Five Pieces that will Change Your Mind about the Bassoon

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Imani Winds Bassoonist Monica Ellis, with her quintet, Imani Winds. (Chris Carroll/

As the bassoonist in Imani Winds, the busy New York wind quintet, Monica Ellis acknowledges that her instrument will never overtake the violin or piano on the world's major concert stages. "The record labels aren’t chomping at the bit to get solo bassoon works recorded," she admits.

But Ellis also believes that plenty of composers have tapped the expressive potential of the bassoon beyond the clichés of being the jovial clown of the orchestra who plays the grandfather in Prokofiev's musical fairy tale Peter and the Wolf.

“We do get to difficult things and it’s not just this big, clumsy, cumbersome instrument,” she said. “It has this three-and-a-half or four-octave range and the best pieces express themselves in all aspects of the instrument and not just play bass lines and low burpy stuff."

With that in mind, we asked Ellis for five pieces that show off the best aspects of the bassoon.

1. Saint-Saëns - Sonata for Bassoon and Piano

"We’ve got a whole trough of Vivaldi concertos and, of course, the Mozart Concerto but after that we don’t really have a Brahms a Rachmaninoff solo piece,” said Ellis. “Saint-Saëns knocked it out of the park with this early romantic three-movement piece. It allows for the instrument to shine in all the right places. It has all the money notes – the ones that are easy to sound good on.”

2. Villa-Lobos - Ciranda das sete notas

The “Dance for Seven Notes” finds Heitor Villa-Lobos writing in his Brazilian-folk idiom and drawing some evocative colors from the bassoon in the process. The "seven notes" of the title are simply the notes of the C-major scale, and Villa-Lobos uses them as melody, ornamentation and bass line. “It’s not a terribly complex piece but it’s just one of the most beautiful pieces in the world," Ellis insists. "I like to think that the singing quality of the bassoon is out of this world. Obviously, I’m biased." Ellis recommends a recording of this piece by her teacher, the New York bassoonist Frank Morelli

3. Paquito D’Rivera - Lauro for bassoon (Five Venezuelan Waltzes for Solo Bassoon)

The Cuban-born saxophonist, clarinetist and composer Paquito D’Rivera, who has written and arranged ensemble pieces for the Imani Winds, adapted five pieces by the legendary Venezuelan guitarist/composer Antonio Lauro for solo bassoon. “These pieces are so effective,” said Ellis. “He’s able to translate these traditional solo guitar pieces – and that same effect of having twenty fingers – for bassoon without it sounding awkward. I’ve enjoyed playing them.”

4. Ludwig Milde - Fifty Concert Studies, Opus 26, for Bassoon

Ellis admits that the Concert Studies by Ludwig Milde weren't written for a mass audience: "They are straight-up etudes, not solo pieces per se. They call them concert studies. They progressively get harder. We use these pieces as ways to get at solo repertoire. We use them as a portal. One study will focus completely on the art of playing legato as smoothly as possible with a completely contrasting staccato section."

5. Jeff Scott - Elegy for Innocence for Bassoon and Piano

Jeff Scott is not only the French horn player in the Imani Winds, but also a busy New York arranger and composer. His works for Imani Winds include the African-inflected Titilayo and an arrangement of Piazzolla’s Libertango. This piece captures the bassoon’s lyric qualities. “This goes through a number of ideas,” said Ellis. “It’s very melodic-based and beautiful soaring lines.”

Bonus track: Michael Daugherty – Dead Elvis

This coloful, hard-charging bassoon concerto calls for the soloist to dress like Elvis (think sequined white suit, big matching shades and spacious sideburns). Daugherty's music is undeniably clever, with references to “It's Now or Never” and a bossa-nova retooling of the Dies Irae. “It’s not an easy piece at all,” Ellis maintains, adding that she has yet to play it. “You can’t just sit and play that piece. You have to look at it in the big picture of a show it’s meant to me. But it’s great. I appreciate it for what it is. The audience goes wild for it. One of these days I’m going to pull out the music and see if I want to tackle it.”

What are your favorite pieces featuring the bassoon? Weigh in below in the Comments section.


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Comments [12]

Callixte de Vulpillières from France

The bassoon never sound better than in the 2nd movement of the cantata BWV 149 of Bach.
At 4:25

Jul. 11 2016 10:58 AM
James Jacobs from New York

Bassoon has always been one of my favorite instruments. It's surprisingly effective at jazz and rock; check out some of Paul Hanson's videos on youtube, or Wolverine Blues from Charles Mingus's Epitaph (played by Michael Rabinowitz), or the 1970s prog-rock band Gryphon. And there's more to the bassoon's Baroque repertoire than Vivaldi; Michel Corrette's bassoon quartet Le Phenix reveals the unique sound of polyphonic bassoons.

There's a great live-action Disney film from 1983 called Never Cry Wolf, in which a biologist goes into the Canadian wilderness to study wolves and he brings his bassoon with him, which he eventually uses to communicate with the wolves. The bassoon part (largely improvised on Mark Isham's score) was played by Rufus Olivier, the great principal of the SF Opera orchestra.

Also, while the opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is too well-known to be mentioned in this article, that work contains several other remarkable bassoon moments. Perhaps my favorite is a brief episode in Part One called "The Kiss of the Earth", in which three bassoons and two contrabassoons portray the old sages bowing down to bless the earth. It seems so appropriate; the bassoon sounds like it comes straight from the earth. As Frank Zappa said, "nothing else makes that noise."

Aug. 05 2015 02:16 PM
Susan from Brooklyn, NY

The Gubaidulina Bassoon Concerto is a classic that explores some unique sounds. Some newer works I like include "Air is a Light Sorrow" (for bassoon quintet!) by Moon Young Ha, "Testing the Second Breath" by Rebekah Driscoll, "On Speaking a Hundred Names" by Nathan Davis...

Aug. 05 2015 12:16 PM
David Bowles from Berkeley, CA

...anything I recorded with Nadina Mackie Jackson or Christin Schillinger. All released on the MSR Classics label.

Aug. 05 2015 01:59 AM
David from NYC

Guys we are in the 21st century !

Berio / Sequenza XII
Boulez / Dialogue de l'ombre double (version for bassoon)
Fujikura /Calling

and +++

Aug. 04 2015 10:24 PM
Amy from UK

I agree: The Saint-Saens is beautiful! My top 5 would be (in any order)...
1)Saint-Saens Sonata
2)Mignone 16 waltzes for solo bassoon (another Brazilian!)
3)Weber- The concerto and the Andante/Hungarian rondo
4)Elgar Romance
5)The Mozart concerto, or something not mentioned so far, the Hurlstone sonata

Apr. 01 2015 12:20 PM

Weber Bassoon Concerto Movement 3, goto link:

Dec. 16 2014 10:37 AM
Rob Hillman from Iowa City

Sarabande et Cortege by Henri Dutilleux is another must hear piece; Or must play, if you are a bassoonist.

Aug. 29 2014 04:11 PM
Michael Meltzer

Pardon my ignorance, but I never knew that the bassoon wasn't a primary instrument. In school, the bassoon students' highly polished instruments with their rare woods looked like the most expensive ones, and they seem to drive every piece of chamber music they appear in, like the Beethoven Sextet, Octet and Octet Rondino.
I once had an evening of trio sonatas by Telemann and others. I was at the piano, with a violinist, a mandolinist and a bassoonist. You never heard such clear differentiation of voices and easy-to-grasp polyphony.

Nov. 20 2010 02:58 AM
Justin P from UES

No love for John William's Bassoon Concerto "The Five Sacred Trees"? It's an evocative and beautiful composition that blends Faure twilight with William's programmatic brilliance. The homage to Dukas is a bit too transparent, but besides that the work is an astounding success. No doubt it would have been highly praised had a "serious" composer written it. Anyway, music fans should check it out.

Nov. 19 2010 10:36 PM
Neil Schnall

Some excellent Weber pieces for bassoon too. Didn't they say today's his b'day? Can we hear some? No? OK, be that way!

Nov. 18 2010 12:32 PM
Dale C. Sims from Manhattan, NY

My favorite piece featuring the Bassoon is Sir Edward Elgar's Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra. The plaintive voice of the Bassoon expresses exactly how I would express my love to my one and only suitor. You might think I am a man for several reasons, my name is Dale and the Bassoon is a Bass instrument, but I have a very low singing and speaking voice and the Bassoon is comfortable for me. In any case, I am an incurable romantic and Elgar always "cures" me, even if its for a short while.

Nov. 17 2010 07:25 PM

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