioz presents it simply as the bass of the oboe. He merely states that its range is at least three octaves, which explains why it is used on various occasions. It will be noted that Berlioz, in this discussion, avoids noting what the highest note is, merely recalling that the bassoon’s range is more than three octaves.

The tone of the instrument is weak, writes Berlioz, who goes so far as to say that the timbre of the instrument, ‘absolutely devoid of brilliance and nobility, has a propensity for the grotesque which must always be taken into account when it is highlighted’.117Ibid., p. 551. However, the author of the article qualifies his criticism by pointing out that the low notes of the bassoon are ‘excellent’ and do not clash with the woodwinds. But where Berlioz breaks new ground in relation to previous treatises is when he urges composers not to be content with writing for the bassoon only in two parts:

They are usually written in two parts; but as large orchestras are always provided with four bassoons, they can be written without inconvenience in four real parts, and, better still, in three; the lower part being redoubled in the lower octave, to give the bass more strength.118Ibid., p. 551.

It is true that Kastner mentions this advice in the reprint of his Traité général d’instrumentation. Unfortunately the exact date of its publication is not known. However, it is likely that Berlioz had suggested that it is possible to write for the bassoon with more than two individual parts before Kastner. Indeed, in 1829 in the Symphonie fantastique, in the last movement, or in ‘La chanson de Brander’ in the Huit scènes de Faust, Berlioz composed a score for bassoons with four individual parts. It is not clear whether any other composer has used this practice before, but this is the first time in a major musical text.

Berlioz was very critical of the instrument’s high register and, to illustrate his point, used the scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor as an example:

The character of its high notes has something painful, suffering, I would even say miserable, which can sometimes be placed either in a slow melody or in a line of accompaniment, with the most surprising effect. Thus the little cluckles heard in the scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor, towards the end of the decrescendo, are produced solely by the somewhat forced sound of the high A flat and G of bassoons in unison.119Ibid., p. 551.

In his article, Berlioz uses another example in the musical literature to illustrate the great variety of bassoon sound: ‘When Mr Meyerbeer, in his ‘Résurrection des nonnes’, wanted to find a pale, cold, cadaverous sound, it was on the contrary from the flaccid notes of the middle register that he obtained it.’120Ibid., p. 551. Berlioz shows that, although the notes of the middle register are flaccid and not very loud, it is nevertheless possible to use this register successfully in certain circumstances.

Finally, the author of ‘De l’instrumentation’ concludes his article with some technical properties of the bassoon: ‘Rapid runs in tied notes can be used successfully; they come out well when written only in the instrument’s favourite keys.’121Ibid., p. 551. In this respect Berlioz, in his theoretical works, contradicts Kastner in stating that the bassoon can play fast runs in its favourite keys. In making this remark he no longer presents the bassoon as an instrument for which long notes rather than fast runs should be written.

This series of articles had a considerable impact on the musical world of the time. This article by Berlioz, written 5 years after Kastner’s Traité général, brings a lot of information up to date. It is therefore interesting to see how Berlioz used this article in writing his Grand traité and how it differs from it.

3:2:3 Berlioz’s Grand traité

Shortly after his first stay in Germany where he had written his series of articles ‘De l’instrumentation’, Berlioz published the Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes in 1844,122BERLIOZ, Hector, Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, Paris, Schonenberger, 1844, 276 p.; Kassel, Bärenreiter, 2003, 564 p. which is in fact a synthesis with some additions and readjustments of all the articles of ‘De l’instrumentation’ published in the Revue et Gazette musicale.

As regards the discussion devoted to the bassoon in the treatise, the text does not differ much from that in ‘De l’instrumentation’; however, there are several additions. First of all, Berlioz remarks at the beginning of the passage devoted to the bassoon that it ‘is the bass of the oboe; it has more than three octaves of range; it is written thus, in two clefs: [fig.]’.123Ibid., p. 189. We can already see a difference between the article in the Revue et Gazette musicale and the one in the treatise: in the former, it is written that the bassoon has at least three octaves of range, whereas in the latter it is noted that the bassoon has more thanthree octaves; however, the author of the treatise wishes to specify: ‘But it is more than prudent not to make it rise above the last B♭.’

There is a noteworthy addition: Berlioz states in his treatise that ‘the keys with which it is now equipped enable it to play the two low notes [C♯, B♮] which were formerly forbidden to it’. The following statement made more than one reader react: ‘Its fingering is the same as that of the flute’. The annotations to the Grand traité in the Bärenreiter edition state: ‘This assertion is misleading, for the similarities in the fingering are at best superficial.’124Ibid., p. 189. Perhaps the similarity noted by Berlioz is to be understood in the sense that the bassoon has finger holes and that in a certain register the logical sequence of fingerings produces a succession of sounds which may be reminiscent of the flute or even of other woodwind instruments. This cannot be a satisfactory explanation unless one remembers that the flute adopted the Boehm system about the same time as the Traité was published, and that the old flute had many more fork fingerings, some of which could be similar to those of the bassoon. Berlioz is not the only one, in his Traité, to make such a comparison; this is all the more surprising as the reasons for it are not immediately apparent.

Another addition to the article in the Revue is noted in the treatise. It concerns a difficulty, or even an impossibility of execution on the bassoon: ‘There are many impossible trills at both ends of the bassoon scale.… All the others above F♯ are bad or impossible’. Berlioz is much more explicit on this point than Kastner, who mentions only three trills of problematic execution.

The technical shortcomings of the bassoon preoccupied Berlioz, and we know the possible solution he envisaged to solve them: ‘This instrument leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy, and would perhaps benefit more than any other wind instrument from being built according to the Boëhm system.’ In his article on the 1855 London World Fair (Journal des débats, 15 janvier 1856) Berlioz wrote: ‘The bassoon is always out of tune, very out of tune … It is an instrument of great utility, which composers will never agree to do without in orchestras; therefore try, Messrs makers, to improve it’.

Apart from the points just mentioned, the treatise repeats in full the article published in 1841, which shows that Berlioz’s position on the bassoon had changed little. He recognised the instrument’s rightful place in an orchestra, but its defects meant that the composer could not make full use of it.

When the was republished in 1854, the article on the bassoon remained essentially the same. Berlioz continued to believe that the Boehm system would provide the solution to all the instrument’s shortcomings. This is not surprising; only three years earlier Berlioz had been a member of the jury at the London exposition in 1851, where Théobald Boehm was awarded a medal of honour for the application of his system to the various woodwind instruments. It is understandable that the composer, having witnessed the success of the system on the flute, clarinet and oboe, hoped that the same would happen with the bassoon. History decided otherwise, as attempts to apply this system to the bassoon were unsuccessful.

Berlioz and the Bassoon

Beyond this technical and often critical information, it is possible to get an idea of the aesthetics of the bassoon and the attention Berlioz paid to it. This is all the more necessary as Berlioz made a significant contribution to the integration of the bassoon into a large ensemble. It has been noted that orchestral instruments occupy an important place in Berlioz’s œuvre, and the bassoon is no exception. We have seen that the most representative of his written works is undoubtedly his Grand traité, which still has a considerable impact on the world of music. It is clear that the bassoon was not Berlioz’s most valued instrument, but he gave it considerable importance in the role it has to play. On the other hand, although the bassoon does not feature much in his novels, when he mentions it he gives an adequate idea of it, even when he uses metaphor in his Soirées. Berlioz’s treatise clearly shows that he was well acquainted with the characteristics of the instrument; he does not hesitate to use it, even going so far as to write for four bassoons, assigning each one its own part, and even going further to state that, from his personal experience, one can write for four bassoons, each with its own part, without any problem. It has also been observed that his writings as a music critic have enabled him to deepen his knowledge of music on both a theoretical and practical level.

Moreover, his views on the bassoon seem to have evolved in the right direction. Certainly, in his article on the bassoon in his work ‘De l’instrumentation’ and in his Grand traité, while acknowledging the instrument’s advantages, he underlined its disadvantages, going so far as to describe its timbre as miserable. However, a few years later, in his report on the 1851 London World Fair, published in 1854, he paid tribute to French instrument making, which he considered to be close to excellence in all areas. He praised Boehm and went so far as to describe his bassoon as perfect. Berlioz may have been mistaken in this, but it clearly shows that he was interested in the development of the instrument.

3:2:4 Gevaert’s Traité d’instrumentation

The Main Points of the Treatise

François-Auguste Gevaert’s Traité d’instrumentation125GEVAERT, François-Auguste, Traité d’instrumentation: exposé méthodique des principes de cet art dans leur application à l’orchestre, à la musique d’harmonie et de fanfares, etc., Ghent, V. et C. Gevaert, 1863, 232 p. was published in 1863 and, like its predecessors, provides useful and interesting information on the bassoon at that time. The introduction with which the work opens deals with the origins of the orchestra, its advances and history, before offering some discussions on wind-band music.

In the passage on the bassoon and its family, Gevaert distinguishes three kinds of instrument: the tenoroon, the bassoon and the contrabassoon.126Ibid., p. 65. Although Berlioz treated all three, Gevaert considered that the tenoroon and the contrabassoon were not used often enough to merit a place in the series of articles on instruments. However, he will give a brief description of them in the supplement at the end of his book.

455. Tenoroon [Basson-quinte] (in Italian piccolo fagotto or fagottino). It could be called bassoon in G, because it is tuned to the fifth just above the ordinary bassoon and the written note. …

456. Contra-bassoon. Usually tuned an octave below the bassoon, it is to the bassoon as the double bass is to the cello, i.e. it serves as a doubling in the sub-bass region.…

The contra-bassoon is very common in Germany. Beethoven used it in his 5th Symphony, as well as in the finale of the Symphony with choruses.127Ibid., p. 219.

The author begins the section on the bassoon with a description of its mechanism. His analysis of bassoon’s range (from B♭0to B♭3) leads him to note that in the upper register the limits of the instrument are difficult to define.128Ibid., p. 65. Although some instruments are difficult to play, in most of them all semitones can be played in this range. This information is not insignificant, for one might have thought that this problem, which had been denounced long before, at the beginning of the 19th century, had finally been resolved by 1863, when this treatise was published. However, this is not yet the case, which tends to prove that advances in bassoon making, however sustained, were laborious. This section ends with considerations on the writing of pieces for the instrument: the bassoon is played in two clefs, F and fourth-line C, and the score is read and played in real sound. It is worth noting that Gevaert omits to mention the G clef, probably because this clef is used too little for the bassoon.

Secondly, the author presents runs and trills of the bassoon, which gives him an opportunity to account for certain defects and shortcomings, without neglecting the instrument’s own qualities:

As a bass instrument, the bassoon is less suited than the flute or clarinet to a very-rapid sound emission.

However, in this respect it has an undeniable superiority over the oboe. Diatonic and chromatic scales, arpeggios, etc. can be written for the bassoon, but only on two conditions: 1° Not to be used in the lower register.

2° To write these lines in one of the keys favourable to the instrument: D, G, C, F, B, E, A, and their relative minors.

In addition, there is a type of runs almost exclusively reserved for the bassoon: these are the batteries, octave leaps (and even larger intervals) in detached notes.129Ibid., p. 66.

It is interesting to see that, although the bassoon lags behind the flute and clarinet in technical terms, it is still favoured over the oboe. To return to the trills, theauthor notes that between F1 and G3, these are playable, with the exception of G♯1-F♯1 and G♯2-F♯2. As for those of G2-F2, D♯3-C♯3 and E♭3-D3, he advises against playing them.

The last part of the discussion on the bassoon deals with the character, timbre and use of the instrument. ‘After the clarinet,’ Gevaert notes, ‘the bassoon has the greatest variety of timbres and effects of any instrument in this category.’130Ibid., p. 67. This statement is justified by a description of the timbre in each of the bassoon’s registers:

The low notes have a full, vibrant timbre, sometimes reminiscent of the sound of an organ pedal.

The middle register, when highlighted, easily takes on a burlesque character.

The high register has a certain analogy with the corresponding sounds of the cello, although the timbre is duller and has something painful and sickly about it.131Ibid., pp. 67-8.

It is curious that Gevaert does not mention the instrument’s lack of sound, especially in the middle register. Could it be that the bassoon has found a solution to this deficiency since the publication of the other treatises? This is doubtful.

As for the role played by the bassoon in the orchestra, it is, according to the author of the treatise, rather limited; it is limited to filling in the harmony or doubling a melody.132Ibid., p. 68. This does not prevent the presence of four bassoons in certain orchestras, but Gevaert fails to mention that it is possible, and even desirable, to write more than two individual parts for these bassoons. As far as the use of the bassoon outside the orchestra is concerned, it should be noted that it is tending to disappear more and more from the wind bands; nevertheless, as the author notes, the bassoon continues to play a role, which should not be neglected, in certain chamber music groups, particularly those composed exclusively of winds.

Different Combinations of Bassoon with Other Instruments of Its Section

In the pages dealing with the bassoon, more precisely in the second part of his Traité, Gevaert provides particularly interesting information, which deserves to be presented separately; it concerns the ‘combinations of instruments’.133Ibid., p. 109. These different combinations, including the bassoon, can be found in appendix 2, which provides a great deal of valuable information.

As has been said, the bassoon is an instrument with undeniable qualities in terms of its various possible uses. Not only is it the bass of the winds, but it can also be the tenor. Of the various combinations, that of the oboe and bassoon is not as obvious as it seems. Gevaert points out that although these two instruments are of the same family, the differences between them are too great for there to be any real cohesion or fusion. Another unfavourable combination is that of the bassoon and the flute. The difference in range between the two instruments is too great to allow a good sound mixture. However, if another instrument is added, the effects obtained are less unpleasant. Otherwise, any other combination of the bassoon with the other instruments of its section seems to be of good effect.

Moreover, Gevaert does not confine himself to combinations of winds alone; he goes on to study the combination of wind instruments with a string quartet that they reinforce. The bassoon is considered in this context as follows:

237. The bassoons form the natural reinforcement of the lower part of the quartet. However, they do not considerably increase the strength of the cellos and double basses combined. In a fast or melodically insignificant run, this addition is superfluous and may even become detrimental. They should be considered more especially as companions to the cellos, whose incisive timbre they round out.

As intermediate instruments they also join the violas. These three timbres together (cellos, violas, bassoons) make up a low tone of beautiful character.134Ibid., p. 143.

It is surprising that, despite the bassoon’s technical deficiencies in comparison with other wind instruments, its use in a fast run is considered superfluous and even considered harmful. Although, in general, the risks are undeniable, the fact remains that some great composers have made brilliant use of this effect. An example is the overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, where the bassoon doubles the strings at the beginning of the work, giving it a specific timbre and originality that is due to the instrument’s execution of this rapid run.

3:2:5 Berlioz’s Traité as annotated by Strauss and Widor

Berlioz’s Grand traité had a considerable impact on many musicians, and continues to do so to this day. It is therefore interesting to know that some great musical personalities have looked at this work and adapted it to their own tibars This was the case with Richard Strauss in 1904 and Charles-Marie Widor in 1905; both, while recognising the relevance of the Grand traité, felt the need to update it. Strauss left Berlioz’s text untouched, but enriched it with annotations and new musical examples. Widor, for his part, does not change the text in depth, but inserts information that is necessary in the light of the clear development of instrument making since the publication of the famous treatise. It is therefore interesting to observe the various remarks and corrections that these two authors make to the article on the bassoon.

Strauss’s Annotations

First of all, the Instrumentationslehre, which is in fact Berlioz’s Grand traité with annotations and comments by Strauss, was published in 1904.135STRAUSS, Richard, Instrumentationslehre, Leipzig, C. F. Peters, [1904–5]. In the article on the bassoon one has to take into account that Berlioz comments on the French type of instrument, while Strauss, in his annotations and comments, provides new information but for the German type of bassoon.136Ibid., pp. 204-12. At the beginning of the article on the bassoon the German composer objects to the idea that this instrument is the bass of the oboe. He is said to have heard a contrabass oboe at the Brussels Conservatoire, courtesy of Gevaert, which leads him to assert that the timbre of this instrument has nothing to do with that of the bassoon. When Berlioz advises that the last B flat should not be exceeded, Strauss adds that altissimo E flat is therefore playable, but that the embouchure for producing this note poses problems for the performer. Strauss gives a musical example that employs a higher note than the last B flat; this is a passage in the third act of Richard Wagner’s Master Singers, which uses a altissimo C. Strauss also notes that in Tristan the bassoons must produce a low A, and for this purpose the bassoonists must add a double bell with an A-key to their instrument (an innovation introduced by Heckel at the request of Wagner, but which was not followed up). The commentator on Berlioz’s work reproduces the passage on playable, difficult and unplayable trills, while marking with an asterisk the playable trills of his time. The rest of the text is not subject to any particular criticism or comment. However, Strauss adds to the passage from the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor, from the third act of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and from the second act of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, other musical examples to illustrate his point: Wagner’s Master Singers, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the first act of Wagner’s Siegfried, and Richard Strauss’s own Death and Transfiguration.

Widor’s Annotations

Charles-Marie Widor, in his theoretical work Technique de l’orchestre moderne, updated all the information on the orchestral instruments of his time. The article on the bassoon is divided into thirteen parts; however, we will not dwell on each of them.137See WIDOR, Charles-Marie, Technique de l’orchestre moderne faisant suite au traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration d’Hector Berlioz, Paris, Henri Lemoine & Cie, 1905, pp. 39-52. In the first, concerning the range of the instrument, Widor notes a passage from Wagner’s Tannhaüser overture in which the bassoon uses the altissimo E, and justifies the use of this imposed note by the continuity of the phrase doubled by the cellos, which has the effect of making the note less vulnerable. The fourth part is not without interest, for like Strauss Widor addresses the problem of the low A:

Since Wagner, the bassoon has often been lowered to A

… No doubt in a few years’ time all bassoons will have to give us this A, but it is prudent today not to go beyond B flat, as the vast majority of instruments do not go below it.138Ibid., p. 40.

The Interest of These Two Works

Charles-Marie Widor’s and Richard Strauss’s remarks on the bassoon may seem limited and belonging to a teaching of short-lived impact, but on closer inspection this would be a mistake. The fact that the difficulties raised by the bassoon are well circumscribed and relatively limited in number clearly shows that the making of the instrument has not only made great progress, but has reached a degree of improvement that no longer allows it to be considered inferior to most other instruments. In fact, the French bassoon has no fewer merits, even if they differ from those of the German bassoon, which entitle it to figure in an orchestra.

3:3 Bassoon in Other 19th-Century Writings

Having studied the bassoon in French methods and treatises of the 19th century, we can observe that the instrument also finds its place in other writings of this period. It is mentioned in novels, short stories, poetry and letters. It is therefore interesting to look at the place it occupies in these various French writings of the 19th century.

As we have seen above, Berlioz wrote theoretical works that offer first-rate information on the French bassoon. But the composer also quoted it in some of his novels, one of his letters and one of his articles, thus offering additional information. After examining the bassoon’s place in Les Soirées de l’orchestre, we will reflect on remarks made by the composer of Le Carnaval romain about bassoon playing at a concert in Hanover.139We will not mention the article in which he mentions the bassoon since we will deal with it in ‘The Bassoon and the Conservatoire in the 19th Century’. It should also be recalled that Berlioz was a member of the jury at the World Fair in London in 1851, and that four years later he published a report in which he spoke of the large medal awarded to Théobald Boehm.

Some 19th-century writers wrote about the bassoon in their novels or stories. We will examine what is said about it in Champfleury’s Les Souffrances du professeur Delteil, in a short extract from Alfred de Musset’s Premières poésies, in a few lines from Gérard de Nerval’s Nuits d’octobre and in a passage from Paul Verlaine’s Poèmes saturniens. The instrument was also present in 19th-century poetry. In any case, the lessons to be learned from literary works are all the more valuable in that they are usually free of any theoretical, practical or technical attitude that one would expect from a composer or a maker.

This review of the bassoon’s place in theoretical or literary writings should end with a study of quotations or remarks, which are not found in the continuity of a text. There is no doubt that these will provide information, particularly on two essential points: the shape and the sound of the instrument.

3:3:1 Bassoon in Literature

Berlioz’s Soirées de l’orchestre

Les Soirées de l’orchestre was published in the middle of December 1852. It is a novel about the tribulations of an orchestra and its conductor. In this novel, in which the author plays the active role of narrator, one of the characters, Winter, happens to be the second bassoon. It is interesting to see whether this character and his various appearances in the work provide information about Berlioz’s view of the bassoon and its performers. Winter is identified in his first appearance; we learn that he is an American: ‘What do you mean? says Winter, the American who somehow finds himself in this orchestra playing the second bassoon, have my countrymen become dilettantes?’140BERLIOZ, Hector, Les soirées de l’orchestre, Paris, Gründ, 1968, p. 132.

Later on Berlioz gives his character a line which shows what an orchestral musician, such as a bassoonist, could endure in certain musical works: ‘So it’s over ! Winter says to me piteously, clutching his bassoon, which has not made a sound all evening: we won’t hear it again!…’141Ibid., p. 137. In another passage, the second bassoon refuses to read a text in public for fear of being mocked for his accent. The other musicians do the same, also using their foreign accent as a pretext: ‘Start reading again, Winter. – No, our listener would make fun of my English accent. – You mean your American accent, Yankee! – You read, Corsino! – I have an Italian accent. – You, Kleiner. – I have a German accent … Winter hands me the pamphlet …’142Ibid., pp. 155-56.

The part where Winter is chastised for his accent is not without humour. We can also see that his mates seem to be amused by the situation. The punctuation in this passage allows us to detect a certain unease in this unfortunate hero. In the end, it is the conductor who reads this famous text, thus relieving the second bassoon of his anxiety.

Reading this work by Berlioz shows that the second bassoon in Les Soirées de l’orchestre is a very special character. It is already surprising, at that time, to find an American in a European orchestra (although it is possible that the orchestra was modelled on one of those Berlioz had met during his stay in Germany, probably during his stay in Brunswick). The character seems to reflect his instrument, both in his slightly buffoonish air and in his spaced-out interventions in the work.

Recalling this portrayal of Winter would be irrelevant to our purpose, if we did not notice that the presentation of this character symbolically presents the instrument he plays. Like Winter, the bassoon is maladjusted and out of place among the other instruments. Moreover, the bassoon’s problems make it unworthy of participation in an ensemble, and so Winter piteously remarks that its participation is limited to silence.

This unflattering presentation of the instrument is confirmed, but from a different point of view, in the last evening (the sixteenth). This one, entitled Euphonia or The Musical City, is in away a separate work. In it we find a passage in which it is stated that instruments that do not project much are left out in favour of instruments that project more:

There are no more oboes, bassoons, harps, timpani or cymbals. These instruments have fallen into the deepest oblivion. And this is understandable; since the orchestra’s sole purpose is to produce a noise capable of dominating the murmurs of the hall from time to time, the small clarinets and piccolos have much more piercing sounds than those of the oboes; the ophicleides and tubas are much preferable to bassoons, side drums to timpani and tam-tams to cymbals.143Ibid., pp. 342-43.

It is interesting to recall Berlioz’s idea of abandoning certain instruments in favour of others with more sound. This observation shows that in the 19th century, faced with the development of the orchestral ensemble, certain instruments saw their place threatened by their lack of projection. Also, as we have seen, the bassoon did not escape the reproach of lacking sound. It could have been the definitive victim of this, for, among the instruments related to it, the ophicleide constituted a threat to the future of the bassoon, and the preceding quotation clearly shows this.

Champfleury’s Les Souffrances du professeur Delteil

One of Champfleury’s novels, Les Souffrances du professeur Delteil, deals, not without wit, with the formation of an ensemble of musicians by elimination. It is not surprising to find a bassoonist among the victims:

The truth is that Mr Ducrocq, after having taken certain information on the number of musicians in the town, on their qualities and habits, had irrevocably crossed out the names of uncertain amateurs, having already enough work to do to make awkward musicians walk together without adding pretentious musicians. The following had been crossed out:  a serpent from the Church of Saint-Martin, who claimed that his condition prevented him from coming to the theatre; a councillor of the prefecture, a violinist, who did not want to sit at the foot of a dancing master; a bassoon who claimed that his chest required great care, and who never played a note; a horn who, with the help of his six crooks, from his box, brought seven people into the places where he went; a flute who never played in ensemble pieces unless he played two varied tunes. At last Mr Ducrocq’s threats, spread throughout the town, had more effect than a ukase from the emperor of Russia.144CHAMPFLEURY, Les souffrances du professeur Delteil, Paris, M. Lévy, 1857, p. 193.

It is clear that there is no lack of humour in this passage relating the difficulties experienced by Mr Ducrocq in setting up an orchestra. In order to take charge of the orchestra, the conductor decides to dismiss some problematic musicians. Among the five musicians dismissed, four play a wind instrument, including a bassoonist who seems to be remarkably lazy. He saves his breath so as not to get any sound out of his instrument in the end. In the 19th century, the bassoon was criticised above all for its lack of sound; is this what justifies the instrumentalist’s being so silent? In any case, the exclusion of the bassoonist merely recognises a fact. It should be noted, moreover, that the same silence is to be found with Berlioz’s Winter, albeit unwillingly so. It is clear that in both cases the lesson to be learned is that the bassoon’s lack of sound should exclude it from the large musical forces.

This short passage on various musical instruments shows that the author is not without knowledge of the orchestra. In addition to some of the problems that persisted in certain ensembles of the time, he analyses the instruments themselves with humour; consider the horn which, according to Champfleury, ‘with the help of the six crooks in his box, brought seven people into the places where he went’. But the lesson for our study is the similarity between Berlioz’s bassoonist and Champfleury’s bassoonist, who are described as eccentric characters in the image of the instrument.

Musset’s Premières poésies

To find a quotation in a poem about the bassoon, one can turn to Alfred Musset, who mentioned the instrument in his Premières poésies. These are subdivided into scenes as in the theatre and bears the mark of rhetoric, for the author has always remained faithful to tradition and the classical spirit, as is evident in his Comédies et Proverbes. In any case, the paragraph in which the bassoon is mentioned does not seem to be very instructive, especially as the mention of it is terse:

Voilà pour toi, merci.
Parbleu ! cette soirée est propice, et je pense
Que mes feux pourraient bien avoir leur récompense.
La lune ne va pas tarder à se lever;
La chose au premier coup peut ici s’achever.
Têtebleu ! c’est le moins qu’un homme de ma sorte
Ne s’aille pas morfondre à garder une porte;
Je ne suis pas des gens qu’on laisse s’enrouer.
— Or, vous autres coquins, qu’allez vous nous jouer ?
— Piano, signor basson; — amoroso ! la dame
Est une oreille fine ! — Il faudrait à ma flamme
Quelque mi bémol, — hein ? Je m’en vais me cacher
Sous ce contrevent-là; c’est sa chambre à coucher,
N’est-ce pas ?

un porteur
Oui, Seigneur.

But, on closer inspection, the few lines devoted to the bassoon, succinct as they are, deserve to be examined more closely. The presentation of the instrument, pleasantly personified, is not, in this short passage, devoid of humour. The ‘signor basson’ is invited to mute his accents and colour them with tenderness. Is there not a contradiction with the criticism that he lacks sound? In fact, the context is different; this is a small ensemble, and if not, an orchestral passage where the bassoon is featured. The poet criticises it for lacking nuance and for being ill-suited to the expression of delicate feelings. We find again the grievances of Champfleury and Berlioz, for whom the instrument has too many technical defects to bend to the demands of artistic interpretation. In any case, does not the zany atmosphere found in the three passages mentioned support this interpretation? This personification of the bassoon suggests that Musset was not far from sharing Berlioz’s and Champfleury’s opinion of the instrument.

De Nerval’s Les Nuits d’octobre

A further development of interest to the bassoon can be found in a poetic prose work, Gérard de Nerval’s Les Nuits d’octobre. This work, which appeared in several parts in L’Illustration, consists of twenty-six short stories that surrealistically recount everyday anecdotes of Parisian life.

It is in his 18th short story, ‘Chœur des Gnomes’, that de Nerval mentions the bassoon. This short story tells of a dream in which the main character, the narrator, has a dream in which gnomes take advantage of his sleep to put his head in order. The passage about the bassoon appears at the beginning of the story:

The little gnomes sing like this:

Let us enjoy his sleep! — He was quite wrong to regale the acrobat, and to imbibe so much Mars beer in October, — at this same café — of Mars, with accompaniment of cigars, cigarettes, clarinet and bassoon.

In this passage, the bassoon apparently occupies only a descriptive place; indeed, it seems that its mention is only decorative. At first glance, its instrumental value seems secondary, even non-existent. Moreover, the presence of the other instrument, the clarinet, serves the same purpose. It is a fact that woodwinds traditionally play a privileged role in decoration. Just think of their place in painted garlands from the 18th century or in numerous murals in music rooms, concert halls or theatres.

Does the association of the clarinet and the bassoon not invite us to see, in the first instrument, a personification of the woman and, in the second, a personification of the man? This is not impossible, but this opposition is hardly significant; it merely repeats the traditional symbolisation that opposes the high and low notes. In fact, the dreamlike context in which these two instruments are mentioned is more instructive. The passage quoted has an evanescent, hazy atmosphere created by the smoke of cigars and cigarettes. The sounds of the bassoon and clarinet seem to add to the unreality in which the gnomes move. Both instruments are evoked for their mysterious sound and their affinity with a distorted human voice that seems to emanate from another world.

The impression of the bassoon that one gets from de Nerval’s poetic work just examined is quite different from that one gets from reading Berlioz, Champfleury and Musset, where the bassoon appears as a problematic, bizarre and incongruous instrument. Is this an accident, or do other poets adopt the viewpoint we thought we detected in de Nerval?

‘Croquis’ of Verlaine’s Poèmes Saturniens

It is in a poem by Verlaine, entitled ‘Croquis parisien’, which is part of the Poèmes saturniens, that we find a sensitivity to the bassoon similar to that of de Nerval:


La lune plaquait ses teintes de zinc
Par angles obtus.
Des bouts de fumée en forme de cinq
Sortaient drus et noirs des hauts toits pointus.

Le ciel était gris. La bise pleurait
Ainsi qu’un basson.
Au loin, un matou frileux et discret
Miaulait d’étrange et grêle façon.

Moi, j’allais, rêvant du divin Platon
Et de Phidias,
Et de Salamine et de Marathon,
Sous l’oeil clignotant des bleus becs de gaz.

This is the only poem in this collection where the bassoon appears. It is certain that it also plays a descriptive role in this text, but beyond that the poet implicitly makes a judgment about the instrument. ‘The wind was crying like a bassoon’, he writes, setting the context in which the instrument appears. We have a sad picture. The author was certainly inspired by the quality of the instrument’s timbre to paint this mood. He is not thinking of the burlesque or playful effect that can be derived from it, but rather of the specific ability of its timbre to convey a sense of melancholy, as Berlioz points out in his article on the bassoon in his Traité. Moreover, the poem conjures up an instrument capable of suggesting, rather than despair, dreams and sadness, or even mystery; indeed, it seems to fit well with the ‘timid and discreet cat,’ which ‘meowed in a strange and reedy way’. It appears as the instrument of restraint and subtlety. We are not far from the impression given by de Nerval.


The texts we have just examined represent only a tiny fraction of the literature. In most cases, the bassoon is mentioned in a descriptive context or to create a setting. The passages studied present two different positions on the instrument. On the one hand (Berlioz, Champfleury, Musset), the bassoon is presented as a burlesque, comical instrument with technical defects; on the other (de Nerval, Verlaine), it appears as a melancholic, sensitive and mysterious instrument. Are these two points of view opposed to each other and irreconcilable? The answer is no; through these texts, a more objective image of the bassoon emerges. If one opposes an imperfect and zany instrument to an instrument full of poetry (and indeed Berlioz himself was not insensitive to this aspect), this is only an apparent contradiction. This is easily resolved if one considers that the bassoon is a protean instrument, and this is not one of its least qualities! One thinks, for example, of the effects that a composer like Jean Françaix was able to draw from it in the 20th century.

3:3:2 Some Scattered Remarks on the Bassoon

There is no shortage of 19th-century writings containing some remarks on the bassoon, its form and sound, and although descriptions of the instrument abound, one can always find new ones worthy of attention.

Before the 19th century, some interesting information can be found about the bassoon’s sound. Jean-Laurent Bethisy writes about the bassoon that ‘The sounds of this instrument are strong and abrupt. A skilful man, however, knows how to make very soft, very graceful and very tender sounds’.145The following sources can be found in the volume on the bassoon by the Groupe d’Acoustique Musicale (KERGOMARD, op. cit., pp. I-II). Also, in one of the Tablettes de renommée from 1785, we find praise for a bassoonist who was able, at the time, to play the instrument to great effect: ‘Antoni has the art of drawing soft and pleasant sounds from this dry and gloomy instrument’. These few words about the bassoon are worth noting, for they clearly show that such an instrument was still in a primitive state before it entered the 19th  century. It was difficult to get a decent sound out of it, and anyone who could do so had to be exceptionally skilful. So there were probably not many bassoonists who could distinguish themselves on an instrument which, all in all, had so many defects.

In spite of all this, there are glowing descriptions of the bassoon from the beginning of the 19th century. In 1806, Schubart wrote: ‘the sound of this instrument is so worldly, so amiably talkative, so much in harmony with every pure soul, that on the last day of the world one will certainly still find thousands of bassoons among us. The bassoon can be played in any genre, … and is everything it wants to be.’ Five years later, Fröhlich wrote that ‘the very moving sound of this instrument is entirely its own, expressing the most solemn and sublime sentiments, lending to thoughts a kind of dignity in their expression, and toning down the majesty of its low register by the grace of its medium and high register’. These testimonies prove that, despite its defects, the bassoon possessed qualities likely to charm, and it is not surprising that it captivated the attention of the makers, who were aware of the need to free the gold from its gangue and release all the potential that lay dormant within it.

On the other hand, it is not surprising to find a less enthusiastic attitude towards the instrument. The difficulties in mastering it and exploiting its possibilities led some people, such as Grétry, to advocate its abandonment, at least in certain genres, since ‘the bassoon is lugubrious, and must be used in what is pathetic, even if one only wants to make a delicate nuance felt; it seems to me to be a contradiction in everything that is pure gaiety’. It is clear from this quotation that in the 19th century some composers recommended that the bassoon should only be used in specific circumstances. This recommendation may seem all the more surprising since the bassoon seems, more than any other instrument, to lend itself to the expression of the most diverse feelings.

According to the Chevalier de Canaule, the bassoon’s wide range condemns it to having timbres whose quality varies according to the pitch of the sound: ‘in the bass, the bassoon’s sounds are both muffled and husky; they contrast, most painfully, with the high sounds that are so penetrating and pure’. All these reservations do not, however, overcome the enthusiasm shown by some lovers of the instrument. Thus Gassner notes that: ‘the bassoon, a very pleasant instrument … is mainly suited to expressing sad and serious feelings; it can also give the music liveliness and gaiety. Its sounds are … melodious, noble and majestic’.

It is normal that the sound of the bassoon has attracted more attention than its form, and yet some precise descriptions would have been precious for a music historian. However, there are a few that are relatively instructive, such as that of de Canaule, who is interested in its aesthetic appearance: ‘Its picturesque form is pleasing to the eye.’ But this judgement is quite subjective, because a judgement made in the 20th century takes the opposite view of this statement: ‘Its external form is abominable.’

Chapter 4: Interpreters and Their Training

4:1 Bassoonists of the 19th Century

At the beginning of the 19th century, the technique and the art of expressiveness developed remarkably well among bassoonists. First of all, the creation of the Paris Conservatoire at the end of the 18th century ensured a solid mastery of the instrument, and the most distinguished students found themselves teachers in the institution that had trained them. Bassoon virtuosos emerged and played a leading role in the development of their instrument towards perfection. Most of them enriched the bassoon’s repertoire in a significant way. In addition, some of them played an important role in the advances of bassoon making. A certain number of these bassoonists, for the most part at the beginning of the 19th century, mastered other instruments, more precisely other woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet or the flute, which may have inspired certain modifications or innovations.

Given the role they played, it is important to get to know these principal French bassoon virtuosos of the 19th  century. They will be presented chronologically in order to give a clearer idea of the period in which they worked. We will first distinguish bassoonists who straddled the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. We will then present those who distinguished themselves in the first half of the 19th century. Finally, we will focus on the bassoon virtuosos from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the century.

4:1:1 The Great Bassoonists of the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries


The first bassoon virtuoso in 19th-century France was undoubtedly Étienne Ozi. Although he started his activities in the 18th century, his impact on the following century is significant. Ozi (born in Nîmes on 9 December 1754; died in Paris on 15 October 1813) was first bassoon in the king’s chapel before the Revolution, then in the imperial chapel and the Opéra orchestra, and professor of his instrument at the Conservatoire de musique.1FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 398. He came to Paris in 1777, and began as an instrumentalist at the Concerts Spirituels two years later, where he made a name for himself with a fine quality of sound and a clean and precise execution.2Ibid. From the time of his arrival in Paris until 1790 he performed no less than 37 concertos for the instrument, of which 19 were his own compositions.3GRISWORLD, Harold E., ‘OZI’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, 2nd edition, vol. 14, p. 40. From 1783 to 1786 he was in the service of the Duke of Orléans, and in 1783 he joined the ‘Loge Olympique de la Parfaite Estime’, whose members took part in the lodge’s concert.4Ibid., p. 40. From 1786 to 1788, he was first bassoon in the king’s band.5Ibid., p. 40. Shortly after the outbreak of the French Revolution, he joined the National Guard and continued his activities as a soloist until 1790.6Ibid., p. 40. He was also orchestral musician at the concert of the Cirque du Palais-Royal (1790), the Théâtre Italien (1796) and the Théâtre de la République et des Arts (1799-1800). From 1798 to 1806, he played as first bassoon in Napoleon’s chapel band.7Ibid., p. 40.

Étienne Ozi may be considered the first artist to have improved this instrument in France, and as the head of a school from which emerged Delcambre, Gebauer, etc., who in turn trained excellent pupils. The time when Ozi’s talent was most admired was at the théâtre Feydeau concerts (1796).… In 1787 he published an elementary book entitled: Méthode de basson aussi nécessaire pour les maîtres que pour les élèves, avec les airs et les duos. Later he recast this work for the study of classes at the Conservatoire, and published it, in 1800, under the title Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour le basson. Several editions have been published in Paris.8FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 398.

For almost half a century, his bassoon method was used in Germany, Italy and France.9GRISWORLD, op. cit., p. 40. Around 1796, Ozi formed an association to found a music shop attached to the Conservatoire.10FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 398. He ran this establishment and gave lessons there until his death on 5 October 1813. According to his contemporaries, Ozi was ‘the best bassoonist of his time’.11GRISWORLD, op. cit., p. 40. This was confirmed in a tribute paid to him by members of the Conservatoire, the text of which can be found in the chapter ‘Bassoon at the Paris Conservatoire de musique’. It is clear that this character is one of the greatest images of the French bassoon. Indeed, his remarkable contribution made it possible to initiate a new era in the teaching of the instrument.


François Devienne (Joinville, 1759 – Paris, 5 September 1803) was brought up by his brother, a musician in the service of the Prince of Deux-Ponts.12FÉTIS, op. cit., tome 3, p. 14. From his childhood, he showed great qualities for music; at the age of ten, he composed a mass with wind-instrument accompaniment which was performed by the musicians of the regiment in which he was already engaged as a flautist.13Ibid., p. 14. After completing his musical studies, he worked for the Cardinal of Rohan, and then joined the band of the Swiss Guards, which he left in 1788 to join the orchestra of the théâtre de Monsieur as a bassoonist.14Ibid., p. 14. Equally noted for his talent on the flute and the bassoon, Devienne possessed a general knowledge of all the other instruments and knew how to achieve effects unknown in France before him.15Ibid., p. 14. In the autumn of 1779, he occupied for a season the last bassoon chair in the orchestra of the Paris Opéra.

Born with a talent for composition, he created a new genre of music for wind instruments, encouraged artists to improve their performance and contributed to the improvement of French orchestras.16Ibid., p. 14. The first performance of one of his works dates from 24 March 1780; it is a bassoon concerto performed by Ozi at the Concert Spirituel.17MONTGOMERY, William, ‘DEVIENNE’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, edited by Stanley Sadie, 2nd edition, 2001, vol. 5, p. 407. This was the first time he performed one of his works, his first bassoon concerto, before an audience as bassoon soloist.18Ibid., p. 407. This performance also took place at the Concert Spirituel on 25 March 1784.19Ibid., p. 407. In 1790, the journal Les Spectacles de Paris mentions his participation as second bassoon at the opening of the théâtre de Monsieur in June 1789 (which a few years later became the théâtre Feydeau); he was promoted to first bassoon in the autumn of 1789 and held this position until April 1801.20Ibid., p. 407. His salary in 1792 was 200 livres; this was not a lot of money, especially if one knows that the average salary of a bassoonist at the Paris Opéra was 1080 livres.21Ibid., p. 407. A musician always well known and appreciated by music lovers, Devienne would undermine his mental health by his relentless work:

Devienne’s productions are so numerous that one would hardly understand his productivity, if one did not know that, notwithstanding all the duties imposed on him by his positions and the lessons he gave, he usually worked eight hours a day. This excess of work ended up impairing his faculties; his head became disturbed, and they were obliged to lock him up in Charenton, where he died on 5 September 1803. He had been a professor at the Conservatoire de musique and was included in the general reform of 1802.22FÉTIS, op. cit., tome 3, p. 14.

France, but also Europe, particularly missed this great musician and teacher. Not only was he an eminent virtuoso and teacher of the flute, but he was also one of the great masters of the bassoon, and one of the few to have left remarkable compositions for this instrument.23JANSEN, Will, op. cit., 4, p. 1720.


Thomas Delcambre (Douai, 1766 – Paris, 7 January 1828) learned music at the Collegiate Church of Saint-Pierre and joined a regiment garrisoned in that city at a very young age.24Ibid., p. 1720. It was not until he left his birthplace to settle in Paris that he established himself as a bassoonist:

At the age of eighteen, he went to Paris, where he became a pupil of Ozy on the bassoon. His progress was rapid, and he was soon noticed for the beauty of the sound he got from the instrument, and for the brilliance of his execution. In 1790 he joined the orchestra of the théâtre de Monsieur, sharing the position of first bassoon with Devienne. It was the time of the famous Italian Bouffons; the orchestra, conducted by Puppo, was excellent. Delcambre developed his taste by the habit of hearing music rendered with a hitherto unheard-of perfection. The concerts at the théâtre Feydeau in 1794 gave him the opportunity to showcase his talent in a concerto of his own composition, and in Devienne’s symphonies concertantes for oboe, flute, horn and bassoon, which he played with Salentin, Hugot and Frédéric Duvernoy.25FÉTIS, op. cit., tome 3, p. 265.

Very early in his career as a bassoonist, he took up a position in an orchestra of a very high level, where he gained much experience and skill. When the Paris Conservatoire was founded, Delcambre was appointed professor in the bassoon class; he was not yet thirty years old:

He was elected as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire de musique at the time of his training, and served there until the end of 1825, when he retired after thirty years of service. It was also around the same time that he retired from the orchestra of the Opéra, which he had joined after obtaining a pension at the théâtre Feydeau. Of all his jobs, he had retained, in his last years, only that of first bassoon of the king’s chapel. A award of chevaliers de la Légion d’honneur having been made in 1824, he obtained the decoration of this order. He died in Paris on 7 January 1828. A beautiful sound, a clean and pure execution, were the distinctive qualities of Delcambre’s talent; but he lacked in general elegance and expression.26Ibid., p. 265.

Delcambre is said to have played a role in some of the decisions to dismiss staff during the reform of 1802. Gebauer, who was also a professor at the Conservatoire from its inception, was allegedly dismissed on the grounds that he was too young to teach. This allegation was attributed to Delcambre, which earned him the antipathy of other musicians.27JANSEN, Will, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 1718. In fact he was only six years older than his colleague, but as he was facing a reduction in posts and could not claim seniority at the Conservatoire, it seems logical that he should have tried to defend his job on the basis of his age and experience.

These three great bassoonists initiated an era in which the bassoon was improving. They were proof that despite the difficulties and shortcomings of the instrument of their time, they were able to leave their mark on the instrument in terms of its qualities and capabilities. It should be remembered that at that time bassoons only had a few keys, which limited their uses. In spite of this, they knew how to make the most of the instrument, but also enriched its repertoire. François Devienne is credited with producing the most bassoon music of the three. Ozi, on the other hand, published what is still considered the first bassoon method in France. Their influence continued and spread with the creation of the Conservatoire; they were essential people, indeed the pioneers of bassoon in this institution.

4:1:2 The Great Bassoonists of the Early to Mid-19th Century


François-René Gebauer (Versailles, 1773 – Paris, 6 July 1845) studied music under his brother Michel-Joseph Gebauer28FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 437. and later received bassoon lessons from Devienne.29Ibid., p. 437; these lessons with Devienne are said to have taken place at the Conservatoire (JANSEN, Ibid., vol. 4, p. 1728). At the age of fifteen, he joined the Swiss Guard in Versailles as a bassoonist, and later followed his older brother into the band of the National Guard in Paris.30Ibid., p. 437. He was bassoonist at the Théâtre Français from 1791 to 1792; he would probably have played in the orchestra of the salle Louvois in 1793 and was listed in the orchestra of the théâtre des Amis de la Patrie in 1794.31CHARLTON, David, and, AUDÉON, Hervé ‘GEBAUER’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, 2nd edition, vol. 9, p. 617. In 1801, he began his career as principal bassoon at the Paris Opéra.32JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1828

Elected as professor of bassoon at the Conservatoire at the age of twenty-three, he was dismissed due to the reform of 1802, because he was younger than Ozi and Delcambre; but when the latter retired in 1825, Gebauer succeeded him. In January 1801, he had joined the orchestra of the Opéra, from which he retired at the beginning of 1826 after twenty-five years’ service.33FÉTIS, op. cit., pp. 437-438. Gebauer worked for the Emperor Napoleon’s chapel and remained in this position after the Restoration until the chapel was definitively abolished following the revolution of July 1830.34Ibid., p. 438.

Named chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1814, this artist was noted for the beauty of the sound he obtained from the bassoon, for his ability to correct any inaccuracy and for the cleanness of his execution in the most difficult runs; unfortunately, he did not combine these qualities with those of an elegant style: his was devoid of expression.35Ibid., p. 438. According to Constant Pierre, he was an honorary professor at the Conservatoire in 1816, after having had to leave it 14 years earlier.36CHARLTON, op. cit., p. 617. He had been a professor at the Paris Conservatoire from 1795 to 1802, before resuming his activities from 1824 to 1838.37Ibid., p. 617. An eminent teacher, he inspired many a career. Was his daughter not a talented singer?38His daughter, Herminie, was a singer; after having shone for a long time in concerts in Paris, she went to Italy and sang in the theatres of Bergamo, Florence, Livorno, Parma, Reggio and Turin, from 1832 to 1840 (FETIS, op. cit., p. 438) It is regrettable that, having trained many fine bassoonists, he did not write a method for the instrument. It is probable that he judged, rightly or wrongly, that the material at his disposal was sufficiently effective or that the training of a performer should be done only in an active way.


Charles Barizel, bassoon virtuoso (Merville, 3 January 1788 – Merville, 25 May 1850) is said to have begun his bassoon studies as an autodidact.39JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1708. In 1807 he obtained a first prize at the Paris Conservatoire.40Ibid., p. 1708. As a young man he joined a regiment where he distinguished himself before being held prisoner for three years during a campaign in Spain:

Leaving his father’s house at the age of eighteen, he entered a regiment as a private musician, and soon rose on merit to the rank of chef de musique in another corps, with which he went on the Spanish campaign in 1808.  Taken prisoner in the Cabrera affair, he was transported to the English vessel-prisons, where he had to suffer all the tortures which have been reported by various writers.41FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 247.

Returning to France after his captivity, Barizel became chef de musique in a regiment of the young Imperial Guard; in this capacity he took part in the Russian campaign in 1812, the Saxon campaign in 1813 and was present at all the major moments of the French campaign in 1814. The following year, as soon as he returned from the army, he was hired in the orchestra of the Paris Opéra.42JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1708.

It was not until he returned to civilian life that Barizel perfected his art of the instrument. From then on he became a first-rate bassoonist:

He returned to civilian life in 1815, after being discharged from the army, and devoted himself to serious studies to refine his talent, which soon placed him among the most distinguished artists in Paris. He became first bassoon in the king’s chapel under the Restoration, joined the private band of King Louis Philippe in 1831, became professor of bassoon at the Conservatoire after the retirement of Gebauer, first bassoon of the Opéra, and chef de musique of the 2nd legion of the Paris National Guard. For his services he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.43FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 247.

His failing health forced him to give up the jobs he had been doing, so he thought that the air of his homeland might be beneficial and returned to Merville; but the illness did not stop and Barizel died at the age of sixty-two.44Ibid., p. 247. No compositions by this artist for his instrument are known.45Ibid., p. 247.


Frédéric Berr, clarinet and bassoon virtuoso, was born in Mannheim on 17 April 1794 and died in Paris on 24 September 1838. His father, an excellent musician, gave him a solid training in his art:

After serving in France, his father, Jacob Berr, an excellent musician, moved to Frankenthal on the Rhine, two leagues from Worms, where he taught music and gave his son, who was then six years old, violin lessons; later he forced him to play the flute, which the young musician did not like, but which later facilitated his study of the bassoon, his favourite instrument. He studied the bassoon with such ardour and perseverance that fatigue often caused him weak spells. His father’s severity forced the sixteen-year-old Berr to leave him to take up service in the 39th regiment of French infantry, which was at Landau. Six months later, he replaced the maître de musique, who had retired and appointed him as his successor.46Ibid., p. 379.

From this time on, he was interested in the clarinet and decided to learn the instrument; his knowledge of the violin would have helped him learn the clarinet, of which he soon acquired a solid command.47Ibid., p. 379. However, at that time he had a distinct predilection for the bassoon, and his talent on the instrument was quickly recognised by some:

His regiment having been sent to Spain in 1810, he fought in all the campaigns of the Peninsular War, and only returned to France in 1814. He was then garrisoned at Amiens, and after the battle of Waterloo he was sent to Douai in 1816. The author of this Biographie was then organist in this city. Berr, who until then had instinctively written the music he arranged or composed, took some lessons in harmony from him. At that time the bassoon was the instrument he preferred to play, and such was his talent on this instrument that, with the exception of Mann, once the first bassoonist in the Amsterdam orchestras, the person writing this notice had never heard an artist who could be compared with him. At the beginning of 1817, the regiment whose band Berr directed moved away from Douai; he took advantage of this circumstance to go to Paris, where he obtained, in 1819, an engagement as chef de musique of the 2nd Swiss regiment of the guard.48Ibid., p. 379.

It was not until he arrived in Paris that he began to play the clarinet more and more, and the success he enjoyed with this instrument led him to neglect the bassoon:

Taking advantage of his stay in the French capital, he received composition lessons from Reicha. It was around this time that Berr began to neglect the bassoon in favour of the clarinet. A soft and mellow quality of sound, a delicate ear and perfect intelligence which made him correct the defects of this instrument, an exquisite taste and a natural talent for expression, such were the advantages of Berr’s constitution, to become a clarinettist of the first order: hard work did the rest.49Ibid., p. 379.

The lessons with Reicha seem to have paid off, for not only did Berr make a name for himself as a bassoonist and clarinettist, but he was also a brilliant composer for woodwind instruments; many of his works were intended for military use:

No less commendable as a composer of music for wind instruments, Berr has made a brilliant reputation for himself in this genre. It is well known that in general this kind of music is equally weak in conception and construction; taste has almost always been lacking in those who have treated it. Better inspired, Berr has composed clarinet and bassoon solos worthy of comparison with those of the best string artists; his military music can stand comparison with the best that was then being done in Germany. Among his numerous productions are 500 pieces of military music, 40 suites for wind band, drawn from various operas, two bassoon concertinos, four airs variés for the bassoon, seven airs variés for the clarinet with orchestral, wind-band, quartet or piano accompaniment, a divertissement, two concertos, seventeen fantasias for piano and clarinet, duets for two clarinets, and a little method for the instrument. Most of these works were published in Paris, Mainz, Leipzig, etc.50Ibid., p. 247.

Although Berr is remembered as a musician who made an extremely significant contribution to the development of the clarinet, he nevertheless occupies a privileged and special place as a bassoonist. He taught the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire, and nothing that concerned the clarinet in France at the time escaped his notice. The quality of his playing on the bassoon, an instrument that marked the beginning of his musical career, was remarkable. His contribution as a composer is also noteworthy, as his works for woodwind instruments are particularly well written. It can be argued that Berr followed in Devienne’s footsteps, since both mastered two woodwind instruments and both greatly enhanced the repertoire devoted to them. The bassoon compositions of this period, although with a few exceptions they cannot be counted as first-rate productions, are therefore worth listening to, since the works that bassoonists wrote for their instrument know how to make the most of its possibilities, and this in a style of writing that even today deserves to be admired.

4:1:3 Bassoonists from the Mid-19th to the End of the 19th Century

Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Willent-Bordogni (Douai, 7 December 1809 – Paris, 11 May 1852), composer and bassoon virtuoso, entered the music academy of his native town as a pupil at the age of eleven, where he learned solfeggio and studied the bassoon under the guidance of Lecomte, professor and director of this institution.51Ibid., 474. His progress was rapid and he soon won first prizes in the competitions he entered during the five years he spent at this school.52Ibid., p. 474. This haul of prizes was crowned by the medal of honour, which was awarded to him in 1825, as an award for excellence.53Ibid., p. 474. Arriving in Paris the same year, he entered the Conservatoire on 12 October, where he became a pupil of his compatriot Delcambre and proved his superiority in the 1826 competition, since he was awarded first prize for bassoon that same year.54Ibid., p. 474. He was first admitted to the harmony and composition classes of Messrs Seuriot and Jelensperger, Reicha’s répétiteurs, and then became a pupil of the author of the Biographie universelle des musiciens, François-Joseph Fétis, for counterpoint and fugue, thus acquiring a solid knowledge of musical writing.55Ibid., p. 474. However, a note in an article in the Revue Musicale, without questioning Willent’s talents, shows that the defects of the instrument resist technique and virtuosity, however advanced they may be:

The bassoon is not a solo instrument favourable to the talent of a performer: however skilled he may be, he cannot entirely eliminate the inaccuracies that become apparentin the bass part of his instrument. Mr Villent’s [sic] execution is very clean; his tongue articulates well with his fingers; there is more taste in his style than is usually found among bassoonists: nevertheless he made little impression, because all the intonations of the bass octave were wrong in the solo he played.56FÉTIS, François-Joseph, ‘Cinquième concert du Conservatoire’, Revue musicale, 5e année, n° 9, Paris, éd. par Fétis, samedi 2 avril 1831, p. 69.

In 1830 Cherubini admitted Willent to Berton’s composition class and on 1 May 1833 his studies were completed.57FÉTIS, Fraçois-Joseph, Biographie universelle des musiciens, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 474. Called to London at the age of eighteen to take up the post of first bassoon at the King’s Theatre,58Ibid., p. 474. he then entered the orchestra of the Opéra italien in Paris, in the same capacity, and remained there for three years, developing daily, by study and by exchanges with the clarinettist and bassoonist Berr, his talent which was already one of the most prominent at that time:

Called to New York in 1834, he married the daughter of the famous singing master Bordogni, who worked for the theatre in that city as a singer. For seven years, the two of them travelled through England, France, North America, most of Italy, Holland and Belgium. Everywhere these two artists met with success. The most beautiful sound, perfect intonation, an elegant style, a broad and pure way of singing, and great precision in the execution of rapid runs, these were the qualities that made up Willent’s perfect talent. After the death of Borini, professor of bassoon at the Brussels Conservatoire and first bassoon of the theatre of that city, Willent was called to replace him in these two positions. Willent seemed dissatisfied with the bassoon of his day and undertook to build a better bassoon with Bachmann, a German maker based in Brussels, but the project came to an end when the bassoonist had to return to Paris. In 1848, he resigned as professor from the Brussels Conservatoire and joined the Paris Conservatoire as bassoon professor, succeeding Barizel, by order of 5 December of the same year.59Ibid., p. 474.

He was still in the same position when he died at the age of forty.60Ibid., p. 474. As a composer, Willent was noted for his graceful melodies, pure harmony served by good taste and an innate sense of instrumentation effects.61Ibid., p. 474. Some of his compositions were engraved in Paris, and his opera Le Moine was performed at the Royal Theatre in Brussels on 13 April 1844.62Ibid., p. 474.


Jean-François-Barthélemy Cokken (Paris, 23 January 1801 – Paris, 13 February 1875 ), whose name is spelt Kocken in his works and in the catalogues, began his apprenticeship as a volunteer in the 15th infantry regiment on 1 June 1813, when he was only twelve years old.63JANSEN, Will, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 1716. On 30 November 1815, he was promoted to bassoonist in the 3rd  regiment of the Royal Guard and joined the Life Guard of the Compagnie de Noailles on 1 November 1819.64Ibid., p. 1716. Admitted to the Conservatoire in 1818, he became a pupil of Delcambre for the bassoon, and his progress on this instrument was so rapid that he was awarded first prize in the 1820 competition.65Cokken is said to have been awarded a new bassoon by Jean-Nicolas Savary for an excellent performance which won him first prize (JANSEN, Will, Ibid., p. 1716). After having worked for a long time in the orchestra of the Théâtre Italien as first bassoon, then the Opéra, and finally the Société des concerts du Conservatoire, Cokken was appointed bassoon professor of this school on 15 May 1852, after the death of Willent-Bordogni.66FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 474. He published about forty works of fantasies, mélanges and variations for his instrument, on themes from French and Italian operas, in Paris, with Richault, Cotelle, Colombier and Schonenberg.67Ibid., pp. 331-332.


Louis-Marie-Eugène Jancourt (Château-Thierry, 15 December 1815 – Boulogne-sur-Seine, 1900)68Acte de décès no 68 dressé le 29/01/1900, vue 11/108. is without doubt one of the greatest bassoon virtuosos; gifted with the happiest aptitude for musical, he made rapid progress and entered the Paris Conservatoire on 4 December 1834 as a pupil of Gebauer in the bassoon class.69Ibid., p. 424. The second prize for this instrument was awarded to him in 1835, and he won the first the following year.70Ibid., p. 424. He was fortunate enough to be able to play as a student with his teacher in orchestras at various opera houses (it seems that it was not uncommon for a teacher to choose a student from among his best pupils to assist him).71JANSEN, Ibid., p. 1744. But the instrument that Jancourt owned at that time was of very poor quality and in bad condition.72Ibid., p. 1744. So he had to work very hard to overcome the instrument’s gross defects. This is what probably prompted him to take an early interest in improving the system of the instrument. His teacher, Gebauer, took pity on his pupil and bequeathed him his bassoon, with which he won his first prize at the Conservatoire.73Ibid., p. 1744. This instrument originally had ten keys; other keys were added later by Jancourt: those of B♭, C♯ and the octave key.74Ibid., p. 1746.

After completing his studies, he left the Conservatoire on 1 October 1837.75Ibid., p. 1744. From that time onwards, he was a recognised virtuoso and was one of the rare bassoonists to have performed solo works on small bassoons:

As for the virtuosos who have used the bassoon, we only know of Mr Eugène Jancourt, currently a professor at the Conservatoire, who, from 1838 to 1840, performed several solos on a Savary instrument in E♭ at concerts given in the salons of the piano makers Mercié and Souffleto.76PIERRE, Constant, La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889, op. cit., p. 26.

After playing in second-line orchestras in Paris, Jancourt joined the Opéra Italien as first bassoon,77FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 424. and in 1840 became first bassoon at the Opéra-Comique.78JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1744.

It took courage and a true sense of  musical calling for Mr Jancourt to abandon, as he did, as you have been told, the mysteries of pharmacopoeia, the charms of chemistry, in order to better cultivate the bassoon, that thankless and difficult instrument, whose low tones, when attacked too abruptly, give intonations that are not without analogy with the opposite word of the enigma that makes the precious Abbé de Beaugénie, in the Mercure galant, guess. Mr Jancourt sings well on this instrument, and this is not the least rare and least beautiful quality in most of our instrumentalists: he has done an air varié and a fantaisie on motives from the Lucia di Lammermoor passages composed or arranged by him, with aplomb and good style.79BLANCHARD, Henri, ‘Concerts’, Revue et Gazette musicale, 13 mars 1842, 9e année, n° 11, p. 103.

After the revolution of 1848, Willent having given up his post as bassoon professor at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels, Jancourt went to that city and obtained the vacant position; but he remained only about eight months in this new post, for he was offered the chair of first bassoon at the Paris Opéra.80FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 424. For reasons unknown, Jancourt soon left the orchestra of that theatre to take up the same job at the Opéra-Comique, where he was still playing in 1861.81Ibid., p. 424. He subsequently became a member of the Conservatoire’s concert society; in 1867, he was appointed capitaine de musique of the 5th division of the National Guard of the Seine, and succeeded Cokken as professor of bassoon at the Paris Conservatoire at the time of the latter’s death in 1875.82JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1744. Eugène Jancourt’s success is amply deserved. His brilliant career as a bassoonist is proof of this. But this personality also stands out for his talents as a teacher; we owe him, in fact, an excellent work entitled Méthode théorique et pratique du basson, en trois parties, op. 15,published in Paris by Richault in 1847.83FÉTIS, op. cit., p. 424. A final stone was added to this pedagogical edifice in 1876 with his Études du basson perfectionné. Moreover, having always had a keen interest in instrument making, he worked in close collaboration with many renowned Parisian makers, including Buffet and Triébert.84Ibid., p. 424. His output includes no less than 116 works, including solo pieces for bassoon, pieces for wind ensembles, and two methods comprising études and duo sonatas.85Ibid., p. 424. His playing was admired for its purity and a charming sound reminiscent of the human voice, without ever falling into bad taste or pastiche.86Ibid., p. 424.

When Jancourt died in 1895, the bassoon world was in mourning for one of its most important figures. Whether from the point of view of interpretation, repertoire, instrument making or teaching, this musician remains, along with Ozi, one of the most important figures in the world of the instrument to which he had devoted himself.

4:1:4 Bassoonists of Lesser Renown from the Late 18th to the 19th Century

Lesser-Known Bassoonists of the late 18th Century

A quick look at other bassoonists can shed some more light on the world of the bassoon in the 19th century. They may have been less successful as bassoon virtuosos, but they did show qualities in playing the instrument and were able to play the bassoon in a variety of ways.The bassoon’s parts in orchestras were competently played throughout the 19th century.

Before mentioning some of the minor bassoonists of the 19th century, it is worth mentioning some of their predecessors. We know from the biography of Pierre Cugnier that he was a pupil of Cappel, who, before Ozi made a name for himself, was considered the best bassoonist in France at the time:

CUGNIER (Pierre), first bassoon of the Paris Opéra, was born in that city in 1740, and studied music at the cathedral’s choir school. When he reached the age of fourteen, he received lessons from Cappel, then the best bassoonist in France. In 1764 he was hired as second bassoonist at the Opéra, and in 1778 was given the position of first bassoonist. We have from this artist a short method for playing the bassoon, which La Borde inserted in the first volume of the Essai sur la musique (p. 313-343).87Ibid., vol. 2, p. 403.

Jean-Pierre Tulou, father of the famous 19th-century flautist, was a pupil of Cugnier. He played at the Opéra in 1786 and was one of the first bassoon professors at the Paris Conservatoire:

TULOU (Jean-Pierre), son of a chorister at the Opéra, from a family working this theatre since the beginning of the 18th century, was born in Paris, in 1740, and was a pupil of Cugnier on the bassoon. He joined the Opéra to play this instrument in 1786, and was then a professor at the Conservatoire when it was founded. He died in Paris in December 1799. This artist published six duets for two bassoons, in Paris, with Sieher, and twelve airs variés for two bassoons, ibid.88Ibid., vol. 8, p. 267.

As for Jean-Antoine Parisot (1740-?), he occupied the position of first bassoon in the orchestra of the Paris Opéra in 1773.89JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1772. Presumably at this time Jean-Baptiste Golvin (1748-?) also played as a bassoonist in the same orchestra (although it is not known in what year he joined).90Ibid., 1733. Antoine Loyer (1757-1808) added clarinet playing to his talents as a bassoonist. After having followed a military career and played in several wind bands, he joined the band of the National Guard in 1793, before becoming a professor at the Conservatoire.91Ibid., p. 1757.

Matthieu-Frédéric Blasius (Lauterburg, Alsace, 13 April 1758 – Versailles, 1829) straddles the period between the 18th and the 19th centuries.92Ibid., p. 1712. He entered the Conservatoire in 1795 as a professor of wind instruments; in 1802 he was the conductor at the Opéra-Comique.93Ibid., p. 1712. He was not only an accomplished bassoonist, but also played the clarinet and the violin.94Ibid., p. 1712. His music and the exercises and methods he wrote were popular in his day. In 1816, he retired from active life.

There are other bassoonists who lived at the crossroads of these two centuries. Among them is Emmanuel Ducreux (1765-1812) who joined the Théâtre Français in 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution:

DUCREUX (Emmanuel), son of a pastel portrait painter, was born in Paris in 1765. Destined by his father to painting, he first studied to practice this art; but his taste for music made him abandon it. He learned to play several wind instruments, particularly the flute and the bassoon, and entered the orchestra of the Théâtre Français, in 1789, for the latter instrument. He died in Paris around 1812.95FÉTIS, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 70.

During his career he also composed instrumental works, notably duets. Little is known about François Simonet (n.d.), except that he played around 800 at the Théâtre Français as bassoonist and hornist.96JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1791.

Before the creation of the Conservatoire, some bassoonists learned to play the instrument by themselves. This was notably the case of Alexandre Rogat (Paris, 1775 – Versailles, 20 October 1817) who earned his living playing the bassoon from the age of 13.97Ibid., p. 1780. He played this instrument as well as the serpent in the choir of the Church of Notre-Dame.98Ibid., p. 1780. On 21 November 1793, at the age of 18, he was appointed professor at the institution that was to become the Conservatoire in 1795.99Ibid., p. 1780.

It was, in fact, at this time that the Paris Conservatoire was founded. This creation is particularly important from the point of view that concerns us here, for it is thanks to this institution that many bassoonists were able to perfect their art under the tutelage of the great masters of the instrument. Dossion (Paris, 10 August 1779 – ?) won the first bassoon prize at the Conservatoire in 1799.100Looking at the list of prize winners in appendix 3, we see that Dossion obtained his first prize in year V of the Conservatoire, which is equivalent to 1799, year I being 1795, the year the Conservatoire was founded. He was probably be the first laureate in the class of this instrument. He subsequently held the position of first bassoon in the orchestra of the théâtre de l’Ambigu, in that of the théâtre Louvois, as well as in that of the Paris Opéra until 1829, when he became chef de musique in the 11th legion of the National Guard.101Ibid., p 1721. He took part in several tours as principal bassoon.102Ibid., p. 1721. As for Courtin (1778-1846), who won second prize103Ibid., p. 1717; see the section on ‘Bassoon at the Conservatoire’. in the bassoon class in the same year that Dossion won first prize, it is not known whether he subsequently took part in this competition. It can be established with certainty, however, that he never won the first prize. He studied throughout his life, without however succeeding in being counted among the great bassoonists; this did not prevent him from working at the Paris Conservatoire later on.104Ibid., p. 1717. Guillaume Fougas (Paris, 22 August 1780 – Paris, 11 January 1854) won the first prize at the Conservatoire in 1801; he then became bassoonist in the orchestra of the théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin, later in the National Guard, and finally first bassoonist in the orchestra of the Théâtre Italien.105Ibid., p. 1724. He was very active in the fields of harmony and composition, while training several students.106Ibid., p. 1724. He is credited with the composition of several pieces for bassoon, including some interesting concertos, but unfortunately no manuscripts of his works seem to have survived.107Ibid., p. 1724. He succeeded Ozi and was a professor at the Conservatoire for thirty years.

It should be noted that all these bassoonists entered the profession at a very young age and that it was mainly in orchestras or other ensembles that they exercised their talent (which is normal for an instrument like the bassoon). This clearly shows that the bassoon occupied an important place in musical life at the dawn of the 19th century, which helps us to understand why makers were subsequently so interested in improving it.

Lesser-Known Bassoonists during the 19th Century

French bassoonists of the 19th century came from different parts of France but, for the vast majority of them, they studied at the Paris Conservatoire before, at least for the best of them, filling positions in the various Paris orchestras. One example is Alexandre Melchior (Toulouse, 21 June 1792 – 1862), who seems to have gone quickly to Paris to perfect his art on the instrument; at the age of eighteen he won the first prize at the Conservatoire in 1810.108JANSEN, op. cit., p. 1761. He went on to form numerous wind ensembles and to compose several pieces for this type of instrument, as well as holding the position of first bassoon at the théâtre de l’Ambigu for a time.109Ibid., p. 1761.

Among these bassoonists of the first half of the 19th century, one distinguished himself significantly in the field of music publishing, Alphonse Leduc (Nantes, 1804 – Paris, 17 June 1868). He was the son of a music publisher who had acquired a business in Paris on rue de La Chevardière.110Ibid., p. 1755. Alphonse played the bassoon as well as the flute and was quite successful on both instruments.111Ibid., p. 1755. After serving in various ensembles, he took over the management of his father’s business in 1841 and developed a music publishing house that is still among the largest today; he specialised particularly in the publication of music for wind instruments,112Ibid., p. 1755. and the quality of this speciality is still recognised and appreciated.

Some bassoonists, former students of the Conservatoire, were invited to work abroad. This was notably the case of Adolphe Reickmans (La Moselle, 22 July 1795 – Batavia, 1849). He obtained his first prize in bassoon at the Conservatoire in 1819.113Ibid., p. 1777. He then travelled to various places. In 1821, he was found in Spain where he joined the band of the Count d’Orsay’s regiment, but he returned to France a few years later to play in the second regiment of the Swiss Guard in Orléans.114Ibid.,p.1777. He left it a few years later and from 6 August 1822 to 1 March 1833 was a member of the orchestra of the Paris Opéra, the position he held the longest.115Ibid., p. 1777. From 1828 onwards, he also played at the Société des Concerts; no doubt because of his taste for travel, he left Paris to join the band of a German military regiment in the Dutch Indies, where he ended his days.116Ibid., p. 1777.

Baumann (Paris, 1801 – London, 1870), a Frenchman of German origin, most probably the son of a piano maker of the same name living in the same city, also went abroad.117Ibid., p. 1709. He studied at the Conservatoire de musique, from which he graduated with a first prize in 1822.118Note that in the list of prize winners given in PIERRE, Constant, Le Conservatoire national de musique et de déclamation, Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1900, the name of this bassoonist is written differently: Beaumann. He then went to England, where he settled and became first bassoon in the orchestra of the Haymarket Theatre before later taking up the position of first bassoon at the Covent Garden; his departure for England was apparently successful, as he never returned to France.119Ibid., p. 1709. Following Baumann’s example, André-Joseph Molet (Cambrai, 9 November 1815 – Russia, ?), another bassoonist who studied at the Paris Conservatoire and won his first prize in 1839, went abroad to practice his art. It was in Russia, most probably in St Petersburg,120Ibid., p. 1763. that he decided to make his home. He is said to have played first bassoon in the orchestra of the Imperial Opera in that city and to have taught at the Academy of Music, where he had good pupils.121Ibid., p. 1763. It is not known exactly where and when he died in his land of exile.

Adolphe-Joseph Divoir (Lille, 5 June 1803 – Paris, 16 May 1881) won first prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1827.122Ibid., p. 1721. He played for a time in the band of the National Guard, before becoming first bassoon in the orchestra of the Théâtre Italien.123Ibid., p. 1721. During his life he often changed ensembles, but all the while he continued to study composition, harmony and the organ.124Ibid., p. 1721. Towards the end of his life he was appointed Choir Master at the Saint-Louis d’Antin church and professor at the music school of the Brothers of Passy; the ensemble with which he spent the most time is that of the Paris Opéra, where he was appointed first bassoon on 1 March 1833 and where he remained until 28 February 1868.125Ibid., p. 1721.

Although Eugène Jancourt was the great bassoon master of the second half of the 19th century, there are other bassoonists of this period who were also virtuosos on the instrument. This was the case of Jean Espaignet (Bordeaux, 31 October 1813 – Monte Carlo, 1909). He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and won a first prize in 1843. He was quickly recognized as a first-rate bassoonist, both in Paris and in other musical circles; in Paris, he held the position of first bassoon in most opera orchestras of his time.126Ibid., p. 1721. It is known that Jancourt, at a time when he was considered the greatest bassoon virtuoso of his time, appointed Espaignet as the colleague to replace him when he could not provide a concert.127Ibid., 1721. This bassoonist wrote several pieces for his instrument and gained popularity after transcribing Kreutzer’s ‘Études’ for it; he was a talented artist whose art was helped by his ability to make reeds of excellent quality.128Ibid., 1721.

Emile Coyon played not only the bassoon but also the contrabassoon around the 1870s, the defects of which made it difficult to play throughout the 19th century in France (see the chapter on the contrabassoon). Working as a bassoonist in various opera orchestras, he was nevertheless regularly called upon to offer his services as a contrabassoonist, as he was one of the few, if not the only one, to play it properly.129Ibid., 1717. Despite his gift for the instrument, and given its great defects, he tended to abandon it to play sarrussophones of various sizes when these instruments began to develop.130Ibid., 1717. He was thus led to be the first sarrussophone (of his section) in the National Guard, which he joined; it was apparently thanks to Jancourt’s encouragement that he was appointed ‘capitaine de musique’ of this ensemble.131Ibid., 1717.

There are two bassoonists who, like Jancourt, showed a deep interest in improving bassoon making. Thus Louis Letellier père (n.d.) developed a new type of bocal which was manufactured by Buffet-Crampon and stamped with the letter ‘L’.132Ibid., 1755. Another musician, Lucien Jacot, who was first bassoon at the Opéra-Comique, advised the maker Martin Thibouville and worked closely with him.133Ibid., p. 1743. Around 1890, these two figures conceived together new models of contrabassoon, but these instruments remained only in the experimental state.134Ibid., p. 1743.

Among the bassoonists who left their mark at the end of the 19th century, we can mention Eugène Bourdeau (1850-1925). First bassoonist at the Opéra-Comique, he succeeded Jancourt as professor in the bassoon class at the Paris Conservatoire; he was the last to occupy this post in the 19th  century.135Ibid., 1713. We owe him, among other things, for a method and exercises that were still in use in the 20th century.136Ibid., 1713.

4:1:5 A Bassoonist in Iconography

Désiré Dihau is perhaps one of the most famous bassoonists in the world of bassoon playing, yet relatively little is known about him. If we still know him, it is not so much for his talents as a bassoonist, but because he was immortalised in one of Edgar Degas’ paintings L’Orchestre de l’Opéra (1870),137This painting can be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. in which he occupies the central place of the work.


Reproduction 1: The bassoonist by Edgar Degas

Désiré-Hippolyte Dihau (Lille, 2 August 1833 – Paris, 20 August 1909) began his musical studies at the Lille Academy; he continued to improve at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of Cokken.138Ibid., 1720. He won a second prize in 1856 with the Fantaisie pour basson by Willent-Bordogni; the following year he was awarded the first prize for his interpretation of a solo by Cokken.139Ibid., p. 1720. He was principal bassoon inseveral opera orchestras, at the théâtre des Bouffes and the Théâtre Lyrique, where he remained until 31 December 1889.140Ibid., p. 1720. He also played at the Eldorado, the Concerts Pasdeloup and the Concerts du Châtelet.141Ibid., p. 1720.

A closer look at the painting reveals a surprising arrangement of instruments within the ensemble. The bassoon is in the centre and foreground of the picture, and opposite it on the right is a double bassist, seen from behind; behind him is a cellist; a flautist can be seen one shot further on, and a violist one shot further on. One is justifiably astonished and made to wonder whether Degas, having observed the various instruments at the Paris Opéra, did not create this arrangement to put the bassoon in the spotlight. It is clear that the bassoonist’s place in the painting is deliberate, for one can observe, in addition to the artist’s posture, the most minute details of the instrument. The fingering itself makes it possible to determine which note is being played on the instrument: in this case, it is most likely E♭3.

Toulouse Lautrec

Reproduction 2: The bassoonist by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

There is another illustration of Dihau by another great artist:142We tried to get permission to publish this drawing. But to no avail. This is not because we were refused, but because it was impossible to find anyone to whom we could turn; all the requests for permission we sent went unanswered. As it seems that this drawing has fallen into the public domain, we thought that we could, without any inconvenience, reproduce it in this work. his cousin Toulouse-Lautrec.143JANSEN op. cit., p. 1720. In it, the painter caricaturises Dihau in the midst of his work. This illustration appears on the cover of a song by Jean Goudesky for which the instrumentalist composed the music.144Ibid., p. 1720. The resemblance with the Degas painting is striking. The similarity of the bassoonist’s posturewith that of the painting is particularly striking The resemblance goes even further if one observes the bassoonist’s fingers: although those of his left hand are not very distinct, the fingering is hardly different; one can see this thanks to the position of the little finger, which is well raised as in the other portrayal. The thumbnail shows that Toulouse-Lautrec is not concerned with realism; how can the bassoonist, under these conditions, ensure the holding of his instrument? As for the grip of the fingers of the right hand, it is obvious that it is hardly distinguishable from the one found in the Degas painting. It is therefore clear that this is a caricature inspired by Degas. Was this one aimed at someone? It is hard to see why Toulouse-Lautrec would have chosen to attack either of these two figures. It is certain that the bassoonist could not be blamed in any way, since it was a question of illustrating one of his compositions. It is indeed by a quirk of fate that the bassoonist painted by Degas was also painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. For the latter, the temptation was great for taking up the painting and using this opportunity to assert his difference from Degas’ aesthetic and moral ideas. Lautrec, in fact, ‘paints the mores of his time, it is the art of a moralist, but not of a cold moralist, nor of a satirical moralist. Degas, to whom one cannot fail to compare Lautrec, is a moralist of this kind and a naturalist.’145Cassou, J. ‘Toulouse-Lautrec (Henri de)’, article published in Encyclopœdia Universalis, vol. 16, Paris, 1973, pp. 198-199. However, if this analysis may seem too roundabout, it can always be argued that a man of Toulouse-Lautrec’s calibre, taking advantage of the opportunity given to him, took pleasure in distinguishing himself from Degas, just as Manet did in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe from Titian’s Le Concert champêtre.


In any case, a look at bassoonists from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th was necessary, because an instrument is made to be played and it is important to know by whom. Were the performers reduced, given the possibilities of their instrument, to playing only extremely simple passages or were they capable of virtuosity? It is clear that they had an advanced technique. Jancourt’s name alone is enough to prove this. It is also interesting to note that some of these artists were not satisfied with playing their instruments, but were concerned with improving them and did not hesitate to collaborate with the help of certain makers. This has been discussed in more detail in the chapter on makers. Finally, it is clear from this overview of bassoonists in 19th-century France that the Paris Conservatoire trained almost all those who made a career with this instrument, whether abroad or especially in Paris, where musical life was most lively, and where they held various positions. Talented performers, they often wrote for the bassoon, but unfortunately, in many cases, these works have disappeared. In addition, most of them were excellent teachers, often working for the Conservatoire. This brief survey of bassoonists highlights the importance of this institution, both in terms of the training it provided for its students and in terms of the opportunity it gave master instrumentalists to reflect on their art and to pass on their knowledge to others. This invites an examination of the Conservatoire from its birth to the end of the 19th century.

4:2 Bassoon at the Paris Conservatoire de musique

Unfortunately we know too little about the history of bassoon teaching before the 19th century. However, with the creation of the Paris Conservatoire de musique, a new era in the teaching of this instrument was born. Given that this institution had a bureaucracy and that at the time it was founded the need was felt to record all the information in a wide range of areas, it is easier for us to determine everything that may have concerned the teaching of the bassoon during this century. We have a large bank of information on this institution thanks to Constant Pierre’s book entitled Le Conservatoire national de musique et de déclamation.146PIERRE, Constant, Le Conservatoire national de musique et de déclamation, Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1900, 1031 p. The author of this book worked in this institution as curator. He was also commissioned to collect all the historical information on this institution for an Exposition universelle. Pierre was himself a bassoonist and, as we shall see later, a prize winner of the Conservatoire. This suggests that he must have paid particular attention to information about his instrument.

His work makes it possible to establish precisely who the great bassoon artists were in this establishment. But it is important first of all to recall the conditions under which this institution came into being, before studying the data available to us to understand bassoon teaching at that time. It is impossible to study this teaching without mentioning the teachers at the Conservatoire in the 19th  century. This review should help us to better understand the repertoire required for the annual contest, which deserves to be examined. Finally, this study would not be complete without listing all the winners of the Conservatoire’s competitive examination and presenting all the relevant information on them.

4:2:1 Music Teaching before the Creation of the Conservatoire

The Conservatoire de musique was not created without difficulties. We have to go back a few years before its creation to better understand the state of instrument teaching at that time. In the 18th century, the only institutions that trained young pupils in the discipline of music were the choir schools. However, as these were only intended for religious service, there was a need to fill a gap in other cases, such as military and theatre ensembles, which were usually filled by foreign, mostly German, artists:

We have seen that the schools of choirs, training pupils only for worship, were strictly concerned only with teaching them singing appropriate to this purpose, and that instrumental music was very little cultivated there: the result was a void which was particularly noticeable in the music corps attached to the armies. Most of the regimental musicians were Germans, and the very orchestras of our theatres were made up of foreign artists.147BRUNI, Antonio Bartolomeo, Un inventaire sous la terreur, ‘État des instruments de musique relevé chez les émigrés et condamnés’ par A. Bruni l’un des Délégués de la Convention, introduction, notices biographiques et notes par J. Gallay, Paris, Georges Chamerot, 1890, réédition Minkoff reprint, Genève, 1984,

Moreover, these schools of choirs trained few instrumentalists. However, we learn that in some of them: ‘Instrumental study was limited to the organ and the serpent; in some of the choir schools the bassoon and the cello were taught, but nothing more’.148Ibid., pp. 227-228. In these schools, no instrumentalist seems to have distinguished himself in any way in the musical world since: ‘they did not produce any instrumentalist of merit, and, with a few exceptions, the singers they trained did not go beyond mediocrity’.149Ibid., p. 228. It is therefore easy to understand the need to create a musical institution that can meet the needs of all musical disciplines.

4:2:2 The Birth of the Conservatoire

In fact, it was necessary to create a school of music to train artists of a good level to play in the various ensembles in France. On 3 January 1784, a ‘decree of the King’s Council’ stated that:

Forty-five musicians from the French-guards’ depot formed the core of the Paris national guard’s band in 1789. They had been brought together at the time of the revolution by Mr Sarette, who had obtained the authorisation of Mr de La Fayette, commander general. In May 1790, the municipal body reimbursed him for his advances, and took over at its own expense the music corps, which was increased to seventy-eight musicians, to continue to provide the service of the national guard and that of the national festivals. At the same time, on the urgent invitations of Mr Sarette, several commendable artists joined this corps. With the national guard having been abolished in January 1792, and the municipality having no more funds for this purpose, the music corps fell back on the shoulders of Mr Sarette; but with the dissolution of the choirs having led to the total destruction of music teaching, Mr Sarette, in June of the same year, requested in the name of the artists, and obtained from the municipality of Paris, the establishment of a tuition-free school of music. This institution brought together and obtained in Paris several famous artists, who, towards the end of 1792, were preparing to leave the French territory.150Ibid., pp. 230-231.

This was the first time that a musical institution was subsidised by the State. However, according to Pierre, ‘The Conservatoire has its true origin in the Musique de la garde nationale, which was organised in 1789, and successively transformed into École de musique municipale (1792), then into Institut national de musique (1793), definitively constituted in 1795 under its current title.’

In 1793, the Institut national de musique trained no less than 32 students in various regiments. However, there was a lack of training in other instruments, especially string instruments, and in the art of singing:

The corps of the Paris national guard band has offered to replace in part the Schools of the Chapters, and it is making the most praiseworthy efforts to support and propagate its art. It has already trained 32 pupils who have been distributed among the 102nd, 103rd and 104th regiments and the battalions of national volunteers. … This institution therefore deserves the highest praise, but it is still not enough. It only teaches the playing of wind instruments, and we still lack establishments where the art of singing and string instruments can also be perfected.151PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 84-5.

The Conservatoire de musique itself had its own student orchestra, whose reputation was far from negligible:

From 1791 until about the year V, the Conservatoire provided more than four hundred pupils for the service of the armies of the republic; since that time, two hundred and fifty-seven of its pupils have been given to the theatres both in Paris and in the départements: several of them filled the first jobs there; in this number, twenty-five were employed in the training of the band of the consuls’ guard; finally sixty pupils of the Conservatoire made up this orchestra known under the name of Concert-Français, and whose performance was applauded by the most famous artists.152BRUNI, op. cit., pp. 237-238.

4:2:3 Bassoon Professors at the Conservatoire

As soon as the bassoon class was created at the Conservatoire, no less than four teachers taught this instrument: Toulou from 1795 to 1799, Gebauer from 1795 to 1800, Ozi from 1795 to 1813 and finally Delcambre from 1795 to 1824.153PIERRE, op. cit., p. 637. The mention of these periods provides information that is not lacking in interest. Indeed, we note that two of these teachers taught at the Conservatoire for only four or five years. This is all the more strange as Toulou and Gebauer were replaced by two other bassoonists, Rogat and Veillard, who both taught from 1800 to 1802.154Ibid., p. 637.

CCLXXVI. — Reform of the year X; notice of the reduction of the staff of the Conservatoire.…

The government attaches, citizen, a great interest to the musical art and consequently to an establishment which, by the union of good principles and great masters, can ensure its progress among us.

But, wishing to introduce the most severe economy into all the bureaucracies, it was convinced that by reducing by half the number of people working for the Conservatoire de musique, there would still be enough talent, knowledge and zeal to make it one of the most useful schools in Europe; and, despite the regrets it feels about this reform, it has recognised the indispensable necessity of it.

I have therefore issued the order a copy of which is attached, and I invite you to proceed as soon as possible with its execution.

I thought that a jury composed of artists distinguished in all parts of the musical art should designate the members who would appear to be the most suitable to continue to fill the posts with which they were charged. As soon as the jury has completed its work, please send me the results and await my subsequent decision.

Furthermore, I beg you to announce that I will take all the necessary steps to ensure that the artists who will be obliged to give up their posts find other places in the education system. I salute you. Chaptal. [Arch. of the Opéra; Lesueur papers.]155Ibid., p. 158.

As for Toulou, he died in 1799. As for Gebauer, his troubles with Delcambre have already been mentioned. In 1813, Delcambre was the only bassoon professor at the Conservatoire to teach the instrument until his retirement in 1824. From then on, there was only one professorial position in the bassoon class at the Conservatoire de musique until the end of the 19th century. In 1824 Delcambre’s successor was, ironically, Gebauer, who had already been one of the first four professors. It is likely that his experience at the Conservatoire facilitated his appointment to fill the vacant position of bassoon professor, which he held until 1838. Barizel succeeded him the following year. Nine years later, he left the institution to be replaced in 1848 by Willent. Willent did not remain in the position for long, however, as he died four years later on 11 May 1852,156FÉTIS, François-Joseph, Biographie universelle des musiciens, op. cit., vol. 8, p. 479. when Cokken took over. He taught at the school until 1875, when he was replaced by Jancourt, who held the post until 1891. Finally, Eugène Bourdeau was the last professor to teach at the Conservatoire in the 19th century.

The Importance of Ozi

Particular emphasis will be placed on the considerable influence that Ozi had within the Paris Conservatoire de musique. This was recognised by his contemporaries, as evidenced by a very moving speech honouring him given by the members of the Conservatoire to celebrate the merits of this great artist, who contributed so much to the development of the bassoon:

Our colleague Ozi is sincerely regretted by the Conservatoire, by his family, and by all those who were able to appreciate his qualities. He had a talent of the first order, on an instrument whose resources are very limited, but which he knew how to use without distorting it. Ozi made his debut in 1779 in the concerts spirituels, where the public heard the elite of virtuosos every year. He had a brilliant success, and acquired a reputation which he maintained in the théâtre Feydeau concerts and in several others given since. His playing was particularly characterized by a clean and precise execution, a straightforward and natural expression, and a great purity of sound. The bassoon retained in his hands that melancholy and touching tone which belongs to its timbre.

Ozi was welcomed in the king’s chapel and treated with honour. His uprightness and goodness always made him a stranger to envy, and his character made him as many friends as his talent made admirers. When he became the father of a large family, he did not hesitate to give himself up to hard work in order to support it with honour, for he combined the qualities of the artist with those that distinguish an honest man. Having ceased to play in public, he was placed in the orchestra of one of the largest theatres in Paris, and the only thing he did was to carry out his duties with an accuracy and care that gave his talent even more prominence, adding the charm of modesty. In 1802, he was appointed first bassoon of the chapel and the private band of His Majesty the Emperor. He had been a member of the Conservatoire since the creation of this establishment, and he trained students there who are known to the public. We owe him several works he has composed for the bassoon, which are all the more useful as there is very little music for this instrument. He is the author of a method which has been adopted for teaching at the Conservatoire.

We miss him as a virtuoso, as a teacher, as an estimable man: although it seems difficult to us to equal Ozi’s talent and even more difficult to make him forget it, every day new competitors obtain crowns in the career of the arts, and may, in time, shine in the place of the one whom death has struck; but nothing can fill the void left by the loss of a good man, and we can only repeat here what Mr Méhul said, when he paid his last respects to Ozi. He had kindness without weakness, honour without harshness and talent without pride.157PIERRE, op. cit., pp. 913-914.

4:2:4 Compulsory Pieces for the Annual Contest

The Repertoire

The repertoire required for the competition at the Conservatoire provides some very instructive facts about the bassoon. First of all, it can be seen that a large part of this corpus was written by the bassoon professors of the Conservatoire de musique themselves while they were teaching. But these creations did not displace the great pieces of the repertoire, such as Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto or the few works for bassoon by Karl-Maria Weber, in the annual contest. However, the original pieces from the annual contest for the Conservatoire’s bassoon class in the 19th century deserve our attention. This list can be found in appendix 3 of this study.

If we look at this list, we see that the first work set, to our knowledge, at this competition for the bassoon class is a concerto by Rethaler written in 1824. Is this really the first work set? The lack of sources does not allow us to give a decisive answer to this question.

Some Considerations on the Composers

In any case, it can be established with certainty that the great majority of the set works were written by bassoon professors at the Conservatoire. However, it can be noted that several professors at the Conservatoire whose speciality was not bassoon contributed to the formation of this body of work, especially Frédéric Berr. Although a bassoonist, he is best known for his talents as a clarinettist (it was in this capacity that he taught clarinet at the Conservatoire). This is also the case of Rethaler, with a concertoin 1824, of Berbiguier, with a concertoin 1840 and 1848, of Bervillier, with a concertinoin 1872, of Ferdinand David, with a concertinoin 1881, of Gabriel Pierné, with his first solo de concoursin 1898, of P. Puget, with a soloin 1899 and finally of Bourgault-Ducoudray, with a fantaisiein 1900. It can be seen that the number of these composers increased significantly in the second half of the 19th century. Moreover, it can be observed that the last three works in the 19th-century annual contest were written by composers outside the bassoon class.

The Mozart and Weber Concertos

The competition repertoire includes works by two eminent composers from before this century: Mozart and Weber. The list of compulsory pieces shows that works by these two composers only appeared in the second half of the 19th century, from 1865 onwards. A question may arise: how is it that these works, written for bassoons with 3, 4 or 5 keys, were used for a competition at a time when the instrument had at least fifteen keys? One might think that it was because they exploited the expressiveness of the instrument (so from this point of view, the number of keys does not play a determining role). On the other hand, despite the many improvements to the bassoon since the creation of these works, some of the runs were still technically complex. It is therefore questionable whether these works were set due to a lack of time to compose a bassoon work for this contest. The question remains open. However, the difficulty of the works of these two composers, both from an expressive and a technical point of view, justifies their use in the competition.

If we look closely at these compulsory works, we can see that the most common form used is the concerto. This form is very suitable for a competition because it has the same advantages as the works of Mozart and Weber. There are also many concertos, solos and fantasias and, less frequently, a Swiss air, a mélancolie, and an andante and rondo. It is therefore surprising to find no sonatas, a genre still often used at this time. It should also be noted that in 1897 a concertino by Mozart was set, although he never wrote one. It should probably be the bassoon concerto, which would be more logical, unless it is a concertino by another composer.

It can be concluded that the vast majority of the repertoire of the bassoon class at the Conservatoire de musique was written by the teachers themselves. The latter were undoubtedly in the best position to know what the bassoon’s possibilities were in the year in which their compositions were set, and it is clear that the form that best highlighted the performer’s skill remained the concerto for those judging it.

4:2:5 Prize Winners of the Conservatoire

List of Prize Winners

The purpose of organising competitions is, of course, to select the best performers. But what about those performers? Thisquestion invites to list the prize winners of the 19th-century Conservatoire de musique.158Ibid., pp. 638-640. This list can be found in appendix 3.

Some Considerations on the Winners

It is important to focus on the name Savary. He, as recorded in the list, was awarded the first prize in 1808. It should be noted that he won this first prize straight away, which suggests that his mastery of the instrument must have been remarkable. It was at this time that two bassoon professors were working at the Conservatoire: Ozi and Delcambre. One can imagine that Ozi, while training Savary to master the instrument, must have made him aware of its defects and shortcomings. We have seen that, in his Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée, Ozi is interested in the development of the making of the instrument, especially when he specifies that he owns a Keller bassoon, an instrument he recommends. Moreover, Jean-Nicolas Savary’s father was a highly respected maker of woodwind instruments in his circle. Thus Jean-Nicolas, a confirmed bassoonist, the son of a well-known maker, trained by renowned teachers who were concerned with the technical improvement of the instrument, was in full possession of his means to lead the instrument towards perfection.

The list also shows that some of the prize winners went on to become professors at the Conservatoire during the 19th century. This is the case of Barizel, who was awarded the first prize in 1807, a year before Savary received this distinction in his turn. Like Barizel, other prize winners of the Conservatoire’s bassoon class went on to teach there. Cokken obtained his first prize in 1820 and was a professor from 1852 to 1873. Willent, who was awarded first prize in 1826, taught from 1849 to 1852. Jancourt, winner in 1836, succeeded Cokken and taught from 1875 to 1891. Eugène Bourdeau, who won his first prize in 1868, was the last bassoon professor of the 19th century. Jancourt and Bourdeau, who taught at the Conservatoire, were the only bassoonists who did not win the first prize straightaway. Finally, it should be noted that all the professors, after Delcambre, were, without exception, prize winners of the bassoon class of the Conservatoire de musique de Paris.

4:2:6 The Awarding of the Prizes

Another list (which can be found in appendix 3) shows that in some years there were no prize winners although the competition was held.159This list can be found in the book by PIERRE, Constant, op. cit., pp. 888-90. In some cases, it is impossible to draw a conclusion along these lines for lack of information. First of all, this list establishes the number of competitors for the Conservatoire competition. Moreover, from 1831 to 1833, no bassoonist took part in this competition On the other hand, during the years 1829 and 1830, several competitors took part: four in 1829, and three the following year, but none of them obtained a prize or an honourable mention, which explains the absence of prize winners for these years. The same applies to 1838 and 1841, when two bassoonists entered the competition but none of them won a prize or an honourable mention. There was no competition in 1847 for lack of participants. Finally, for the year 1871, information on the number of competitors and the prizes awarded is missing. It is not known whether there is any particular reason for this omission.

Despite these difficulties, it may seem that most lists provide a homogeneous set of information. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For example, according to the list of prize winners, Molet won the second prize in 1837. However, the Gazette Musicale does not corroborate this information: ‘bassoon. – (The jury did not consider it appropriate to award a first prize.) – Second prize, shared between Mr Pothin and Mr Hermanse.’160’Conservatoire de musique. Distribution of prizes’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, dimanche 26 novembre 1837, n° 48, 4e année, p. 508. These last two names do not appear anywhere in Constant Pierre’s list of prize winners. One might wonder whether he made a mistake in his list, but given that he relies on the Conservatoire’s own sources, this is unlikely. One can certainly cast doubt on Pierre’s list, but it is surprising that neither of the two second prizes in the competition appear anywhere in the list of first prizes. Moreover, the following year, 1838, ‘The bassoon class presented only one student who obtained nothing’.161’Concours du conservatoire de musique et de déclamation’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, n° 38, 5 août 1838, p. 312.. Here we can assume that this student is Molet since the previous year he had, according to Pierre, won a second prize in 1837. In the same year, Berlioz had written an article on the Conservatoire concerts in which he mentioned that the first bassoonist, probably Molet, had made many mistakes: ‘Beethoven’s Symphony in B flat ended the programme. It was not performed as well as usual: the serious and numerous errors of the first bassoon were the cause of this; in the end, above all, he almost put the orchestra in complete disarray’.162BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘Concert du Conservatoire’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, dim. 26 fév. 1837, n° 9, 4e année, p. 72. The following year, the jury may have felt that this bassoonist had not been convincing enough.163’Concours du conservatoire de musique et de déclamation’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, n° 38, 5 août 1838, p. 312. This information is also verifiable from the list mentioned in the previous paragraph. If this is indeed Molet, which is highly probable, it is clear that he did not have his first prize at the time, which he would not obtain until two years later. It is to be hoped that during this period he may have acquired the technique that Berlioz said he so badly lacked.

It is interesting to note that Pierre, the author of the book entitled Le Conservatoire national de musique et de déclamation, which is quoted many times in this text, was himself a student in the bassoon class. He obtained a second honourable mention in 1880, a first honourable mention in 1881, but does not seem to have won any prizes afterwards. Pierre’s gratitude to his former bassoon professor can be seen in the dedication of his book La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889: ‘À mon Maître | M. Eugène JANCOURT | professeur au conservatoire de musique | officier de l’instruction publique’.164PIERRE, Constant, La facture instrumentale à l’exposition universelle de 1889, op. cit.

In 1885, the Paris Conservatoire de musique awarded a first prize for the first time to two winners: Hamburg and Simon. This was repeated fifteen years later, in 1900, with Sublet and Hermans, who both won first prize in the bassoon competition. We can infer that, for these two years, the exceptional playing of these two bassoonists did not allow the jury to decide between them based on their performance. This shows that the Conservatoire was not concerned with systematically filling in the tableau de distinction provided for at the end of the course. Only the merit of the competitors was taken into consideration, and this reflects the quality that has always been the hallmark of this institution.


This discussion makes it possible to see, at least we hope so, the important role played by the Conservatoire for musicians in general and for bassoonists in particular. It was a crucible where most of them were trained, before some of them trained new ones, because it was there that the best musical pedagogy conceivable for the time was developed. The excellence of this teaching is commensurate with its demands. Not only the difficulties of the repertoire provide proof of this, but also the awarding of prizes which only reward those who have reached a level which not everyone can attain. It is interesting to note that this very elitist training had consequences for the development of the bassoon. The instrument had to adapt to meet the criteria of the institution. Moreover, Savary, who came out of it, was particularly sensitive to this and his influence was one of the most decisive for bassoon making.

Part III: Bassoon in the Repertoire

Chapter 5: Bassoon in 19th-Century French Opera

From the 17th century onwards, opera flourished in France, particularly in the time of Lulli. This musical genre continued to enjoy great success throughout the 18th century, during which many masterpieces were produced, such as Castor et Pollux (1737) and Zoroastre (1749) by Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) by Christoph Willibald Gluck. It was during this period that opera gave rise to three major quarrels: that of the Lullists and the Ramists (from 1733), that of the buffoons (1752-1754), and that of the Gluckists and the Piccinists (1777-1779).1SAINT-PULGENT, Maryvonne de, ‘La querelle des Gluckistes et des Piccinistes: revanche ou avatar de la Querelle des Bouffons?’, L’Avant-Scène Opéra, Paris, mensuel avril 1984 n° 62, p. 66. These various quarrels clearly show the interest that people had in opera. Although Gluck was not French, his influence and contribution to French opera is undeniable and considerable. This interest in opera did not wane in the 19th century. One may wonder why this musical genre, which has managed to attract a loyal audience, deserves our attention in a study devoted to the bassoon. It is certain that this genre highlights the possibilities of the human voice, which most often reduces the orchestra to the role of accompanist. Nevertheless, there are many passages in which various instruments, including the bassoon, play an important role.

It is therefore justified to look at the place of this instrument in opera in France during the 19th century. However, this cannot be done without first looking at the role it plays in the works of Gluck, who greatly influenced opera both in his own time and in the following century. It will be remembered that it was between 1830 and 1870, a flourishing period in which opera continued to be successful, that bassoon making reached its peak. For this reason, we must pay particular attention to the operas of Meyerbeer and especially Berlioz, whose treatment of bassoons deserves to be examined, before turning our attention to the various operas of the end of the 19th century which are of similar interest. These samples should make it possible to draw up a satisfactory assessment of the place and treatment of bassoons in 19th-century French opera.

5:1 Bassoon in Gluck’s Operas

Gluck was undoubtedly the most influential opera composer in late 18th-century France. He owes this prominent position to the support of the Queen, which enabled him to avoid having to deal with competitors who might have been a nuisance to him:

In Paris, on the other hand, everything seemed to be in place to allow Gluck to carry out his reform of opera and to come as close as possible to a dramatic and musical ideal clearly defined in various writings. The decadence of French lyric tragedy was particularly favourable to him: not only did he have no real competition, but he inherited a virtually empty form to which he could give the content most in keeping with his own principles. Strengthened by a sense of artistic superiority, assured of the support of Queen Marie-Antoinette (his former pupil in Vienna), and enticed by an exceptionally high fee, Gluck signed a contract with the académie royale de Musique in early 1775.2NOIRAY, Michel, ‘Une gestation complexe’, L’Avant-Scène Opéra, Paris, mensuel avril 1984 n° 62, p. 20.

If we look at the treatment of bassoons in Gluck’s operas, we can see that it is mainly limited to doubling the bass strings. Moreover, the bassoons never play more than two voices. There are very few solos for the woodwind instruments, as the composer preferred to leave this role to the string instruments, which have the most important function in his orchestration. Gluck, by not raising the bassoons higher than G3, by making almost no use of the lower register of the instruments and by being content to exploit mainly their middle register, makes it clear that they are confined to a supporting role.

There are exceptions, however. Gluck, while continuing to require the bassoons to double the bass strings, manages to achieve certain effects. For example, in the ballet in scene IV, part 8 of the first act of Iphigénie en Tauride, the orchestra uses only strings and bassoons. The bassoons, although they only double the bass strings, help to give the ensemble a particular colour in accordance with the composer’s wishes and to create the impression he wants to create on the audience.

These effects are admittedly limited, but they are worth mentioning, for Gluck’s genius has influenced many other important composers besides Berlioz, to whom he has shown how the bassoon, while playing the supporting role, can contribute effectively to creating an atmosphere and giving the orchestra a particular colour, which could convey the feelings of the heroes on the stage.

5:2 Bassoon in French Opera at the Beginning of the 19th Century

Throughout the 18th century, opera had been an undeniable success in France; in the following period, it aroused the same enthusiasm, particularly in Paris. This explains why all the great composers, anxious to be known by the general public, tried their hand at composing operas. Such works are not only musical events, but also social events, where it is good to be seen. The popularity of lyrical drama helps us to understand why the orchestra of the Paris Opéra is made up of the best artists in the capital, and even in France: ‘In 1800, the best soloists in Paris, the very ones who are applauded at the concerts in the capital, are at the head of the different sections: … Ozi for the bassoon …’3MONGRÉDIEN, Jean, La musique en France des Lumières au romantisme: 1789-1830, Mayenne, Harmoniques Flammarion, 1985, p. 64. It is not surprising that Paris attracts the elite of musicians, because this capital remains the artistic and cultural city par excellence in France that no other city in the country can match; so in order to have any kind of recognition in music, one must practise one’s art for a certain time in the capital.

The orchestra of the Opéra used no less than five bassoons at the beginning of the 19th century: ‘The composition of the orchestra of the Opéra at the beginning of the 19th century is known. There were then 75 musicians in the pit, distributed as follows: 12 first violins – 12 seconds – 6 violas – 12 cellos – 6 double basses – 4 oboes – 2 flutes – 3 clarinets – 5 bassoons – 5 horns – 5 trombones or trumpets – 1 timpanist – 2 cymbalists.’4Ibid., p. 63. Following this quote is a footnote which reads: ‘A. N, AJ, 72 decree of 19 Ventôse year X (10 March 1801) which provides for the composition of the troupe and the orchestra. See also the Règlemens pour l’Académie Royale de musique du 1er avril 1792, p. 44, which can be compared on this precise point with the Règlement pour l’Académie Impériale de musique du 1er vendémiaire an XIV (23 September 1805), date and origin unknown, 56 p. In 1792, two serpents still appeared in the Opéra orchestra, but no longer existed in 1805. It should be noted, moreover, that in the field of organology, the terminology also evolved at the turn of the two centuries: in 1792 the bass section was composed of 10 basses and 4 double basses; in 1805 of 12 cellos and 6 double basses.’ The most numerous woodwinds are the bassoons and their number is equal to that of the trumpets or trombones, or even that of the horns. As for the proportions of this orchestra, it should be noted that the string instruments, numbering 48, represent 64% of the whole, while the wind instruments, numbering 24, represent a little less than 25% and thus half the number of strings.

The orchestra of the Académie royale de musique in Paris has the special feature of using at least four bassoons, twice as many as the other woodwinds. But there is no evidence that before Berlioz (as we shall see later) more than two real parts were written for the bassoon in early 19th-century operas. As the instrument was criticised at that time for lacking sound, the use of such a large number may be justified, as it was possible to provide a solid bass in the wind section. According to another report, ‘the presence of the four bassoons attests to the episodic survival of 18th-century traditions as far as church music is concerned’.5PISTONE, Danièle, La symphonie dans l’Europe du XIXe siècle: histoire et langage, Paris, Honoré Champion, 1984, p. 81. In any case, the parts of the 1st and 2nd bassoons were doubled by the 3rd and 4th bassoons, whose function was to make up for the instrument’s weak sound. On the other hand, the number of bassoons can also be considered to have been justified for reasons of sound balance. Indeed, it was necessary to have four voices in the bass to support the six higher voices (i.e. two flutes, two oboes and two clarinets), which would have risked overwhelming the part that was supposed to accompany them..

5:3 Opera in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries

At the end of the 18th century, Paris had no less than three opera houses: one for opera and two for comic opera; at the beginning of the following century, from 1801, Paris still had the same number of houses, but they were allocated differently: one for opera, one for comic opera and another for Italian opera.6MONGRÉDIEN, op. cit., p. 49. It was, in fact, at this time that the Théâtre Italien was created. This creation was important because, at a time when the reputation of French singers was poor, the arrival of new virtuosos from Italy made it possible to learn new techniques in the art of singing.7Ibid., p. 67. Furthermore, the coexistence of different theatres in the same city contributed greatly to the dissemination of operatic works to the general public while ensuring the development of a repertoire for orchestral instruments.

5:3:1 Lesueur

In the early 19th century, composers began to exploit less traditional, even new, subjects. Among these composers were Catel and Lesueur:

Two names stood out and appeared on the posters for the first time: those of Catel and Lesueur. As if they had not been in agreement (it is known that they did not like each other very much), they suddenly gave up on graeco-roman subjects and preferred to try their hand at adventure by exploiting a new subject: in Sémiramis (1802) and Les bayadères (1810), Catel transports the action to the East and the Far East, while Le Sueur, in Ossian (1804) and La mort d’Adam (1809), evokes the celtic and scandinavian civilisations and Biblical Antiquity. These operas did not all have the same fortune, nor the same influence. Nevertheless, at the dawn of the 19th century, each in its own way, they testify to a conscious desire to explore new possibilities.8Ibid., p. 72.

Lesueur played a major role in the development of vocal and ensemble music, and although his music is little known today, he did contribute to the training of pupils, including two such famous composers as Gounod and Berlioz.9ROBERT, Frédéric, La musique française au XIXe siècle, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, éd. ‘Que sais-je?’, première édition en 1963, troisième édition refondue en 1991, p. 17. Berlioz, however, despite his deep respect for his teacher, notes in his memoirs that his professors taught him nothing about the art of instrumentation. Nevertheless, Lesueur’s name deserves to live on, if only for the influence he exerted on the new generation of musicians. As far as his actual output is concerned, it seems that he deserves not to be forgotten thanks to the works he composed for the national holidays.

5:3:2 Méhul

Among the opera composers of the early 19th century, Méhul occupies a special place. As we shall see in ‘Bassoon in 19th-Century French Symphony’, he was one of the few French composers who also wrote symphonies at this time. Of course, his talents as a symphonist are undeniable, but he particularly distinguished himself in opera with his Uthal: ‘The dual qualities of dramatist and orchestrator acknowledged in Méhul are confirmed in the opera Uthal (1806) where, in an obvious attempt to achieve an “ossianic” colour, the violins are excluded throughout the work in favour of the violas.’10Ibid., p. 17. By substituting violins for violas, Méhul achieves an effect of string instruments that is completely different from what the public was used to hearing. It is not for nothing that he was one of the most influential composers of the early years of the 19th century in France.

5:3:3 The Italians

At the same time, at the Théâtre Italien, many composers came from Italy to Paris to compose operas in their native language. Among them was Spontini, who considerably enhanced the French opera repertoire during this period:

From 1803, Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851) settled in France. He became composer of the Chamber of the Empress Josephine and conductor of the Théâtre Italien (1810-1812). In the Vestale (1807), which remains more famous than Fernand Cortez (1809) and Olympie (1819), we can see a sincere desire to broaden the genre, beyond Mozart and Gluck, with a sense of instrumentation that did not escape Berlioz.11Ibid., p. 18.

However, among the great composers of the Théâtre Italien in the first third of the 19th century, it is above all the figure of Rossini who dominates: ‘Rossini established himself as the leader of the Italian school and his popularity was at its height when he was called to head the Théâtre Italien on 1 December 1824 as Director of Music and Stage’.12WILD, Nicole, ‘Le spectacle lyrique’, La musique en France à l’Époque Romantique: 1830-1870, Mayenne, Harmoniques Flammarion, 1991, p. 42. The considerable success of Italian composers at this time explains why Paris offered them a prime stage on which to practise their art and share their knowledge.

5:3:4 Bassoon in Berlioz’s Huit scènes de Faust

Berlioz showed an early interest in opera, and his first project for a large ensemble, Les Francs-juges, is evidence of this. Although the work remained in his files, the overture, which must be regarded as his first major orchestral piece,13BERLIOZ, Hector, Memoirs, op. cit., p. 63. was preserved and performed during his lifetime. Shortly before 1830, he created the Huit scènes de Faust, his first published work. Although it is neither an opera nor an overture, but rather several orchestral pieces with voices, the material of the work was nevertheless reused in the opera La Damnation de Faust a few years later, in 1846. In view of this, it seems appropriate to look at this work in order to get a better idea of the treatment of bassoons in this opera by Berlioz.

Berlioz’s Huit scènes is, as we have just noted, his first published work: ‘The score was published, at Berlioz’s expense, by Maurice Schlesinger early in April 1829. It appeared as “Oeuvre 1”, with a dedication to Rochefoucault, to whom he offered it in return for help in overcoming Cherubini’s obstinacy in May 1828 …’14BERLIOZ, Hector, Huit scènes de Faust, Kassel, Bärenreiter, édité par Julian Rushton, 1970, p. VIII. The performance of the work took place on 1 November 1829 at the Conservatoire under the direction of Habeneck, with six students singing the solo parts.15Ibid., p. IX.

The instrumentation of each scene in the work is different. Furthermore, the bassoons are not used in all of them; this is the case, for example, in the last scene, where only a guitar and a voice are used. It is in the fourth scene, ‘No. 4 Écot de joyeux Compagnons, histoire d’un rat’, that the bassoons are used and treated in an original way. The instrumentation, which includes a tenor (Brander in a state of drunkenness), a men’s choir and the orchestra’s strings, also includes four bassoons. It can be seen from certain passages in the score that Berlioz had been exploiting the possibility of treating the bassoons in four real parts from the very beginning of his career as a composer:


Ex. 1: BERLIOZ, Hector, Huit scènes de Faust, ‘No. 4 Écot de joyeux compagnons’, bars 1-7.

This is probably the first passage to treat bassoons with four individual parts. This represents a great advance in the treatment of these instruments, since the composer exploits the harmonic and sound possibilities, which have never been so numerous. Moreover, the passage played by the bassoons from the seventh bar onwards is not without its own programme music, since the group of an eighth note followed by a sixteenth note performed by the first three suggests the hiccup, which is easily associated with the drunkenness that is the subject of this passage.

In bar 31 of the same scene, only the four bassoons accompany Brander’s singing:


Ex. 2: BERLIOZ, Hector, Huit scènes de Faust, ‘No. 4 Écot de joyeux compagnons’, bars 31-36.

Again, the four bassoons are treated in four individual parts. The first and third bassoons play sixteenth notes at intervals of a third, while the other two bassoons accompany them by playing an eighth note on the first beat of each bar. The men’s choir only appears in the last five bars of each of the three verses that make up this scene. This instrumentation highlights the bassoons, which are treated polyphonically; the notes of the second and fourth bassoons punctuate the rapid line of the sixteenth notes played by the other two instruments, giving a comical air to Brander’s inebriated singing.

The other bassoon scenes still use four bassoons, but their treatment is in two voices. We shall see later how this scene was used in Berlioz’s opera La Damnation de Faust.

5:4 Bassoon in French Opera in the Mid-19th Century (1830-70)

A period as short as 1830-1 was a good time for opera, as many masterpieces were created that ensured their authors considerable success. Composer Auber’s Fra Diavolo, premiered on 28 January 1830, responded to the public’s taste for comic opera.16SEGALINI, Sergio, Devil or Prophet? Meyerbeer, Paris, Beba, 1985, p. 37. At the same time, Donizetti acquired a national and international reputation with Anna Bolena, premiered in Italy on 26 December 1830 and presented to the Parisian public on 1 September 1831.17Ibid., p. 37. Bellini also made a name for himself in 1830 with Les Capulets et les Montaigus, followed by Somnambula, premiered on 6 March 1831, and Norma, premiered on 26 December 1831; these Bellini operas were frequently revived at the Théâtre Italien.18Ibid., p. 37. But, as can be seen, these first two years of the 1830s enabled Italian composers, who shared the bill at the theatre reserved for them, to acquire a solid reputation in the French capital.

Certainly stimulated by the success of the Italians, three composers shared the bill at the Paris Opéra during the July Monarchy; Scribe counted them among his collaborators: Auber, whom we have already mentioned, Halévy and Meyerbeer.19WILD, op. cit., p. 29. The first divided ‘his life between the Conservatoire, of which he was director from 1842 to 1870, and the two great operatic institutions, the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, for which he wrote with constant regularity’.20Ibid., p. 29. The second joined the Opéra as a conductor in 1829, a position he shared with the composer Hérold, and made his mark with his first opera La juive in 1835.21Ibid., p. 29. As for Meyerbeer, he ‘was probably the one of the three who had the most sense of theatre’.22Ibid., p. 29. The works of these three composers remained on the stage until the end of the 19th century, which confirmed their fame and success. We will pay particular attention to Meyerbeer, who wrote a passage in one of the scenes of his Robert le Diable in which the bassoons play a very interesting role.

5:4:1 Bassoon in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable

Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable marked a real turning point in French opera. The musical and instrumental treatment of this work did not leave its contemporaries indifferent, who saw in it the genius of this composer and the blossoming of 19th-century French opera:

For if Bellini hereby irrefutably consolidates the continuity of the Italian school, Meyerbeer gives life, with Robert le diable, to the first true French opera of the time, thus opening an essential chapter on which all the great composers of the 19th century, both French (Massenet, Gounod) and foreign (Verdi, Wagner), would depend.

That evening, moreover, the success was enormous. On 20 April 1834, Robert le Diable wasperformed for the hundredth time, on 1st March 1867 for the 500th, and on 2 January of the following year, the 600th  performance was celebrated.23SEGALINI, op. cit., p. 39.

The number of performances of this opera shows how much the public as well as the press hold it in esteem. The reviews by important musicians such as Fétis and Berlioz were also very positive. Mendelssohn’s only discordant note is that the libretto of Robert le Diable, based on a medieval story, is fantastic.24Ibid., p. 48.

In any case, Robert le Diable shows real innovation for its time. Meyerbeer succeeded in creating a new genre with this work:

It is the singularity of the score of Robert le Diable that gives this work its innumerable attractions. The first of these probably lies in the fact that Meyerbeer manages to bring together in his work three aesthetics that are nevertheless opposed to each other. His familiarity with German music, his Italian experience and his desire to make his mark in the French capital led him to use a completely new language. The second is the extraordinary theatrical effectiveness of a music capable of responding to the demands of the libretto, thus speaking immediately to the audience.25Ibid., p. 39.

Although the opera bears the mark of various influences of its time, it is nonetheless considerably innovative, and these innovations have captivated the public, according to the critics and the numerous performances of the work. This fascination is all the more understandable given that, as Wild notes, Meyerbeer was able to bring together three different aesthetics so closely that he succeeded in creating a new one.

Robert le Diable, written only one year after Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, also serves as programme music. In his opera, the composer manages to illustrate the action and the context in which it takes place through instrumentation effects:

Another important factor: the novelty of the instrumentation used as dramatic expression. The orchestra intervenes to underline the character of a figure, to suggest an atmosphere. It is through the play of colours, through the association or opposition of certain timbres that a correspondence is established, indeed, a sort of close fusion between the instrumental framework and the subject or event it expresses. It is in this, and not through descriptive or narrative effects, that Meyerbeer reveals himself to be a painter of the historical fresco and that he goes further than his librettist.26WILD, op. cit., p. 31.

This new treatment of the instrumentation particularly attracted the attention of Berlioz. He wrote an enthusiastic review of the opera in the Gazette Musicale de Paris in which he highlighted several successful instrumentation effects. In particular, he describes a brilliantly instrumented passage in which the bassoon would not be of good effect: ‘Instead of this simple pizzicato, if the bass part were to be played col arco and the timpani were to be replaced by some wind instrument, horn or bassoon or trombone, this striking effect would disappear completely; and there are people who still deny that instrumentation is an art.’27BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘Robert le Diable’, Gazette musicale, Paris, 2e année, n° 28, p. 231. It is clear, then, that the concept of instrumentation is beginning to make a significant impact. Although it was premiered a year after Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Robert le Diable was performed before a larger audience and was performed much more frequently in 19th-century France. There can be no doubt then that Meyerbeer’s opera significantly advanced the art of instrumentation and programme music, which the public particularly appreciated at the time.

Turning more specifically to the instrumentation of this opera, it should be noted that the woodwinds, with the exception of a piccolo, are in pairs, except for the bassoons, of which there are four. The brass instruments include four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and an ophicleide. The percussion section includes timpani, a bass drum and cymbals. Such an ensemble was large at the time and offered remarkable and varied instrumental possibilities.

It is particularly in the ‘resurrection of the nuns’ that Meyerbeer uses the timbre of the bassoons to mark a transition to the dance that follows, and this choice did not escape Berlioz’s attention. This pictorial description of the ‘procession of the nuns’ leads us to take a closer look at this run, and especially at the bassoons’ part. At the beginning of the score in this passage of the work the following indications can be read: ‘The tombs open, the nuns emerge covered in their shrouds and advance silently and in procession to the front of the theatre’.28Notes from MEYERBEER, Giacomo, Robert le Diable, Paris, Schlesinger, 1831, reprint, New York, Garland Publishing, 1980, vol. 2, p. 537. This annotation clearly shows that the instruments are given a descriptive role in their interventions, especially the bassoons.

The only string instruments involved in this scene are the cellos and double basses. The latter, moreover, are reduced to the simple role of accompanist and are content to execute a few notes in pizzicato during the tutti. The bassoons are the only woodwinds used in this passage and intervene three times with 8-bar runs. During the first two interventions, the bassoons are the only ones to ‘cluck’ without any other instrument or voice intervening.

The first of these two texts is written in the key of C minor and exploits the instrument’s middle register:


Ex. 3: MEYERBEER, Giacomo, Robert le Diable, ‘Procession des Nonnes’, bars 17-24.

This solo uses the two-voice bassoons at intervals of thirds and sixths as Berlioz remarks. Meyerbeer specifies that each note should be ‘detached’, which is to good effect and gives character to the passage. In addition, the sforza on the first and second beats of each of the first four bars of this passage mark the entrance of each bassoon, giving the second more presence. This excerpt does not present any real technical challenges for the instrument, but it does not forgive any mistakes because the bassoons are the only ones involved in this passage.

In the second intervention, the bassoons perform a passage similar to the first but in the key of B♭ major, i.e. a major third lower:


Ex. 4: MEYERBEER, Giacomo, Robert le Diable, ‘Procession des Nonnes’, bars 32-39.

Although the register used is always the middle register, the second-bassoon part occasionally descends into the lower register. The three bars of triplets differ from the first intervention in that they perform a greater number of disjunct leaps and the interval between the two bassoons is up to an octave and a third.

The last intervention of the bassoons differs significantly from the other two in the last bars by the execution of a cadential formula:


Ex. 5: MEYERBEER, Giacomo, Robert le Diable, ‘Procession des Nonnes’, bars 46-54.

Meyerbeer moves from the key of C minor to F minor. This modulation is marked by indications intended to mark the dynamic progression of this passage, namely ‘crescendo’, ‘piu crescendo’ and ‘très marqué’. In the last chord, all instruments, except the percussion and bassoons, should play a dotted white tied to a quarter note. This procedure shows that bassoon effects, however insignificant they may seem, are numerous and cleverly employed.

In addition to the information reserved for the bassoon parts, Meyerbeer takes care to include, in the ‘procession of the nuns’, an annotation concerning the trumpet part: ‘In Orchestras that do not have keyed Trumpets, a horn in G and a Trumpet in C can be used for the 1st keyed Trumpet, and a Trumpet in B♭ for the 2nd keyed Trumpet.’29Ibid., p. 537. This detail is important because it shows that Meyerbeer was aware of the limitations of the instruments of his time and tried to find a solution if, by chance, the orchestral ensemble did not have trumpets that benefited from the latest technical improvements, without which the performance of the passage would become problematic.

Meyerbeer’s mastery of instrumentation is undeniable and it is to his credit that he has given the bassoons such prominence. Moreover, he did not limit their role to that of accompaniment, but gave them an acting role in the drama by having them participate in the ‘procession of the nuns’. Although Berlioz was one of the first French composers to use programme music, Meyerbeer is credited with extending it to opera and bringing it up to date.

5:4:2 Bassoon in Berlioz’s Operas

In implementing programme music in opera, Meyerbeer was not only following the path opened up by Berlioz, but pointing to certain possibilities to be exploited. This the latter did, and if he has not always received the recognition he deserves, his treatment of bassoons is unique and rich, as his Huit scènes de Faust suggested. Berlioz’s first opera, Les Francs-juges, gave him the opportunity to familiarise himself with the orchestra. But this work was soon destroyed and never premiered. It should be added that it was in Les Francs-jugesthat Berlioz employed the services of a contrabassoon. This is worth noting, since it is one of the few works by this composer in which this instrument is used.

Benvenuto Cellini

Berlioz’s first real opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was premiered at the Paris Opéra on 10 September 1838 and was considered by many to be a failure: the work was performed only four times in its entirety and three times partially.30BERLIOZ, Hector, Benvenuto Cellini, Kassel, Bärenreiter, 1994, p. XXIV. It subsequently underwent several transformations, most notably in 1852 when it was successfully revived by Liszt in Weimar, largely due to the extensive changes Berlioz made to the score.31Ibid., p. XXIV. The following year the opera was given in London and failed again, being performed only once.32Ibid., p. XXIV.

The score of this work calls for four bassoonists. As the preface to the score of this opera in the Bärenreiter edition points out, ‘[t]he two Opéra partbooks each contain two lines of music, so that each desk comprises a “first” and “second” player’.33Ibid., p. XX. When the music is written in four parts, the first two are played by the first desk, the other two by the second. It is not always clear from Berlioz’s manuscript when four players are used after only two. Moreover, Berlioz indicated to Liszt that if he did not have four bassoons he could arrange the first two parts for clarinets.34BERLIOZ, Hector, Correspondances Générales, vol. IV, p. 84. This clearly shows that the bassoons are not required here for their timbre, since they can be replaced without any particular difficulty by other instruments, such as, as the composer suggests, clarinets. This clearly shows that the bassoons are not required to play a descriptive role in the action of this work.

On the other hand, if we look at the bassoon part in Benvenuto Cellini, we notice that Berlioz rarely treats them with four real parts, preferring most of the time to give them two. On the other hand, the composer systematically avoids writing for these instruments with three real parts, although he would encourage this in his famous Grand traité which he published less than ten years later. Although this opera of Berlioz offers some passages of interest for bassoons, it is better to dwell more on some of his other operas, which offer a more interesting and innovative treatment of this instrument.

It was not until ten years after the premiere of Benvenuto Cellini that Berlioz reused the material from his Huit scènes de Faust for his second opera, La Damnation de Faust. A study of this work gives a better idea of the transformations that the bassoon parts have undergone since the composition of the Huit scènes de Faust.

La Damnation de Faust

It is surprising that after winning the Rome Prize in 1830 and achieving some success at the Paris Opéra with his Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, Berlioz was not on the bill of the Paris Opéra until 1863, when Les Troyens waspremiered. It seems that performing at that time was more difficult and that the great successes of earlier composers were preferred. Moreover, the events surrounding the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris in 1862 made the situation worse. Nevertheless, Berlioz continued to compose operas during this period both for the Opéra-Comique and abroad. For example, several years after leaving the Huit scènes de Faust to one side, he decided to take the theme from Goethe’s Faust and turn it into an opera: ‘… each scene later found a place in La damnation de Faust … The only other instance of self-borrowing in La damnation de Faustappears to be the Marche hongroise which, although written during the composition of La damnation, was originally an independent piece.’35BERLIOZ, Hector, La Damnation de Faust, Kassel, Bärenreiter, édité par Julian Rushton, 1986, p. 455. In contrast to Goethe’s text, Berlioz gives his hero a tragic fate at the end of the work, which justifies the term ‘damnation’ in the title.

The opera was first performed on Sunday 29 November 1846 at 1.30 pm at the Opéra-Comique.36Ibid., p. 464. It should be remembered that the Théâtre Italien and the Opéra-Comique had a much smaller cast than the Paris Opéra. It is therefore not surprising that the extensive instrumentation of Berlioz’s opera was not without its problems.

As the work is more developed than the Huit scènes,several excerpts using bassoons caught our attention. The first is in ‘scène IV, Le nord de l’Allemagne’. After the cellos begin the first bars, the violins enter in the fourth on the third beat. In the eighth bar, when Faust makes his first appearance in the scene, the bassoons are heard doubling the viola part:


Ex. 6: BERLIOZ, Hector, La Damnation de Faust, ‘scène IV, Le nord de l’Allemagne’, bars 7-13.

For three bars, only the bassoons intervene among the winds. The light instrumentation does not cover them and allows them to play their lyrical role without difficulty. In order to respect the rhythm, the musician must pay particular attention to the 11th bar of this passage, which exploits the instrument’s middle and high registers.

‘La chanson de Brander’ has undergone very few changes since the original version of the Huit scènes de Faust: ‘N° 4, Écot de joyeux Compagnons’. Nevertheless, two instruments have been added to the instrumentation: a flute and an oboe. The latter two are only used to accompany and replace the strings in the verses: their accompaniment is done with chords on the first beat at the beginning of the verses, and they play only on the 2nd beat when the bassoons are alone to accompany Brander. Here the main role is given to the bassoons and the other instruments are given only a supporting role.

‘scène VIII, Finale’ ends with a line performed by the first two bassoons accompanied by quarter notes and eighth notes only in the strings:


Ex. 7: BERLIOZ, Hector, La Damnation de Faust, ‘scène VIII, Finale’, bars 222-240.

Berlioz uses two octaves of register and goes essentially by steps from B♭2to B♭0, thelowest note of the bassoon. That proves that the instrument now has no difficulty in producing all the low notes. This is confirmed by the indications of dynamic which range from piano to pianissimo; indeed, a strong note is easier to control than a weak note; a few years earlier, obtaining a low B in pianissimo would have been an almost insurmountable challenge. There are other passages that show the progress made in bassoon making, but these last examples are sufficient to give a fairly good idea of the various innovations in the treatment of bassoons in this work.

Les Troyens

The first performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens took place on 4 November 1863.37BERLIOZ, Hector, Les Troyens, Kassel, Bärenreiter, édité par Hugh Macdonald, 1969, p. 762. The opera was well received by the press and was performed 22 times within two months. But Berlioz was not entirely satisfied, as many cuts were made against his will, notably ‘la Chasse Royale’ and ‘l’Orage’, which were deleted after the first evening; nine other passages were later to suffer the same fate.38Ibid., p. 762.

Berlioz always uses four bassoons, but there are a few cases where, for the sake of tonal balance, it is better to use only two:

In general Berlioz implied four bassoons in the absence of other indication, but the use of two only is strongly recommended in the interests of orchestral balance in the following sections: the Anna-Dido duet in Act III (No. 24), Iopas’ song in Act IV (No. 34), and the pianissimo entry at bar 5 of the Chasse Royale et Orage (No. 29). An ambiguous case is the Entrée des Matelots (No. 21) where bassoon tone should clearly be prominent, but where the scoring is otherwise light.39Ibid., p. 758.

Apart from such cases, Berlioz uses four bassoons in this work, but it is worth studying his art when he writes in two voices for this instrument:


Ex. 8: BERLIOZ, Hector, Les Troyens, n° 2 Récitatif, bars 4-8.

Here the first bassoon performs a lyrical passage, while the other three bassoons accompany it in unison. The first bassoon here doubles the chorus line in counterpoint with Cassandra while the II, III and IV bassoons double the lower strings. This passage illustrates Berlioz’s innovative treatment of bassoons. It should also be noted that the bassoons are to play in different dynamics: the first one plays f and the other three mf. This seemingly secondary remark shows that the first bassoon has a privileged role in relation to the others.

Although there are no bassoon solos in Les Troyens, the instrument is sometimes used to accompany the human voice in counterpoint:


Ex. 9: Berlioz, Hector, Les Troyens, n° 24 Duo, bars 118-121.

This is an intervention by Dido in which the bassoon is the only wind instrument to intervene melodically, while the strings play the role of accompanist. The line drawn by the instrument thus contributes very effectively to giving the passage a lyrical tone well suited to the situation.

By writing in more than two voices for bassoons, Berlioz opened the way to many harmonic possibilities and innovative treatments by having them play with other instruments:


Ex. 10: Berlioz, Hector, Les Troyens, n° 28 Final, bars 313-316.

The bassoons are grouped here in pairs and double the ensemble in two very different parts. The first two bassoons follow the melody of the bass choir, while the other two follow, supporting the bass part of the harmony, that of the lower strings. It is interesting to note that the bassoons are treated in three voices and that they alone sum up part of the harmony in this passage.

The various treatments of bassoons in the operatic works of Berlioz40Berlioz’s opera Béatrice et Bénédict (Béatrice et Bénédict, Kassel, Bärenreiter, édité par Hugh Macdonald, 1980) was first performed on 9 August 1862 but abroad at the new theatre in Baden-Baden. It was not until almost thirty years later that ‘[t]he first Paris production was on 4 June 1890 at the Opéra-Comique with new dialogue by Charles Bannelier’ (Ibid., p. IX). Since the opera Béatrice et Bénédict was not known to the French public until the very end of the 19th century, it is not necessary to deal with it here. are numerous and innovative. Notably, it is in the ‘Écot des joyeux Compagnons’ in the Huit scènes de Faust that the four bassoons are treated for the first time in four individual parts. This procedure must have been satisfactory to Berlioz since he continued to use it in other later compositions. The low register had become so secure since the beginning of the 19th  century that it could be treated in the pp range. Berlioz also used a different procedure, in which the bassoons doubled different melodic lines performed by different instruments, thus creating new and interesting sound combinations.It goes without saying that this great composer made a great contribution to the bassoon. But it seems that the treatment of four-part bassoons did not attract the attention of other French composers. The vast majority of 19th-century operas only assign two real parts to the bassoons, and the improvements made to the instrument suggest that the two bassoons which only doubled the other two were not used.

5:5 Bassoon in French Opera at the End of the 19th Century

Despite the various improvements made to the instrument since the turn of the century, most composers at the end of the 19th century were content to write for two bassoons; the presence of four bassoons in opera no longer seems to be a matter of fashion. Is it a question of fashion? It is impossible to say. Nevertheless, at the end of the century, Georges Bizet’s operas such as Carmen, while requiring only two parts for bassoons, give this instrument a role that cannot be described as negligible.

Bizet’s operas were much criticised at the time of their premiere. The author is one of those composers who were not given the recognition they deserved during their lifetime. His opera Carmen was a worldwide success after his death and is still performed today with undiminished success.

5:5:1 The Bassoon Solo in ‘Entracte I’ of Bizet’s Carmen

In  ‘Entracte I’ of Bizet’s Carmen, theauthor devotes a very interesting part to the bassoon, which plays the melodic role, accompanied by pizzicato strings and a rhythmic side drum ostinato:


Ex. 11: BIZET, Georges, ‘Entracte I’, Carmen, bars 1-29.

This solo clearly highlights the bassoon, whose melodic role is underlined by the instrumentation. This extract is played in the instrument’s high register and, although it presents no apparent difficulties, it must nevertheless be played with the expressiveness required by the spirit of the text. By not hesitating to entrust a solo to the bassoon, Bizet shows that he no longer doubts the instrument’s ability to perform a score that highlights it. The bassoon no longer has the faults it was so often criticised for at the beginning of the century. Its sound has also evolved throughout the century. It is therefore easy to understand why the bassoon’s progress in sound quality allowed the composer to use it as a solo instrument without any problems.

This is another interesting intervention in this intermission. The clarinet in its turn begins the solo previously played by the bassoon at bar 54. The bassoon accompanies the clarinet with a counterpoint highlighted by very discreet instrumentation:


Ex. 12: BIZET, Georges, ‘Entracte I’, Carmen, bars 52-90.

In this extract the bassoon has a greater range than in the previous one, and makes an ascending arpeggio to B♭3 in bars 63 and 64. Bizet does not make it go any higher, thus respecting Berlioz’s comments on the bassoon’s range in his article on the instrument in his Grand traité. The wider register and numerous disjunct movements make this a slightly more technical passage than the solo at the beginning of the ‘Entracte’.

Although these two interventions do not involve any particularly difficult technical difficulties, it is clear that the bassoon can provide solid solos and can be a first-rate accompaniment instrument. The technical progress it has made has increased its range. Thanks to its wide range, it can now move around in the different registers more easily than at the beginning of the 19th century, especially in the high and altissimo registers. This is one of the reasons why Bizet composed a solo for bassoon in one of the most famous operas in history, which admirably exploits the instrument’s resources and its ability to express lyricism in a musical work.

5:5:2 Bassoon in Massenet’s Manon

Jules Massenet composed several operas at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Bizet, the public and the critics were favourable to him. Manon Lescaut, based on the work of Abbé Prévost, was chosen by Massenet at a time when he was looking for a new libretto. The first performance of the work took place on 19 January 1884 at the Opéra-Comique.41MASSENET, Jules, Manon, Dover publications, 1997, p. III. Based on Manon, Opéra Comique en 3 Actes et 6 Tableaux/ de MM. Henri Meilhac & Philippe Gille/ Musique de J. Massenet/ tiré de la nouvelle édition de 1895, Paris, Heugel & Cie.

Massenet treats the bassoons in two voices, but more often than not the second bassoon doubles the first in the lower octave. Nevertheless, some passages highlight certain qualities of the bassoons. For example, the following text allows us to observe the breadth of their tessitura, illustrated in the high register by the first and in the low register by the second:


Ex. 13: MASSENET, Jules, Manon, acte 3, IIe Tableau, bars 52-56.

In fact, the bassoons are two octaves and a third apart from each other in bars 54 and 55. This is important to note, as it allows us to measure the progress made by the instrument. Moreover, this distance allows us to play on the difference in timbre of the two bassoons.

In addition, the bassoons are in some places called upon to play a descriptive role, thereby participating in the action: ‘… in the second [melodrama], the theme of the Game, played by clarinets and bassoons and accompanied by the string ensemble, conveys the liveliness of a playroom’:42PRÉVOST, Paul, Le théâtre lyrique en France au XIXe siècle, Metz, éditions Serpenoise, 1995, p. 261.


Ex. 14: MASSENET, Jules, Manon, acte IV, bars 7-10.

In addition to the orchestral instrumentation described above, Massenet uses an ensemble of instruments in the wings: ‘In addition to these instrumental combinations for which the pit orchestra is responsible, Massenet has a small ensemble in the wings consisting of two violins, a cello, a double bass, a clarinet and a bassoon, which play a minuet in two melodramas in act III …’43Ibid., p. 262.

It is true that Massenet’s treatment of bassoons is less interesting than Berlioz’s, not least because, like Bizet, he uses only two. However, like his predecessors, he knows how to use the instrument for programmatic purposes. Moreover, Massenet is adept at exploiting the various resources of the instrument and does not hesitate, as we have seen, to make a two-tone chord with two bassoons at an interval of two and a half octaves, thus deriving an interesting sonic effect from this gap.


One would have expected that the lessons to be learned from opera music would be relatively limited for the bassoon. In an operatic drama, the focus is on the stage and the singers, who have accustomed the audience to technical feats. Nevertheless, the orchestra has an important role to play in the overtures, for example, and often some of its instruments are called upon not only to accompany the singers, but to punctuate certain moments of the action or to interweave with a vocal melody.

The bassoon has been called upon in this way many times and the lesson that can be drawn from its interventions is twofold. As the century progresses, the technical progress made by the instrument is confirmed. This should come as no surprise, as the same is true of other musical genres. On the other hand, in an operatic drama, the music accompanies a story which it must serve either by illustrating it or by arousing the emotion of a moment in the play. It is in this way that the bassoon is called upon to play a programmatic role, a role that suits it perfectly, given its flexibility, which allows it to move from the most joyful to the saddest and most mournful tones.

Chapter 6: Bassoon in 19th-Century French Symphony

Before the orchestra had a stable configuration (i.e. at the beginning of the 19th century, when Beethoven produced his first symphonies), composers, wherever they lived, wrote for the instrumentalists available to them. This was not without its problems, for when a work by one composer was performed by another ensemble, and thus with a different combination of instrumentalists, the missing parts had to be transposed for other instruments. This was not without its difficulties, for even if the necessary adaptations were made, it was not certain that the desired sound balance could be achieved with the available ensemble.

However, despite the lack of musicians, some composers managed to overcome this difficulty by rebalancing the effects according to the possibilities of the ensemble. For example, Berlioz, in his review of Gluck’s opera Télémaque, points out the composer’s brilliant idea of muting the strings in order to highlight the small section of woodwind instruments at his disposal:

Let us add that, having at his disposal in the Italian orchestra for which he was writing, only two oboes, two horns and a bassoon, and wishing nevertheless to give all the possible strength to the sound of these instruments, the composer achieved his goal by weakening the whole body of the string instruments with mutes …1BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘Telemaco, opéra italien de Gluck’, Gazette Musicale de Paris, tome 1, Paris, 1835, p. 13.

In order to get an idea of the bassoon’s place in the symphony in the 19th century, we will distinguish several periods through which we will examine the instrument’s role in this musical form. In order to do this, we will rely on certain musical extracts written for the bassoon that are of interest. In this way, we will be able to see how certain composers took into account the development of the bassoon in their time, and appreciate the skill and opportuneness they showed in using the instrument. In doing so, we will follow a chronological approach, looking first at the instrument’s place in the symphony at the dawn of the 19th century. We will then look at its place in the symphony from the beginning of the 19th century until 1830, the date of the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Given the immense contribution of this composer to the musical repertoire of all times, we will analyse the role played by the bassoon in his symphonies. Finally, as the bassoon has undergone most of its development in France since the middle of the 19th century, we will look at the place occupied by the instrument in symphonic works from the second half to the end of the 19th century.

Moreover, such a study must feed on examples taken from significant works that shed light on the role and development of the bassoon in the symphony. It is clear that these examples abound. The choice of texts cannot escape the reproach of being arbitrary. The fact remains, at least we hope so, that those we have selected are sufficiently significant to merit inclusion.

6:1 Bassoon in French Symphony from the Enlightenment to Romanticism

6:1:1 Success and Achievement of the Symphonic Form

The symphony was already well known to the French public in the 18th century. Gossec was particularly well known for his work, which led him to be considered, in some respects, as the ‘father of the French symphony’.2MONGRÉDIEN, Jean, La musique en France des Lumières au romantisme: 1789-1830, Mayenne, Harmoniques Flammarion, 1985, p. 259. It can even be said that this musical genre, which was known in France, enjoyed a popularity that never waned throughout the century:

From 1730 to 1789, Barry Brook was able to list some eight hundred symphonies, a considerable number which does not, of course, take into account works composed in the provinces by local celebrities and which never saw the light of day in print. For the period 1778-1789 alone, there are one hundred and ten French symphonies. From 1790 to 1829, the number of published French symphonies falls to fifty-seven, thirty-seven of which are for the decade 1790-1800 alone, and of this number very few are by native French composers.3Ibid., p. 258.

Indeed, it was not until the French Revolution that this situation came to a halt. Composers then had difficulty getting their works performed and it was only with the creation of the ‘Concerts des élèves du Conservatoire’ in 1828 that they could be heard without so much difficulty:

Composers certainly had a lot of difficulty in getting their works performed, since patrons had disappeared during the revolution and the great symphonic associations had not yet been created. They could only turn to the Concerts des Elèves du Conservatoire, whose founder and first conductor was the famous violinist Habaneck, who gradually introduced the public to symphonic music.4Ibid., p. 80.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the symphonic form had achieved a certain stability. First of all, ‘the overall framework stabilised: 80% of these symphonies were in four movements, compared with 52% between 1790 and 1800’.5PISTONE, Danielle, La symphonie dans l’Europe du XIXe siècle: histoire et langage, Paris, Honoré Champion, 1984, p. 79. Moreover, ‘their instrumental force is increasing: 80% of them have between 12 and 17 parts, compared to 18% between 1790 and 1800’.6Ibid., p. 79. This increase in the number of instruments in the symphonies encouraged cities to hire instrumentalists who could provide the standard configuration of the orchestra, which largely freed the composer from the obligation to write only for the number of instruments at his disposal. It was during this period that two types of symphony were particularly popular: the patriotic symphony and the symphonie concertante.7Ibid., p. 79. One example is the first Symphonie concertante pour clarinette et basson principaux by Étienne Ozi. Because of its concertante character, we will return to this work in the section entitled ‘Bassoon Solo and Concertante Repertoire’.

6:1:2 Méhul

It was not until the end of the 18th century that the number of French symphonies decreased considerably. Only about twenty were written in France during the first three decades of the 19th century. Among them, however, are the symphonies of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, which were very popular with the French public in their day:

On 23 November 1808, for example, the Journal de l’Empire, announcing a new symphony by Méhul, commented: ‘This famous composer, by following in a glorious way the career opened by the Haydns and Mozarts, can only shed new light on the French school, of which he is one of the firmest supporters.8Ibid., p. 260.

On 28 January and 7 February 1797, this composer played his first symphony (in C major) at the théâtre Feydeau concert; only two movements have been preserved, of which the final presto in sonata form is written somewhat in the manner of Haydn.9Ibid., p. 261. This work was performed at the seventh and eighth concerts given by the théâtre Feydeau orchestra.10MÉHUL, Étienne-Nicolas, Symphony no. 1 in G minor, A-R Editions, Inc., Madison, 1985, p. IX. This symphony is not numbered nowadays. It is sometimes referred to as Symphonie no 0. It wasnot until 10 years later that Méhul began composing symphonies again. These symphonies, numbered 1 to 5, were written in a short period of time, between 1809 and 1811. However, only fragments of the manuscript of his last symphony remain.

The instrumentation of Méhul’s symphonies is classical: the woodwinds are in pairs except for the bassoons, of which there are four; to these instruments are added two horns, timpani and the string section; however, in Symphonie no 3 there is a trumpet part. An examination of the make-up of the Conservatoire orchestra reveals without a doubt that Méhul composed for this type of ensemble:

More is known about the Conservatoire orchestra. Although it comprised about 60 players in 1802, by 1813-1814 it comprised some 30 violins, 8 violas, 14 cellos, 6 double-basses, pairs of flutes, oboes, and clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, a timpanist, and two trombonists. A trumpeter was brought in as required. About thirty of the players were non-students of professional status. Méhul’s G minor Symphony was probably played by a similarly sized ensemble in 1809.11Ibid., pp. xii-xiii.

Although Méhul does not mention it in all his symphonies, the bassoons are four in number, but he treats them as only two parts. The upper part is given to bassoons I and II and the lower part to bassoons III and IV.

If we look at the bassoon parts in this composer’s symphonies, we can see that he very rarely uses the very low and high notes of the instrument. He rarely goes below the G1and does not go higher than the A3. However, as can be seen in the sixth bar of the third movement of Symphonie no 3, the bassoons are called upon to perform a passage which, in a rapid run, uses no less than two and a half octaves of range:


Ex. 1: MÉHUL, Étienne-Nicolas, Symphonie no 3, 3e mvt, bars 8-14.

Although Méhul rarely uses the lowest notes of the bassoon, this run nevertheless begins with the note C1, probably the lowest note of the bassoon that he uses in his symphonies. The conjunct, ascending line goes all the way to G3 (the highest noteused on the bassoon by Méhul in his symphonies is the A3). Even though the bassoon can play lower and higher, the composer sticks to the bassoon’s most stable register, since, let us remember, the bassoon was accused of many defects, to which he was not immune. As for the other woodwind instruments in general, they are hardly used more than the bassoon.

Very often, bassoons are called upon to double the part of the cellos and double basses. However, Méhul does not limit himself to this use and uses them to double numerous melodic lines entrusted to the violas. This procedure is particularly noticeable in the Symphonie no 3:


Ex. 2: MÉHUL, Étienne-Nicolas, Symphonie no 3, 3e mvt, measures 145-148.

From this excerpt it is clear that the bassoon is not only used as a bass in the harmony, but also as an intermediate voice. This passage illustrates one of the few moments when the bassoon is the only wind instrument playing. Although they double the viola part, the bassoons are still prominent. This is all the more remarkable in that Méhul uses only the first two bassoons in this passage, wishing to use a reduced number of players for expressive reasons.

In spite of its defects, which at the time made it difficult to obtain a satisfactory very low or very high note, the bassoonhas a wide range of tessitura, which makes it particularly suitable for accompanying and supporting certain melodic phrases. Méhul was well aware of this and, as we have just seen, was able to take advantage of this quality to great effect. Be that as it may, his treatment of the bassoon is relatively simple: he uses only two and a half octaves of range (C1 to A3)and only rarely ventures into the extreme registers. In his symphonies, he does not give the wind section much space and only exceptionally does he give them a solo piece. Despite this, the composer does not restrict the bassoon to a simple bass role, occasionally doubling intermediate lines treated by the violas, but he is always cautious in his treatment of the instrument.

6:1:3 The Return of Gossec

If Méhul was the great representative of the French symphony in the first thirty years of the 19th century, ‘we must certainly mention the return, in 1809, of the “father of the French symphony”, Gossec, who, then aged seventy-five and after more than twenty years of silence, wrote his Symphonie à dix-sept parties.’12Ibid., p. 263. Why Gossec composed a symphony after twenty years of silence is not clear. One may suppose that, as it was the time when the Parisian public was hearing Beethoven’s symphonies, this musical genre was becoming very fashionable. It is surprising, moreover, that despite the small number of French symphonies written at this time, some are sometimes unknown to the Parisian public:

When we have cited Cherubini’s Sinfonia, written in 1815 for the recent philharmonic society of London, and two early symphonies by Hérold dating from his stay in Italy (1813 and 1814), three works that remained virtually unknown to the contemporary French public, we will have completed the tour of the symphonic production of the great French masters since 1789.13Ibid., p. 263.

At the beginning of the 19th century, few symphonies were produced and the bassoon’s many defects did not allow it to find, except in the works of Méhul, an interesting treatment that would bring it to the fore. However, by the 1830s the bassoon, though still criticised for a number of defects, had been enriched with a good number of keys and its making had flourished. It was thanks to this development that Berlioz was able to take advantage of the improvements made to the instrument, despite the criticisms he levelled at it.

6:2 Bassoon in Berlioz’s Symphonies

Berlioz was undoubtedly the French composer who changed the world of the symphony in France in the 19th century. Before writing his first symphony he was taught by Lesueur and Reicha at the Conservatoire. Thanks to tickets generously donated by ‘a friend of the famous ballet master Gardel’,14BERLIOZ, Hector, Mémoires, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, vol. 1, p. 64. Berlioz regularly attended performances at the Opéra, score in hand, and thus became familiar with the timbre and mechanism of the various instruments in the orchestra.

Berlioz’s symphonic activity spans at most a decade, from 1830 to 1840. Looking at each of his orchestral works, it is easy to see that his Symphonie fantastique is the most instrumental of all. His second symphony, Harold en Italie, featuresa principal viola, which tends to make it a concertante symphony. His next symphony, Roméo et Juliette, iswritten with a chorus, somewhat along the lines of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with chorus. Finally, in his last symphonic work, the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, the orchestral element takes on gigantic dimensions and testifies to the composer’s growing taste for the grandiose and for powerful forces. Although Berlioz’s last two symphonies offer some interesting bassoon writing, they will not be discussed here as they do not add anything substantial to the lesson drawn from the first two symphonies about the composer’s most important innovations in the use of bassoons.

6:2:1 The Symphonie fantastique

It was on 5 December 1830 that the Conservatoire orchestra played the Symphonie fantastique for the first time under the direction of its composer, Berlioz. This symphony was different from all those that preceded it. A programme was distributed to all listeners to put the music into context. Not only did Berlioz introduce programme music, but he also managed to highlight the different instruments in the orchestra with the knowledge he had gained from going to the Opéra.

As in the vast majority of French orchestral works of the early 19th century, there are four bassoons. This is shown in the Bärenreiter edition of the Symphonie fantastique. When the four bassoons play two parts, Berlioz writes the first part sometimes for the first and second bassoons, sometimes for the first and third bassoons.15BERLIOZ, Hector, La Symphonie fantastique, London, Bärenreiter, 1972, p. XIV. Moreover, he does not systematically indicate how the two parts are to be assigned to the four bassoons.16Ibid., p. XIV.

In the second movement, ‘Le bal’, Berlioz does not use bassoons, but in ‘La marche aux supplices’ they are required to play a passage that highlights them from bar 49 to bar 62. The lower strings play the theme while the bassoons provide a mostly arpeggio accompaniment. This passage exploits almost the entire range of the bassoons:


Ex. 3: BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘La marche aux supplices’ from Symphonie fantastique, bars 46-62.

Although he seems to use the bassoon’s medium register for the most part, the composer does not confine himself to this one register of the instrument. The bassoon reaches B♭3 at bar 54 and B♭0 at bar 58, the lowest note of the bassoon, thus covering no less than three octaves of range. As for the highest note in this passage, Berlioz uses it in accordance with what he would say 15 years later in his famous Traité, in which he advocates not exceeding this note, the higher ones being clearly problematic. By sticking mostly to the middle register in this passage, Berlioz invites us to reflect on what he said in the passage of his Traité on the bassoon about the instrument’s middle register: ‘When Mr Meyerbeer, in his resurrection of the Nuns, wanted to find a pale, cold, cadaverous sonority, it was, on the contrary, from the flaccid notes of the middle register that he obtained it.’17BERLIOZ, Hector, Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, Paris, Schonenberger, 1844; Kassel, Bärenreiter, 2003, p. 190.

It is in the last movement of the symphony, ‘Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat’, that the composer is particularly innovative in his use of the bassoon. The use of four bassoons in orchestral music in 19th-century France was common; however, French composers only treated the instrument with two real parts. It can be seen that from the third bar and the fourteenth bar, the four bassoons each play their part, producing two diminished seventh chords:

Ex. 4: BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat’, Symphonie fantastique, bars 3-4.

Ex. 5: BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat’, Symphonie fantastique, bars 14-15.

It should be noted that the instrumental force producing these two chords is rather light; in addition to the bassoons, they are played by a clarinet and two oboes, while the violin and viola sections ornament the passage with sixteenth notes. With this rather slim force, it is easier to hear, in the middle of the orchestral body, the two four-part chords given to the bassoons. It should be remembered that Berlioz advised in his Grand traité to write three real parts for the bassoons, the third doubling the second in the lower octave. This willingness to make the bassoon repertoire more complex by increasing the number of voices is significant, since it clearly shows that the instrument is more suited to the demands of the orchestra and proves that it can compete in an ensemble with other instruments better than it could before.

While Berlioz innovates by using the bassoon in more than two real parts, he does not hesitate to entrust it with more technical passages. In bar 47 of the same movement, the bassoon is given the difficult task of executing ascending arpeggios of an octave in a fast tempo:


Ex. 6: BERLIOZ, Hector, ‘Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat’, Symphonie fantastique, bars 49-60.

When the woodwind instruments play one of the themes of the symphony, the bassoons are the only ones to accompany them, which makes them particularly prominent. Berlioz is careful not to go too low or too high and is content to go from E♭1 to G3? Although the run is fast, it is executed in tones favourable to the bassoon. This is certainly one of the reasons why the author decided to assign this part to the bassoon, which could cope with it.

There is another passage in this symphony that deserves our attention. This run is characterised by numerous trills to be performed in a fast tempo:


Ex. 7: bars 447-460, ‘Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat’ from Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

In this passage, Berlioz has the woodwind instruments playing in unison, so that they are called upon to perform the many trills together. It is likely that this was a difficult passage for the time, given the condition of the instruments. The idea of having them play together helps to overcome any difficulties encountered by one instrument or another. It is noticeable that the bassoon performs these trills in the middle and high registers. One can think that the trill on the A3 was not without difficulty for the performer, especially as the orchestra, that of the Conservatoire, had very little preparation time before the premiere of this symphony.

We know from his Grand traité that Berlioz was familiar with the many trills that can be played on woodwind instruments. But was this the case ten years earlier, at the time of his Symphonie fantastique? This passage seems to confirm it. Moreover, throughout this passage all the woodwind instruments perform the same text, which may allow the bassoon to evade, if necessary, the difficulties it cannot overcome.

The Symphonie fantastique marks the starting point for a new style of writing for the bassoon in the symphony. Despite his somewhat harsh comments on the instrument in his Traité, especially with regard to its timbre, Berlioz contributed considerably to the development of the bassoon and its integration into the orchestra. He was keen to take advantage of the improvement of instruments in a force and did not hesitate, when he could, to get the best he could from them. There is no doubt that the world of the bassoon is greatly indebted to him, for it is above all thanks to him that it occupies the place it is recognised as having in an orchestra today.

6:2:2 Harold en Italie

Berlioz’s second symphony, Harold en Italie, features a viola. Following a commission from Paganini, Berlioz began composing a concerto for this instrument. However, this project did not come to fruition and Berlioz used the material for his second symphony, which explains the presence of a principal viola. As in his earlier work he uses four bassoons, but in the first movement he writes only two real parts for them. The second movement, on the other hand, as we shall see, offers a new style of writing in the treatment of the bassoons.

The work opens with a pianissimo theme played in unison by the cellos and double basses. In the third bar, the first bassoon begins a solo in the middle and upper registers:


Ex. 8: BERLIOZ, Hector, Harold en Italie, 1er mvt, bars 1-9.

The bassoon is accompanied only by the bass strings at the beginning of the solo. In the fourth bar, the first violins take up the theme previously played by the cellos and double basses. In the sixth bar, the first oboe begins the solo announced earlier by the first bassoon, with the violas reintroducing the first theme in the next bar. The bassoon solo is clearly highlighted by this progressive intervention of the instruments. It begins in piano to contrast with the pianissimo of the lower strings, while the espressivo indication shows that the first bassoon is developing the main melodic line. In the fifth bar, Berlioz raises the bassoon to B♭3, a note he advises against exceeding in his Grand traité. Itis thus easy to see that he is highlighting the lyrical resources of the bassoon at the beginning of Harold en Italie. If we refer to the Grand traité (published after this symphony), the instrument’s middle register lends itself to the expression of melancholy. It is not surprising, therefore, that Berlioz used the bassoon for this solo, especially since the beginning of the movement is an adagio in a minor key with frequent chromaticism.

It is only in the second movement that the bassoons are used in four individual parts. From the beginning of the second movement, at bar 43, Berlioz treats their role in a new way:


Ex. 9: BERLIOZ, Hector, Harold en Italie, 2e mvt, bars 43-49.

After the intervention of the first and second bassoons, the other two take over, playing in two voices. The third bassoon performs its mezzoforte text with a canto indication, which makes its part stand out. The fourth bassoon plays in a softer dynamic, i.e. in the piano, thus developing a counterpoint to the melody. The transition between the two parts calls on the four instruments in a four-note chord (beginning of bar 46). In this four-note chord the first two bassoons play lower notes than the other two, which confirms that bassoons 3 and 4 are not just limited to playing the bass of the harmony. Bars 50-55 provide further evidence, if any were needed, of Berlioz’s interest in and care for the bassoon score:


Ex. 10: BERLIOZ, Hector, Harold en Italie, 2e mvt, bars 50-55.

Here the bassoons each play their own part. At bar 55, the fourth bassoon doubles the bass string part, being the only wind instrument to play for a few bars. This is all the more remarkable since it is the first time that the fourth bassoon has been given an independent part on its own, without any other bassoons intervening.

Berlioz played a decisive role in the French symphony and in the proper use of instruments in an orchestra. He developed a sound knowledge of their mechanism and his treatment of the bassoon is significant. Despite his criticisms of the bassoon, he made good use of it.

As we have just seen, Berlioz was innovative in his treatment of the bassoon. He exploited no less than three octaves of the bassoon’s range, wrote for it in four voices and entrusted it with solos. He also managed to exploit different characters of the instrument and to push its possibilities. This is evident from an analysis of his first two symphonies. He thus opened up a new path for the bassoon not only theoretically in his Grand traité, which every good symphony composer should know, but also by example. This example will inspire many musicians, who owe him the knowledge of orchestration and the ability to make the most of instruments, more particularly the bassoon.

6:3 Bassoon in French Symphony from 1840 to 1880

Concert societies began to be more and more numerous in France during the 19th century, which gave certain composers the opportunity to have their works performed. These included the ‘Athénée musical’ (1829-1832), the ‘Concerts Valentino’ (1837-1841) and the ‘Société Sainte-Cécile’ (1849-1854).18PISTONE, Danièle, op. cit., p. 81. Jules Pasdeloup contributed to the emergence and development of this type of society: in 1851, he founded the ‘Société des jeunes artistes du Conservatoire’ and in 1861, ten years later, the ‘Concerts populaires Pasdeloup’ at the Cirque d’hiver. Finally, 1873 saw the birth of the ‘Concert national d’Edouard Colonne’.19Ibid., p. 81.

6:3:1 Increase in the Number of Symphonies

It is not surprising, therefore, that in the four decades after Berlioz the production of symphonies increased steadily. The decade from 1840 onwards is not very productive, with only three symphonies: Develdez’s 1ère symphonie in 1840, David’s 3e symphonie en mimajeur in 1846 and Gouvy’s 1ère symphonie  in the same key and produced in the same year as David’s.20Ibid., p. 84. However, the same period saw the birth of symphonic works, even if they did not bear the name; such is the case of David’s Le Désert, a work that met with brilliant success in 1844 and was performed in various cities in Europe.21LOCKE, Ralph P., ‘The French Symphony: David, Gounod, and Bizet to Saint- Saëns, Franck, and Their Followers’, The Nineteenth-Century Symphony, New York, Schirmer Books, 1997, p. 166. The work uses a male choir and a solo tenor. Three years later, David composed Christophe Colomb, another symphonic work with voices. As can be seen, David was not the only musician to compose this type of work in his time; Ernest Reyer, who composed Le Sélam in 1846,22Ibid., p. 168. can be added to the list. Symphonies became more and more numerous in France from the middle of the 19th century onwards, and there were no fewer than ten in the decade from 1850 to 1860. It was at this time that Gouvy composed three of his symphonies: his 2e symphonie in 1850 and his 3e and 4e symphonie in 1853. The following year, fourteen years after his 1ère  symphonie, Develdez wrote his 2e in the maestoso style. Bizet composed his Symphonie en ut majeur (1854-55) when he was only 18 years old. Camille Saint-Saëns created no less than three symphonies in this period: the Symphonie en la majeur (1850), the 1ère symphonie en mi  majeur (1853) and Symphonie no 2 op. 55 (1859). Like Bizet, Saint-Saëns composed these works at a very young age: he was only 14 when he completed his Symphonie en la majeur; he was 18 when he produced his 1ère symphonie; and his Symphonie no 2 came into being when he was only 21. Gounod also composed his first two symphonies in the same decade: his 1ère symphonie en ré majeur (1854-55) and his 2e symphonie en mi b majeur (1855). Finally, Reber published four of his symphonies in 1858.23PISTONE, op. cit., p. 84. This large output at the beginning of the second half of the 19th century shows the public’s enthusiasm for this musical genre. Is it this that explains the creation of the various concert societies allowing composers to be heard, an opportunity that some predecessors did not have,24Berlioz and David had to spend a lot of money to get their works performed. or is it the opposite? It would be difficult to give a satisfactory answer.

6:4 Bassoon in French Symphony from 1880 to the End of the 19th Century

As in previous decades, the last two decades have seen the creation of numerous symphonies. They multiplied at the same time as their genre was renewed.25PISTONE, op. cit., p. 87. Two important influences explain the vogue of this musical form: that of the ‘Société nationale’, founded in 1871, to support and promote French music, and that of the various concert societies. In addition to the Pasdeloup and Colonne orchestras, Charles Lamoureux’s Société des Nouveaux Concerts was founded in 1881,26Ibid., p. 87. which frequently included music by young composers such as D’Indy, Lalo, Chabrier, Chausson and Dukas in its programme.27Ibid., p. 87.

6:4:1 The Significant Symphonies and Symphonic Works of This Period

In the quick chronology of symphonies in La symphonie dans l’Europe au XIXe siècle, no less than 19 symphonies were written in the last two decades of the 19th century.28Ibid., p. 94. Among them is Debussy’s 1ère symphonie. However, this symphony, the only one by this composer, was written in Russia and remained in his notebooks. Found around 1932, it was probably first performed in Paris at the concerts du Triptyque on 27 January 1937.29Ibid., p. 94 n.

Four symphonies marked the end of the 19th century in France: César Franck’s Symphonie en ré mineur, Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Camille Saint-Saëns’ 3e Symphonie with organ and Vincent D’Indy’s 1ère Symphonie. In these four works, the orchestra has taken on greater dimensions and the search for new sonorities and new instrumental combinations takes precedence over the solo discourse of one or more instruments. For example, Saint-Saëns’ 3e Symphonie uses an instrument that is unusual in such an ensemble, the organ. However, the organ is not used for technical reasons but for orchestral colouring purposes. As for the bassoons, there are only two instead of four. The tradition of four bassoons used at the Opéra seems to have been lost. There is reason to believe that the various improvements made to the instrument have made it possible to avoid doubling each of the bassoon parts for lack of sonority, and that a treatment with four individual parts is not as profitable as in an instrumentation such as can be found in the symphonies of Berlioz. This suggests that the treatment of the bassoons is less innovative, if not less interesting, than that given by Berlioz in his symphonies. Although these four symphonies are undoubtedly masterpieces,30Editor: TKB disagree with this assessment. their treatments do not shed much additional light on the instrument. Nevertheless, some French orchestral pieces from the late 19th century offer greater interest in the treatment of bassoons.

Although Richard Wagner encountered many problems during the premiere of his opera Tannhaüser in Paris in 1861, several concert societies included many of his overtures and orchestral pieces in their programmes.31LOCKE, op. cit., p. 173. This German influence seems to have left a strong impression on those on whom it was exerted: ‘These works are finally very much influenced by those of German composers; the reference to Wagner himself is much used (Franck, beginning of Chausson’s Symphonie). The use of popular themes is, however, less frequent than in the German, Russian or Czech symphonies.’32PISTONE, op. cit., p. 95.

Apart from the symphonies, there are orchestral pieces of interest in the treatment of the bassoon. There are also a few symphonies that use the human voice: ‘Let us note the presence of lyrical or dramatic symphonies (Godard, Chaminade), following the odes-symphonies of the previous period: Le Désert by Félicien David in 1844 or Le Sélam by Ernest Reyer in 1850’.33Ibid., p. 95.

6:4:2 Chabrier’s España

Chabrier’s rhapsody for orchestra España was written in 1883. The number of instruments is large and four bassoons are used. The woodwinds are in pairs, with an additional piccolo. The bassoon is given interesting parts in this work and the composer uses it several times as a solo instrument. At the beginning of the work, in the thirtieth bar, the bassoons begin the main theme of the work first and alone:


Ex. 11: CHABRIER, Emmanuel, España, bars 23-46.

In many cases Chabrier treats bassoons with four real parts. This clearly shows that some composers have taken into account Berlioz’s suggestions in his Traité for dealing with participations of more than two voices played by bassoons.

6:4:3 Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier

Among the last French orchestral works of the 19th century, we must mention L’Apprenti sorcier by Paul Dukas. The latter enjoyed great success with this work:

Dukas gained worldwide fame with a short orchestral piece, L’apprenti-sorcier, based on Goethe’s ballad ‘Der Zauberlehrling’. As it happens, the musician left no trace of the poem’s philosophical intentions, but he did not make descriptive music either. … one can listen to L’apprenti-sorcier as a symphonic piece.34VAN ACKERE, L’âge d’or de la musique française, Brussels, Éditions Meddens, 1966, pp. 55-56.

Premiered in 1897, this work puts the bassoon in a particularly prominent place. Although the bassoon has no notes to play in the first 72 bars, its first intervention is a solo:


Ex. 12: DUKAS, Paul, L’Apprenti sorcier, bars 72-104.

The bassoon is accompanied only by pizzicato strings and is thus fully highlighted. Although this passage presents no real apparent technical difficulties, the interval between F2 and A♭2 is not without its problems (bars 75-76 for example). F2 is the natural note of the bassoon (the note that comes out of the instrument without fingering), while A♭2 requires a combination of fingers. In this example, it is very important to keep the fingerings exactly in sync; otherwise the note may give off an annoying crackle.

The theme given by the bassoons at bar 73 reappears later at bar 651, but this time in the key of B♭minor. This theme is reintroduced by a contrabassoon solo. After many difficulties in finding its place in the orchestra, it is now given a solo in this work, albeit a short one. Nevertheless, Dukas was one of the first composers in France to give the contrabassoon such prominence. The bassoon theme ends at bar 675; however, the clarinet takes up the theme while the bassoon performs the following accompaniment:


Ex. 13: DUKAS, Paul, L’Apprenti sorcier, bars 675-698.

This passage has larger leaps between notes than the theme passage. In addition, only the clarinet solo and the pizzicato strings form the rest of the instrumentation in this passage. It is clear from L’Apprenti sorcier that the bassoon part is particularly called upon and emphasised. Even if Dukas exploits but few of the bassoon’s possibilities, he uses it judiciously. As for the contrabassoon, it is given a solo, a rare occurrence in 19th-century  French works. It should be noted, however, that its position will be more firmly established towards the end of the century, which will encourage composers to overcome the reluctance of their predecessors to use it. In the final analysis, it should be noted that the work was intended, as the title indicates, to create a fantastic atmosphere. There is no doubt that it succeeds admirably. But this success is largely due to the treatment of the driving theme by the bassoon, an instrument with a characteristically bewitching timbre.


This overview of the bassoon’s place in the French symphony shows that composers’ confidence in this instrument grew stronger as the 19th century progressed. During the first thirty years, the making of this instrument underwent a dazzling development. Few musicians wrote symphonies during this period, with the exception of Méhul, who composed no less than six, most of them conceived in the years around 1810. His treatment of the bassoon remains cautious. It was not until Berlioz and his symphonies that a more original and innovative style was discovered for the instrument. From then on, the roles that could be assigned to the bassoon were practically fixed. Although the symphony was very successful in the second half of the 19th century and the greatest composers tried their hand at it, the instrument underwent very few improvements during this period and, consequently, was no longer as amenable to bold writing. Nevertheless, composers were now more aware of the instrument’s resources and were no longer reluctant to use it and to entrust it with solos. However, they did not follow Berlioz’s example, and stuck to two parts; it was not until the end of the 19th century, when other wind instruments also began to be treated in more than two voices, that the bassoon did so.

Although four bassoons were common in the early 19th century, the number of bassoons was not increased as the orchestra grew. Similarly, the bassoons tended to have the same number of players as the other woodwind instruments. It should be remembered that the instrument was criticised for its lack of sound, a criticism reiterated in Berlioz’s Grand traité at mid-century. Nevertheless, the instrument found itself on an equal footing with the instruments of its section and composers no longer hesitated to use it as a soloist, which suggests that the bassoon had gained in volume of sound. It is not known when this legacy of the four bassoons of the Opéra ceased to be used in orchestral ensembles, but it is noticeable that the great majority of composers who composed symphonies shortly after Berlioz’s continued to treat the bassoons in two voices.

Finally, the bassoon’s range increased only slightly in its writing in the French symphonies during the 19th century. Méhul does not go higher than the A3, but the instrument had the capacity to do so, according to the charts in Ozi’s bassoon methods. Berlioz, on the other hand, makes the bassoon go a semitone higher, i.e. to the B♭3. He advises in his Traité not to venture higher. It has not been possible to ascertain whether any of the French symphonies were played higher, but it is known from the charts of Jancourt’s