A view From the Bassoon

Haydn’s Farewell can be heard in Canberra on Thursday 13 December at the Albert Hall, and Sunday 16 December at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

We asked bassoonist Simon Rickard a few questions about our upcoming program, his role as bassoonist and what really went on in eighteenth century orchestras.

Question: Haydn is well known for his ability to include humour with drama and beauty. The Farewell Symphony is one of his most famous pieces. How does he achieve this in that Symphony, and what makes it such a well known work? 

Simon: Haydn’s quicksilver wit and effortless elegance are nowhere more evident than in this famous symphony, which earned the nickname ‘Farewell Symphony’ (Abschiedssinfonie) from the deliberately anticlimactic ending Haydn wrote for it.

It is easy to forget that in Haydn’s day musicians were no more than glorified servants. Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, maintained a small orchestra of musician-servants who accompanied him to his summer palace each year for his private entertainment. One year, the stay at the summer palace was very long, and the musicians, wanting to return home to their own families, appealed to Haydn to intercede with the prince on their behalf.

Ever ingenious and creative, Haydn composed this symphony as a message to the prince. At the end of the last movement, each musician snuffed out the candles on his music stand and left the stage one by one, until only a single violinist was left on stage to finish the symphony. This subtle hint must have worked, because the next morning the prince moved his court back to Eisenstadt, and the musicians were returned to their families.

Question: The bassoon doesn’t always have an independent part in this program, yet it is playing most of the time. What role did it have in the eighteenth century?

Simon: The bassoon was the workhorse of the eighteenth century bass section. As such, most eighteenth century orchestras had more bassoons than cellos or double basses. For example, the famous orchestra at the Dresden court, under Hasse in 1768, had five bassoons but only three cellos and three double basses. The orchestra at the theatre of Versailles in 1773 had six bassoons, with only five cellos and four double basses.

Haydn’s early orchestras had two bassoons but only one cello and one bass. However, by the end of his career, the role of the bassoon had changed from being part of the tutti bass section, to become a solo tenor voice. The classical orchestra became standardised at this time, with only two or three bassoons, each playing their own independent part, outnumbered by a greater number of cellos and basses.

Question: J.C. Bach’s symphony is very dramatic and, like Haydn’s Farewell, could be termed a Sturm und Drang work. What does that mean and what should audiences expect?

Simon: Sturm und Drang was a proto-romantic movement in the second half of the eighteenth century that expressed itself in both literature and music. The term is usually translated from German as ‘Storm and Stress’. However the word ‘Drang’ also suggests an urge, yearning or drive. This sums up the nature of this turbulent style perfectly. Full of driving rhythmic energy in the fast movements and languishing affectation in the slow ones, unexpected harmonic progressions and abrupt dynamic changes, this style always keeps the listener on the edge of their seat.

Sturm und Drang is one of my favourite musical movements. I find it absolutely thrilling hearing its exponents, such as CPE and JC Bach, Haydn and even the young Mozart, trying to express romantic concepts using essentially baroque musical language. If only this unique musical movement had lasted longer!