Hell’s Angels for 4 bassoons and orchestra | Michael Daugherty, composer

Hell’s Angels
for 4 bassoons and orchestra (1999)

Instrumentation: Bassoon quartet; 2 flute (piccolo), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, 4 percussion; harp, celesta; strings

Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)

Duration: 16 minutes

World Premiere: March, 1999 / Royal Festival Hall, Philharmonia Orchestra (London) / David Zinman, conductor

Program Note:

Hell’s Angels (1999) for 4 bassoons and orchestra was commissioned and first performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra (London), conducted by David Zinman, at the Royal Festival Hall in March 1999.

Composed in 1999, Hell’s Angels is a concerto for bassoon quartet, comprising three bassoons and contrabassoon. I find the bassoon to be an instrument with great expressive and timbral possibilities, ranging from low and raucous rumbling to plaintive high intensity. I have composed two previous works for bassoon: a bassoon duet entitled Bounce (1988), and my notorious and widely performed Dead Elvis (1993) for chamber ensemble and a solo bassoonist, dressed as an Elvis impersonator.

Hell’s Angels juxtaposes hellish and angelic music. The composition begins with a rumbling bassoon fugue that turns into a series of bluesy riffs, punctuated by the sounds of thunder sheet, metal chains, and bass drum. The theme of angels is introduced by the contrabassoon in 5/4 time and accompanied by harp and celesta. Devilishly difficult polyrhythmic structure the next sections, where the bassoons interact with pizzicato strings. Then the bassoons play a contrasting heavenly melody in the highest register of the instrument. A syncopated march is heard, followed by overlapping variations on the music of heaven and hell, combining different tempos simultaneously. The cadenza, featuring the bassoon quartet and percussion, is in two parts: a dreamlike, drugged adagio and a complex musical canon performed at dangerous speeds. The final coda is a thundering cadence, falling into the abyss.

Hell’s Angels is the musical tale of a gang of hot-rodding motorcycling bassoonists who ride into town and take over a concert hall. After all, the bassoon is similar tin size and shape to the “drag pipes” found on Harley Davidson motorcycles, the preferred mode of all transportation of Hells Angels in America. When the noise-curbing mufflers are illegally removed from the drag pipes, they create a deafening roar. Inspired by American motorcycle movies such as The Wild One (1954) and Easy Rider (1969), I have removed the traditional mufflers on the bassoon repertoire in order to compose the first concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra in the twentieth century.

–Michael Daugherty