The Phagotus of Afranio – a Capriccio for Bassoon and Piano

This piece was inspired by an amusing appendix to Cecil Forsyth’s book on Orchestration (first published in 1914) which details the disreputable history of an instrument once mistakenly believed to have been the ancient forerunner of the modern bassoon.

It seems that the Phagotus was invented by one Afranio degli Albonesi, a canon of Ferrara during the early sixteenth century. Details of his instrument are to be found by way of a digression in a book published in 1539 by Afranio’s nephew – a book otherwise devoted to the study of the Chaldaic and Syriac languages.

The instrument was a remarkable monstrosity comprising several hollow tubes equipped with strategically placed finger holes and connected to a complex arrangement of bellows. Two pairs of bellows were used: one functioning as a ‘wind-sack’ (as with the bagpipes) and the other as a ‘feeder’.

According to Forsyth ‘elaborate directions are given for the fixing of the wind-sack and the bellows under the two arm-pits of the player. When he had securely strapped them to his person, he attached the ingoing windpassage of the wind-sack to the bellows. He then removed the ornamental cover from the smaller of the two additional tubes and fastened the outgoing wind-passage to an attachment there. Next he took the Phagotus in his hands, sat down, and held it upright against his thigh, keeping the round open finger-holes in front. His next move was to pump the bellows with his right arm. This filled the wind-sack under his left arm, and by the pressure on that he could maintain a steady air-stream into the resonating chambers. He then had to employ his disengaged faculties (if any) in the production of music by means of the various holes and keys.’

Admittedly, there is very little relationship between this description and my piece, which does not really make any attempt to recreate how the Phagotus may have sounded. Instead, the evident difficulty of getting any sort of musical sound out of this instrument resulted in a piece which, similarly, has some problems getting started and which runs into trouble at various points. This is most noticeable towards the middle of the piece (which lasts about nine minutes in total), where the Phagotus begins to run out of control, emitting various unpleasant shrieks and groans, before the performer eventually regains control of his instrument.

John Pickard