Updated: Jul 15, 2020
The bassoon has a long and complicated history...
Most music historians believe the modern bassoon evolved from an instrument known as the Dulcian. This predecessor of the bassoon was also played with a double reed. However, it was created out of a single piece of wood rather than the 4 separate and distinct parts which are common in today’s modern bassoons.
The Dulcian was actually made in six sizes ranging in size from 4 feet and 9 inches, to about 15 feet long. During the 17th century, the French decided to transform the 1-piece Dulcian into a 4 piece instrument.
What a Dulcian looks like!
In early music that was composed for the bassoon, the instrument was unfortunately used merely to play the bass line in a piece. In 1678, however, it became part of orchestras for French opera when a composer named Lully specifically called for bassoons in his opera, Psyche. (Go Lully!)
Jean Baptiste-Lully (huge fan of the Bassoon)
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the bassoon was continually improved and refined. Music composed for the bassoon during this time included major solo and orchestral music that was actually written for the bassoon, elevating its importance in the orchestra.
The bassoon evolved from the 1713 3-key model played during the time when Mozart was alive, to 6-keys during Hayden's time, to the present 17 to 24 key versions which we see today.
Two schools of bassoon making then started up around the 1880s:
The French school of Bassoons (Buffet)
The German school of Bassoons (Heckel)
German (Heckel) left v.s. French (Buffet) Bassoons right
Each had it own solutions to tone production, fingering and intonation.
There were a lot of experiments in bassoon construction during the 19th century which resulted in some interesting variations. For instance, there were bassoons created for military bands that had odd-shaped brass and wooden bells; bassoons in F and G called tenoroons; semi contrabassoons; and sub contrabassoons.
So this is a Tenoroon?
Interesting historical fact!
When organs were banned from English churches in 1644 due to strong feelings of superstition, music continued to be played but was replaced by small groups of instruments, including the bassoon.
Did you know that one of the earliest places bassoonists performed at was actually in a church?!
The birthplace of the Bassoon (or at least where they were first performed)
Today the bassoon is used very extensively in contemporary musicals of the 20th century, television, movie soundtracks, opera, and of course symphonies and orchestras worldwide. Musicians of all ages play the bassoon. Countless composers have written music for the bassoon, especially during the 18th century, where you will find beautiful bassoon parts in orchestra music, woodwind ensemble music, as well as a number of incredible solo bassoon concertos!