[ Exhibits ]

Russian Bassoon

March 15, 2018

Russian Bassoon

Fratelli Garignani (Garignani Brothers)
Milan, Italy, ca. 1820

The term “Russian Bassoon” is something of a misnomer, for this instrument is neither Russian nor bassoon.  Rather, it is technically a bass-horn that has a lip-vibrated mouthpiece instead of a double reed.  Because it was used in the Prussian Army, it maybe have acquired the name “Russian” from that association.

Its invention is credited to J. J. Regibo of France as an improvement on the 16th century serpent.  It was shaped to be easier to carry and play while marching than the serpent.  After 1815, the bass-horn became popular in Europe and was a regular member of military bands throughout Europe until about 1830.  Eventually, the ophicleide then the tuba and sousaphone superseded the bass-horn in marching bands.

The bassoon-like body of this instrument is made of maple in three joints.  The ends of the joints are covered with brass ferrules.  The crook and the mouthpiece are made of brass and the serpent head bell is metal.  There are six finger holes and one thumbhole for the left hand; in addition, there are three holes that are covered by keys.  Not all Russian Bassoons have a decorated serpent head bell, which was likely added to be more decorative than the more usual flaired, brass bell.  The Buccin is another instrument from this era to have a decorative serpent head.

The Belle Skinner Collection
Accession Number 3659.1960


The Russian Bassoon in Orchestration

From Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation (rev. Richard Strauss, trans. Theodore Front), Berlioz writes that the Russian Bassoon is “related to the serpent” and “lacks steadiness and hence purity of intonation.  In my opinion it might be dropped from the family of wind instruments withouth the least injury to the art.”  He then goes on to explain the instrument’s range.1

For an expandable view, click the link below:

Berlioz Russian Bassoon Description

The Invention of the Russian Bassoon

According to Grove Music Online, “Its origin may be found in Régibo’s serpent, which was announced in Framery’s Calendrier universel musical for 1789 in the following terms:

J.J. Régibo, Musicien à la Collégiale de St. Pierre à Lille, vient d’inventer un serpent nouveau qui est fait de même qu’un basson; il se démonte en trois parties et est plus fort que le serpent ordinaire, et plus aisé à jouer; il a la même embouchure, est du même diapason et même gamme. Il a été présenté à MM. du Chapître dans une musique à grande symphonie, et a fait l’admiration des auditeurs par son effet; ils l’ont reçu dans leur musique ordinaire. Ceux qui veulent s’en procurer peuvent s’adresser à l’auteur, rue Pétérinck, Paroisse St. Pierre à Lille. Le prix est 3 louis.”2

Translation from Google Translate:

J.J. Régibo, Musician at the Collegiate Church of St. Pierre in Lille, has invented a new snake which is made like a bassoon; it is disassembled into three parts and is stronger than the ordinary serpent, and easier to play; it has the same mouthpiece, is of the same tuning fork and even range. He was introduced to MM. of the Chapter in a music of great symphony, and admired by listeners for its effect; they received it in their ordinary music. Those who want to get some can contact the author, rue Pétérinck, Paroisse St. Pierre in Lille. The price is 3 louis.



-Timothy Feil, Museum Intern



1. Berlioz, Hector. Treatise on Instrumentation, Enl. and Rev. Edited by Richard Strauss. Translated by Theodore Front, E.F. Kalmus, 1948.

2. Morley-Pegge, R. (2001). Russian bassoon. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 12 Apr. 2018, from http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000024169.