What to do with new instruments? Part 4 – Heckelphone

In 1904, the German bassoon maker, Heckel, came out with the Heckelphone, a powerful, large-bored bass/tenor oboe.  The instrument was made at the request of Richard Wager, but was completed some years after his death.  Its appearance came some 15 years after Loreé produced their first Bass Oboe (see the previous post for details on that instrument).  Whereas it took over 20 years for composers to begin writing for the Bass Oboe, composers immediately began to use the Heckelphone.

My look at the early compositions for this instrument begins and ends with Richard Strauss.  I will look at the four major works Strauss composed for the Heckelphone: Salome, Elektra, Josephslegende, and Eine Alpensinfonie.

Salome 1905

Salome is the first major work ever written for the Heckelphone, or for that matter a bass oboe of any sort.  It was written one year after the instrument was produced.  Strauss’ part is an integral part of the whole of the opera.  It is intricately interwoven into the frame of the orchestra.  One could even say that the defining sound of Strauss’ wind section is the Heckelphone.  The instrument plays throughout the entire opera and never double on the Oboe or English Horn.  The range is large at two-and-a-half octaves from the lowest B-flat to the highest F.  It is interesting that Strauss does not use the Low A.  While every orchestration text says that the Heckelphone always descends to a Low A, this is not always the case.  The earliest instruments often stop at Low B-flat.  In fact, the instrument that Strauss himself bought for the Dresden Opera, and the instrument still used by the Desden Opera to play Salome, only descends to a Low-B!  Newer instrument will have the Low A, but the older instruments, including many that are still in use, do not.

Elektra 1906-1908

Elektra is a completely different sound world than Salome.  In all regards, Elektra is bigger.  There is a larger focus on the brass (which adds 4 Wagner Tubas, Bass Trumpet, and Contrabass Trombone) than in Salome. The woodwind section is expanded two by adding two Basset Horns.  The addition of the Basset Horns means that the Heckelphone is no longer the sole tenor voice in the woodwinds.  The exotic Middle Eastern snarl of Salome is tamed for the more fluid Greek Elektra.  Clarinets seem to trump oboes in this work.  The part does not go quite as high as the part does in Salome, only reaching a high E-flat.  However, Strauss finally uses the Low A of the Heckelphone.  The use of this note is tentative throughout much of the work.  However, Strauss does something weird at figure 176a; he has the instrument belt out a Low-A-flat, a note half a step below the lowest note of the instrument.  The part is doubled by the Bass Wagner Tubas and Bassoon 3, but nonetheless it is a curious passage. I would chalk this up to being an accident if there were not another Low-A-flat some pages later (figure 218a).  Here, the Low-A-flat is part of a scalar passage doubled by the Basset Horns and Bass Clarinet.  The omission of a single sixteenth note is hardly missed in the grand scheme of things.  However, the normally very meticulous Strauss lets two glaring problems happen in this part.

Josephslegende 1914

The Josephslegende is Strauss’ least known major orchestral piece.  It is one of only two ballets he wrote.  It was intended to be Diaghilev’s big follow-up to the prior year’s Le Sacre du Printemps.  It wasn’t as successful, and has only survived in the margins of music history.  This is not Strauss’ greatest orchestral effort, and Strauss himself agreed.  A lot of the score is large and overblown just to be large and overblown.  The delicacy of the earlier works is not here.  There are some wonderful moments, but on the whole it is too muddy.  The Heckelphone part bares this out.  There are no true moments where the Heckelphone has important solo or soloistic lines.  It is simply another voice in the woodwind choir.  In fact, we can tell that Strauss gets lazy at some point when a few errant low-Gs show up.  These seem to be simply copy errors.  The most prominent is a passage where the printed Heckelphone part is written an octave below the Bassoons.  However, there could be something more to this, and the Alpine Symphony might shed some clues.  As far as the high range goes, the part never ascends above a written high-C, so the top notes are never used.

Eine Alpensinfonie 1915

Eine Alpensinfonie is Strauss’ last, and possibly greatest purely orchestral work. For me, it is the culmination of the orchestral works of the entire Romantic Era.  The Heckelphone part is the last one that Strauss ever included in any work.  It is probably not surprising that this is the last work he finished before World War I (he started it in 1908).  Economics would prevent him from using the Heckelphone afterwards.  However, this is also the strangest part he wrote for the instrument.  First off, the upper range is even smaller than in Josephlegende ascending only to a high B-flat.  However, the low range is where we find our surprises.  The Low-A-flats and Low-Gs in Elektra and Josephslegende can be passed off as mere accidents (though accidents with Strauss are very rare).  Here, he not only includes Low-Gs, but also Low-Fs.  In fact, many passages include these notes, and some are even soloistic.  This is not simply ignoring the instruments range, this is something else.  What appears to have happened, is that Heckel was planning on producing new Heckelphones that descended to Low-F (which would explain the Low-Gs in the Josephslegende), but World War I prevented this from happening.  Here we have an unusual case of a composer predicting a manufactures future development, the manufacture not following through, and the resulting work being left as an off curiosity.  We know that Strauss wanted to extend the oboe family’s range down into the bass register from his footnote in Berlioz’s Treatise.  Perhaps an extended range Heckelphone was his solution.  It is entirely probably that Strauss was trying to push the manufacturer to produce this instrument.

Sadly, after this work, uses for the Heckelphone drop off precipitously. It is not until recently that use has picked up once again.


In all four works, Strauss has a designated player for the Heckelphone alone.  This means the player never touches the Oboe or the English Horn.  One possible reason for this is that Heckelphone players, more often than not, are bassoonists and wouldn’t be able to play the Oboe or English Horn to the expected level required for a Strauss work.  In each successive work, Strauss writes lower and lower for the instrument (Low-B-flat in Salome, Low-A-flat in Elektra, Low-G in Josephslegende, and Low-F in Eine Alpensymphonie).  As the lowest notes drop, so do the upper notes.  From Salome to Eine Alpensymphonie the highest note required drops from a High-F to a High-B-flat (a perfect fifth).

It is a dangerous thing to anticipate future innovations.  If they don’t come to fruition, the composer is left with pie on their face.  However, if they do, the composer is able to reap the rewards of new possibilities.

4 thoughts on “What to do with new instruments? Part 4 – Heckelphone

  1. Pingback: What to do with new instruments? Part 2 – Bass Oboe | Bandestration

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