Some years ago I was driving through
Belgium somewhere in the province of Namur. I can’t remember exactly why,
but it must have seemed a good idea at the time. I have a feeling that I
was attempting to follow the River Meuse, which on reflection would have
been more effectively achieved with a boat rather than a car. The river
begins its five-hundred mile journey in France and flows through Belgium and
the Netherlands before reaching the North Sea.
Anyway, I eventually found myself in
the charming Belgian town of Dinant which is dominated by the imposing
Collegiate Church of Notre Dame. The town is famous for its flamiche,
a local version of quiche but it also has the dubious distinction of
producing the Couque de Dinant, claimed to be the hardest biscuit in
Dinant is also noted for being the
birthplace of Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, born to a musical instrument
maker in 1814. Within months the family moved to Brussels yet even as a
child Adolphe began to design his own musical instruments. Unfortunately he
was also somewhat prone to accidents and had several close encounters with
death. These included being seriously burnt in a gunpowder explosion,
falling into a hot frying pan, swallowing a pin, tumbling from a third floor
room to the stone pavement below and being comatose for a week and on
another occasion almost drowning in a river.
Sax survived all these calamities
(including two assassination attempts in adult life) and went on to invent
many new musical instruments including the saxhorns, which later became
better known as the flugelhorn, the euphonium and the tuba. Even so, he’s
most closely associated with the saxophone which he patented in June 1846.
It was partly based on an older brass keyed instrument called the
Within a few years, Sax had designed an
entire family of fourteen saxophones. Most of them have since become
obsolete and only three remain in regular use: the alto, tenor and
baritone. The soprano and bass saxophones are rarely seen. Strangely
enough the first that Sax built was a massive bass saxophone, which
evidently impressed composer Hector Berlioz who was amazed at its
versatility, unique tone and presumably its elephantine dimensions.
The saxophone was intended to have a
smooth and mellifluous sound and this is the preferred tone quality for
classical players, unlike the raucous honking favoured by some jazz and rock
players today. Several notable composers have written concertos for the
instrument, among them Debussy, Ibert, Milhaud, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, Paul
Creston and Philip Glass.
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936): Concerto for Alto
Saxophone and String Orchestra Op 109.
Joseph Lulloff (alt sax), Brevard Music Center Orchestra cond. JoAnn
Falletta (Duration: 15:25 Video: 1080p HD)
Glazunov was born in St. Petersburg and
was the son of a wealthy publisher. He began studying piano at the age of
nine and started composing soon afterwards. In later years, he studied with
Rimsky-Korsakov and went on to enjoy international fame. He was a prolific
composer who completed nine symphonies and several concertos together with a
vast array of orchestral works.
This lyrical and rather melancholy
saxophone concerto dates from 1934, towards the end of his life. It was his
last composition but has becomes one of the mainstays of the saxophone
repertoire. Although the music is deeply rooted in the Romanticism of the
previous century the work has become part of the standard saxophone
Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937): Introduction et Variations sur
une Ronde Populaire.
Quartet (Duration: 08:44 Video: 1080p HD)
Marcel Mule (1901-2001) is universally
recognized as the greatest master of the instrument, once described as “the
Jascha Heifetz of the saxophone”. In 1927, he formed the Marcel Mule
Saxophone Quartet which was more of a challenge than it sounds, because at
the time no music existed for saxophone quartet. Undaunted, Mule began the
task of writing arrangements himself and also encouraged many composers to
write works for the instrument or the quartet. One of them was Gabriel
Pierné, (Pee-EHR-nay) well-known in Paris as an organist and
conductor. It was he, who conducted the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s
ballet The Firebird.
Pierné wrote the Introduction and
Variations in 1934 and the music is elegant, charming and
quintessentially French. These young musicians give an excellent and
expressive performance of this delightful work and the baritone saxophone
adds a sumptuous richness to the musical texture.
As well as the saxophone, Belgium also
gave the world French fries, although I suppose most Belgians are probably
fed up being reminded. Belgium also gave us the contraceptive pill, the
praline, the jpg conversion, and strangely enough, roller skates, introduced
in 1760 by the Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin. It is pleasing to
imagine that as a child, the accident-prone Adolphe Sax might have used a
pair of them to hurtle around the streets of Brussels.
Nepomuk Hummel in 1820.
(Engraving by Pierre Roche Vigneron)
Thomas Mann, the German novelist, short
story writer, social critic, philanthropist and author of the popular
novella Death in Venice, was evidently not very fond of the bassoon.
The instrument (he wrote) “is a bass instrument without proper bass
strength, oddly weak in sound, bleating burlesque.” A lot of people would
disagree, especially the three or four thousand members of the International
Double Reed Society. And so would the musician Frank Zappa who said, “The
bassoon is one of my favorite instruments. It has a medieval aroma. Some
people crave baseball... I find this unfathomable, but I can easily
understand why a person could get excited about playing the bassoon.”
Now I have to admit that although the
bassoon is one of my favourite instruments too, I have never felt a
compelling urge to try and play one. Like the oboe and the cor anglais, the
bassoon is classed as a double reed instrument because the sound is produced
by two pieces of cane which vibrate against each other. This is in contrast
to the large families of clarinets and saxophones, all of which use single
The origins of the bassoon go back to a
similar-looking woodwind instrument known as the “dulcian” which flourished
roughly between 1550 and 1700. It was traditionally carved from a single
piece of wood and is still used in ensembles that specialise in performing
The bassoon that we see in orchestras
today emerged during the first part of the nineteenth century. It was
developed because of the increasing technical demands of composers and
performers as well as the need for greater volume in concert halls. It’s
not obvious, but the bassoon has a conical bore, meaning that the inside of
the tube becomes progressively wider. The entire tube is about eight feet
long, which is why it’s doubled back on itself to make the instrument more
manageable. The Italian and German names for the instrument are fagotto
and Fagott respectively which, contrary to what some people might
imagine, mean “a bundle of sticks”.
Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837): Grand Concerto in F Major for Bassoon and
Sung Kwon You (bsn), Amadeus Chamber Orchestra dir. Choi Ho Soon (Duration:
25:21; Video: 720p HD)
We hear little of Hummel’s music these
days though in his time he was considered by many to be the musical equal of
Beethoven. In 1804 Hummel acquired the highly desirable post of
Konzertmeister at Prince Esterházy’s palace at Eisenstadt - a job he
partly shared with the older Haydn. Hummel was one of the leading piano
virtuosos in Europe and wrote eight concertos for the instrument, though
strangely enough not a single symphony. He had a significant influence on
Chopin and Schumann and also on countless other pianists with his seminal
book, crisply entitled A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of
Instruction on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte. It sold thousands of
copies within days of its publication.
This three-movement concerto was
written in Vienna sometime between 1811 and 1816 and rather looks back to
the time of Mozart. It has the grace of the gallant style, although it must
have seemed a bit old-fashioned to the sophisticated Viennese listeners.
Nevertheless, Hummel had a natural gift for melody which is especially
noticeable during the dreamy second movement. The work contains some
exciting virtuosic passages and it showcases the bassoon’s characteristic
tone qualities: the rich baritone sound in the low register and the lyrical,
slightly nasal tone quality on the upper notes.
von Weber (1786-1826): Bassoon Concerto in F Major Op. 75.
Musial (bsn), London City Orchestra cond. Pablo Urbina (Duration: 18:44;
Video: 1080p HD)
Like Hummel, Weber was also a brilliant
pianist though today his name is more closely associated with German
Romantic Opera. This concerto dates from 1811 (around the same time as the
Hummel) but unlike the Hummel concerto this music seems to look forward to
the romantic era which was beginning to emerge. The concerto was written
while Weber was in Munich on the first leg of an international concert tour
that was also to include appearances in Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Copenhagen
and St. Petersburg.
This is one of the most popular
concerti among bassoonists. This is not surprising because the work is full
of energy; there are many gorgeous aria-like melodies and there’s a real
sense of optimism. The slow movement is remarkably beautiful with a lyrical
melody that could have been lifted straight out of an Italian opera. The
third movement, which begins with a perky little tune that the bassoon
handles so well, develops into an impressive display of virtuosity. There
are some amusing touches too and listening to this engaging but technically
challenging music gives me the distinct impression that Weber probably had a
keen sense of humour.