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In an article introducing The Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet, it mentions that

The muffled, dark-sounding bassoon of the baroque era was so hard to play in tune that composers didn't write solos for it. But a century later, with better reeds and more keys, they began to take notice of its comic potential. Reynolds says Haydn's Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven's Sixth were some of the earliest to feature the bassoon as buffoon.

So, I assume the writer is implying that there is no solo pieces (concertos) composed in Baroque era.

However, this is completely contradictory to my knowledge. Since I know that Vivaldi alone wrote at least 39 (2 of them are incompleted) bassoon concertos. Not to mention other less known composers such as Graupner, Molter, and etc. Each of them also wrote several concerto pieces for Bassoons.

So is it correct for the writer to say that composers didn't write solos for [bassoons]?

Then I am wondering if baroque bassoon is really that difficult to play in tune. Anyone who has played both modern bassoon and baroque bassoon can comment on this?

  • My personal idea is that the writer is completely wrong when it comes to solo pieces for bassoon as he clearly did write them. Vivaldi might be a special example, if I remember correctly he was paid to make two concertos per month at the orphanage, adding up to some 350 concertos. – ghellquist Dec 8 '18 at 8:24
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When the author writes about "solos", I think of solo orchestral passages, not solo concerti. Even with modern keys and reeds, the intonation on a bassoon is extremely flexible. It's all about remaining flexible while playing when trying to play in tune with others.

The more important difference between the baroque and modern woodwinds is the available volume is much greater after the modern developments. The principal reason bassoons get relatively few baroque-era solo orchestral passages is because it's development away from the older Dulcian was taking place as the Baroque era was raging. It was admitted into many basso continuo sections at the time, and gained operatic usage. Once the Baroque era slipped into the Rococo, it's acceptance as an orchestral instrument beyond the basso continuo section is seen more regularly; once classical hits the scene, the bassoon is commonplace in orchestras, and solo passages in orchestral music are seen, for example, Mozart Symphony 41 "Jupiter" composed in 1788. The Heckel factory opened 43 years later, kicking off further development. It's always been difficult to play- that's physics fault- but now it had to sing from within the orchestra, so more volume was needed, and it had to play in tune at all volumes.

While studying bassoon, I asked my prof about baroque bassoon once. He brought out the continuo parts. There are some wicked difficult basso continuo parts in the baroque era.

  • How is the solo orchestral passages different from that solo concerti? I mostly listen to concerti, can you suggest some solo orchestral passages (any instrument) so that I can commpare with? – Raven Cheuk Dec 9 '18 at 2:46
  • If a solo concerto could be considered a dialogue between the solo and tutti orchestra, symphonic concert work would be like a cocktail party. Many instruments may play soli, and musical ideas may be passed about here and there. These type of orchestral excerpts are collected in volumes and studied by advanced students and professionals. This a classic example of orchestral solo passages: people.vcu.edu/~bhammel/main/bassoon/excerpts.htm – Richard Barber Dec 9 '18 at 3:24
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The writer is wrong about the repertoire, but quite right about instrument development.

Most modern instruments went through a long phase of design improvements, usually to increase both sound and playability. (Even the violin, which has been essentially the same for centuries, had a long design phase, it was just earlier.) In particular, the complicated valve and key systems of modern wind instruments are a massive improvement in terms of what is even possible, or possible without virtuosity, to perform.

A comparison with archery might be helpful. Obviously you can hit the target exactly with a stone-age long bow - it's a matter of luck and practice. But modern bows for competition have a dozen extra gadgets added to them, and I assure you that all of them have a measurable impact on how exactly and how consistently you can hit anything. Hitting iffy notes on a musical instrument is not that much different.

  • Thanks for giving the analogy. However, I'm curious if it is really that difficult to play Bassoon in tune without all the keyworks. Take recorders and modern flute as an example. Modern flute has all the keyworks making the pressing of holes easier. But even without keyworks on recorders, you can still play it without serious out-of-tune problem. (sometimes it does sounds a bit out-of-tune if your fingers cannot cover the holes completely). It's more difficult, but I won't say it's so hard to play in tune. Since I have never tried a bassoon before, I would like to confirm this point. – Raven Cheuk Dec 8 '18 at 9:19
  • If you have perfect pitch and ten years of study, sure! playing bassoon in tune is easy. In orchestra then you have to chose who to play in tune with.. the oboe in front of you, or the clarinet beside you. Add another ten years of work in the opera pit, and that will be easy for you also. :) – Richard Barber Dec 9 '18 at 3:37

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