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Topic: Bassoon Question

  1. #1

    Bassoon Question

    I am orchestrating my musical theater score for a small pit, with a fair amount of doubling from most of the musicians. I have one number that is a march, where the bassoon plays what would have been a high tuba part (on the bass clef, occassionally going down to the Bb below the staff). The tempo is moderately fast and the part is ostinato, largely built around arpeggios -- not exactly staccatto, but not with a lot of sustained notes. While I don't have the bassoon playing in every chorus and verse, it does play a lot, and I am little concerned that it might be too tiring for the player. What should I use as a rough guide for how often I need to give him rests?

    I know the answer to this is relative and that there are a lot of factors to consider, but I'm just looking for general parameters, assuming a professional musician but not wanting to require a virtuoso level performance.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  2. #2

    Re: Bassoon Question

    I shouldn't worry. 18c composers were pretty merciless to the bassoons - see Mozart's wind serenades, for example.


  3. #3

    Re: Bassoon Question

    Hmmm. When I find that my bassoon parts contain lengthy ostinatos I usually suspect that my musical imagination was a little askew and that it's really a cello part.

    HOWEVER - sit down and play through the part yourself - by which I mean pretend to finger it and breathe with the phrasing. Doesn't matter at this point if you don't know how to finger bassoon parts - many of them have to make up their own fingering systems anyway - and see where YOU get tired and need a rest. This is a good indicator.

    If you are not a wind musician this may be a little more difficult. When I was beginning to write I asked various musicians to look over a part for me and critique its playability - phrases and rests and breathing in particular. Even if they are not bassoonists a decent wind instrument player (especially IMHO other double reed players) may give some insight.

    Best of luck.

    EDIT: Take care of your players and they will take care of you. You seem to be doing this by actually being concerned about the part's playability. Stay with that and your musical experiences as a composer should be healthy and satisfying.
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

  4. #4

    Re: Bassoon Question

    Thanks for the feedback. I did try the cello on that line. I ultimately abandoned it because it wasn't loud enough and didn't fit the character of the number. Maybe this is just a personal preferance, but marches don't sound convincing to me when they are orchestrated with instruments that I know aren't portable (and, therefore, could never be part of a marching band).

    The piece in question alternates between vocal and instrumental sections for the first half, then becomes entirely instrumental for the second (where the performers playing soldiers march and the women welcoming them dance). Basically, I use a pair of trumpets and a pair of trombones echoing phrases, the French Horn and piccolo playing solo lines for the first half. For the tuttis and the dance section, it's the upper three reeds + Horn over the other brass. (I add strings only toward the end. The wind instruments accompanying the men. The string instruments come in when the women enter and dance with them. By then the march has essentially ended.)

    So, you see, my choices of instruments are somewhat dictated by what will be happening on stage. as well as the conventions I have established for the rest of the score (such as generally associating the string parts with the female characters and brass with the men in the military). It's a period piece (late 19th century) and these choices seem to work well for it. I am happy with the way it worked out, except for my original bass line, in the number in question, which was just the string bass (pizz). It was fine under the vocals, but it sounded too thin when more of the wind instruments were playing above it. Doubling the bass with the bassoon, gives it a little more weight and makes the bass sound less stringy. There is a lot of percussion, too, which helps. For the tuttis, the bassoon is replaced by the bass trombone. It all sounds good. I'm just concerned that I am going to wear out the fourth reed player. The number segues to another one, but I let the fourth reed lay out for 28 bars, before he comes in again (this time playing the Bb clarinet.)

    You're right, I do worry about all this stuff. Music is not my primary profession and I am less secure about my abilities than I am with my writing and acting. If there is any doubt about a part being playable, or being so cumbersome that it distracts a musician from giving his best performance, I'd rather address it now than when they are in rehearsal and have more important things to worry about. And, if I have to assign a part to a different instrument than I originally had in mind, I'd rather do it myself than leave it to the conductor (who will have his hands full trying to make my score sound like a real musical).

    Allegro Data Solutions

  5. #5

    Re: Bassoon Question

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    Thanks for the feedback. I did try the cello on that line. I ultimately abandoned it because it wasn't loud enough and didn't fit the character of the number.

    As a former bassoonist, from what you are describing, a bassoon will not be "loud enough" nor "fit the character" either.

    Bassoon is not tuba.

    Remember that the bassoon is also still a relatively large instrument, with a large column of air to move. If the music is meant to be loud, that means more air to move. A perpetuum mobile pattern is probably going to be problematic and tiring if it's for any length of time.

    That said, look at the bassoon solo in Ravel's piano concerto (3rd movement)... it is compulsory audition material for any bassoonist at a major symphony orchestra. The excerpt is pure musical sadism... but then, the bassoon stops playing for a bit, to give him/her a chance to get rid of that pretty blue colour they sustained while playing that lengthy solo in single breath.

    I still think that "loud", "repeated pattern", and "high register" are not compatible with what you are requesting of a bassoonist.

  6. #6

    Re: Bassoon Question

    Perhaps I did not describe the piece well enough. This is a very small pit orchestra. Maybe I should have said that the bassoon + string bass sounds fuller, or thicker, rather than louder. The bassoon does not play in the high register (nor does the string bass). Most of the bass line is in what would be the low and the lower middle register for the bassoon. If it needs to go higher, I use the French Horn and drop the string bass an octave.

    While the bass line is often arpeggio-like (working its way up and down the staff fairly regularly) it is not simply chord tones. It is regularly given important counter-melody passages. The scoring is very light for the verses. Just the bass line and a melody, over percussion. They pretty much double the vocal choirs an octave above or below. (Flute or piccolo, then alto singers, tenor singers, and bassoon+bass -- or -- Soprano singers, clarinet, French Horn, Bass singers.) In the chorus, 2 trombones or 2 trumpets alernate with the bassoon for the instrumental portion. When the vocalists come in, they are in unison, at the octave, accompanied by the full woodwind choir, with brass fills.

    For the dance, 2 trumpets alternate with the bassoon, then 2 trombones, then a full brass passage, then a full reed section passage, etc. with violins and cello on providing high and low pedal tones where needed. For the tuttis and the finale, it's basically the reeds over the brass, with the string bass on the bottom.

    My first problem is Verse II, going into Chorus I, where the bassoonist plays a very active and exposed part in the verse and the first portion of the chorus then provides the pedal tones for the vocalists in the remainder of the chorus, which is a longer stretch than I have given to any of the other wind instruments.

    The second is in the dance section. The bassoon is playing through most of it, laying out only in the sections were the brass section solos and the tuttis (the bass trombone providing the bottom voice in the latter). There are frequent rests for the bassoon, but they are not long.

    I am feeling better about both, though, after reading the comments above. I can hum the part without hyperventilating (which is encouraging.)

    Allegro Data Solutions

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