The Dulcian

As mentioned previously, the baroque bassoon emerged from an earlier instrument called the bass dulcian (called the ‘curtal’ in England) due to (as mentioned previously) important changes to the instrument being made in France in the mid 1600s. Once again, it is difficult to determine the exact origin of the dulcian however, there is evidence of instruments of being produced in Italy by the mid 1500s.

Baroque Dolcian
The top instrument is a bass dulcian by Barbara Stanley and Graham Lyndon-Jones followed by an alto dulcian by Martin Pretorius

Unlike the baroque bassoon, the instrument was constructed out of a single piece of wood (although often the bell was a separate piece) however, like the baroque bassoon, the bore was joined at the bottom to create a U shape thereby allowing greater portability than the earlier bass shawm. The dulcian also had a reed which was in direct contact with the player’s lips which allowed for greater control of the sound (including dynamic control) than the bass shawm in which the reed was enclosed in a cap called a pirouette. This meant that unlike the bass shawm, the instrument had the benefit of being able to be played both outdoors for processions as well as indoors for church services. In fact, the name dulcian originates from the fact that the instrument could play sweetly.

The dulcian had eight tone holes however, unlike the baroque bassoon, had only two keys. The fingerings were very similar to the baroque bassoon however, in some cases, were less complicated which along with the smaller size of the instrument, meant that the instrument was capable of playing very fast passages. Due to the larger size of the bore however, the lower register of the dulcian was resistant than the baroque bassoon. Some dulcians were however, were built with a muted perforated bell to address this issue.

As with many instruments emerging during the renaissance, the dulcian was constructed in various sizes ranging from the contrabass through to the soprano. This allowed the instrument to play in small ensembles called ‘consorts’ performing polyphonic music with other dulcians or in a ‘broken consort’ with other instruments such as shawms, cornetti and sackbuts. These various sizes continued to be regularly played until the mid 1600s at which stage all sizes except the bass fell out of use.

The use of the dulcian however was cosmopolitan throughout the 17th Century. There is evidence of it being used throughout Europe from Finland through to the British Isles. Furthermore, with the Spanish conquistadores exploring the New World and the establishment of Catholic Churches and missionaries, the Dulcian was in extensive use in both Central and South America.

The regular use of the bass dulcian continued until the early 1700s and co-existed with the baroque bassoon from the early 1600s until this time. In Spain however, the dulcian continued to be played up until the earlier 20th century.

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