Forte: Bassoons and the art of orchestration

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Ryan Hare, Yakima Symphony Orchestra Principal Bassoon.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- An odd quirk of the bassoon is that it has a fairly limited dynamic range. It is extraordinarily difficult to play very softly; it’s not unheard of for the principal bassoonist to ask the principal clarinetist something along the lines of, “Hey, uh, could you play that a bit louder, so I don’t stick out like an amplified kazoo in the middle of an elegy?” (When it comes to playing softly, clarinetists are the undisputed champions.)

And it’s not just difficult but actually impossible to play as loudly as the brass. It’s a common orchestration choice to double trombones and tuba with the bassoons and the contrabassoon. Sometimes it’s possible my marvelous trombone colleagues don’t even notice we’re there! We love them anyway.

Even when there are soft dynamics in the orchestra, you will often miss the bassoons if the brass section is involved. To be fair, when the brass are involved you might hardly hear any other instruments in the orchestra excepting the percussion. And maybe the piccolo. They love the attention.

I’d estimate that as much as 90 percent of what bassoonists play in the orchestra is not directly heard by the audience. So why are we there, playing what seems like almost all the time? It’s not just for the exposed solo moments we get occasionally, although we live for those.

The answer: Even when bassoons are not directly heard, the blend of the bassoon timbre alters the sounds of the instruments we’re doubling.

A good example is the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Everyone knows that’s a glorious moment for the French horn section, but did you know the bassoons are there, too? Again, probably unnoticed.

But here’s the thing: If you remove the bassoons and have just the horns, it doesn’t sound right. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s not right when you hear it, but somehow the sound is less rich, less complex. Put the bassoons back and — ah yes, now it sounds right.

A similar example is the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Everyone can hum the opening four notes, played by the strings. Did you know that the opening is scored with a pair of clarinets as well? Again, you might miss them, but if they’re not playing, it doesn’t sound right.

The art of orchestration is finding the perfect balance between featuring individuals and blending multiple instruments and sections together. It’s a big part of what makes a composer like Tchaikovsky sound like Tchaikovsky or Beethoven like Beethoven: their orchestration choices are as distinctive as their melodic and harmonic style.

• Ryan Hare is principal bassoon for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.

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