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The bassoon (French: "basson", German: "fagott", Italian: "fagotto", Spanish: "fagot") is a musical instrument with a history behind it of over four centuries. It is the principal tenor and bass instrument of the orchestra woodwind family which also includes the flute, the oboe and cor anglais or English horn, the clarinet, the bass clarinet and the contra bassoon.
Its narrow conical bore leads from the curved metal crook or bocal onto which the double reed is placed down through the wing joint or tenor joint to the bass or boot joint. The bore then doubles back up through the long joint and finally through the bell which is located at the top of the instrument.
The instrument, which weighs about seven pounds when assembled, is supported and stabilized either with a neck strap which allows the player to stand or with a seat belt.
Sound is produced by sealing the lips around the double reed made of cane and blowing air against and through the two blades causing them to vibrate against each other at a certain frequency or pitch.
The bassoon, which is pitched in C, has slightly more than a three-octave range starting from the Bb below the bass staff up to the treble E. This is the range most commonly played and written in the repertoire. Although rarely used, additional fingerings have been developed that allow it to play up to, almost, an octave higher. Its rich, dark, sonorous range coincides with the bass and tenor voice while at the top its tone is expressive and plaintive reaching into the lower range of the soprano voice.
In the orchestra the bassoon is the woodwind equivalent of the cello in the string family and the trombone in the brass family.
Besides having its place in the symphony orchestra, it is used extensively in opera and most recently in the contemporary musicals of the 20th century, television, and movie soundtracks. Innumerable composers have written for the bassoon, particularly during the 18th century, and the repertoire includes impressive parts in orchestral scores, woodwind ensemble music and many bassoon solo concertos.
The contrabassoon speaks an octave below the bassoon and is normally the orchestra's lowest sounding instrument. It represents in the woodwind family what the double bass does in the strings and the tuba in the brass family. The contra's bore is 15 feet 8 inches long, compared to the bassoon's 7 feet 9 inches, causing it to have the lower sound.
Like the bassoon, the contra is pitched in the key of C and its sound is produced with a double reed that is proportionately larger in size than the regular bassoon reed. The sound on the lower notes is characterized with a distinct "rattle" as part of the tone.
The instrument has a peg which is placed on the floor to support it instead of the neck strap or seat strap as used by the bassoonist and it is usually played sitting down. However, there are harnesses available now that allow players to stand in order to play the contra if they so desire.
The contra's first development and extensive use did not take place in Western Europe (Germany and France) as did the bassoon, but in Bohemia (located in what is known today as the Czech Republic) . Rather good instruments were made in Prague and music was widely written for the contra by composers there long before the instrument had any chance in the West. However, not all contras made in Bohemia during the first part of the 18th century can be considered real contras since they did not go down a full octave below the bassoon. Rather they were semi-contras going down only a fourth or fifth.
In the music of Western Europe, few composers wrote for the contra and then sparingly because there were other low-pitched instruments to use such as the bass horn or the tuba. During the Romantic Period, the preference was for brass instruments and composers did not put much value on the contra.
It was not until late in the 19th century that interest in the contra was heightened and makers began to work to improve and develop the instrument. In 1880, Wilhelm Heckel built what is considered by many to be the first modern full-scale contrabassoon. His design corrected many of the pitch problems typical in the earlier instruments and stabilized the scale.