In the Paris Musical Instrument Museum there are a few display cases of bassoons, and one of them contains a bassoon made metal. This bassoon was made by Arsène Zoë Lecomte at the end of the 19th century. It was made based on the Buffet “French” bassoon fingering system/bore.
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.
There are 2 Buffet Contrabassoons for sale on Musical Chairs. These are contras built with the french fingering system and a different bore than a Heckel system contra. They appear to be in great condition and I’m sure will sell quickly. This is the instrument intended for in the works of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel.
Les Siècles performed Rite of Spring using period instruments at the BBC Proms. The bassoon section uses old french bassoons and tall construction french contras.
“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.
Two weeks ago I acquired a French Bassoon. It was found in a middle school’s band room cabinet and had been neglected for many years. There is no manufacturer’s mark, the usual branding spot is the low D guard and this one has been removed. My best guess is either Selmer or Buffet. Also, my time with this instrument hasn’t been true to the period since it lacks a french bocal. Initially I could hardly get any sound to come out of it, I realized that some of the pads near the top of the tenor joint were leaking. So I did a temporary fix by wrapping the pads in plumber’s tape.
The fingering schematic of the lowest tritone is completely different from the German system bassoon. Luckily the Weissenborn method book comes with a full french bassoon fingering chart. After a bit of work, the layout of the low keys makes sense and it is just as fast as the German system. The one consistent problem is the transition from D flat to E flat. The rest of the instrument is very similar to the German system with slight modifications, especially in the highest notes.
I did some research into french bassoon reeds to try and create something that would work well for this system. Most of what I saw was a narrower shape with a longer blade and tube. What I decided to do was to use my regular Fox 2 shaper which is a bit narrow and leave a long blade. I found some great french bassoon reed images on the International Double Reed Society’s website under the “Reed Project” tab. There are reeds gathered from top double reed players from all around the world. I’m not sure if this link inly works from member but here it is.
The tone of the French bassoon is more muffled and nasal. It really reminds me of baroque bassoon tone but with less stability. The instrument doesn’t project as well, it seems stuffy without any “sparkle” to the sound. Also the half step isn’t clearly defined for most of the notes. The pitch center of the basson is very flexible and is stabilized with modified fingerings to bring the pitch up or bring the pitch down. My goal for this instrument is to eventually play the Saint Saens sonata on it and Daphnis and Chloe suite 2.