Jesse Read

The Beautiful Bassoon!

Art of 4 Centuries

By Jesse Read

The ancestor of the bassoon, the dulcian, shows up all around Europe in many forms.  Paintings, graphics, church alter decorations can all show us important information about these instruments, their construction and use.

 

Art and architecture has always featured musical instrument images

and wonderful versions the bassoon can be found on alters and niches of ancient cathedrals, in murals, paintings, etchings, and later in reference works, teaching materials, song title pages, historical photos, decorative objects and more recently, movies and videos.

Here are a few important, and some less common examples of our instrument from early sources through modern times.  Some are from my own collection, some are unidentified, and some are very famous. Known or unknown, they all have interesting stories.

 

A bass dulcian from 1660 in Görlitz, Germany
A very early image from a book on “trades” or “professions” from Germany in 1698.Titled “Pfeiffenmacher” or “flute-maker” who obviously doesn’t only make recorders, also shown below the workbench.  But the most interesting aspect of the image is that he is working on a dulcian like the one in the first picture, the older relative of the bassoon, and there, resting on the bench, is a version of the “modern” bassoon, probably with at most, 4 keys.
Each page of images has a poem attached, moral in character.  It reads:

The Flute Maker

He who is generous, let him be silent,

He who takes-let him be noisy

Poverty is like a flute;

Let it use love’s breath,

Let generosity move the fingers.

Its voice of thanksgiving enriches your joy

By piercing through the clouds

And bringing blessing in return.

Is the poet talking about the voice of the bassoon in the last three lines?

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Christoph Wiegel, Der Pfeiffenmacher, 1698
Joseph Majer, Nürnberg, 1732
Here is a fingering chart for a bassoon from that time.  I love the artist’s conception but I think he didn’t actually get a good look at any bassoon!!
 

As the bassoon became more sophisticated it also was used more as a solo instrument in the baroque period.  Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philip Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi and many others wrote solo parts to feature the bassoon.  This famous painting shows a bassoon from that time.

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Hermann Hals (attributed), The Bassoon Player, ca. 1660
bassoon in art 1774
 

This portrait is of the court bassoonist Felix Reiner, who was among the most illustrious musicians in the south German court of the time.  The portrait is from 1760.  The inscription gives his birthdate as 1732.

Felix Reiner Bassoon Mozart
Felix Reiner, bassoonist (1774) by Peter Jakob Horemans (1700 – 1776)
bassoon mozart
bassoon mozart whisper key
These two bassoonists are playing left-handed! That was possible because the low F key was a “swallowtail” key that could be reached by the little finger on either hand. There was an alternative Ab key until finally it was decided that the left hand would be uppermost, and that key arrangement was dropped.  But the beautiful ornamental key remained as a memory!

bassoon art left handed
  Musicalisches Theatrum  Johann Christoph Weigel  app. 1710
Left handed bassoonists black and white
Bassoon Swallow Tail Keys
Swallowtail key
 

 

 

A beautiful print of a late Baroque bassoon playing a duet with a vertical harpsichord from the music dictionary of J.-B. de La Borde’s ‘Essai sur la musique’ (1780)

upright harpsichord with baroque bassoon
organ loft bassoon angel
Organ loft in south Germany with a baroque bassoon
London music party 1780
The Old and New Ways of Performing a Concert, London, ca.. 1780
It seems that the bassoon was not considered appropriate with the guitar, harp and flute!
Midsummer's Night Dream bassoon
Midsummer Night’s Dream by R. Dudley,1890
By contrast, this painting illustrating Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the bassoon as the only instrument, emerging from a plant!
Bassoonist seated drawing
David Bles, Sitting Bassoonist, 1860
 

Does he have a secret??

Degas opera bassoonist study
A study(above) for the painting was hardly known until fairly recently, as it was not often on display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.  It shows the bassoonist in dark colours, but the bright red reed and Degas’ signature on the lower right give it a special quality.
Degas Bassoonist
Edgar Degas, The Orchestra at the Opera, 1870
devil song bassoon
Mr Dihau, in addition to his fame as a bassoonist, wrote popular song for which he engaged the equally famous artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, to illustrate covers. This song, Pour Toi!… shows the composer as he receives inspiration from a rather playfully devilish face!
Another Toulouse-Lautrec illustration for songs by Dihau.  This time Dihau is shown with a dancing bear, and his bassoon under his arm.  There is a story here! Were they going to perform on the streets of Paris? Or going home for dinner?
Toulous-Lautrec Bear Image
Angel Bassoon Gaudi
La Sagrada Familia Gaudi bassoon angel
 

 

 

The famous still unfinished cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain designed by the great artist Anton Gaudi, was started in1882.  Over the portico surrounding beautiful stained-glass windows is a nativity scene with musicians, including a striking sculpture of a bassoonist. She is holding the instrument correctly and the bassoon is perfect in its simple design as sculpture.

Paul Klee, Fatales Fagott Solo (Fatal Bassoon Solo), 1918.
Paul Klee, the famous Swiss artist, created a marvelous, curious, whimsical and mysterious drawing he called Fatales Fagott Solo (Fatal Bassoon Solo) in 1918.
 

The bassoon was often used in church for singing hymns, playing along on the bass line to keep the singers in pitch.  Here an illustration from about 1880 shows choir boys rehearsing with the bassoon and an ophecleide, an early tuba, assisting.

ophicleide and bassoon
Village Choir
Tom Webster, The Village Choir, London,1847
 

 

A striking and dynamic abstract oil painting by Ben Jaccov, 1981

Ben Jacob modern art bassoons
eleven fingered bassoonist
James C. Christensen, The Bassoonist, 1996
 

 

 

Artist James C. Christensen says this about his 1996 creation:

“If you look closely, you’ll see that this is not your everyday bassoon and the bassoonist isn’t ordinary either. Note how our hero has adapted: he has eleven fingers . . . just a little something extra I was pleased to include.”­­

Blue haired bassoonist
Bassoonist by Wendy Hart Penner, 2009
 

 

Charcoal on  paper, an life drawing, 18″ x 24″,  made by artist Wendy Hart Penner. The subject is Canadian bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson during a matinee solo concert for the Vernon Performing Arts Centre in Vernon, British Columbia in 2009. The original has been lost.

The Old Musician by Jujian Falat, 1891
The poor indigent steps with his bended form-They have grown old together, his bassoon and he.

“How different it was”, he plays, “when once we were young and new!”

And sometimes yet with a soft tone, the thought tugs at his heartstrings:

“Ah, that which so swiftly has flown away; one’s youth-and one’s fortune”

 

 

 

Rops was a lesser known Belgian artist who had a very prominent career as an illustrator and painter in Paris where he died in 1898

Félicien Victor Joseph Rops, Le Basson, ca. 1890
William HogarthA Musical Party, 1730
Thank you for visiting and see you again soon, with more bassoon art!

Jesse Read

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