The Instrument:

The Heckelphone is a woodwind instrument with the fingering of an oboe, pitched an octave lower (it is about 4 feet long), descending to the bottom of the bass clef (low A). It is similar to a bass oboe (aka baritone oboe or baryton oboe), but has a wider bore. The "general rule" for increasing the bore width when making a bass version of an instrument is to double the cross-sectional area of the bore for each octave down. The Heckelphone has a bore twice the diameter of an oboe bore. 

The bell is generally vented on the side, with the bottom of the bell terminating in a peg, for supporting the instrument on the floor. The bell is bulbous for resonance.

It is played with a reed which resembles a small bassoon reed, fastened to a bocal much like an English Horn.

The Heckelphone was first released in 1904 by Wilhelm Heckel GmbH (the Heckel bassoon manufacturers), which still manufactures it by special order.

If you have a Heckelphone, and would like to find out when it was made, Wilhelm Heckel GmbH has generously provided a table correlating serial numbers with date of manufacture.

I do know where you can find a good second-hand Heckelphone! (Financial realities prevent me from snatching this one up at present. Maybe in a few months....) If you're interested, see the Classifieds or eBay!

The Heckelphoneat rest
There is also a piccolo Heckelphone, which is pitched in F an octave above the English Horn (a fourth above the oboe), and a terz Heckelphone pitched one tone lower in Eb. These smaller Heckelphones, unfortunately, have not been made for some years. Apparently, only one Eb Heckelphone was ever made.
The piccolo heckelphone inF, and in Eb

The Sound:

The Heckelphone is broader and more robust than the bass oboe, which tends to sound thinner and more reedy by comparison. Some commentators have opined that even where composers have indicated the bass oboe, the Heckelphone was actually intended.  Some of the Repertoire selections here are indicated as "bass oboe": there is some disagreement as to the composer's actual intentions...

The Repertoire:

There are solo parts written for Heckelphone in Richard Strauss's Salome, and Elektra, as well as his Alpensymphonie and Josefslegende. Hindemith's Op. 47 Trio for Viola, Heckelphone and Piano is one of the best works composed for the instrument (or for viola, for that matter). Other works with Heckelphone parts include: Dollar Symphony in C Minor by Kurt Atterberg, Symphony No. 1 by A. Bax; "Fennimore and Gerda", "Paris", and the Dance Rhapsody by F. Delius; "The Planets" by G. Holst; "Sonnengeist" by R. Klose; 3rd Symphony in F by Franz Moser; "Moloch" and "Mona Lisa" by Max Schillings; the London Symphony by W. Vaughan; and the Symphony No. 3 by F. Weingartner.  For the full list, see Peter Hurd's Heckelphone/bass oboe Repertoire


Wilhelm Heckel GmbH distributes a CD of Heckelphone music, which contains Petit Quatour by Jean Francaix, Variations on a Theme from Rigoletto by Giovanni Daelli ( WAV , 134K at 11 KHz mono)(mp3), the Opus 47 Trio by Hindemith, and Pictures at an Exhibition by M. Mussorgsky (arranged for doublereed quintet by W. Schottstädt, who plays the Heckelphone on the CD) (Promenade, WAV , 113K at 11 KHz mono)(mp3).

You can also hear more contemporary recordings of Heckelphone used in Paul Winter's " Prayer for the Wild Things." Click here for a WAV file (290 K)(mp3) from Buffalo Prairie. It contains about 24 seconds of heckelphone (with a little percussion) in 8-bit mono at 11 kHz. The CD is LD0028 on Living Music, and is highly recommended.

See also the discography.

The Heckelphone
See also Peter Hurd's excellent article "Renaissance for Heckelphone" All images here courtesy of Wilhelm Heckel GmbH

This is what Gunther Joppig ("The Oboe and the Bassoon", Amadeus Press, Portland OR 1988) has to say about the Heckelphone:
"Heckel, whose improved double bassoon had earned the approval of Richard Wagner, stated in his memoirs that the idea of the heckelphone in fact emanated from the latter. However, I have been unable to find corroborative evidence for this in the letters and diaries I have consulted. Heckel was a keen collector of musical instruments and was in touch with other collectors. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, while he was making reproductions of original instruments for them, he also produced a copy of a Swiss basset oboe. The heckelphone in fact has certain features in common with the basset oboe, in particular the very wide bore, and thus the idea that Wilhelm Heckel use the latter as the starting point for the design of his new instrument is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Of course the modern keywork meant that this was a completely new instrument. It was soon being played with great enthusiasm at various music festivals. 

Richard Strauss and Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in particular made use of the instrument in their opulent scores, above all in their operatic works. In fact Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) have kept the instrument alive. Richard Strauss' ballet Josephsgende, which for many years was considered unperformable, has only recently been convincingly staged. It also contains a part for the heckelphone, as do two other works by him - the Alpensinfonie and the Festliches Präludium, an occasional work written in 1913 for the opening of the Konzerthaus in Vienna. 

On account of its voluminous sound the heckelphone is particularly suited, it seems, to the orchestral palette of the late romantic orchestra; at least it was almost exclusively employed by composers with a penchant for this style. The instrument appears neither in the works of the Second Viennese School, nor in those of composers born between 1910 and 1920. An exception to this rule is Edgar Varèse, who wrote for it in two of his works, Arcana and Amériques

A trio by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) for viola (which the composer himself played extremely well), heckelphone and piano is seldom played on account of the rarity of the heckelphone. It is one of Hindemith's best chamber music works. He was probably inspired to write it on one of his visits to the firm of Heckel, which are documented by entries in the visitor's book. (Hindemith also acquired a bassoon for his own small collection.)

Hans-Werner Henze, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Hans-Joachim Hespos and Werner Schulze are among the younger composers who have looked favorably on the instrument and have written obbligato passages for it in their orchestral works. Continuing the late romantic tradition of the instrument, the Viennese composer Raimund Weissensteiner has composed a Sonata for Heckelphone and Piano. Recently the French have once again tried to revive the baritone oboe, and, since 1979 it has been made in France by Strasser-Marigaux, and also by Lorée and Rigautat. Those readers who are interested in the history and the repertoire of these fascinating baritone instruments are referred to the author's more comprehensive and detailed account, Die Geschichte der Doppelrohrblattinstrumente von 1850 bis heute und ihre Verwendung in Orchester- and Kammermusik (Verlag Das Musikinstrument, Frankfurt, 1980)."

Copyright ©1995-2000 by Grant D. Green


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