The Diva And The Back-Up Man
"A good 70% of the time, the bassoon is used probably more as a textural sound or as a timbre enhancement to other sections," says Kathleeen McLean, associate professor of bassoon at the Jacobs School of Music. "You're sort of the back-up man, if you will, in the orchestra a lot of the time."
But then sometimes, the lowest member of the woodwind section has the opportunity to shine. McLean has had plenty of experience playing the diva soloist as well as the back-up man. She was the associate principal bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1993-2009 before joining the faculty at Indiana University last year.
McLean points out composers like Sibelius and Beethoven who have written notable bassoon parts in their orchestral works. In addition to writing prominent bassoon parts in his symphonies, Beethoven uses the bassoon in a soloistic way in his Violin Concerto.
"It seems like there is a Russian tradition to use a lot of bassoon in their works," she adds. "Perhaps it's the gloomy sound that the bassoon can produce. People have always said the bassoon to them sounds like the human soul."
The symphonies by Peter Tchaikovsky and Dmitri Shostakovich are rife with noteworthy bassoon parts, but she cites Igor Stravinsky as having a special affinity for the soulful tone of the bassoon. "Stravinsky truly loved the bassoon, and we're fortunate to have pieces like The Firebird."
The Lower Neighbor: Contrabassoon
Sounding an octave lower than the bassoon is its contorted and growly brother, the contrabassoon. Its grumbling tone isn't always audible in the large orchestral sound, but when it is, people notice. McLean recalls speaking with an audience member after a performance with the Toronto Symphony. "She said to me, ‘What was that sound at the end of one of the movements in that Mahler symphony? It sounded a bit like a vacuum cleaner!'"
Composers have highlighted the contrabassoon's distinctive sound in solo passages as well. "What comes to mind would be the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel," she says. "It starts with this amazing murky, murky contra solo." Another work by Ravel, Mother Goose, features a solo by the contrabassoon playing the role of the Beast opposite the clarinet in the role of Beauty.
Along with the oboe, the bassoon is a double reed instrument. McLean estimates she spends 25% of her practice time making bassoon reeds, and she builds certain reeds to accommodate the needs of certain concerts.
Another notable aspect of the bassoon is its intricate key work. "If you look at the back of the bassoon," she demonstrates, "twelve or thirteen of the keys that you use are used exclusively with your two thumbs. If you hear someone say that bassoonists are all thumbs, you know why!"
Her bassoon was built in 1947 and she anticipates that it will last her another twenty years. However, some players feel newer instruments are more popular, and she speculates this is because orchestras are playing louder and louder. "I think builders are now making beefier, heavier instruments so that they can cut through the sound of the orchestra. It's almost a health hazard to play in an orchestra these days."
Even with all its shiny silver key work and its long and lean body, McLean says the bassoon often gets mistaken for other instruments. "I'll have a conversation with someone for a long time, and they'll say, ‘I'm glad you're playing in the orchestra and good luck with your oboe playing.'"
"Even worse, I was on an airplane having a conversation with someone. After discussing the bassoon, he said, ‘It was really nice to meat a kazoo player.' And I thought, who makes a living playing the kazoo? I'd like to know!"