A Sixteenth-Century Subwoofer: James B. Kopp on the history of the bassoon
James B. Kopp’s new book The Bassoon encompasses the entire 500-year history of this unique instrument, from its early use in Italian marching bands to its role as a ‘character actor’ in contemporary music. Here Kopp charts the bassoon’s history from its origins as an ingenious and portable instrument, capable of creating deep bass sounds, well before the days of subwoofers.
Author article by James B. Kopp
I had heard for years about the Notting Hill Carnival: parading in costume, revelry, Caribbean music and food, people with or without island heritage joining in a summertime show of good feeling. When I witnessed the Carnival firsthand, all this was true. But I was surprised to see that two of the age-old partners of outdoor celebrations – parading and live music – had pretty much gotten a divorce. Colourfully clothed (or sometimes barely clothed) revellers inched forward in a miles-long column, and Caribbean music was plentifully present, or at least the sound of it. But much of the music was recorded, emanating from industrial-size speakers arrayed on flatbed trucks, pounding the ears and chests of both marchers and spectators. I didn’t personally see any steel drummers or other musicians, only one or two caretakers per flatbed, who lounged next to the speakers, looking more like security guards than like musical conjurors.
On the consumer level, the era of subwoofers arrived decisively only in the mid-1990s, domesticated into home-theatre sound systems and thumping car stereos. But the human appetite for combining celebrations with bass sounds is pre-electronic, going back many centuries. There’s something about the whump of a big drum or the hypnotic expanse of a low-pitched drone that exerts a visceral, pre-intellectual effect on dancers, celebrants, and even passive listeners. Throughout the middle ages, a drone or large drum was present in much European music-making, though not typically capable of producing a melody, and certainly lacking the agility of smaller melody instruments.
Flutes, pipes, and fiddles of small size are relatively simple to make, and they produce a penetrating sound with ease. For technical reasons, it’s harder to make a low-pitch instrument with a commanding sound. During the mid-sixteenth century, a group of Venetian pifferi (wind musicians) played shawms to add pomp to the comings and goings of their employer, the Doge. Their shawms – technically the ancestors of today’s oboes – were the equals of today’s trumpets in their blaring volume and agility. Shawms were made and used in a family of sizes, eventually including even a bass size. But a shawm of this size is more than five feet tall, not an easy thing for a musician to carry. In 1559, the Doge’s pifferi contracted to purchase bassoni curti, some of the earliest identifiable bassoons, which had obvious advantages for the marching piffero.
The makers (and possibly also the inventors) of these bassoni curti, two members of the famous Bassano family, borrowed a design feature from the bassoon’s older brother, the trombone – its folded construction – and applied it to a double-reed, conically bored woodwind. The resulting bassono curto would have produced a substantial, hard-to-ignore volume of buzzing sound, in a range of pitches extending even lower than the standard trombone. Meanwhile, it could be carried with ease, and it was cheaper to build than a shawm of equivalent pitch, thanks to a clever design – drilling two conical bores side by side in a single billet of wood, and connecting them at the bottom end. Only makers and bassoonists were likely to comprehend this technological trick, but no matter. The first loud, portable, diatonic bass woodwind instrument had entered the European soundscape.
Not all processions take place outdoors. In England and Spain, the early bassoon played in processional portions of some church services. And even when not marching, the bajonista was the first and foremost of the wind instruments to be put on church payrolls in Spain, because his instrument was well suited, given its human-like vocal range and timbre, to reinforce church choirs in the singing of Gregorian chant. Its role later extended to polyphonic music for the church, and smaller sizes of bassoon were preferred to shawms or violins for the upper voices, at least in Spain. Many particulars are unknown, but it is clear that the bajón gained a foothold in Spanish liturgical music, and the instrument was exported to all of Spain’s possessions in the Americas and the Pacific Rim early in the colonial period.
New roles were in store for the bassoon. Composers in its native Venice, including Castello and Monteverdi, specifically required it in seventeenth-century vocal and instrumental music. Among other duties, it was typically the bass instrument specified to accompany two violins, rather than a cello. The Venetian styles of vocal, instrumental, and combined music were exported to Habsburg Europe by composers like Heinrich Schütz, whose appetite for the bassoon timbre is evident in his scoring practices. In a second wave of European fashion, the court music of Louis XIV was admired and shamelessly imitated abroad, along with a new four-piece bassoon, redesigned by makers serving the French court. The remodelled bassoon and its successors turned out to have a pleasant tenor voice as well, and by the time of Mozart, the sound of a bassoon doubling a singer, violin, or treble woodwind was ingrained in listener’s ears (or aural imaginations, if you prefer). Some German-speaking writers call this the Wiener Unisono – it’s technically a doubling at the octave or double octave, but the listener’s perception is simply of an enhanced or enriched melodic voice – a favorable illusion still widespread in symphonic and film music today. By the early twentieth century, composers were discovering that the further evolved bassoon had even a soprano voice. This special effect is irreplaceable in celebrated works by Debussy, Mahler, and Stravinsky.
Alas, the bassoon eventually gave up its place in most outdoor music to the louder, easier-to-play saxophone. This happened more than a century before the age of the mobile subwoofer dawned. But meanwhile, symphonic and operatic composers had become addicted to the bassoon’s irreplaceable timbre – a mysterious, rattling bass; a creamy, supple tenor; and a somewhat pinched, unworldly soprano. Composers found here a dependable character actor and an endlessly useful mixing colour, and their continuing demands have given the bassoon one of the longest and most varied careers of any western musical instrument.
James B. Kopp has performed professionally as a bassoonist, contrabassoonist, and early bassoonist for more than twenty years. He has an international reputation as a clinician and maker of reeds for bassoon, contrabassoon, and early bassoon. His articles on the history and acoustics of woodwind instruments have appeared in many journals and reference books, and he is a senior editor of the forthcoming Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, second edition.
The Bassoon is available now from Yale University Press.