A few months ago I worked on a project that required a romantic era contrabassoon! The basis of the project was to track the development of the contra over time and play some of the music written for each instrument.
Here in the Bay Area we are very lucky to have David Granger who is a period bassoon expert. And he was generous enough to let me use one of his period contras for this project.
Although I ended up getting in a few practice sessions on it; I found that I’m not a great period player, and this instrument has much more potential than what I could perform. I was able to play some Beethoven and Brahms on it but I never was able to get a high Ab which is in Brahms’ 3rd Symphony.
Both of David’s period contrabassoons were made by Wolf in the style of the Viennese contras. This is a unique instrument because it can be tuned to A=415 or 440 with the use of two different lengths of bocals. The bocal looks similar to a bassoon bocal but has a drain and is upside down when assembled with the crook.
When I practiced different instruments in the same practice session I was getting frustrated with the Romantic instrument. I liked it on its own, but if I played a modern instrument and switched back to romantic then it seemed so unstable and difficult to play. Period bassoons in general have a less focused sound, and so I’ve never gotten into performing on them.
The reeds here are supplied by Wolf and were made by Stefan Pantzier I tried my hand at making a few and they turned out okay. The shape is similar in dimensions to the Contraforte C2 shape but with a shorter tube. The thing I didn’t try was adjusting the gouge to something more appropriate to the era. In the time before gouging machines people gouged by hand and purposefully gouged the center thinner. This meant less work had to be done in profiling and finishing a blank.
I was recently talking to my neighbor about what I do, and it turns out that he used to be a clarinet player. He said that he didn’t continue on to a professional level because he needed to invest so much in equipment. To be a pro clarinet player, he said, he needed to buy a whole family of pro clarinets and he just wanted to play Bb soprano clarinet. So this got me into talking about the bassoon tangents that people get into, in a professional or sub-professional way. Every bassoon player plays bassoon for a while and then there are a few different directions to go experimenting.
Probably the most responsible secondary horn is contrabassoon. This is very practical since it’s also used in the orchestra and most bassoon teachers can help with it. The only obstacle with contra is getting access to one since they are expensive and unpopular. As a student in college it’s becoming standard to take out extra loan money to finance a new instrument, but usually graduate programs are more lenient on addition loans.
French Basson is mostly dead at this point. People play them out of curiosity and on a hobbyist level. I had one for many years and I was never tempted to take it to a gig instead of a Heckel system bassoon. That being said, french bassoon can be a cool thing to pull out on a recital or for chamber music. My high point was being able to play the Saint-Saens Sonate on it, but it never made it out to a recital. This scratches the itch of wanting to play a historical instrument but its also pretty easy to learn.
Baroque bassoon is another route that some players go. Baroque orchestras are becoming much more popular in California and New York, and so there are maybe a few more gigs for baroque players on top of regular orchestra gigs. Baroque is much more difficult to play well and isn’t as pleasing to listen to unaccompanied, so learning it can be tedious. When I have done “baroque” orchestra gigs, it usually ends up being some sort of mixed ensemble. The woodwinds and principal strings play baroque instruments, but the rest of the strings play on modern setups. I am not a baroque bassoon player but I do sometimes want to play historical literature on the authentic instruments. Baroque bassoon are also much much cheaper than modern bassoons.
The bassoon has recently been modernized even further with the addition of an electric pickup. With a modified bocal, players can plug into an amp and use the same filters and effects that an guitarist can use. There are so many great electric players but not so many gigs. This isn’t so much a career path as it is a way to bridge the gap and get into jazz or rock etc.
“The bassoon family” is a bassoon lesson that I teach when a student is in a slump. Too many weeks on etudes or a concerto often makes high schoolers lose interest. So I give them a contra lesson, or for the students that have lessons in my home, an introduction to the bassoon family. I have two high school seniors this year, and contrabassoon will definitely be a part of college orchestra playing.
The start of each lesson is playing through the circle of fifths, 12 major scales. This is a nice way to get into contrabassoon and introduce the vent keys and the Eb keys. The student can get a small taste of standard orchestra excerpts like the Contrabassoon solos written by Ravel in his Piano Concerto in G, and Ma Mère l’Oye. Contrabassoon comes quickly to many bassoonists, and Contraforte come quickly to bassoonists who also play sax. The simple octave keys on the Contraforte make it a closer match to high woodwinds.
It’s also interesting to introduce students to the Baroque bassoon. I make a point to have students learn a baroque piece every year, since honor orchestras and college auditions ask for pieces from contrasting eras. The basic scale of the baroque bassoon is the same as modern bassoon, so a few Vivaldi concertos translate well to the baroque bassoon. This also provides a useful insight into the instrument that the piece was written for, and how lucky we are to have a modernized bassoon.
The french bassoon is mostly for informational use. To learn the lowest octave chromatically and play a few scales. I don’t teach much French repertoire to high schoolers so it’s an instrument with no direct connection to their experiences. But I Play a few recordings of french bassoon players, explain the Paris Conservatory, and the school of French players that still exist throughout the world.