This week, we got a show for all you bassoon-heads out there. Woodwind fans unite! It’s a show devoted to double reeds, low buzzing sounds, and bassoon-based puns— show we’re calling “Bassoon As Possible.”
Here’s our playlist. We hope it doesn’t make you say “fagotte about it!” (our last pun, we swear…)
- Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), The Rite of Spring: Part I: The Adoration of the Earth: Introduction – Many of us have heard that the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet The Rite of Spring was greeted with an audience riot, spurred on primarily by the avant-garde nature of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography. However, it’s possible that during rehearsals for The Rite of Spring, the principal bassoonist might have wanted to start a riot too upon seeing what was notated in the Introduction to Part I. The opening bassoon solo, based on a Lithuanian folk tune, sits incredibly high in the bassoon range, hitting a high D—which for all practical purposes is the bassoon’s highest note. The instrument sounds almost unrecognizable at this moment, like something from another time or place. Likely, this was Stravinsky’s intention: the subtitle to The Rite of Spring is “Scenes from Pagan Russia,” and a strained bassoon probably sounded a lot like the ancient reed pipes played by Pagan Russian shepherds.
- Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), Peter And The Wolf – Sergei Prokofiev’s work Peter And The Wolf, dubbed a “symphonic fairy tale for children,” is based on a story and narration that Prokofiev wrote himself, all about a young lad named Peter who defies his grandfather and captures a wolf. He wrote the piece in 1936, just as the Soviet Union was tightening its control over artistic culture. As a result, several Soviet ideals are present in the text—like the idea of the youth defying older generations. The work also served as an educational piece by teaching kids the various instruments of the orchestra. Each main character is represented by a different instrument or group of instruments. Peter is represented by the strings, the wolves by the horns, the bird and duck by the flute and oboe (respectively), and the stubborn grandfather by the bassoon. No offense to bassoonists… or to grandfathers.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1759–1791), Concerto for Bassoon in B-flat Major, K. 191– It’s thought that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote as many as five bassoon concertos, however only one survives. His Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major is not only likely the first bassoon concerto he wrote, it’s also Mozart’s first concerto for any wind instrument! We’re not sure exactly who performed this concerto for the first time, but many believe it was Thaddäus von Dürnitz, an amateur bassoonist from Münich who commissioned several similar concertos. The modern bassoon differed slightly from the one Mozart would have seen. The bassoon in Mozart’s time had only 3 or 4 keys, as opposed to the 17 keys of the modern bassoon. However, the low range of both instruments was mostly the same. In the recapitulation of the opening movement, Mozart has the bassoonist play a low B-flat, the lowest note on the instrument then and now.
- Paul Dukas (1865–1935), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of the most well-recognized pieces of classical music, made famous by Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. The plot of the cartoon is faithful to the original poem by Goethe. As the sorcerer finishes his work for the day, the apprentice continues to fetch pails of water for his master. When the sorcerer retires, the apprentice tries to use magic to make a broomstick do the rest of the work for him, but soon the workshop is filled with water. Dukas’ symphonic poem is also regarded as one of the first orchestral pieces to treat the contrabassoon as an independent instrument. Capable of the same range as the tuba, the contrabassoon had previously been used to double a bass line and add extra depth to orchestration. Dukas takes advantage of the instrument’s deep buzzing tone for comedic effect, providing the contrabassoon with a solo passage to represent the broomstick coming to life.
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, Op. 168 – When Camille Saint-Saëns was 85 years old, in what would end up being the final year of his life, he wrote to a friend “I am using my last energies to add to the repertoire for these otherwise neglected instruments.” Those neglected instruments, as it turned out, ended being mostly woodwind instruments: bassoon, oboe and clarinet. He wrote a sonata for each of these three instruments, using his considerable talent that he acquired over the years to create something as beautiful and pastoral as anything you would find in the more popular violin or cello repertoire. The Saint-Saëns bassoon sonata has become of one the jewels of the bassoon rep. He dedicated the sonata his friend and colleague Clément-Léon Letellier, the bassoon professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Sadly, Saint-Saëns would pass away a few months later and never hear his bassoon sonata performed.
- Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959), Ciranda Das Sete Notas (for Bassoon and Orchestra)– This piece by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos proves that you can create beautiful music with just a simple C major scale. His Ciranda Das Sete Notas, or “Round Dance for Seven Notes,” was written in 1933 while Villa-Lobos was working for Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas as a minister for national music education. Most of his compositions at this time, as a result, were based on Brazilian folk music or Brazilian themes. A Ciranda is a kind of Brazilian round dance for children—Villa Lobos wrote several works called “Ciranda,” in fact. This particular Ciranda shows off the expressive nature of the bassoon using (mostly) the seven notes of the C major scale (the white keys on the piano). As the music develops, though, Villa-Lobos begins to venture outside of this C-major framework.
- Michael Daugherty (b. 1954), Dead Elvis – Dead Elvis is a new spin on the Faustian legend. American composer Michael Daugherty wrote his Dead Elvis in 1993 for bassoonist Chuck Ullery. The work tells the tale of Elvis Presley, a modern day Faust, who instead of selling his soul, sells out to Hollywood, Colonel Parker, and Las Vegas for wealth and fame. The piece used the Dies Irae chant from the medieval requiem mass as its primary musical material. The chant tune becomes the subject for a set of variations by the solo bassoon over fifties rock and roll ostinatos in the ensemble. The work is historically performed with the soloist dressed up as an Elvis impersonator. To further the Faustian parallel, the ensemble for “Dead Elvis” is the same as that for Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire Du Soldat(1919), another contemporary retelling of the Faustian legend by a composer who favored the bassoon.
- Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde (fl. 1638), Fantasia per Fagotto solo (for dulcian) – Little is known about this composer. We are not even sure exactly when Bartolomeo di Selma was born or died, but there is evidence that he was an Augustinian friar who worked in the Austrian city of Innsbruck in the early 17th century. Almost all we know about the Spanish composer comes from his only surviving publication, a collection of dances and fantasias for the dulcian, the Renaissance precursor to the bassoon. The dulcian was popular in Europe for almost two centuries because of its versatility. It had the ability to match volume with sackbuts and shawms for outdoor playing, and play softly to accompany chamber music. Perhaps this is why the dulcian (and later the oboe) are the only double reed instruments from the Renaissance that evolved to join the modern orchestra, whereas the krumhorn, cornemuse and rackett died out completely.
- Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Tears Of A Clown” – “Tears Of A Clown” may be the only number 1 Billboard pop hit to feature a prominent bassoon part—but the bassoon is not the song’s only classical music connection! The melody was originally written by Motown songwriter Hank Crosby and a 17-year-old Stevie Wonder, but they couldn’t think of any lyrics. So they brought the song to Smokey Robinson to see if he could think of something clever. Smokey thought the music sounded kind of like a circus, so he made the song about a sad clown à la Pagliacci, the main character of Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera. Robinson, in fact, was reusing that Pagliacci line—he had already put the same line (“Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid”) in the 1964 Motown song “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down)” for Motown singer Carolyn Crawford. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded “Tears Of A Clown” in 1967, but it wasn’t until 1970 that it became a number one hit.