The two excerpts from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are probably the most well-known bassoon passages to non-musicians; out of the two, the second, longer excerpt is more likely to be asked on auditions. I recommend a tempo of about ♩. = 114-118, which seems pretty standard fare (in fact, the Berliner Philharmoniker recording is the only included example that takes a tempo significantly faster than this).
The most important consideration for this excerpt should be the articulation style of the staccato notes. While The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was originally composed for French bassoons, many modern players do not take time to consider exactly how different our German bassoons are from the ones Dukas had in mind. While it is fairly common knowledge that French bassoons were much easier to play in the high register because of a narrower bore and simplified fingering mechanisms, the inherent differences in articulation are less well-known. As William Waterhouse explains:
[…] the 19th century French instrument possessed a quality of dry, crisp staccato which was also capitalized upon by many composers… However these days the German system bassoon has somewhat changed in character, being designed more for sonority and strength rather than the delivery of these effects. All too often today’s playing styles are better suited to powerful expressiveness than to airy delicacy—delivering emphatic accents rather than light staccato.1
Waterhouse goes on to specifically recommend this “French type” of dry staccato for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.2
Ernest Ansermet’s recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande perfectly illustrates the above differences between the natural staccato articulations of German and French bassoons. The airy staccato of the French bassoon allows for a much longer musical line, whereas the peckish staccatos found so often with the German bassoon are much more deliberate, often making the line sound more vertical than horizontal. The increased resistance of the German instrument is responsible for these differences,3 and it is very noticeable when comparing the Ansermet recording with Ormandy’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The staccatos of the German instruments are more deliberate and forceful, whereas the staccatos of the French instruments allow the tone of each note to “breathe” a little more, giving the line a more effortless sound.
To create a similarly light “French style” of staccato on our German bassoons, we must make a conscious effort to give each note more tone, while at the same time keeping a staccato articulation (it is important to remember that the term staccato means “detached” or “separated,” not “short”). Much like with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, we can utilize different types of staccato for notes of different lengths. In order not to disturb the lines of quicker eighth notes, we should utilize a “tongue stop” staccato that keeps the movement of the jaw as minimal as possible. Unfortunately, many players think that stopping the note with the tongue automatically equates to playing incredibly short and accented. In reality, this articulation can also be used to create a light, dry staccato, as Waterhouse explains:
Care must be exercised taken [sic] not to allow the action of the tongue to chop off abruptly the end of a note or phrase. Its impact should not be violent like a cushion hitting a pole.4
Likewise, we can give the staccato quarter notes a quick taper (what Weisberg calls a “resonant ending”) instead of a harsh ending with the tongue; doing so allows us to play a short note that retains its natural resonance.5 Of the included recordings using German bassoons, I think the Berliner Philharmoniker does the best job at conveying this drier staccato articulation; as such, their phrasing is much lighter and more “horizontal” than in any of the other recordings.6
A Brief Note About Phrasing
Another way to prevent the passage from having a “vertical” feel is to bring out the smaller gestures more. Example 10.1 shows a melodic reduction of the section beginning at bar 3 of Rehearsal 44, and specifically highlights the descending lines of pick-ups notes that we should bring out in our phrasing.
Example 10.1. Dukas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, bar 3 of Rehearsal 44 to Rehearsal 45, melodic reduction
1 Waterhouse, 111-12.
2 Waterhouse, 116. It is important to clarify here that “dry” does not mean “clipped” or “pecky.”
3 In reality, the French bassoon has much more in common with the bassoons of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries than with the German bassoon of the twentieth century.
4 Waterhouse, 114.
5 See Articulation.
6 I think that this is somehow related to this recording also being significantly faster than the other examples; the staccatos may not sound as short simply because of the faster tempo.