An early edition of Karl Jacobi’s Six Caprices op. 16 (1836) is available on IMSLP. These technical etudes are challenging, virtuosic, and enjoyable to play! The Caprices make great reading material, and they allow for ample expression in addition to requiring considerable technical facility. In his 1980 dissertation, A Biographical Dictionary of Bassoonists Born Before 1825, Woodrow Hodges explains that Karl (Carl) Jacobi was a bassoonist, composer, and teacher whose compositions were popular with bassoonists in the first half of the 19th century.
The concept of solving technical problems by applying musical solutions (dynamics, rubato, expression) is not new. Very often, focusing on a musical goal makes the technique challenges fade by comparison. But, how does one decide on the particular musical approach that will be the key to the technique in a passage?
One method is to determine the technical need, then build a musical concept around it. In this example (Bordeaux, Premier Solo), there is both a tendency to rush at the top of the figure, and a challenging fingering pattern E-flat, F-sharp, G, A-flat, G, E-flat:
Our solution is to take time at the top of the figure, around the A-flat. Musically, to make the A-flat the target (goal) of the phrase is effective, and a slight stretch (rubato) on the A-flat will not only sound expressive, it will counteract the tendency to rush and stumble through the pattern.
Often, modifying the articulation of a passage will both clear up a muddy technique as well as clarify the musical intent. In this passage from the first movement of Vivaldi’s concerto in a minor, F VIII no 7, we find that emphasizing a melodic pattern and playing the decorative notes lighter and fainter, helps to keep the fingers “organized” and improves the musical intelligibility of the phrase:
Bringing out the numbered notes helps to focus the technique into manageable patterns, and the resulting melody is musically interesting. In addition, articulating the numbered notes longer, and the unnumbered notes shorter, enhances the musicality of the passage while improving the reliability of the technique. Finally, phrasing each 1-2-3-1 pattern with a crescendo helps to build the passage to a climax on the downbeat of the sixth measure, then subsiding from that point to the end of the phrase is helpfully coherent.
The repertoire for the preliminary stage of the International Double Reed Society Young Artist 2015 Bassoon Competition includes:
Jan Antonín Koželuh, Concerto in C Major (movement 1)
Camille Saint Saëns, Sonata for Bassoon and Piano (movement 3)
and, four of the 16 Waltzes for Solo Bassoon by Francisco Mignone (Pattapiada, Apanhei-te meu fagotinho, A Boa Páscoa Para Vocé Devos!, and Valsa-Choro)
Benjamin Coelho has written a very thorough article on the Mignone waltzes. He gives extensive historical background, stylistic information, and performance notes.
In 2001, Michael Burns wrote an article entitled, “Music Written for Bassoon by Bassoonists.” [Double Reed, vol. 24 no. 2] He identifies a number of accomplished bassoonists who were also composers—some writing music (etudes and solos) for their students, others composing concert music and chamber music. We are familiar with, for example, Julius Weissenborn (1837-1888), who was bassoon professor at the Leipzig Conservatory and prolific composer of etudes, short character pieces for bassoon and piano, and a delightful bassoon trio.
Two more recent bassoonist/composers who have made their music available on the web (either free or at very low cost) are Ray Pizzi and Robert Rønnes. Mr. Pizzi is an amazing jazz musician and spectacular bassoonist who has worked in Hollywood for many years. He was a student of Simon Kovar. Robert Rønnes is an acclaimed bassoonist who is principal bassoonist with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Norway.
Who can resist Pizzi’s solo bassoon piece, Ode to a Toad, or Rønnes’ Dragon’s Teeth for bassoon and timpani?
There are at least two purposes for daily exercises: to perfect an etude for audition (lesson or other performance . . . ) or to maintain technique. It helps to read —through— etudes for a good/productive daily workout. Among my favorites are the Giampieri 16 Daily Studies. I especially like #4 for flexibility and agility—it can make a great daily warmup. I like to practice each pattern s-l-o-w-l-y first, then repeat with quicker tempo. Sometimes, multiple repetitions help to iron out the technical wrinkles.
Had a chance to try several Fox Model 680 bassoons at the factory this week—very impressive! I was struck by the ease of response, the vibrant sound, and the rich low register.
The Popkin-Glickman Bassoon Camp is a great way to focus on all things bassoon for ten days in the beautiful mountains of Little Switzerland, North Carolina. Our friend, James Poe is the reed making expert at the camp. This year’s guest artist is Chris Weait, former professor of bassoon at Ohio State University—a great bassoonist, terrific teacher, and genuinely nice man!
Question: I’ve found a couple Fox 601 and Fox 660s online for sale used that seem pretty good, I know that the 660 is a short bore and 601 is a long bore, and both are thick wall. Is there a benefit one way or the other?
Answer: This really is a matter of personal preference. The 601 model tends toward a darker/warmer sound with a terrific low register, and the 660 model tends to sing more in the “money” register above the staff. That said, you really don’t sacrifice either way—you can’t go wrong with the pro models made by Fox. I play a 601 and love it, and I’ve recently tried a new 660 and thought is was a wonderful instrument. I don’t think any manufacturer of professional bassoons does a better job with the keywork and the ergonomics. And, the scale—Fox bassoons play in tune! I’ve never had any discomfort playing a Fox bassoon, but I have had trouble with other instruments requiring awkward hand position, etc. Since Fox is so close by, any used Fox bassoon you buy can be serviced and even improved by experts at the factory. To familiarize yourself with the differences between models, I’d suggest a trip to the factory—let them know you’re coming and they’ll make sure there are instruments to try. There is no better way to go than to purchase a Fox bassoon, in my opinion!
Question: I also looked at Yamaha bassoons a little, I’ve never played on one, and I really don’t know too much about them. I’ve read through the IDRS forum and found some people really like them, others had issues with higher notes, but I wasn’t sure if maybe you had some insight on them.
Answer: I tried several different Yamaha pro bassoons a few years ago. I really tried to like them, but I think there were reasons they didn’t quite do it for me. While they are well made, they seem to lack the personality I value in a good bassoon. I do own a high note Superbocal (PN-2) and really like it, though. (I think Douglas Spaniol at Butler is a Yamaha artist, and he would be in a much better position to speak to the pros and cons of the Yamaha bassoons.)
Question: I’ve also noticed that Puchner has a model 4000 that is supposed to be the same as the 6000 just with less keywork. I’ve only ever played on a Puchner for a couple months, it worked fine, but I don’t know much about the newer Puchners. Also, I see a lot of used Puchners online, how would I know how to choose a good used Puchner since they date back so far?
Answer: I know there are a few professionals who absolutely love Puchner bassoons, but I haven’t had much luck with them. I think they are based on a short-bore Heckel (6000 series?) and tend toward a brighter and smaller sound. We had experience with a newer Puchner a few years ago that had serious flaws in the bore. I’d be very wary of the Puchner bassoons for that reason. As with any used instrument, the only way to really evaluate an older bassoon is to play it and test it thoroughly. I’d even take a used bassoon to a qualified repair technician for an assessment. It would be well worth the money. If it were necessary to do the assessment without help, I’d spend time playing all of the major excerpts and solo pieces, I’d extensively check the instrument with a tuner (probably with a variety of reeds and bocals), and I’d have friends/colleagues listen to and try the instrument to see what they think.
There are other bassoons that are attracting attention. Of special note would be modern bassoons by Guntram Wolf (known for historical instruments, but I understand that people love the modern model) and Moosmann (there are some who really love these instruments—I owned one for a while a number of years ago, but went back to Fox). I’ve heard some people have high hopes for the Takeda bassoons, but I tried a mid-range model and was very disappointed. Besides, these other instruments are not made in Indiana! So many new instruments are very expensive, but they don’t compare to the ca. $50,000 price tag of a new custom Heckel!
Update: Here is a detailed response to questions about which bassoon to buy by the bassoon editor of the IDRS Double Reed journal, Ryan Romine: Choosing a Bassoon.pdf
And, here is another helpful guide from Trent Jacobs at Midwest Musical Imports: Choosing the Right Bassoon
It’s that time of the year—EMU Winds & Percussion Clinic Day will take place on the campus of Eastern Michigan University on Saturday, November 22, 2014. High school bassoonists can expect two afternoon sessions for help with everything bassoon, followed by a recital featuring our EMU faculty. This year, the program will include a movement from a very beautiful quartet for clarinet, bassoon, horn & piano by Daniel Baldwin, the Gigue from Irving Fine’s Partita for wind quintet, and a terrific arrangement of early 20th-century popular music for wind quintet by Dr. Willard Zirk, one of our EMU faculty composers.