A FEW NOTES ON THE BASSOON
Benjamin Kohon
(Solo Bassoon of New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra)


Reprinted from "The Metronome," Vol. XLVIII, No. 7, July, 1932, p. 12.

(Ed: My thanks to Bill Waterhouse who sent me a copy of this interesting article culled from the files of Lyndesay Langwill's papers. As you well know, Mr. Kohon is one of our distinguished honorary members and this was written when he was a mere "lad" in his thirties. It is refreshing to read that the "plight" of the bassoon was about the same in 1932 as it is at the present time!)

The Bassoon was invented by an Italian monk in the 16th century, and was called the fagotto, from the Italian for stick, due to its resemblance in appearance in its original uncouth form to a bundle of sticks. The modern bassoon is much more presentable, and, in fact, handsome, due to its finely polished surface and greater number of shining silver or nickel plated keys. Kindred instruments invented later are the fagotino, or tenor bassoon, now obsolete, and later the contra-bassoon, which is the contra-bass of the woodwind section, and is used now in very large orchestras. There is a fine collection of early specimens of the bassoon family in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.

The bassoon has been more or less facetiously referred to in textbooks and by musicologists as the "clown of the orchestra." This is a classification the justness of which I never could see. It is true that grotesque effects can be produced on the lower register by playing with a rough quality of tone, or by playing exaggerated staccato, but this is a minor characteristic of the instrument. I remember, as a youngster, before I had read or heard of the reputation of the bassoon in this respect, when I would hear my father play on his bassoon, or when I went to concerts and would distinguish the various instruments, I never detected any of this 'burlesqueness' or so-called clownishness. The bassoon always gave me an impression of being an instrument of dignity, due to fullness of tone in the lower register, and possessing fine lyric qualities in its upper notes. The instrument can of course always be used to give a comic effect - mostly combined with an underlying touch of melancholy- and some of the great composers make such uses of it. In the extensive orchestral repertoire that I have played, I have found that the masters employ the bassoon decidedly more frequently lyrically than for buffoonery.

I was brought up on the bassoon and it was quite natural for me to adopt it as my instrument. When I was about eleven years old, my father, a bassoon player, started to give me instruction on the bassoon in very small doses, so I was still of too tender an age to take up a wind instrument too arduously. Very shortly after I began the study of the bassoon, my father placed me with the New York Boys' Symphony Orchestra, composed of about 65 boys, conducted by Mr. Frank Pinto, a harpist - which orchestra was featured in Sunday night vaudeville shows in various theatres in New York, and later played a summer engagement in Willow Grove Park, near Philadelphia. As my knowledge of the instrument at that time was still definitely limited -having had just a few lessons-I must confess that my appearance, equipped as I was with a tall old bassoon of my father's, must have been more impressive and convincing than my performance. My efforts and my ambitions in those early performances were mostly concerned with looking innocent and keeping perfectly silent, (in short, playing possum), during the difficult passages that I neither dared nor knew how to attempt.

But my association with this boys' group, fired me with ambition to become a bassoon player, in spite of the fact that my parents wished me to devote myself to the piano. This Boys' Orchestra did not last very long, and, soon after, I joined Volpe's Young Men's Symphony Orchestra, which was semiprofessional, and where I met many of my youthful colleagues of the Pinto Orchestra. Here under Mr. Volpe's able instruction, we rehearsed an extensive symphony repertoire every Sunday morning and thereby gained valuable orchestra routine. Many of the members of both orchestras have become outstanding members of the profession. (I need mention of these only Nathaniel Shilkret, now prominently known as conductor and composer, and Harry Weisebach, concertmaster for many years with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra of Chicago.)

After I joined the Union at the age of 16, I began to play engagements in theatres and hotels in New York, and soon joined the Russian Symphony Orchestra under Modest Altschuler. Simono Mantia, the well-known trombone and baritone virtuoso, was also a member of this orchestra and manager of Pryor's Band, and he engaged me to play with Pryor, the following summer, in Willow Grove. From that time on, I played for many summer seasons in Willow Grove with Pryor's Band, Victor Herbert's Orchestra, Nahan Franko's Orchestra, Conway's Band, and other organizations. At the age of 18, I was engaged to play first bassoon with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then conducted by Vassili Safonoff, and since this first engagement as Solo Bassoon, have always played Solo Bassoon in any organization with which I have been connected. I remained with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for four seasons, playing there also under Gustav Mahler, and then joined the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski as Solo Bassoon, remaining there for three seasons. After leaving the Philadelphia Orchestra, I joined Diaghileff's Ballet Russe Orchestra, which was then touring the United States, conducted in its first season by Ansermet and in the second season by Monteux-both of them renowned French conductors. l enjoyed my connection with this artistic organization -particularly since we made a coast-to-coast trip -which I had never made before, nor have I been to the coast since; (I admit that it was the lure of this coast-to-coast trip that induced me to join the organization.) When the United States entered the World War, I enlisted in the United States Navy as bandsman. When I was mustered out, at the conclusion of the war, I joined the National Symphony Orchestra under Artur Bodanzsky, who divided his time between the National Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Company.

In 1921, the National Symphony Orchestra merged with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra - I was among those National Symphony men who were taken into the Philharmonic and I again was Solo Bassoon in the organization that I had joined in early youth, and have been there since-playing under such conductors (among others) as Mengelberg, Furtwangler, Kleiber, Molinari, Gabrilowitsch, Sir Thomas Beecham, Bruno Walter, and the Great Maestro, himself, Arturo Toscanini. In addition to the Philharmonic, I fill in engagements in Chamber Music, having played frequently with the Barrere Organization. I also play radio engagements - broadcasting at present under Shilkret, Horlick, etc., and for the National Broadcasting Co. - and have done considerable Vitaphone and Phonograph recording, in Camden and New York. In short, in whatever time I have available from my symphonic work, permissible by my contract, I have played engagements, steady or temporary, occasional or extended, in every branch of our business - in addition to symphonic and other work mentioned - such as grand opera, moving pictures, musical shows, etc. During the summer months, our Philharmonic Orchestra gives concerts nightly at the Lewisohn Stadium of the college of the City of New York, where we play the standard symphonic programs, under the direction of Van Hoogstraaten and Coates, and, in the past, Reiner, Ganz, Molinari, Stock, Monteux, and Sokoloff.

I consider the bassoon a very difficult instrument to learn - due mostly to the reed problem. The attack is difficult, particularly on the lower notes, especially in trying to play very softly. In order to overcome most of the difficulty of respiration in the lower notes, I can only suggest that the student or player desiring a little information on this point should be careful whenever playing long tones, that the notes attack clean - and should never leave a bad attack until repetition has corrected it. The attack should always commence softly with the tongue, first in practicing long tones, then repeating the same notes several times faster and faster. This method should also be applied to the upper tones. The attack on the contra-bassoon, by the way, is much easier than on the bassoon, due to its large tubes and larger reed, giving it a more open tone, though softer in volume than the bassoon.

Of course the main qualification on the bassoon, as on any instrument, is a fine tone, and I can only suggest that tone can be developed also by practicing long tones for a considerable period, softly, then more strongly. I value quality in tone more than volume, although of course there must be a sufficient amount of volume. I think a little vibrato is also not amiss, but this must not be exaggerated, and when playing these sustained notes, they should be practiced at times evenly, and at times with a little vibrato - the vibrato being produced by the throat. The middle Eb-E-F - I always practice these notes without too much pressure to make them sharper. I believe that at all times there should not be too much pressure, when humoring the tones for pitch.

Technique of course is important, and the Etudes of Weissenborn and Milde are the best models for the essential studies in the various phases of technique, such as scales, broken chords, staccato, etc. Due to some of the difficulties of the technical fingering of the bassoon, it is sometimes necessary to take certain notes with varying fingering which can be worked out best by the individual. Also, as certain trills sometimes do not come out very clean, I would suggest that instruments be ordered with as many available extra trill-keys as possible, such as the middle E-F#, and low Ab-Bb, and D-Eb, etc.

Very fine solos for bassoon are limited, I regret to say, but perhaps some day more good composers will be induced to write fine solos for the instrument, and bassoon playing will yet come into its own. By far the best works are the concerto by Weber and the concerto by Mozart, there are some shorter works, of course, but musically they are not of the highest order. I have played the Adagio of the Weber Concerto repeatedly at the Philharmonic Orchestra's Children's Concerts, under Ernest Schelling, and at other functions - also over the radio.

It is my belief that the bassoon is one of the finest instruments for recording and also for transmission over the radio, as its true tone is practically unimpaired by the recording or transmitting mechanism. It is a pity that composers and arrangers of the lighter music do not feature the bassoon more, as very lovely effects can be obtained with it.

Just a word about reeds: I believe it is to the best interest of bassoon-playing to use a reed of medium strength. There are really no set rules to give about adapting the reeds for the individual player, as each player's embouchure is different.

In conclusion, I would add that, if I were a youngster again, and had all instruments to choose from, I would again select the bassoon - which has given me a very precious opportunity to play in fine orchestras under great maestros.


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