THE BASSOON IN LITERATURE
By Cornelia A. Biggers


(Cornelia Biggers, a charter member of IDRS and a frequent lecturer on her specialty instrument, the contra-bassoon, keeps this editor well up to date on bassoon matters of all kinds throughout the year. It is always a pleasure to hear from her and to visit with her at IDRS Annual meetings. In addition to recently completing an important text, "The Contra-Bassoon - A Guide To Performance" (Elkan-Vogel, Inc. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 1977), Cornelia has also followed the bassoon and contra in literature. The following article is a partial result (we hope to add to this bountiful subject as time passes; so won't readers please contact us with references they know or have seen? Thanks!)


In the course of my studies for the past few years I have enjoyed taking note of the mention of the bassoon in various works of literature. By this I mean works other than musical treatises, such as novels, poems, etc., in which the bassoon is mentioned or in which bassoonists appear as characters. I am now pleased to present the results of my research to the readers of this publication. This bibliography does not pretend to be complete; and the author of this study would be interested in knowing of other references.

Poetry

Coleridge (1772-1834)
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

"The Wedding Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon."

Smart (1722-1771)
"Jubilate Agno"

"For the Bassoon rhymes are pass class and the like."

Christopher Smart was regarded by his contemporaries as insane. His "madness" took the form of extreme but harmless religious mania. In a different kind of society he would probably have been highly revered as a saint. "Jubilate Agno" is a long mystical poem, written while the author was in an insane asylum. The section which concerns us compares the different instruments to various onomatopoeic words. This poem has been set to music by Britten.

Lanier (1842-1881)
"The Symphony"

Sidney Lanier is of special interest to us because he was a successful professional musician as well as a poet. He was both first flutist with the Peabody Symphony of Baltimore and lecturer in English literature at Johns Hopkins University. "The Symphony" is a long description of a performance of a symphony, which is made to symbolize, in an allegorical manner, the currents and conflicts of the contemporary economic and political situation. The abuses of 19th Century industrialism and the capitalist "Establishment" are fiercely denounced, and universal love is passionately advocated as the cure for all ills. The passage which concerns us reads as follows:

"Then o'er sea-lashings of comingling tunes
The ancient wise bassoons
Like wierd
Gray-beard
Old harpers sitting on the high sea-dunes,
Chanted runes."

The bassoons' "speech" which follows is too long to be quoted in full, but the concluding lines read:

"And yet shall Love himself be heard,
Though long deferred, though long deferred:
O'er the modern waste a dove hath whirred:
Music is Love in search of a word."

Tennyson (1809- 1892)
"In Memoriam"

"All night have the roses heard
The flute, violin, bassoon."

Clare (1793-1864)
"Summer Images"

"And droning dragon-fly on rude bassoon
Attempts to give God thanks
In no discordant tune."

John Clare spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in an insane asylum, where he wrote many of his works. It is interesting to note that, of the poets who mention the bassoon, at least two were regarded as insane, while Coleridge is known to have been addicted to opium.

Graves, Ch.
"Ode to Discord"

"Let the loud bassoon
Bay like a blood-hound at
the full-orbed moon."

This poem has been set to music by Stanford.

Prose works

Massie - Nicholas and Alexandra - 20th cent.

This book, a biography of the last Russian tsar and his empress, informs us that Alexander III, the father of Nicholas, was an amateur bassoonist. This emperor was a fierce, dictatorial man, of superhuman strength, who used to straighten horse-shoes with his bare hands, and who governed Russia in the same manner. At court chamber music parties he would dominate the ensemble with the violence of his playing. His tone quality and style must have been quite unusual--

Eliot, G. - Silas Marner - 19th cent.

The bassoon is mentioned here in connection with a small church orchestra of the sort that was used in England in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Russcol & Banai - Philharmonic - 20th cent.

This book belongs to the genre of the "profession novel": a story based upon the inner workings and personalities of some unusual or "closed" profession: medicine, theatre, professional athletics, etc. This is the only such novel that I know of that has been written about a professional orchestra. Not only are there numerous references to the bassoon in the general descriptions of the orchestra's work, but one of the specifically "drawn" characters is Hans Lobos, the second bassoonist. He is shown as rather stupid, bungling, and ineffectual, unfortunately for our "image."

Morehead - Darwin and the Beagle - 20th cent.

This biography of Darwin mentions Darwin's bassoonist son, Francis, and the use Darwin made of the bassoon in his whimsical tonal experiments on plants.

Nicholson - Peter: the Adventures of a Chorister over a Thousand Years - 20 cent.

This book written by the founder of the Royal School of Church Music in England, consists of eight short stories, each about a choirboy in a different period of history. Though written for children, the book is interesting for adults, as it contains a wealth of information about the history of English church music, though presented from the highly specialized viewpoint of the Anglican liturgical choir of men and boys. The bassoon is mentioned in the chapter entitled "The Village Choir," which is set in the early 19th century. There is a description of a church orchestra like that mentioned in Silas Marner. The bassoonist is Amos Pott, the village blacksmith.

Dickens - The Pickwick Papers - 19th cent.

In an account of an extremely turbulent political rally, at an extremely insignificant provincial election, Mr. Pickwick records that "there was a grand band of trumpets, bassoons, and drums, marshalled four abreast, and earning their money, if ever men did." The band was in the pay of one of the candidates, and was used to drown out the opposition speeches. A riot finally ensued from which one wonders if any reeds or instruments survived.

(I must confess a certain fellow feeling for Mr. Pickwick. He delighted in the study of obscure, abstruse, arcane, recondite, erudite, antiquarian subjects, and was, for example, an internationally recognized authority on the Theory of Tittlebats. This is rather like being a contra-bassoon specialist--)

Dickens - Bleak House - 19th cent.

In this book one of the characters is a bassoonist: Matthew Bagnet, an ex-artilleryman and now a bassoon player in a London theatre. It is most unfortunate to observe that many of the works I have mentioned present the bassoon as a rather loud, ugly instrument, and represent bassoon players as stupid and gross. The work presently under consideration is no exception. Matthew Bagnet is a good person, but completely mechanical, inartistic and unimaginative. (His wife is the real brains of the family.) In his inimitable way, Dickens provides us with numerous innuendoes as to the connection between Matthew's playing style and his former occupation. For example, Matthew boasts of how he used to practice in the trenches. (After all, an artillery-man is a bombardier.) Also his son, a fife player, is named Woolwich.

"The American Scholar," the quarterly journal of Phi Beta Kappa, has mentioned the bassoon in two recent issues. The Autumn 1970 issue contains a discussion of Dickens, in which, as an illustration of his variety of characterization, it is stated that Dickens' characters include both taxidermists and bassoon players. The article is by Harry Levin. The Winter 1970 issue contains an article on the Romantic Movement by Harvey Gross, entitled "Hegel, Beethoven, Wordsworth: 1770-1970," which mentions Beethoven's use of the bassoon in "Missa Solemnis."

Anthony Trollope - The Small House of Allington.

This novel also contains a reference to the small gallery orchestras which were at one time used in churches. It speaks of a church with a gallery "in which two ancient musicians blew their bassoons."

The American Scholar, Summer 1972: The column, "Letter from Europe" by Anthony Burgess, a regular feature of this journal. Mr. Burgess is a composer as well as author. His column is usually upon literary subjects, but in this particular one he writes about his music and mentions scoring for the bassoon.

Charles Wyatt - "A Poem" (published "To The World's Bassoonists," winter 1972-73.)

Noble bassoon,
Night singer,
Frightener of swans
And canaries.
If the indolent ape,
Babboon
Sits, thick
In the thick
Of your somber
Caroling,
And abuses himself,
Snarl not,
Yield not

Each note
Swelling like a pumpkin,
A weightless pumpkin
Of delight----
And it will be
That when the oak leaves
Scratch last In barren fields,
And the earth
Is scoured
Of fox and worm,
You will lament us,
Singing alone.
No one will hear
You sing
The shadow in,
And it may be
A new dawn will come,
And life again
Will flourish
Following
The fleeing Shadow,
Oh noble bassoon,
Tragic bassoon,
Impossible
Bassoon.

A magnificent, reverberant poem, consisting of a superb apostrophe to the bassoon, employing both erotic and eschatological ideas, -- themes which are both eminently suitable to the bassoon. A stirring tribute to our noble instrument.

Finally, I think it is of importance to note that although he does not specifically mention the bassoon, Tolkien tells us that Treebeard, the Ent, had a voice "like a very deep woodwind instrument."

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to Langwill for the references on Clare and Graves, to Sol Schoenbach for the reference on Silas Marner, and to Larry Ragland for the reference on Nicholas and Alexandra. The reference to Trollope was furnished by Roger Birnstingl.

Biographical Note on the Author of this Paper: I have a degree in English literature, and French, from the University of Iowa, where I studied bassoon with H. Voxman, William Gower, Jr., the late Thomas Collins, and Ronald Tyree. I am contra- bassoonist of the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony of Orlando.


(Editor's note: here are three additional items which I would like to contribute as additions to this ever-interesting subject of the bassoon and contra-bassoon in literature.)


An author's thoughts about a famous bassoon passage

Burgess, Anthony ("A Clockwork Orange"): Horizon, Winter 1972, "The Wasteland Revisited."

When Burgess was a school boy in Manchester he had contemporary literature taught to him by a man who did not like the subject (an Editor of Sunday Express). The teacher was a detractor of Thomas Eliot and Ezra Pound. Burgess was intrigued therefore, and read Eliot's "The Wasteland" at age 15. He did not then understand the poem, but regarded it as important, copied it out and started to memorize it. A few years later as a Manchester University student he understood the poem pretty well. He organized a sort of "arty" reading of it, with the lines split up among different characters and with music--a mixture of ragtime and Wagner. He (Burgess) commented, "To accompany the opening 'April is the cruellest month,' I wanted that marvellous chilly bassoon solo at the beginning of Stravinsky's "le Sacre du Printemps," but I was howled down, and we had to have a young music student playing Delius on the piano instead. Recently, I discovered that Eliot had had that very Stravinsky bassoon (passage) in his ears while composing his opening lines. I wish he'd announced the fact in 1937, the year of my production. I hate being right too late." (This quote was mentioned to me by Michael Namer, my colleague in the National Arts Centre Orchestra.)

A poem about the contra-bassoon, sent to me by Alice Benjamin, who teaches bassoon at the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada:

"A suggestion by an anonymous friend of a contra-bassoon that the instrument be played upon more frequently"
By Margaret Christen, New Jersey (1971)

Oh
dear beast
whose depths have held the breath of many lips
How sad you must be
to be so shunted
from one pawing, panting craftsman to another

Your apertures
explored and manipulated
at the will of each one-night player

Passed from mouth
to mouth and then
locked away, untouched
for who knows how long
in your coffin
to rest and dry
out

cramped in velvet and darkness

Why does this your mistress to you?
How tease you with occasional caresses,
and those only to ready you
to be rented to another!

Does she not hear, oh poor beast, your low moans of entreaty,
as you respond to her brief attentions?
Can she not realize your need
by your eager attempts to
please her
with your long vibrations?

does she think you vibrate like that for another?

A short story for children by Walter de la Mare, with an accompanying illustration by Robin Jacques (Collected Stories for Children. Faber paper covered Editions. London. 1947; 1970)

"The Dutch Cheese" is a story about a young farmer, described as "sullen and stupid," who lived alone with his sister near a Great Forest, and who was very frightened of the "fairies." "When at dusk too, he heard their faint, elfin music, he would sit in the door blowing into his father's great bassoon till the black forest re-echoed with its sad, solemn, wooden voice." This excellent and quite accurate illustration of a nineteenth century bassoon being played by the boy while fairies make other music around him accompanies the story.


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