Ten years ago I had not yet started my descent into the "Early Music Black Hole," and all I knew about the bassoon's development was that it was invented by some French guy. Then I went back to school to get my DMA, started playing baroque bassoon, and concurrently wrote a paper about J.C. Bach's bassoon concertos (yes, there is a J.C. Bach, and yes there are bassoon concertos). My thesis required a look back into the development of the bassoon, and I was frustrated by the variety of vague information, and was also intrigued. I few years later, a DMA document later, I have a few answers, still many questions, but some answers. So I wanted to share this information on my blog, because a few people might find it interesting, and it is my blog, I can throw out all my crazy theories without having to defend anything in a court of law, or musicology. Speaking of musicology. A note on notes and references. This blog post won't have any. If you have any question on my sources, please feel free to contact me, and I can either give you the source, or my actual quasi-academic article. I do have to say that all the information on instrument pitch comes from the the work of Bruce Haynes.
Our story begins, as all good stories, with the shawm and dulcian. For those of you not in the know, a shawm is a double reed instrument with a conical bore and mostly open tone holes. For pics see here. They were built in a variety of sizes, from sopranino to bass. A dulcian is very much like a compact shawm. Basically if one took shawm, cut it in half and joined the two pieces together, you would have the basic concept of the dulcian. Pics, see here. For the bass dulcian, this was convenient for events that required walking or marching, as walking while playing a bass shawm can be hazardous. These instruments were played in consort, either of like or different type instrument. They were used in almost all parts of what today is know as Europe. They were played mostly in churches, but were also used in different venues. Professionals, amateurs, uncle Jo who would pull out the shawm on rainy days.. ok, maybe not. We know these instruments were performed over most of Europe because of surviving iconography, letters, and instruments.
However, the activities of double reed players before the 17th century in France is a matter much murkier. In France there is no surviving evidence of any double reed activities, which has lead many to state that they weren't used. I don't believe this is correct. Most of the surviving pictorial evidence outside of France comes from churches, and woodwinds weren't played in French churches until much later. The woodwinds in France were secular instruments, there is a strong connection between the double reeds and royalty, but the earliest evidence of this is from the early 17th century. One would assume though, that this connection was there before the surviving evidence. Le Grande Écurie were the musicians of the King, of the royal stable. This ensemble was founded in the 16th century, and at least by the 17th century, included double reeds. This ensemble was used for a variety of royal functions, ceremonies, ballets, some big deal royal functions, etc. We have surviving music from 1610 which is written specifically for the King's hautbois, the kings double reeds.
To most people today, hautbois means oboe. However, hautbois (high wood) at that time meant the broader term woodwind. The woodwind instruments of the Renaissance were mostly at A = 465ish in pitch. In countries other than France, the organs which the double reeds would have played with were also at this high pitch, to save money on pipe material. This was not the case in France, the organs were at a low A = 390ish. So by comparison these woodwinds were very high in pitch. Hautbois could mean soprano shawm, bass shawm, bass dulcian, or even flute or bagpipe. This lack of clarity has created lots of confusion, and it only becomes more confusing as we go along, when we start to get subcategories of woodwind, such as flute and bassoon.
In 1637, Marin Mersenne published L'Harmonie Universelle, which contains a large section on instruments of the time, thankfully including images. This is the first time we see a picture of instrument Le basson. The French had, at some point before 1637, decided to take the perfectly good bass dulcian, and redesign it. The instrument they designed looks like what happens when you graft a baroque bassoon and bass dulcian together. In my mind, this is the beginning of line of what would later become what we know of today as the bassoon. Taking into consideration the keywork, it is quite possible that this instrument played a low Bb. Was this why the French felt the need to create a whole new instrument? No idea. Mersenne also includes pictures of dulcians, but these instruments are not nearly as detailed as the basson. It is possible that he just wasn't as familiar with the dulcian as he was with the basson. This instrument, while having its own brand name, still was considered a hautbois, along with the other bass hautbois, such as the bass shawm, and later the cromorne (I won't get into that question here, but that is an interesting topic).
Fast forward to the last half of the 17th century. The opéra-ballet, with music composed by Lully, became very popular. This is the time when most people agree the bassoon was developed. The theory is that Lully wanted to incorporate the woodwinds into the opéra-ballet performances. The only problem was that the strings/singers were playing at that super low church pitch. So, sometime between 1637 and 1692, likely the Hotteterre family and possibly Philador family were busy at work redesigning instruments. When they were done, they had taken the high pitched instruments and created a low pitched instrument with a better indoor voice. Thus the baroque oboe and bassoon were officially born (and probably flute, but I'm a double reed player, and I haven't done a lot of research into this). 1680 is frequently given as the latest date that the bassoon could have been developed, because this is the first time basson is printed in a score. However, this honestly doesn't prove anything, as the basson had been around a lot longer then that, and score instrumentation was very inconsistent and lacking in details well into the 18th century. There is no way to know which pitch this particular basson was. What we do know is that we have a picture of the early basson in 1637, and we have a picture of the low pitched bassoon in 1692. So it was definitely developed sometime during this time. When exactly, is not really possible to say. Honestly though, what really started to change at this time was the function of the instrument. The later low pitched bassoon wasn't so different from its earlier counterpart, but the role was changing. It went from a loud ceremonial instrument, a consort instrument, to one that could blend well with strings, as well as continue its role as the bass of the oboe band.
The newly designed instruments played an important part in the opéra-ballet of Lully. That was the original function. The new trio of double reed instruments slowly made their way across Europe, in part because of the popularity of Lully's music outside of france after he died. Elsewhere the dulcian was still being used, particularly in churches, as it still was an integral part of the church music scene. So the new French basson and the Dulcian existed side by side, as it is clear from the engraving of Johann Christoph Weigel from 1698, which shows both instrument in a workshop. On a practical level it makes lots of sense, Dulcians were partly associated with the church, and many town dulcians were pitched at the churches pitch, which could vary widely. The new French basson was at first for playing opera, and then eventually took its place as the bass of the woodwind section, but this was a long process. Woodwind design changes, like history, don't happen overnight. There was nothing inherently wrong with the dulcian, it didn't need to be upgraded or replaced. It had to do more with the function of the instruments and what became popular.
So in short. French makers sometime before 1637 made a hybrid bassoon dulcian, but it was most certainly at high pitch. Later French makers before 1692 for sure, but probably much earlier made a lower pitched version of this instrument to play nicely with the strings. The instrument rode on the popularity of the Lully operas outside of France, and eventually took over the dulcian's function. All of this was a gradual process though, and instrument changes, like history, don't happen overnight, or don't happen in a year. Attitudes about what an instrument should do change, and so the instruments change with the times.