Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Heckelphon!

The Heckelphon

There's a weird instrument sitting in front of me in the orchestra this week.

We are performing Strauss's Salome in concert at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night and this Saturday night in Severance Hall.  Strauss was a champion of this exotic instrument.

Wagner had the idea for it when vacationing near the Heckel factory in Biebrich (a suburb of Weisbaden).  He visited Heckel and said the following:

".... A sound factor of the kind of double reed instruments was missing, which was one octave lower than the oboe; the instrument should combine the character of the oboe with the soft, however, powerful sound of the Alpenhorn....."  

After much work, Heckel brought out the Heckelphon in 1904.  It is fingered like the oboe, but uses a reed so similar to the bassoon reed that players often get them from bassoonists and modify them.

Our Assistant Principal Oboist, Jeff Rathbun is playing Heckelphon in our concerts.  He is using a few of my reeds.  He narrowed the shape considerably and I had to ream the reeds an extreme amount to get them to fit securely on the bocal. Because the instrument is so long, the player usually sits on a stool to play it.

The bell is spherical and has two holes in it.  There is an end pin on the end.

The embouchure for the Heckelphon is much like the bassoon.  The slack-jawed touch is sometimes difficult for oboists.  Indeed, bassoon players --with a little help with fingerings -- often more easily pick up this instrument than oboists do.

The sound, as you can imagine, is like a "gamey" English Horn.  Though Strauss wrote extensively for it in all ranges, it's real feature is in its low register where it has an uncanny sound -- just right for Salome!

There is a low Bb in the part near the end of the opera. It is joined by the contrabassoon on its low Bb.  One of the joys of double reed writing!  Unfortunately, it's very hard to cover the sound and the Bb just tends to bleat out.  This low Bb is written "ppp", so Jeff has come up with a novel solution for a mute.  (Heckel does make a mute for this instrument, by the way!).

Bed, Bath and Beyond comes through!

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