The Bohemian musician Jan (Johann) Vaňhal, who lived and worked in Vienna, may be regarded as one of the most prolific composers of his time: he wrote over one thousand three hundred works including some sixty concerti for various instruments. The bassoon, in the 18th century, appeared relatively rarely as a solo instrument, which makes Vaňhal’s decision to compose a concerto even more interesting, especially as the main role is given to two bassoons. The finale of the concerto, traditionally written in a mobile tempo, affords the soloists the opportunity to compete in terms of virtuoso skill not just with the orchestra but with each other.
The French school of woodwind instruments held pole position throughout the whole of the 20th century in Europe. Extremely talented musicians – who had studied at the Paris Conservatoire – not only dazzlingly performed the music of previous centuries, they also inspired contemporary composers to produce new works for their instruments. Henri Tomasi’s Bassoon Concerto was, apparently, composed taking into account the skill of virtuoso bassoonist Maurice Allard, who performed the solo at the premiere. The solo in the concerto demands full mastery of the entire arsenal of technique and the full timbre range of the bassoon. The refined virtuoso outer sections of the concerto frame the second section – the eccentric Sérénade-Nocturne with features of jazz music. The revelation of the possibilities of the solo bassoon is assisted by the chamber format of the orchestra, which features only strings with bows and the harp.
In the former half of the 1810s Carl Maria von Weber created an entire plethora of works for solo wind instruments for musicians at the Bavarian Court Cappella. For bassoonist Georg Friedrich Brandt the composer created a concerto and a two-movement cycle – Andante and Rondo hongrois, reproduced from an earlier version in which the viola performed the solo. The Andante is a series of variations on a cantilena theme in minor key which gradually takes on a dramatic character. In the orchestra’s responses we unexpectedly discover Beethoven’s “Schicksal motif”. The contrasting second movement is a dance-spirited rondo. Here the “Hungarian” element does not mean any “ethnographic” precision or turning to genuine Hungarian musical folklore, but is rather interpreted in a generalised fashion and makes reference to the then fashionable style hongrois in music, to which Haydn, Schubert and many other composers paid tribute.
Paul Dukas, a talented composer and music critic, has gone down in history first and foremost as the composer of the dazzling symphonic scherzo The Sorcerer’s Apprentice after the ballad by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Its plot is widely known in European culture: the apprentice of an elderly wizard practices magic in secret. Having made the broom bring a pail of water into the house, he forgets the magic words to make it stop and only the return of the old wizard prevents the house being flooded. The composer succeeded in finding vivid musical characteristics for the events that take place in the ballad, among which of particular interest are the “spell” harmonies – the increase of triads in the strings and the muted brass which form a link to the music of the impressionists. In the beautifully instrumented score an important role is played by the bassoon section, which is represented by three main instruments and by the bass element in the contrabassoon. It is with the bassoons that we first hear the theme that depicts the rushing of the enchanted broom, endlessly bringing in water, and the solo contrabassoon matches the part of the plot where the despairing apprentice breaks the broom with an axe, only for both halves to continue to bring in more water.
It is by no means insignificant that the popularity of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was assisted by Walt Disney’s famous cartoon film Fantasia, for which the scherzo was performed by an orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski and in which Micky Mouse appeared in the role of the hapless apprentice.