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Re-discovering the French bassoon

March 19th, 2021

Re-discovering the French bassoon

Re-discovering the French bassoon

Article Author: Oliver Ludlow, Director and Bassoon Specialist at Double Reed Ltd. 

The fate of the French and German systems of bassoon has, it seems, long been sealed. There is no longer much contest regarding which is more popular – the German bassoon has been dominant for several decades.

But, in our bassoon workshop, we have just finished overhauling a Hawkes and Son French system bassoon for a customer. It is a beautiful instrument, made of rosewood, with a simple yet elegant design. In fact, we see these French system bassoons quite often, and enjoy bringing them back to playing standard – they have an otherworldly, historic charm to their sound.

The Hawkes and Son in our workshop dates from early 20th century England. Its stamp denotes Piccadilly Circus (London) as the maker’s premises, well before Hawkes partnered with Boosey to form Boosey and Hawkes (in 1930). That Boosey and Hawkes went on to become known for selling German system bassoons, serves to illustrate how interest in the German bassoon was taking hold during their manufacturing journey.

The German system has diverged significantly from its classical predecessors, while the French system has remained more closely aligned. Its distinctive characteristics – the brighter more penetrating timbre and its impressively free high register, to name just a couple, are musically interesting in their own right.

Have a listen to a French bassoon here: Maurice Allard (C. Saint-Saëns sonate - movements 1 and 2)

Certain portions of the bassoon repertoire may benefit from more people playing the French bassoon – especially those portions which were originally written for the French bassoon. After all, Elgar played and wrote music for the French system bassoon. Stravinsky conceived The Rite of Spring for the French bassoon’s high register. Ravel, Rameau and Monteclair - to name just a few - all composed music with the French bassoon in mind.

Perhaps there will never be a wide scale resurgence of French bassoon playing, but we are increasingly enjoying having these instruments in our workshops for repairs nonetheless. There are still a small number of strong enthusiasts in the UK for French bassoon playing, and we are always pleased to see them and work on their French bassoons. There may be others out there who need this work done on their own French bassoon, and we would be glad to hear from you to discuss your requirements.

Double Reed Ltd. is also able to supply good quality second hand French bassoons of various makers. They are usually older, sometimes pre-WWII, as that’s when most of them were made, but they are still often excellent instruments once restored. If you are interested in giving it a go, we would be pleased to hear from you to talk about the options for buying your first French bassoon.

Of course, the fingerings are very different between the two systems, but if you are up for a challenge and a new bassoon-playing experience, a French bassoon is something you could consider.