Bassoonist / Conductor / Composer  Arthur  Weisberg

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Arthur Weisberg was born on April 4, 1931, in New York City. He attended the High School of Music and Art and the Juilliard School of Music, majoring in bassoon with Simon Kovar. He played first bassoon with the Houston and Baltimore Symphonies and second bassoon with the Cleveland Orchestra, before coming back to New York City to study conducting with Jean Morel. At this time, Professor Weisberg was first bassoon with the Symphony of the Air (formerly the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini).

He was bassoonist with the New York Woodwind Quintet for 14 years and taught at Juilliard, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Yale University. Professor Weisberg and the New York Philharmonic have recorded George Crumb's "A Haunted Landscape" (shown below). He has conducted the Milwaukee Symphony and the Sjaellands and Aalborg Symphonies of Denmark. He created the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble in 1961. While he was the conductor and music director, the CCE toured throughout the United States and the rest of the world, giving over 100 world premieres. They completed many recordings which have won several prizes. Weisberg also authored two books, "The Art of Wind Playing", published by G. Schirmer, and "Performing 20th Century Music-a Handbook for Conductors and Instrumentalists," published by Yale University Press.

Weisberg introduced a new bassoon which he claimed was "absolutely unable to crack. Perfect slurs on the most problematic notes. Never having to flick again. Ease of fingering. Better quality and pitch on six of the worst notes. This is what the Weisberg System promises and delivers, and it does all of this automatically, with no new fingerings to learn."
He composed numerous works, and has made several editions for bassoon, including a transcription of the Bach Cello Suites and a set of 15 Etudes for Bassoon in the style of 20th Century music. He passed away January 17, 2009, in Florida.

Selected compositions

    Duo for Bassoon and Piano (1984)
    Piece for Viola Solo (1984)
    Piece for Piano (1984)
    String Quartet No. 1 (1984)
    Duo for Cello and Piano (1985)
    Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1985)
    Opening Statement for Orchestra (1985)
    Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (1986)
    Quintet for Horn and String Quartet (1986)
    Sonatina for Flute (1986)
    Music for Double Woodwind Quintet (1987)
    Two Pieces for String Quartet (String Quartet No.2) (1987)
    Duo for Violin and Piano (1988)
    Symphonic Statement for Band (1988)
    Cantabile and Vivace for Bassoon and String Orchestra (1988)
    String Quartet No. 3 (1989)
    Birthday Piece for Viola and Bassoon (1991)
    A Song and a Dance for Solo Bassoon (1992)
    From the Deep for Two Contrabassoons and Piano
    Concerto for Bassoon and Strings (1998)
    15 Etudes for Bassoon Written in the Style of 20th Century Music (2004)

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

I rarely speak about myself and my own musical experiences, but when I do, I am quick to point out that my first love was singing, and my main instruments were the bassoon and contrabassoon.  I studied this lowest of the double-reeds with Wilbur Simpson, the long time Second Bassoon of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and while I never excelled as a technician, the experience of playing in orchestras and bands in high school and college added immensely to my understanding of concert music.  This, combined with my vocal presence in choruses, choirs, and ensembles made my love of the art something that continues to this day.  Indeed, my Master
’s Degree from Northwestern University is in Music History and Literature, which combined all of my resources into what guided my many years doing interviews with great musicians.

I bring this up because my guest on this webpage is a bassoonist-extraordinaire, as well as a conductor and composer.  Such a well-rounded musical talent was someone I sought out.  At the turn of the new millennium, I knew he lived in Florida, and in November of 2000, while visiting my elderly father (who had retired there in the late 19
70s after surviving seventy Chicago winters), I took the opportunity to arrange an interview.

Weisberg was amenable to the idea, and after a comfortable dinner at my father
’s retirement home, we sat down for a chat.  The bassoonist quickly warmed to my questions, and though his thoughts remained mostly quite serious, there was a bit of laughter throughout our session.

weisberg Here is what was said that evening . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re bassoonist, conductor, teacher, composer...  How do you divide your time amongst all those activities?

Arthur Weisberg:    [Laughs]  I can’t make up my mind!  That’s been my problem.  You do one of them at a time, and usually that makes it easier.

BD:    When you’re conducting, will you sometimes get ideas for compositions?  
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with William Schuman, and Zubin Mehta.]

AW:    Not really.  I never thought about that before.  It seems like a logical conclusion, but I really don’t because when I’m immersed in the piece I’m doing at the moment, I don’t have room to start thinking about other ideas.

BD:    I just wondered if something would come to you in a flash, or simply hit you?

AW:    No, it hasn’t happened while I’m conducting, at least not that I can remember. 

BD:    When you’re composing, do you get ideas on how to interpret some of the scores you’re conducting?  Or again, is it isolated?

AW:    Yes, they’re really separate roles.  Conducting and composing are totally different, and playing is another one that’s totally different.  Of course they’re related to each other, but conducting is one thing.  You’re trying to do something, and composing is another, and playing is still another.  They really don’t conflict with each other, and they don’t build on each other at the moment.  Of course, all the experience of doing these things goes into your life’s work, but it doesn’t seem to come out at the moment from one to the other.  I just haven’t noticed it.  It may be true for other people.

BD:    Is it good for your students to know that not only do you wave the stick, but also use the pen?

AW:    I don’t know if it’s good for them to know, but they certainly know it.  The bassoon students that I teach know that I conduct, but I don’t treat them the same way as I do when I’m teaching them the bassoon.  When you’re a conductor, your relationship is one way with the player, and when you’re teaching them it’s a totally different relationship.

BD:    Why?

AW:    Because when you’re teaching them the bassoon, for example, you get to know them in a way that you wouldn’t as a player in the orchestra.  You’re certainly very aware of their exact problems, what they need, and their development.  In the orchestra, it’s really that they’re part of this giant machine, and they have to do their job.  The conductor has to get them to their job, and you can’t ‘baby’ them along, knowing that their vibrato wasn’t quite fast enough, or they can’t double-tongue... things like that.

BD:    It doesn’t behoove the conductor to be aware of these problems with the various instruments?

AW:    Yes, you must be aware of the problem of each instrument, and what it’s capable of doing.  I was mentioning double-tonguing, which is still a relatively new thing in the world of winds, but it’s not so new with flutes and the brass.  They’ve double- and triple-tongued who knows how far back it goes.  But with the clarinet, the oboe, and the bassoon it’s only fairly recent, and there are so many passages that really do require it.  I haven’t done a survey, but I don’t think even half of the woodwind players can double-tongue, which means there are certain passages they cannot play.  The conductor should know this, and not simply say to tongue faster.  If you’re doing the Beethoven Fourth, depending on the conductor the clarinet and the bassoon have this very fast tonguing.  They can’t do it.  They start doing two and twos
two slurs and two tonguesand the conductor can get annoyed.  He might say, I don’t want two slurs.  I want it all tongued. So what are they supposed to do?  They can’t do it, and the conductor must realize that type of thing.

weisberg BD:    Do you then alter your tempos so they can get around it?

AW:    No, you let them do two and two.  Altering the tempo would change the piece a lot more than the single passage being a little wrong articulation-wise.

BD:    So you look at the big picture and hope that all the details work themselves out?

AW:    If you’re conducting a young orchestra that’s not very good, then you may have to alter your tempos altogether, not just for the tonguing.

BD:    So if you have too many of these little problems, then everything falls apart.

AW:    Right.  If they can’t play fast enough yet, there’s no point in forcing them.

BD:    If Beethoven wrote this passage that really can’t be played, was he writing because he thought eventually they’d be able to get it?

AW:    I really wish I knew.  Look at Haydn and Mozart, and their bassoon writing.  It almost always just doubles the cellos, and the cellos have very fast parts.  Did they expect them to tongue?  I honestly don’t know.  I’d love to know the answer to that.  No, I don’t think they were looking ahead to the future. 

BD:    They don’t have any memoirs of Haydn’s bassoonist?

AW:    No, and I wish we did.  Maybe there were a few of them that double-tongued.  Who knows?  Right now I’m doing the ‘Haffner’ Symphony [No 35 in D] of Mozart, and the last movement I’m taking pretty fast because it’s marked presto.  So I want it fast, and the bassoons are hanging on for dear life!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is that the difference between an amateur musician and a professional musician
— the amateur is hanging on for dear life, and the professional feels secure in all of these passages?

AW:    Not all of these passages, no.  There are tough passages for any professional.

BD:    But I assume that you, as a professional bassoonist, have no real problems with them?

AW:    With those passages and the tonguing?

BD:    Any passages.

AW:    Well, no.  There are some tough passages that you have to worry about.  You can’t just relax.  In fact, you can’t relax too much when you’re playing anything.  You have to stay up.  There are tough passages for every instrument that are at the limits, and in the twentieth-century there are many passages that are beyond the limits.

BD:    You’re also a composer.  Do you write what you have to write and let the players worry about the technical things, or do you make sure that every technical passage is possible?

AW:    Possible is the key ingredient there.  Possible is not easy, necessarily.  If it’s not possible I won’t write it unless I don’t know it that it’s not possible, and I do know by this time.  [Laughs]

BD:    For instance, with the Corigliano Clarinet Concerto, Stanley Drucker said he really had to work at it, and now it’s a High School test piece.

AW:    Yes, that is true.  That happens with certain pieces.

BD:    Is it that the young musicians are getting better technically all the time?

AW:    The level is going up all the time.  I don’t think the very best players are better now than they ever were.  We’ve kind of reached a limit, and it’s the other players that are trying to approach that limit, rather than go way beyond it.  However, there’s occasionally a player that goes beyond the limits.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is it good or bad that the bassoon is still somewhat lesser known?  There isn’t a
James Galway Bassoonist.  It’s still considered an odd instrument, especially for solo work.

AW:    Well, that is true.  It’s pretty rare that somebody spectacular stands out.

BD:    But even the great, outstanding bassoonists seem not to be well known.

AW:    That’s true.  The bassoon is somehow looked on differently than even the other woodwinds.  I don’t know exactly why.  Maybe it doesn’t have some of the capabilities they have.  It is, after all, unfortunately a soft instrument.  It’s the softest instrument in the orchestra outside of the viola, or the flute in the lower register.

BD:    Should we encourage more concerti to be written for bassoon, or even more exposed ensemble-playing?

AW:    Whether we encourage it or not, it’s happening.  There’s an incredible amount of music being written for the bassoon.  There are all kinds of pieces from all over the world.

BD:    Is that good?

AW:    Yes, sure!  The more the better.  You can’t stop it anyway.  [Laughs]  It’s just happened.

BD:    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write for the bassoon?

AW:    I hope that person would be a musician, first of all.

BD:    Not necessarily a bassoonist?

AW:    Not necessarily a bassoonist, no.  There haven’t been many bassoon composers that I know of.  Willard Elliot [Principal bassoon of the Chicago Symphony 1964-97] has written a concerto that has been done.

Ex-cso Bassoonist Willard Elliot, 73

June 10, 2000
By Karen Mellen, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.
Unlike flashy instruments such as the flute or clarinet, the bassoon is a reliable instrument, its elegant, strong sounds heard during 90 percent of most symphonies, often rising to a solo.

In many ways, the instrument characterized Willard Elliot, 73, a retired principal bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Colleagues said his quiet strength made him a Rock of Gibraltar of the symphony for three decades.

"You never worried whether something was going to come out wrong or not," said Dale Clevenger, principal horn for the CSO who sat near Mr. Elliot for three decades. "You never did. Because he was just so dependable, so reliable, so solid a player."

Mr. Elliot died of heart failure Wednesday, June 7, in Ft. Worth.

Mr. Elliot's love of music started early, cultivated in his native Texas by listening to his parents' old opera records, said his brother, Doug. He soon began piano lessons, then progressed to the clarinet. Eventually, he specialized in the bassoon, a complicated double-reed woodwind. The range of the bassoon is immense, able to reach deep baritones, but also producing clear notes similar to those of a tenor.

He started with the bassoon about age 14, even though he wanted to play much sooner, said his wife of 23 years, Pat. "He was waiting until he was big enough to play the bassoon," she said. "You have to have long enough fingers."

At age 19, Mr. Elliot earned his master's degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He then went on to play with the Houston Symphony Orchestra for three years and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for 11 years. In 1964, he joined the CSO, continuing with the organization until he retired on Jan. 1, 1997, for health reasons, his wife said.

Known for his unwavering respect toward colleagues and high degree of professionalism, Mr. Elliot led by example, and was appreciated for his musical ability. "He inspired those around him to play up to his level," said Burl Lane, a longtime bassoonist with the CSO. "In this business, tempers can flare very easily. But he was the easiest man in the world to work with."

Mr. Elliot also was an accomplished composer whose pieces were performed by the CSO.

After retiring from the CSO, Mr. Elliot moved to Ft. Worth to teach music at Texas Christian University and give master classes around the country.

CSO Winds

Williard Elliot (also the transcriber of the Grieg) is shown at right.
Immediately left of him is Wilbur Simpson. Behind Wilbur is oboist Ray Still.
Others shown (l-r) are Grover Schiltz, oboe, John Bruce Yeh, clarinet,
Norman Schweikert, horn, Larry Combs, clarinet, and Daniel Gingrich, horn.

Selected compositions

    Symphony No. 2
    Elegy for Bassoon and Orchestra, premiered December 7, 1959, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Paul Kletzki conductor
    Quetzalcoatl, a tone poem
    Night Piece for Small Orchestra
    Concerto for Two Bassoons and Orchestra
    Concerto for bassoon and orchestra (1965)
    3 Duets for flute and bassoon
    Six 15th-Century French Songs for oboe, bassoon, and piano (1978)
    Poem for bassoon and string quartet
    Quintet for bassoon and strings
    Two Metamorphoses for solo bassoon, string quartet, and wind quartet
    Six Portuguese Songs for bassoon and piano
    Six Portuguese Folk Songs for bassoon solo and orchestra (1990)
    Elegy for Orchestra (1960) (Kousevitzky award (1961)
    Snake Charmer, for alto flute and orchestra (1975)
    Five Impressions for Wind Octet (1981)
    Fantasy, for piccolo and piano (1978)
    Five short pieces for oboe and piano (1986)
    Septet, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and tuba (1987)
    Silhouettes (from impressions), for soprano, bassoon, and piano (1991)
    Six Portuguese folk songs, for bassoon and piano (1988)
    Tears, Idle Tears, for soprano, bassoon, and piano (1990)
    Two sketches, for woodwind quintet (1986)
    Evolutions, for two contra bassoons (premiered Aug 10, 1999, International Double Reed Society Annual Conference)

Selected arrangements and adaptations by Willard Elliot

    Four lyric pieces for wind octet, Edvard Grieg (1986) [recording shown above]
    Ma mere l'Oye cinq pieces enfantines, Maurice Ravel, arranged for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, violoncello, and bass (1988)
    March from Turandot, Carl Maria von Weber, arranged for wind octet (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, 2 bassoons) (1986)
    Peter Schmoll ouverture, Carl Maria von Weber, arranged for wind octet (1986)
    Quartet in B-flat, for bassoon, violin, viola, and violoncello, Mozart, (adaptation) (1986)
    Quejas o la maja y el ruisenor (Lament of the maja and the nightingale), from Goyescas, for wind octet: 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, 2 bassoons Granados, (1986)
    Scriabiniana, suite of selected piano works, Alexander Scriabin, arranged for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, violoncello, and bass (1991)
    Septet,for oboe, bassoon, horn, two violins, violoncello, and bass, Glinka, (new revision) (1988)
    Seven preludes for clarinet and piano, Alexander Scriabin, (arrangement) (1986)
    Valse, Opus 38, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano Alexander Scriabin, (arrangement) (1986)

    Most of the above compositions were published by Bruyere Music Publishers, a firm that Willard and his wife, Pat (née Patricia J. Bills), founded in 1986 to publish and popularize his compositions and arrangements.

BD:    Probably a lot of bassoonists have written their etudes, or an unperformed concerto.

AW:    Possibly, but I wouldn’t know about that.  Writing etudes is an interesting thing.  I’ve been toying and making some sketches of a book of etudes now for a few years.  I hope to get around to it one of these days. 

BD:    Specifically for the bassoon?

AW:    Specifically for bassoon, although they might work for other instruments.  But specifically it would be a twentieth-century etude book.

BD:    With leaps and cross-fingerings?

AW:    Whatever the twentieth century implies, and where the developments have gone.  Largely it would focus on rhythmic problems.

BD:    I asked you a moment ago about the technical advancement of young musicians.  Has there been a similar kind of advancement in terms of musicianship and musical ability?

weisberg AW:    No, I don’t think so.  There has always been a certain number of fine musicians, and probably that percentage in relation to the whole of musicians is about the same.  It’s a small percentage, and I don’t think general musicianship is going up.

BD:    It’s not going down, is it?

AW:    No, I wouldn’t say so, and I don’t think the human ear is getting any better either.  Some people talk about microtones and quarter tones, and the fact is most musicians have great trouble playing in tune with half steps.  To think of playing in tune with microtones is a tremendous stretch for most musicians.  I don’t think the ear, over the course of human history, has gotten any better.  It’s what it is, with always a few outstanding individuals.

BD:    Then why is it that composers are always challenging just a little more as we progress through music history?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my Interviews with Elliott Carter, and Gilbert Kalish.]

AW:    That’s the role of a composer
to challenge a little more, to explore new areasand some of them take that a little too literally and go into directions that they don’t realize turn out to be dead-ends.  But they still have to go into the dead-end before you find out it is a dead-end.

BD:    It’s right that we explore them?

AW:    Yes, you have to explore, and that’s the role of a composer. 

BD:    So, then, the big question.  Where’s music going these days?

AW:    [Laughs]  That question was always asked and it was never answered.  It could never be answered.  I don’t think it’s possible to get very far out of your own time in any field at all.  When I was a kid I was interested in cars
I still amand there was a big article in a magazine called Popular Mechanics.  It was an article interviewing a group of automotive expertsactually designersabout the car of the future.  This was in the late 30s, and they were asked to draw the car of fifty years in the future.  I vaguely remember the drawings, but they were unbelievably outlandish, ridiculous, and didn’t have anything to do with what we have now.  They were trying to project into the future, and you have composers that try to do that, too.  They try to jump into the future, and write that way, and almost never does musical history link up with them.  That’s my feeling. You can’t get very far.  You can push the envelope a little bit, but you can’t go into another zip code.

BD:    So music is always going to go forward, but maybe a glacial speed?

AW:    I don’t know.  It’s hard to describe the speed.  It’s always going in waves here and there with fingers poking in and out.  If you could see it somehow as a representation over history, it would be very interesting.

BD:    Are you saying a lot of things from this century are going to get left out and not be pulled back?

AW:    Most things in every century have gone out and disappeared.  How many great musicians are there over the course of history, compared to how many there were composing?

BD:    That’s true.  There’s hundreds from Beethoven’s time that are not Beethoven.

AW:    Right.

BD:    Is it right that we ignore all these composers, or should we occasionally play them?

AW:    You can’t just ignore them, and you have to play them because you can’t tell which one is Beethoven.  They still have relevance for our own time even if they’re not Beethoven.  They’re doing the things that are current now, and we must give them a chance.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

AW:    I don’t think it’s going to stop, if that’s what you mean.  The symphony orchestra has supposed to have ended already thirty times.  Classical music is supposed to have ended, but it’s not ending, and I don’t I think it will.  There’s too great an investment of human endeavor in classical music before it’ll just stop.

BD:    Then a very easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

AW:    Never having really thought that through, I can’t give you a glib answer to the purpose of music.  I happen to feel that music is about emotion.  Not every composer feels that way, and there could be a great debate about that.  I happen to feel that its purpose is to communicate human emotions, and there’s always room for that to happen in the world.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you get started playing bassoon, and not flute, or violin, or electric guitar?  [Smiles, immediately realizing the mistake]

AW:    [Laughs]  That didn’t exist!  I had an atypical childhood in terms of music. My father was a violinist.  He was in the first graduating class of the Curtis Institute on viola.  He played in a few orchestras at that time, and eventually got out of music, but he wanted me to be a musician. 

Weisberg BD:    [Surprised]  Really???  Most people who try to get out of music want their kids to stay away from music.

AW:    No, no, he always loved music.  He just couldn’t make a go of it.  It was during the Depression, when they were firing musicians and dissolving orchestras.

BD:    Oh, so it wasn’t his choice to get out of it?

AW:    No, it wasn’t really.  It just was circumstances.  Anyway, he gave me the violin when I was three or four.  It didn’t take for some reason, and then I studied the piano for quite a while.  That also didn’t take.  I wasn’t really that interested in it.  [Laughs]  I wished I’d stuck with it.  Then when I was thirteen, we decided that I was to play some woodwind instrument.  Actually the first choice was clarinet.  I didn’t know what a bassoon was, frankly.  Most people didn’t and don’t.  We went out to buy a clarinet, but we didn’t.  Then it turned out that a very good friend of my father’s was a good friend of Simon Kovar, the famous bassoon teacher of those days.  They cooked it up between them that I would study the bassoon.  So I went for my first lesson still not knowing what a bassoon was.  It was a shock because it was, at that time, almost as tall as I was.  [More laughter]  So that’s how I started the bassoon.

BD:    Any regrets about it?

AW:    No, I can’t say I regret it.  I wished I played some other instruments, but no, I don’t regret it.

BD:    [With a gentle, knowing nudge]  Any regrets of the endless hours whittling on reeds?

AW:    Yes, always!  I tell people that I went into conducting to get away from reeds.

BD:    You would think with these synthetics now they could make a permanent, or semi-permanent reed.

AW:    It’s got to happen.  I’m just waiting for it.

BD:    Or perhaps an adjustable reed, or something...

AW:    Yes, something where you could spend your time making music instead of making reeds.

BD:    This comes back to what I was asking about earlier.  At what point are you able to forget about the technical problems, and really start making music?

AW:    This happens at a point where you can’t specify it.  It’s the goal, or should be the goal of every musician, although it may only be an unconscious goal.  When you’re learning, you realize that you’re not going to be able to achieve this.  In fact, you’re pretty sure you can’t.  You can never achieve it, and most people don’t ever achieve it.  It happens without your realizing it, but not to everybody.

weisberg BD:    Is that what separates the real musicians from the amateurs?

AW:    Perhaps it is.  I wouldn’t even say the word
amateurs, but that’s probably one of the differences.

BD:    You’ve played in some fine ensembles.  Do you play better when you’re surrounded by fine musicians?

AW:    Oh yes, of course.  While playing in a bad group, you begin to doubt everything, especially intonation.  If you’re a good musician, you can’t ignore the intonation around you.  You have to try to adapt to it, and sometimes it’s not possible.  That, plus the dynamics, and, well, everything.  It can be very upsetting to play that way.  Imagine a top tennis player, or a top golf player playing with the average person.  They’d be very unhappy.

BD:    Even at this stage you still have the need to be challenged?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Robert Moevs, and Jacob Druckman.]

AW:    Yes, absolutely, always.

BD:    So it’s not just the composer that challenges you, it’s the other performers too?

AW:    Yes.  If you’re playing with somebody, or several people that are really wonderful, you want to be in there with them.  You want to be wonderful also.

BD:    Is there any future for the bassoon quartet, or the bassoon octet, or the bassoon band?

AW:    No.  It’ll continue, though.  There are several bassoon quartets, and it’s fun, and it will continue.  As to a future, I don’t think it will take the place of the string quartet.

BD:    Has the instrument itself become standardized enough so that a bassoon, is a bassoon, is a bassoon?  Or it is like some of the string instruments where each one is really individual?

AW:    No, the bassoon is pretty well standardized.  You find extra keys and things like that, but it’s become standardized.  It’s funny you should mention that because right now I’m trying to unstandardize it a little bit.

BD:    How so?

AW:    I’m working with Fox on a system of keys that I think will make the bassoon much easier to finger in the higher register without really changing anything.  [After playing in the Chicago Symphony for almost thirty years, Hugo Fox founded his instrument company in 1949 in South Whitley, Indiana.]  It’s like an automatic transmission, and he’s working on it.  I don’t know whether it’s going to prove to be workable.  It’s pretty complicated, but what it will do is require less use of fingers, particularly your thumb.  The keys will operate automatically, with the same keys opening and closing, and it won’t change the sound of the bassoon or anything like that.

BD:    Instead of having to cover two or three keys, and then one key will automatically open several?

AW:    Something like that.  The complicated fingerings in the higher register will happen more or less automatically with a simple fingering.  I don’t know, though.  We’ll see, but that would be a real change to the bassoon.

BD:    Will you be drilling new holes into the bassoon?

AW:    Yes, there are a few new holes, but that’s really beside the point.  This particular bassoon I’m talking about could be played just like a normal bassoon.  You would not even realize that it had this mechanism, and just treat it like a normal bassoon.  It would play the same way.  Of course it wouldn’t look the same way.  You’d look at it, and say,
“What the heck is all that?

BD:    So the point is ease of operation?

AW:    Yes.  In one of the more difficult areas of the bassoon, the top half octave is pretty tricky to finger.  These would be real fingerings, but achieved easily.

*     *     *     *     *

weisberg BD:    Let’s go the other direction.  Should every bassoon player play a little contra?

AW:    It’s fun to play those low notes, and you may get asked to play a contra.  You may have to do a single job, and you may get a lifetime job.  I went to Juilliard with two other bassoonists.  One of them wound up playing contrabassoon with the New York Philharmonic for thirty or forty years, and the other was in the Boston Symphony for thirty or forty years.  So it’s not a bad idea to learn a little contra.

BD:    Are there times when you have to extend the single bassoon?  I know the Nielsen Quintet needs a low A [a half tone lower than the bottom note on the bassoon].

AW:    There is an A-bell that was manufactured for the bassoon.  Strauss also wrote for a low A, and there is such a bell in existence built by Heckel [woodwind manufacturer founded in 1831 in Wiesbaden, Germany].  But it’s pretty rare, and it doesn’t destroy the piece not to play those notes, except in the Nielsen Quintet where you can hear it.  There are these makeshift things that you can do, such as putting a tube in the bell.

BD:    I’ve seen the bassoon player borrow the bell of the English horn.

AW:    That’s fairly good thing.

BD:    It almost makes it down to the pitch!

AW:    Yes, it almost makes it.  You can make a tube that does pretty well.  When we used to play it in the New York Woodwind Quintet, about half of the time John Barrows, the horn player, would play the low A.  He had a wonderful low A.  Not all horn players do.

BD:    A pedal tone?

AW:    Yes, and so he would play it.  Otherwise I’d put a tube in.  It’s a funny thing that luckily comes up only once in a while.

BD:    If it came up all the time, they’d be a standardization?

AW:    Then you’d have to have that bell.

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of playing in a woodwind quintet.

AW:    Once you’ve solved the problems of getting along with the different people
which is a problem in every chamber music group, not just the woodwind quintetthe real problem is matching the qualities, the attacks, the articulations of five totally different instruments.  It’s not like a string quartet.  They’re all the same, they really are.  Everything is the same, just the range is different.  They are really a family.  The woodwinds are called a family, but they’re totally different.  Their attacks are totally different, their releases are different, their volume capabilities, their vibrato, everything is all totally different.  So it is a problem just to try to match each other.

BD:    Is it a family of adopted instruments rather than a family of natural children?

AW:    There used to be these families of various instruments.  The clarinet has an entire family.  Flutes have a lot of members.  Even the oboe has a few, but not as many, and then there is the bassoon.  But those other family members have kind of disappeared except for specialized uses.  Take the clarinets in Symphonic Bands.  You’ll find a whole range of clarinets, and occasionally they will appear in the orchestra in big pieces where they’ll use Eb clarinet, the regular Bb clarinet, and the bass clarinet.

BD:    And sometimes contrabass clarinet?

AW:    That one is rare, yes, but it will be heard sometimes.  It’s come down to the Woodwind Family, and we all ask how the French horn got into the woodwind quintet.  That’s a joke all the time.  In Europe, it’s not called a Woodwind Quintet, it’s called a Wind Quintet, which makes more sense.

weisberg BD:    How did the group get standardized as flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and French horn?

AW:    You have to look back at the first composers who wrote for that group, which I suppose were Danzi and Reicha.  I don’t know how they settled in on it.

BD:    Is that what they simply had?

AW:    Sure, that’s what they had.  Of course, they had trombones and trumpets, but at that time they were just auxiliary instruments in the orchestra.  The trombone hadn’t really come into its own.  They were thinking about calling it an instrument, although it had a great old history, but not in terms of the orchestra.  But the French horn was used a lot, so they were the wind instruments.  The clarinet was also relatively new.

BD:    Is it fun playing in a woodwind quintet?

AW:    Yes, it is fun, and it’s very challenging.

BD:    Aside from a couple of groups, why don’t we have a pile of woodwind quintets like we have a pile of string quartets?

AW:    We have a lot of woodwind quintets, but it’s nothing like string quartets.

BD:    I mean performing groups.

AW:    There are a lot of performing groups around the world, but nothing like string quartets, and we don’t have the literature.  If Beethoven had written a bunch of quintets, and Haydn, and Mozart, and Brahms, there’d be that many more woodwind quintets.  So it’s the composers’ faults.  [Has a big laugh]

BD:    Are you rectifying that now?

AW:    No, I’m not a woodwind quintet composer as such.  I’ve just written one.

BD:    Are you a bassoon composer?

AW:    I’ve written a lot of works for bassoon and various combinations, yes.  How could I not?

BD:    So they’re things you’ve been agitating to get out of your system over the years?

AW:    No, it just seemed like a nice thing to do.  I did the bassoon literature over the years by giving recitals, and while there are incredible number of pieces written for the bassoon, there are very few really good pieces, and it’s hard to make recital programs if you’re trying to play only good, or really great pieces.  There aren’t that many great pieces, though there are plenty of pieces, and lots of nice pieces.

BD:    What makes a piece great?

AW:    A history, ultimately.  It’s a matter of opinion, of course, as to what’s great music at any time, and that’s why I say
history’.  We find out a hundred years later which are the great pieces because they are the ones that have lasted.  So for all the twentieth century things it’s a little too early to tell.

BD:    Are there some great pieces that are still lurking around in dusty libraries?

AW:    I don’t know.  I kind of doubt it, but it’s possible.  There are plenty of pieces lurking around waiting to be discovered, but I haven’t heard of any serious great piece being discovered in a long time.

*     *     *     *     *

weisberg BD:    What advice do you have for young bassoon players coming along?

AW:    Practice!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, more than just practice.

AW:    What else is there?  They have to get to it as soon as they can.

BD:    Then what should they be practicing
technique and musicianship?

AW:    Certainly, the things that make one a musician.  You can’t be a great musician without having a great or a pretty good technique.  You can’t skip one of those areas.  More people skip the musical area than the technical area.  It’s easier to become technically proficient because it’s more obvious what’s happening, and reaching your goals
how fast you can play, and your technique with the tongue and things like that.  They’re much easier to see results than musicianship.  So you get more of those and less of the great musicians.

BD:    So it’s still very rare to have the combination of both?

AW:    Those are the great musicians.

BD:    What advice do you have for young conductors?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with George Perle, Harold Blumenfeld, and Kim Kashkashian.]

AW:    Ah, well, conducting is a funny field to break into.  It has a lot to do with musicianship, but it can have a lot to do with other things too, which might have less to do with musicianship and technique, and more to do with charisma and lucky breaks.  There are a lot of conductors around the world who had these very good positions who, in my opinion, don’t deserve them.

BD:    They just sort of fell into them?

AW:    They have them for one reason or another, and each one would be its own story.  But I don’t think I want to talk too much about that.

BD:    No, no, that’s perfectly all right, but I assume there are still some great conductors around?

AW:    Of course, absolutely, definitely, yes, and coming up are the young ones, too.  It’s a field that’s a little different than the other areas of music.  In the sport’s world, for example, in baseball, there are your statistics.  We know how many home runs you’ve hit, and how many base hits, how many you’ve stolen, etc., etc.  It’s there in black and white. There’s nothing like that for conductors.  They are a breed apart.

BD:    [With a wink]  How many Beethoven Fifths you have conducted is irrelevant?

AW:    [Smiles]  Yes, it’s irrelevant.  It’s how you conducted.  That’s what’s important, not how many.  Don’t forget, a conductor is part of a team.  There’s this orchestra that’s playing, too.  There are very few great orchestras that want to play badly, even if they dislike the conductor.  They don’t want to, so they’re going to play at a certain standard, their standard, so it’s not always exactly what the conductor does that determines the outcome.  But the great ones can determine the outcome, absolutely.  They can impose their musical will on any orchestra.  The bad ones cannot do that.

BD:    I’ve been to a few performances of the Chicago Symphony where it’s a great performance, and the guest conductor bears no responsibility for it.

AW:    That’s what I mean.  It’s really a different thing.  It’s hard to find a parallel in another field.

BD:    In the music that you play or conduct, where’s the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

AW:    It can be both, absolutely both.  It can also be skewed one way or the other, definitely.

BD:    Depending on the piece?

weisberg AW:    Yes, depending on the piece.  There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but there needs to be a balance of both areas in music.  Many pieces are entertaining without being deep in any way, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

BD:    But there are some that entertaining and they are deep?

AW:    That depends on what you mean by
entertainingthe word sounds like it implies ‘light’, but you don’t necessarily mean that, do you?

BD:    No, not really.

AW:    The word
entertainment tends to imply ‘light’ but it’s not necessarily that impact.  It engages you.

BD:    What advice do you have for teachers?

AW:    Teaching is very important.  Obviously, most of the great musicians over the ages have taught as well, whatever their field was; not all, but most have.  It’s a way of passing on your art, and it’s very important for students to always have good teachers. 

BD:    Now the music that we’ve been talking about, the so-called
classical music or concert musicis that for everyone?

AW:    Apparently not.

BD:    Should it be?

AW:    If you are talking in numbers, most people don’t know much about classical music.  They haven’t heard it, so we don’t really know how much they’d like it.  How you get them to hear it is a difficult question.

BD:    Then let me turn that around.  How do we get more people to hear the music that you play or conduct or compose?

AW:    This is a constant question in every orchestra and every chamber music group in the world, so I’m not going to give you the answer.  I wish I could, but I really don’t know.

BD:    We just have to keep plugging away?

AW:    Yes.  Musicians don’t give up.  They do keep plugging away, and I don’t know what else to do except to play the music as well as you can, and then leave it to your publicity agent and the managers to find a way.  People are looking constantly everywhere.  They’re trying all kinds of things to get people in, and to get younger people in.  Classical, which is sometimes called ‘serious’ music, is serious, and then you talk about entertainment, or entertaining music.  But by and large it is serious, and many, many people don’t want anything serious.  So that puts us as a great disadvantage.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you in the point of your career where you want to be at this age?

AW:    I wouldn’t be the musician I am, whatever that is, without being this age, so I guess it’s okay.

weisberg BD:    Tell me about the new work that’s going to be premiered at the Double Reed Convention.

AW:    The International Double Reed Society Convention, to give it its full name.  I’m playing a new concerto that I just finished about six weeks ago for bassoon and string orchestra.  It is a three-movement work, fast-slow-fast.

BD:    Very traditional for an untraditional instrument?

AW:    Well, the bassoon is a very traditional instrument, it really is.  However, it’s kind of a hard piece.

BD:    Do you look to have this then taken up by a lot of bassoonists who are at the convention?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Milton Babbitt, T.J. Anderson, and Richard Wernick.]

AW:    It’s certainly a way of exposing a bassoon piece to many bassoonists at once.  There wouldn’t be any other way of doing that.  I would hope so but it’s not for the faint hearted.

BD:    It’s not going to wind up being Weisberg’s piece, is it?

AW:    I hope not.  I’ve written a few pieces for the bassoon that are very difficult, and they have not been played.  It’s partly because no one knows about them, and maybe because they’re very hard, but my bassoon music is only just now starting to come out.  It hasn’t been available, and people didn’t know it.  Most people don’t know that I am a composer.  Many people know me as a bassoonist, and many other people who know me as a conductor don’t know me as a bassoonist, but not many know me as a composer. 

BD:    You should issue a challenge.  If someone is able to play your piece, you’ll take them to dinner after the performance.

AW:    [Laughs]  I don’t try to write hard music but everybody tells me it is.  I’ve written a lot of music in all genres.

BD:    You just write what has to come out?

AW:    Yes.  People do ask me to write pieces, and I just recently was asked to write a tuba sonata.  I don’t think I would have sat down to write a tuba sonata without being asked.  I was also asked for a trumpet sonata, a trumpet concerto, and trombone and brass quintet.

BD:    When you get these requests, how do you decide if you’re going to say yes, you’ll write it, or no, you won’t?

AW:    It’s usually somebody I know that I would like to write a piece for.  That’s how it happens, and if I’m not doing anything at the moment, I might more easily do it.

BD:    It sounds like some of these commissions have put new ideas into your head.

AW:    Yes, it’s fun writing for unusual combinations, to try and make sense out of that combination.

BD:    Is there always sense to be made out of it?

AW:    Yes.  I wrote a concerto that’s going to be performed next season at the New World Symphony for two pianos and two percussion.

BD:    Sounds like the Bartók work.

AW:    Yes, it is the same.  Just the four players, and that’s a very interesting combination with lots of possibilities that you can explore.

BD:    I hope it comes off.

AW:    It’s going to happen, so we’ll see how it comes off.

BD:    One last question.  Is playing the bassoon fun?

AW:    In some ways it is, and in some ways it’s not because it can be hard work concentrating and emoting.  That’s its own kind of ‘fun’.  But it’s not that you’re sitting back and laughing at yourself while you’re playing.  You have to stay connected.

BD:    [Mischievously]  But I thought the bassoon was the clown of the orchestra.

AW:    That’s what I’ve heard.

BD:    You don’t subscribe to that?

AW:    Any instrument can be a clown of the orchestra, given the right notes and rhythms. 

BD:    Aren
t all bassoon players naturally jolly?

AW:    I haven’t found that to be the case.  Have you? 

BD:    Maybe it
s just that I’m jolly, but who knows?  Thank you for the conversation.  I appreciate it.

AW:    My pleasure.


Also, see some comments about Stefan Wolpe from an interview with his student M. William Karlins

© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Delray Beach, Florida, on April 30, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and on WNUR in 2009 and 2014, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2009.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.