The range: a case study in Neapolitan repertoire

An analysis of possible graphical conventions, colors and effects which Neapolitan composers such as Perez, Porpora and Anfossi might have planned when they chose to score for fagottino

By Giovanni Battista Graziadio

An excerpt from Scene I in the first act of L’isola abbandonataby Perez (Palermo, 1748) is a good example of very refined orchestration, with concertino passages for each instrument indicated in the score. Dynamic markings and effects are specified in each part so as to leave nothing for granted, to be certain to reach the result intended by the composer. This kind of care with markings is seen in many compositions by Perez, including his opera Solimano

Despite this, the indication “fagotti con le viole”, which occurs several times in this scene, might be misinterpreted and literally associated with the use of full-sized bassoons. A range from g – d’’, pianissimo high b’’, extraordinary high and long notes held over bars, agile passages in this extreme bassoon range, and jumping from the basso continuo line to viola parts is what is required from the bassoonist who has to play these parts. Even if it cannot be ruled out that exceptional players could have easily approached this music with their skills and bassoons, the use of “fagottino”, or octave bassoon, is what would give the exact character needed for this music: lightness, agility, modulating articulation, and dynamic flexibility are required to accompany the soloist, with these typical mid-18thcentury-Neapolitan-style viola parts, something not easily done with a full-size bassoon in this range. 

To achieve this purpose, even the viola is used in its high range, so as to have a bright and light sound. Moreover, it has to be excluded that bassoons would double the viola parts an octave lower, because this would give a heavy and grotesque effect to the accompaniment of the violas, not to mention the inverted chords that would result.

In some moments, there would even be enough time for the player to switch from a full-size bassoon to a “fagottino”, but this is not always possible. Graphical conventions in these scores can be very controversial. For example, it is possible to find thousands of examples in Neapolitan music where the viola should just play the bass line, usually indicated with ‘viola’ at the beginning of the bassline, or just “Viola col basso” or “Viola col B,” as Perez does. 

In works by Vivaldi, scoring instructing the violins to play a “bassetto” part is always found written in bass clef, also when the continuo group is not playing. Obviously, this does not mean that violins or violas are playing in the bass clef range. Usually what is written has to be formally correct, even if it is just a graphical convention on paper and there is another sounding result. In these scores, the “fagotti” are in fact very close to the role and the range of the violas.

The score from Porpora’s Siface, Act III, Scena I (Rome, 1730), which clearly indicates the use of fagottini, should take away any doubt about the range of these instruments, even if in some scores, like those of Perez, “fagotti” are indicated. Porpora writes the fagottini parts in violin clef while the viola part is “col Basso” from the beginning of the scene, with the exception of some bars. Looking particularly at the second fagottino part, it is possible to see many sudden changes from violin to bass clef, again with the conventional indication “col Basso”. Sometimes the quick change of octave in the fagottino line would be of more than two octaves: this is surely something unwanted, if we literally insist on what it is written. The fagottino plays in violin clef in the real range as indicated by the composer, and jumps to the bass line an octave higher as a violin or a viola would do. 

Porpora: Siface, Act III, Scena I

Thirty-four years after Siface by Porprora, in Achille in Sciroby Anfossi (Roma 1774), Act II, Scena XIII, “Fagottino” is scored along with “trombini”, “corni” and strings. This is another excerpt full of musical indications, and here the viola part is almost continuously doubling the violins parts, so that viola I plays with violin I, and viola II with violin II. “Fagottino” is placed in the score just after trumpets and horns, in the upper part of the page. The fagottino line follows the continuo line most of the time, but it has moments where it matches the accentuation of the musical comments of trumpets and horns.

Differently from what is seen in works by Perez and Porpora, the fagottino part is notated in bass clef this time. The range would be from A to e’ keeping to what is written, like a typical full-size bassoon line. But there is not only the indication of “fagottino” to suggests a change of colour for this piece: for example, the effect of having the violins doubled the by the viola is the first big change of colour; the second is a very meticulous concertino writing for the bass. The bass line has many dynamic indications, and always plays when horns and trumpet are not playing, except for the last 41 bars and for a few other bars during the aria. Even if violoncello always plays through the whole movement, another change of colour is indeed found when Anfossi indicates “violon. solo” (violoncello solo), so as to have only this instrument playing every time winds are making their musical comments. Every time the indication of “violoncello solo” occurs, the “fagottino” is always playing/doubling the part. The “fagottino” part looks like a replacement of the function of the viola when it plays along with the basses, but at the same time, fulfilling the need of being part of the sound of the brass. 

For all these reasons it is possible to assume that in this aria, the indication “Fagottino” refers to an octave in the same range of a viola. The actual sounding range of this part would be instead from a  to e’’, again going against what is literally written in the score. The reason why it is notated in bass clef could be merely pragmatic and/or linked once more to graphical conventions.