There was a lot I didn’t know about bassoons when I first took one home from sixth-grade band class. I didn’t know that the bassoon would earn me a college scholarship, or that I’d spend the first ten minutes of every subsequent job interview explaining what the instrument is. (Yes, it’s related to the oboe, but it’s not the same thing. No, it’s not quite as tall as I am, ha-ha.) I had no idea that the bassoon is known as the “clown of the orchestra,” or that there was anything funny about it at all. I didn’t know that in German it’s called the Fagott, that stoners think it looks like a giant bong, or that dads and uncles claim it sounds like a fart.
But the bassoon is funny, or so I’m told. Go to a children’s concert at any orchestra hall in the country, and when the instruments are introduced, the bassoonist will play the bouncy theme from Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the conductor will talk about Mickey Mouse. If you’re lucky, the bassoonist will even use his instrument to blow up a balloon fitted to the end of the bell. (The same trick performed with condoms is a sure hit at music-school parties.)
You might think that you don’t know what a bassoon sounds like, but chances are that you’ve heard it on television—in dopey commercials for pet food and paper towels, and in laugh-track sitcoms, when someone is spying on his next-door neighbor or sneaking into his girlfriend’s apartment.
Most recently, the bassoon has made some wry cameo appearances in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, usually to punctuate Larry David’s most awkward and ill-advised conversations. In the Christmas episode from season three, Larry fears that he has accidentally tipped his waiter at the golf club twice, and decides to confront him about it. A relentlessly cheerful version of “Deck the Halls,” heavy on the flute, plays on a loop in the background as the waiter politely tries to explain that he has been tipped only once. Larry, of course, presses him: “So you’re saying I only tipped you once?” he asks, long after he should have walked away. “Yes,” says the waiter, very quietly. “Do you want your first tip back?” “No,” says Larry. Then, after a beat, “I’d like my second tip back.” As the waiter deadpans, “There was no second tip,” the “Deck the Halls” music finally stops. Close-up on Larry as he nods suspiciously. Cue new music: solo clarinet, a slow, tentative, slinking melody. Dum de dum de DAH dum DAH dum. Larry squints one eye and stares at the waiter. The waiter stares back. Alternating close-ups of the two faces. Finally, when we think we can’t stand it any longer, the bassoon enters, interrupting the clarinet with four bright, reedy toots. Byah byah byah byah. Whereas the clarinet was sneaky, mischievous, the bassoon is tactless, buffoonish. It’s the sound of a guy slipping on a banana peel.
It’s the same in film. Droll little bassoon riffs signal that something has gone humorously awry: the hero is hungover, the sidekick is too fat to fit through the doorway, the villain finds himself caught in traffic. Fans of The Princess Bride may remember bassoon music during the scene in which Fezzik (André the Giant) struggles to help the groggy, “mostly dead” Westley (Cary Elwes) regain his faculties and prepare to storm the castle. A lumbering giant and a disoriented person: a bassoonier scene has never been written.
I’ve long had a proud habit of elbowing unsuspecting movie dates to alert them to the sound of the bassoon, but lately I’ve begun to feel a bit embarrassed about all of this clowning around. The bassoon so rarely gets to build the suspense—it’s the instrument that gets called in to cut the tension with a joke. This seems like fun at first, but there is little dignity in constantly being called upon to accompany pratfalls and missteps. Surely this is not the best we bassoonists can hope for; we don’t, after all, spend so many days of our lives locked away in dank practice rooms because we want people to become convulsed with giggles when we perform. And, in fact, when we play most pieces—the great solo and orchestral works that have never been featured in cartoons or commercials—nobody laughs at all. On its own, the bassoon probably isn’t any funnier than a piano is sad or a drum is angry. No, if the bassoon sounds silly in the movies, it’s because someone—some composer long ago, probably—wrote the bassoon a funny line or two, and since then everyone has been copying him. My fantasy is to travel back in time, find this guy, and club him on the head with my bassoon case. Or at least beg him to reconsider.
The bassoon-as-clown idea has been around for a long time, but perhaps not as long as the bassoon itself. In its earliest incarnation, during the Baroque era, the bassoon was part of a group of instruments—including the organ and harpsichord, lutes, and viols—responsible for playing the basso continuo of each piece. This line was to be played by multiple bass instruments in unison, but the composers didn’t specify exactly which ones you were supposed to use. (If you had a bassoonist on hand, he was welcome to play along, but the cello would work just as well.) The Baroque bassoon had a dark, muffled sound and was difficult to play in tune, so composers were wise not to draw special attention to it by writing it its own part. As my friend and mentor Jeff Keesecker, professor of bassoon at Florida State University, put it, “Bassoons and bassoonists were considered more or less musical stevedores, beneath the regard of the more seemly instruments, and were therefore worthy of at least a modicum of scorn.”
Things began to improve slightly during the second half of the eighteenth century, when a technological overhaul to the bassoon (more keys, better reeds, fewer difficult fingerings) made the instrument easier to play. Composers noticed the bassoon’s new ability to create a variety of dynamics, articulations, and tone colors, and began to write distinct bassoon lines rather than relegating it to the continuo part. Late-eighteenth-century French writers praised the bassoon’s power of expression, describing its tone as “melancholy,” “lugubrious,” “tender,” “pathetic,” and “religious.”
Ah, the lugubrious, pathetic bassoon—how refreshing! Not all bassoonists will share my own peculiar excitement at the thought of being regarded as perennially dreary, but we can at least agree that the gulf between “religious” and “clownish” is curiously vast. It’s probably not fair to blame any single composer for bridging that divide, but I suspect that it’s at least partly Haydn’s fault. He was, after all, fond of musical jokes: loud notes immediately following quiet ones, unexpected silences, harmonies that don’t sound quite right.1 I was recently reminded of his penchant for all-out silliness by Mark Eubanks, professor of bassoon at Lewis & Clark College. As a founding member of the Bassoon Brothers quartet, a group of Oregon-based bassoonists who dress like the Blues Brothers and perform all manner of pop and jazz hits arranged for bassoon, Eubanks is something of an expert on bassoon humor. “Our biggest problem,” he writes on the Bassoon Brothers website, “is a lack of respect. The Bros call the bassoon the Rodney Dangerfield instrument.” I asked Eubanks about the roots of the problem, and he pointed to Haydn’s symphonies as early examples. The second movement of Symphony no. 93 features a lovely, lilting oboe melody with sighing string accompaniment. Near the end of the piece, things begin to wind down: the strings drop out, pairs of winds trade a few dainty notes, and then there’s a moment of dead silence that is abruptly shattered by an extremely loud, low blat from the bassoon. The rest of the orchestra rejoins for a final “ta-da!” sort of chord, and the piece ends. It’s hard to tell what Haydn had in mind here—a foghorn, an alarm clock for the drowsy?—but he uses the instrument to similar effect elsewhere, including his Creation oratorio.
Interestingly enough, Haydn’s most famous student, Mozart, took the bassoon much more seriously. In Jeff Keesecker’s words, Mozart was the guy who “galloped in on his white horse and saved the day” for bassoonists by writing us beautiful solo lines in his operas and composing the concerto that we still play at orchestra auditions today. The nineteenth-century Italian opera composers who followed also wrote many prominent and rewarding parts for the bassoon, though their operas were a good bit sillier all around. It’s possible that works by these composers—Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, et al—form an unlikely link between Haydn’s brand of musical humor and the goofy bassoon sounds we hear on television and film sound tracks today. Rossini’s music, in particular, was often used in the Looney Tunes cartoons of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, at a time when the gulf between popular entertainment and classical music was not so vast as it seems now. In the classic Bugs Bunny short “Long-Haired Hare,” Giovanni Jones, a pompous opera star, finds his rehearsal of the “Largo al factotum” aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville interrupted by Bugs Bunny’s banjo playing. When Giovanni comes out of his house to beat up on Bugs, the pummeling is accompanied by bassoon music. Later in the same cartoon, Giovanni, now onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, sings the beginning of “Chi mi frena in tal momento” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a duet with the bassoon. Just before Bugs, channeling the flamboyant and egomaniacal Leopold Stokowski (“Leopold!”), steps up to conduct the orchestra, we even catch a glimpse of a puffy-cheeked bassoonist standing, somewhat inexplicably, next to the timpani at the back of the orchestra.
Rossini and Donizetti operas have their upbeat, lighthearted moments, but only when the music is paired with funny images does it begin to seem downright silly. For people—and perhaps most importantly for a certain generation of composers—reared on these cartoons, the sound of the bassoon is no longer just vaguely jovial. It now conjures up specific images: puffy cheeks, chaos, narrow escapes, Bugs Bunny at it again.
It’s hard to talk about bassoon humor without tackling the larger question of what makes music funny at all. The best and most lucid explanation of musical humor I’ve ever encountered comes in one of Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” lectures, first given during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic. “When music is funny,” Bernstein said, “it’s funny in the same way that a joke is funny; it does something shocking, surprising, unexpected, absurd; it puts two things together that don’t belong together, which are, to use a very hard word, incongruous.”
All manner of musical jokes—from Haydn’s abrupt shifts in dynamics to Prokofiev’s experiments at the far reaches of tonal harmony—can be explained using Bernstein’s theory of the incongruous. There is plenty of allegedly humorous bassoon music that I don’t find funny at all, like the little toots that accompany slapstick in the movies, or even the oft-cited “grandfather” part from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which I’ve always heard as ornery and foreboding rather than particularly jocose. But the bassoon humor I do understand—like the Bassoon Brothers playing “Folsom Prison Blues”—is funny precisely for the reason that Bernstein described.2
As for the bassoon being inherently funny? Bernstein didn’t buy it, either. “The bassoon has always been called the clown of the orchestra,” he said. “I don’t know why. He looks pretty gloomy to me.” Bernstein also argued (correctly, I think) that the perception of the bassoon part in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as humorous has less to do with the music itself than with what Disney made of it in Fantasia. Remember Mickey Mouse, the pails of water, and all those dastardly brooms? “Ever since that Sorcerer tune was written for the bassoon, composers have been calling on their bassoons like mad to burp out the jokes every time they need comic effects,” Bernstein said. “But it’s not only in Mickey Mouse movies: it’s in grown-up movies as well. Take a man trying to sneak home late at night holding his shoes in his hands, and dollars to doughnuts, you’ll be hearing that comic bassoon again.”
A half century later it’s still true. As Bernstein pointed out, this kind of “Mickey Mouse music,” where the music “follows the action exactly,” isn’t particularly sophisticated or imaginative. Other composers tend to agree. I recently asked Carter Burwell, composer of scores for dozens of films including Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Kids Are All Right, and True Grit, about his experiences writing for comedy, and he suggested that comedic scenes often work best when scored with music that isn’t overtly funny. “Comedy is best played with a straight face,” he wrote in an email, adding that with his music, he works “to generate sympathy, hoping it will engender discomfort, from which the audience can escape with a laugh.” In that scenario, the music is “naively, often sentimentally sincere, and the audience experiences the privilege of seeing another person’s tragedy for what it really is—comedy.”
David Spear, composer for films including Rainbow War and Surviving Everest, and associate professor in the film-scoring program at New York University, told me that the orchestration (choosing which instruments will play which musical lines) is almost always the very last step in scoring a film. Often, the person who assigns themes to each instrument is not even the same person who wrote those themes. (Spear got his start as an orchestrator for Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the scores for films like Animal House, Ghost Busters, and Airplane!) Spear uses the analogy of a painter working out a sketch: he tries out several versions on paper before drawing the image on canvas, and then finally—perhaps with the help of an apprentice—applies the different shades of paint. In film scores, the musical lines themselves are what provide the key emotional cues to the listener, and any final deliberations about instrumentation are all about nuance.
Of course, you don’t need veteran composers and orchestrators like Burwell and Spear to rustle up some music for your television program or film. Smaller-budget affairs often rely on stock sounds and snippets that can be purchased from existing libraries of music. (Think sonic clip-art.3) The entries for bassoon in these online catalogs are almost always filed under “comedy.” They have titles like “Plucking the Bassoon,” “Tip Toe Conspiracy,” “Donkey Hee Haw,” and “Low Growly Horn Honk.”
Let’s talk about flatulence. There are those who argue that, historical precedent aside, there is something intrinsically funny about the bassoon. And that “something” is that the instrument makes rather convincing fart sounds. I must admit that there’s a kernel of truth in this rude comparison. The bassoon’s pitch is right, both for tense, tenor farts and for deep, bellowing bass ones, and its double reed allows for a particularly explosive attack. It’s true, as David Spear argued while we both giggled like schoolkids, that a trombone or tuba in its staccato mode can also emit a plausible-
sounding toot. (But surely our farts are better, I thought, my pride suddenly wounded.) Because of its double reed, the bassoon is equipped to pop out some of the cleanest, shortest notes in the whole orchestra—and composers have come to depend upon its reliably crisp staccato. But let’s not forget that the bassoon’s smaller cousin, the oboe, is also a double-reed instrument, equally capable of pecking out short notes. And yet no one says that the oboe sounds like a burp. In fact, the oboe often plays the most expressive, singing lines of the whole wind section. In clichéd film scores, it foreshadows a sad turn: the love affair will end, the soldier won’t come home from the war, the mother will succumb to cancer. What the fart enthusiasts forget is that the double reed, in addition to producing a great staccato, also makes it possible for oboists and bassoonists to play very long, tender phrases on a single breath.
Efforts to describe the sound of the bassoon have left otherwise-sensible people tongue-tied. Frank Zappa said it had a “medieval aroma.” In one of my favorite bungled descriptions, the critic Cecil Gray once wrote, “The bassoon in the orchestra plays the same role as Gorgonzola among cheeses—a figure of fun. Actually, the bassoon can be the most romantic and passionate of instruments and Gorgonzola can be the finest of cheeses, but they must both be treated properly.” I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here (cheese, music, strong odors?), but it seems to have something to do with versatility. Yes, the bassoon can sound bouncy and mysterious, as in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or In the Hall of the Mountain King, but it can also sing like a diva, as in Mozart’s Porgi Amor aria from The Marriage of Figaro, or dance seductively, as in the second movement from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Way back when the bassoon was just starting to emerge as a solo instrument, the composer and bassoonist Etienne Ozi asserted that it has something in common with the human voice. Sometimes I like to imagine that Ozi was right, and that this uncanny similarity is what makes the bassoon sound so plaintive in the fourth movement of Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, or so achingly nostalgic in the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s fourth. It might also be what makes the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique sound so macabre; we’re hearing our own voices, distorted and perverted by death. Berlioz wrote that the bassoon’s “timbre, totally lacking in éclat and nobility, has a propensity for the grotesque which must be borne in mind when giving it prominence.” But he also wrote that “the character of its high notes has about it something painful, complaining, almost wretched.”
There shouldn’t be anything funny about the grotesque, the painful, and the wretched—and yet, of course, there is. Much of the most wonderfully creepy writing for bassoon is hair-raising because of the way it marries the comic with the tragic, the everyday realm of the living with the shadowy world of the dead. In Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, for example, what starts as a lighthearted staccato bassoon motif begins to sound downright frightening as it follows the title character—an old crone—into hell and back. But is the bassoon uniquely grotesque? Could Tchaikovsky have just as easily chosen another instrument to play the same line? We might side with Ozi and imagine that the bassoon’s voice-like quality gives it a special power to remind us of our own fragile mortality. The same trick might also be paired with Bernstein’s theory to explain the bassoon’s role in musical humor: it sounds so like a human voice, but without words and with no human body attached. How incongruous! We don’t expect to hear such a sound coming forth from the back of the orchestra. It jokes, it sings, and sometimes it even seems to die: we laugh, finally, because the bassoon reminds us of ourselves.
There is some modern scientific evidence to support Ozi’s bassoon-as-human-voice idea: the set of overtones present in a given bassoon sound have more in common with a human voice than do those in, say, a more sonically “pure” clarinet sound. But voices are complex, and violinists, cellists, and even saxophonists have also been known to similarly claim their own instruments as the “most human.”
I, too, will reveal my own bias if I attempt to argue that the bassoon is the orchestra’s most versatile, most expressive, or most beautiful instrument, so instead I’ll review the facts. It has a tremendously large range: three and a half octaves. Its double reed allows both for very short notes and very long lines. The overtones in a bassoon sound give it a buzzy, fuzzy, not-too-loud, hard-to-describe tickly quality. In the end, the shape of a composer’s sketch of a piece probably has more to do with whether we think the music is funny than what gets colored in later by the orchestrator. But what we hope for in the best music is a very special alchemy between line and instrument: a great phrase matched so perfectly to an instrument that we can’t imagine it being played by anything else.