What Does the Bassoon Have to Be Proud of?

Our Principal Bassoon Peter Whelan discusses the intimate and sensuous sound of the bassoon and the history of the instrument.

I hope to reveal the true nature of the bassoon.

Despite having been a member of the orchestra since its earliest days, the bassoon has become similar, in anatomical terms, to the human appendix. No doubt it served a useful purpose at some earlier stage in musical evolution, but we have long since forgotten what this was. I hope to reveal the true nature of the bassoon. 

It was in the intimate surroundings of the eighteenth-century concert hall that the bassoon was at its most proud. Indeed, given the instrument’s reputation today, the reviews of the time seem almost excessive in their exuberance for the bassoon.

'The tone is so companionable, so delightfully talkative, so attuned for every pure soul’

'The tone of the instrument is so companionable, so delightfully talkative, so attuned for every pure soul’, wrote the poet C.F.D. Schubart (d. 1791), ‘that until the Day of Judgment the bassoon can never be dispensed with. It assumes all roles: it accompanies martial music with manly dignity; it is heard majestically in church; it sustains the opera: it reasons with wisdom in the concert hall, gives a swing to the dance and fulfils every requirement.'

The great masters such as Handel, Rameau and Mozart all understood the chameleon-like role of the bassoon in the orchestra: at one moment supporting the bass line, the next playing the chattering commentator or lending its depth of soul as tenor soloist.

However, during the ensuing two centuries, the true nature of the bassoon was forgotten. As composers began to call for ever-larger forces for their music, to be performed in ever- larger concert halls, they abandoned the soft and intimate singing nature of bassoon. Instead they forced the instrument to grotesque extremes in order for its impact to be felt. Think of the extreme upper register in the opening notes of the 'Rite of Spring’, or the extreme and inflexible bass register of Grandfather in 'Peter and the Wolf.

the true nature of the bassoon was forgotten

Bassoonists, too, must share the blame for perpetuating the caricatures. Perhaps we have developed a version of Stockholm syndrome, identifying with our capturers and wilfully playing the clumsy clown of the orchestra—a musical role immortalised for each new generation of children by the staccato bassoons of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.

I hope to show that, as with all clowns, there is a more humane and melancholy soul to be found behind the bassoon’s mask of the surface jollity. Unlike its flashier, more extrovert cousins in the woodwind and brass, the bassoon never shouts. Instead the voice of the bassoon is intimate and sensuous—an almost-human tenor voice, which speaks and sings soulfully. The humanity of the bassoon is its forgotten truth.

Peter Whelan, SCO Principal Bassoon

Peter will be performing CPE Bach's Bassoon Concerto in Dumfries, Edinburgh and Glasgow on the 9-11 of December 2015.
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Whelan, Peter - Biography