|Bassoon reeds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Bassoon reeds are the key to the warm, dark, reedy timbre of this unique instrument. A member of the woodwind family of instruments, the bassoon has been around in its current form since about 1650, although the dulcian, its immediate forerunner, was of a similar shape.
However, unlike the bassoon, the dulcian was extremely limited in range and register. It was a "primitive" instrument and had a mere eight key holes, which severely limited the range, agility, and dexterity of the instrument.
The bassoon typically plays music which has been written in both the bass and tenor registers, although it is not unknown for the instrument to occasionally play higher than these. Indeed, the preferred range of the instrument is such that comparisons are made to the cello when comparing the sound to any other musical instrument, and to a male baritone voice when comparing to that of a vocalist.
Some aficionados compare the upper ranges to the sound which is reproduced by the oboe. However, an oboist would probably strongly disagree with that comparison. The instrument is a regular and important element in the orchestral, concert band, and chamber music literature and genres. As such, it has been featured heavily in the evolution of popular classical music. The bassoon sound and range has influenced many composers throughout history, including Paul Dukas, Jean Sibelius, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich specifically composed symphonies including No. 1, No. 4, No. 5, the No. 7 "Leningrad" first movement, No. 8, and No. 9 around the bassoon.
Musicians who make the bassoon their instrument of choice tend to have large hands, because of the angle and spacing of the keys and the wide register which can be achieved. The instrument is not everyone's preferred or favorite instrument, and has been disparagingly referred to as the "clown of the orchestra," although it has to be said that, if it was stretched out to its full length, it would perhaps be considered more a "clown" than is the case now.
Traditionally made from maple wood, there has been a tendency of late to find them being made from ebonite, a hard black rubber. However, purists brought up on maple wood bassoons will hear nothing of it and, although there is no difference in the quality of the sound, traditionalists remain unconvinced. Perhaps this is the latest in the long evolution of the bassoon and its place in the history of classical orchestral and chamber music.
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