Sunday, April 17, 2011

Working... #3 : Bassoon vs. piano

I'm sure many of you have been to bassoon recitals and noticed that balance is often an issue when bassoon and piano are paired.

Liz Demio, who has probably performed with all of the orchestral instruments, says that the bassoon is the most difficult to accompany. I should point out that Liz is married to a bassoonist and knows the repertoire inside and out.

Indeed, when in uncaring hands, the piano seems to swallow the bassoon sound whole, reducing it to mere stage choreography in the worst instances! Why is balance such a big problem?


A little physics is helpful here. All notes on the bassoon, regardless of the fundamental, have a fixed region in which their harmonics are most prominent. This is called the formant. The range of these resonance peaks on the bassoon has been found to be between 450-500Hz[1], or roughly around the same pitch as high A to B.  

Click on this link to see some graphs I made of various notes on the bassoon. You will see the strongest harmonic for each note falls in this range. Indeed, harmonics in this range are usually stronger than the fundamental frequency for a given note! 

Notice in what part of the piano's range the bassoon's formant exists and you'll identify the problem. The bassoon's formant is right in the middle of the piano, in the heart of the right hand's range where most piano melodies are written.

Pianos are made, voiced and tuned to be richest in tone in this range!  Smart composers will avoid direct competition between bassoon and piano wherever possible.

Below is the opening of the Saint-Saens Bassoon Sonata. It is an example of good, effective writing for bassoon and piano. The piano right hand notes are limpid and light and the left hand counter line lies below the bassoon. The bassoon part comes through with no trouble and the pianist doesn't need to play less than the indicated dynamic to make the passage work.

Next is an excerpt from the Marsch in Hindemith's Bassoon Sonata. It is an example of piano writing that is too busy and heavy for good balance with the bassoon.  The counterpoint in the right hand stays mainly in the range of the bassoon's formant, putting out a fog through which the bassoon can project only with great difficulty.  The left hand octaves are heavy and too ponderous for the bassoon. The pianist must play at "mp" to make this passage work.

The bassoon, by the way, has the melody at this point. Perhaps Hindemith thought we'd heard enough of the melody and wanted to feature his counterpoint!


Another issue to deal with when playing with piano is articulation.  The pianist must be adept at muting the percussive effect inherent in piano articulation. For more on this, read Randy's excellent comments on my previous post. In addition, it is essential that the bassoonist articulate with special attention to focus and clarity of pitch on each note if the sound is to have a chance to live.


The way pianos are often tuned and voiced makes playing in tune with them more difficult. Piano technicians often "spread" the intonation of the piano's low and high range to reinforce harmonics and enrich the sound of the instrument.  A lower-than-normal low register in the piano can wreak havoc with the sharp tendency of the bassoon's low register!  David Van Hoesen used to ask the piano technicians not to lower the low notes on the piano in his studio at Eastman to keep the pitch back into sync with the bassoon.
Many musicians find the piano's equal temperament tuning imparts a dull lifelessness to voice leading and harmony. Starting with Pablo Casals, many string players use "expressive" intonation even when playing with piano, disregarding the tuning discrepancies that can result. 

For an interesting take on this, read Ross Duffin's excellent How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony and Why You Should Care

[1]John Backus, The Acoustical Foundations of Music, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.(1969), 104.

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