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From the dulcian to the “German system”

A History of the Bassoon

Munich, 07/06/2011

The history of the bassoon is a topic to which musicologists have paid relatively little attention. In the context of a research project entitled “From Tonal Diversity to Tonal Uniformity: The Development and Standardization of Woodwind Instruments Since 1800 as Exemplified by the Bassoon”, which is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), Priv.-Doz. Dr Sebastian Werr of the Institute of Musicology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München has undertaken to close this gap in our knowledge. The fruits of his labors have just been published in a monograph entitled “A History of the Bassoon” [“Geschichte des Fagotts”].

In the first section of the book the author traces the origins and development of the technical specifications and constructional features that give the instrument its unique character. The second part of the book comprises a catalog that describes and discusses representative instruments built by leading bassoon makers since the beginning of the 19th century.

“The book is primarily addressed to active bassoon players,” says Sebastian Werr. “In researching and writing the book, I was particularly concerned to combine historical analysis with issues that are of immediate relevance to the practicing musician.” There is a good deal of interest in organology at present, because “more and more musicians are turning to historical instruments, and wish to learn more about their evolution.”

The origins and development of the German and French models of the bassoon during the period from the end of the 18th century up until the end of the Second World War form one of the major themes of the book. The bassoon is assembled from several separate parts but it is thought to have originated from the simpler one-piece dulcian in mid 17th century. While the structure of the bassoon remained very much the same until the end of the 18th century, the structure of this double-reed instrument underwent a long series of modifications and refinements in the period covered by Werr.

The bassoons built by Heinrich Grenser in Dresden and Jean Nicolas Savary in Paris in the early 19th century were to have a major influence on later developments. Many other instrument makers copied their models or used them as the basis for further experimentation. The basic constructional scheme for what is now known as the “German system” was established by Wilhelm Heckel around 1880, and many other manufacturers based their designs on the instruments produced in Heckel’s workshop in Wiesbaden. The number of bassoon manufacturers in business today is relatively small, and the market for high-quality instruments is dominated by German firms. In spite of this dominance, Sebastian Werr believes that it would be quite misleading to speak of a complete developmental stasis. Although modern bassoons tend to look very much alike, the character of the sound, and the demands made upon the instrument have changed a great deal over the past 100 years. “Particularly in recent decades a great many changes have been introduced, such as the addition of new keys, alterations in the disposition of the tone holes and reinforcement of the wall of the instrument,” says Werr.

The history of the bassoon is essentially one of continuous incremental change, characterized by a sequence of relatively minor adjustments. In Werr’s view, this is because, rather than requiring fundamental changes in design, the demands imposed by the acoustics of modern concert halls have been integrated into the rich body of experience accumulated by instrument makers over the centuries.

Sebastian Werr is now continuing his investigations, in collaboration with the Australian bassoonist Lyndon Watts, at the University of the Arts in Berne, focusing this time on the type of bassoon developed by Savary. The major goals of this international research collaboration are the detailed study of surviving original instruments, the construction of modern copies for concert use in accordance with the principles of historically informed performance practice, and the preparation of a tutor for historical bassoon technique.

“Geschichte des Fagotts”
Author: Sebastian Werr
Published by Wissner-Verlag, Augsburg 2011,
ISBN 978-3-89639-774-4

PD Dr. Sebastian Werr

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