The bassoon’s special(?) staccato

August 30, 2018

I have a vague memory from childhood, well before my bassoon-playing days, of learning that the bassoon had some special quality to its staccato notes. (From an educational tv show? a children’s book on musical instruments? I can’t recall.) My impression was that this sound was different in some way than staccato produced on other instruments.

That idea stuck in my mind, but it occurred to me recently that in my subsequent years of bassoon study I had never heard a bassoonist actually address this. I turned to some published sources to see if I could locate any information.

Several books on orchestration (geared toward composers, not bassoonists) refer to the bassoon’s supposedly unique or unusual staccato. A masters thesis by Melissa Pipe brings several of these together. (I should confess I pulled these quotes directly from Ms. Pipe’s paper, and haven’t verified them with the original sources.)

The real state of the matter is that the Bassoon has a preternatural power of playing staccato, and, if it is forced to play passages of a humorous, grotesque, or macabre sort, it easily endows them with a dry spiccato quality that is almost toneless.

—Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration. London: Macmillan and Co., 1948, 2nd edition, p. 235-236.

Its reedy staccato is often invoked for prankish diversions…

—Bernard Rogers, The Art of Orchestration: Principles of Tone Color in Modern Scoring. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 36-39.

For while certain passages (especially staccato passages) have a way of sounding comical on the instrument…

—Kent W. Keenan, The Technique of Orchestration. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, p. 89.

Staccato passages are second nature to the bassoon.

—Henry Mancini, Sounds and Scores: A Practical Guide to Professional Orchestration. New York: Northridge Music, 1986, p. 86.

This passage from Adler is a little ambiguous, and may actually be saying that rather than being unique, the bassoon’s staccato is akin to the oboe’s:

Like the oboe, the bassoon performs lyric melodies beautifully and produces attacks and staccato passages as incisively… Other composers have treated the bassoon as the “clown of the orchestra” and have written staccato passages for it that truly sound humorous.

—Samuel Adler, The Study of Orchestration. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 3rd edition, 2002, p. 221-222.

When playing staccato passages, on the other hand, it is an excellent instrument to portray humour…

—Sammy Nestico, The Complete Arranger. Delevan, N.Y.: Fenwood Music Co., Inc., 1993, p. 57.

But while orchestrators seem to find the bassoon’s staccato noteworthy, few bassoonists seem interested in addressing that aspect of it. (Many explain staccato technique, but do not point it out as remarkable or unusual.) I found only two counterexamples, but both are well-respected sources.

Although each tone is started with the tongue, a tone may be stopped with either the the tongue (as in saying “tut”) or with the breath (as in saying “tuh”). Not all notes which are marked staccato should be played with the “tut” style of tonguing. It should only be used in passages in which the composer seeks to use the rather humorous, dry effect of the bassoon’s sharp staccato. Two quite typical examples are the bassoon solos in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, First movement, measure 64, and in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

All other notes which are marked staccato … should be stopped with the breath…

—William Spencer, rev. Frederick A. Mueller, The Art of Bassoon Playing. Princeton: Summy-Birchard Music, 1958, p. 54.

Among all the woodwinds our instrument possesses a special capacity for the rendering of staccato. This important effect features in many of the solo passages written for the Classical Bassoon by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the 19th century French instrument possessed a quality of dry, crisp staccato which was also capitalized upon by many composers. My teacher Archie Camden declared: “a good reliable staccato is one of the brightest jewels in the bassoon player’s crown!” (Camden, 1961). However these days the German system bassoon has somewhat changed in character, being designed more for sonority and strength rather than the delivery of these effects. All too often today’s playing styles are better suited to powerful expressiveness rather than light staccato. Nonetheless we must strive to achieve these articulation effects by the judicious choice of equipment and deployment of technique…

When stopping a note, there are occasions when we wish to terminate it precisely — chopping it off cleanly as if it were a slice of salami. At other times a more artistic effect will be called for — allowing the sound to die away like the tail of a comet. For the former we may use the tongue, for the latter the breath.

—William Waterhouse, Bassoon. Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 112.

So, one possibility is that the bassoon’s supposedly special staccato is the effect of ending notes with the tongue. This technique is not unique to the bassoon, but is controversial. (Personally I use the technique on all woodwinds when I believe it to be musically appropriate. And I think most woodwind players do, too, even those who claim they don’t.) Perhaps the relatively open discussion of this technique by high-profile bassoonist-authors correlates to its being viewed as uniquely a bassoon effect.

One other possibility I would like to explore is the possible relationship of bassoon staccato to another controversial technique: the bassoonist’s jaw moving during articulation.

If you have thoughts or resources regarding the mystique of bassoon staccato, please join the discussion in the comments section!

Comments

  1. Trent

    I think this is a bit of a misnomer. What I think the bassoon (and the oboe) does well is have the capability to start the note with a full sound more immediately than single reed instruments or strings (brass is a different discussion). I often teach my students that a note is like a vertical rectangle, with the vertical space being the full tone. When we articulate, the goal is to make the upper left corner of the note as much of a tight angle as possible, as opposed to a rising curve. When the note is particularly short, we have only the upper left corner to play with, so we want to maximize the good sound at the beginning of the note. Any good woodwind player strives for this, but even the best single reed players struggle with this immediate attack, compared with double reed players.

    So it’s not that we play shorter notes, but that we can have a fuller sound for the brief duration of that short note.

    Reply

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