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The Missing Bassoon

In response to:

Did Beethoven Have All the Luck? from the November 14, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

I have such respect for Charles Rosen that it is with some embarrassment that I write to inform you that on the questions of orchestration raised in his article [“Did Beethoven Have All the Luck?” NYR, November 14, 1996], he is unfortunately batting zero for four. He refers to an aria with three solo wind instruments accompanying the singer in Mozart’s I domeneo: there are four instruments—flute, French horn, oboe, and bassoon. In the following opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, there is an aria which contains obbligato parts (not “concerto parts”) for four instruments, but they are not a quartet for solo winds. In this aria the solo instruments are violin, cello, flute, and oboe. In Beethoven’s Fidelio, there is, indeed, a great E-major aria for Leonore, but the accompaniment is not for four horns, as Professor Rosen indicates, but for three horns and bassoon. The restriction Beethoven operated under was almost certainly economic. Lastly, there are not four independent horn parts in the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony but three. In all other respects, Professor Rosen’s commentaries on recent trends in musical scholarship are a joy to read and wonderfully apt.

Stephen Basson
Principal Bassoon since 1969
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Charles Rosen replies:

I am grateful for the corrections, ashamed of the mistakes—particularly regarding the Entführung, where the solo violin and cello sonority is very memorable, or should have been. In Leonore’s aria, it seems I err in good company: a friend tells me that Sir Georg Solti once, faced with the orchestra for a rehearsal of Fidelio, demanded, “Where’s the fourth horn?” Perhaps its absence is economic, but the bassoon actually supplements the three horns with a more pliably decorative line.

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