The Baroque Bassoon

It is difficult to determine with precision when and by whom the baroque bassoon was invented. There is however, indirect evidence suggesting that the instrument was developed by the Hotteterre family of instrument in makers in France in the mid-1600s who were also responsible for the invention of the baroque oboe (which emerged from the renaissance shawm) as well as important changes to the recorder and transverse flute. The bassoon at this time functioned as a bass to the newly-invented French oboes and by approximately the year 1700, the use of the bassoon had spread to neighbouring countries replacing the earlier predecessor, the bass dulcian.

As is the case with modern bassoon, the baroque bassoon was comprised of four joints with the lower joint (called the boot) being constructed with two tubes that were connected at the bottom. This created a U shaped bore allowing the player to produce a range of approximately 2 ¾ octaves which was roughly equivalent to the range of the baroque cello. The baroque bassoon was in most cases built with four keys and eight tone holes which allowed the player (with the exception of the lowest two notes), to play chromatically throughout the instrument’s range. This was produced by using a combination of cross-fingerings, partially covering tone holes and overblowing octaves.  As with the modern bassoon, towards the top of the instrument was a thin metal tube called a bocal in which a double reed was attached which directed the air from the player’s mouth into the instrument.

In terms of the sound of the baroque bassoon, this differed from maker to maker. Generally speaking, the sound was fatter, more resistant, more raw and less smooth than the modern bassoon. Players of modern reproductions will observe that unlike a modern bassoon which will sound comparatively thin and constricted in the lower register, the baroque bassoon will broaden out which is especially useful in playing basso continuo parts which was the role in which the instrument primarily played. Furthermore, each note will have its own characteristic which can be altered using cross fingerings, a trait which is useful for the emphasis and articulation required in performing in the style of baroque music.

The top instrument is a a baroque bassoon by Olivier Cotter after Charles Bizey and a baroque bassoon by Peter de Koningh after Johann Heinrich Eichentopf.

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