The Instrumentarium – Episode 2 – Bass Oboe Bombardment

Matt and I take a dive into the world of octave oboes, the Bass Oboe, Heckelphone, and Lupophone.  We look at the history of each, how they differ, and how best to write for them.

Show Notes

From Bandestration:

Wolf’s Lupophone

Heckel’s Heckelphone

Mönnig’s Bass Oboe

Loreé’s Bass Oboe

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Bret playing a Bass Oboe
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A Case for the Bass Oboe

I’ve been thinking about the oboe family a lot lately.  I made a realization about it recently.  Actually, several realizations.

Number one: the Oboe itself has the smallest usable range of any woodwind instrument at only an two-and-a-half octaves.  All other woodwinds have a minimum of three octaves (Bassoon and clarinets have at least three-and-a-half).  But not the oboe.

oboe range 2

Continue reading “A Case for the Bass Oboe”

Bass Oboe

Bass Oboe

Tenor Oboe range

This rare oboe, an octave below the standard Oboe, is like a giant English Horn, and is one of my favorite sounds in the woodwind family.  I recall vividly playing the bassoon section of a performance of The Planets and getting to hear the sound of a full oboe section of two Oboes, English Horn, and Bass Oboe.  The section was transformed from a high and plaintive sound, to a full bodied and vigorous sound just with the addition of an instrument half an octave lower than normally used.  Sadly, the Bass Oboe is very rare, and has only ever been used in band literature once by Percy Grainger in his Children’s March (where the part is always played by the English Horn).

Here we have a catch-22 situation.  Players want to play the instrument and composers want to write for it, but the instruments just aren’t out there and available for use because no one has written for them.

Anything the English Horn can do, the Bass Oboe can do, just lower.  Due to its larger size and weight, it is more tiresome to play, so longer periods of rest should be built into the part.  Also, like the English Horn, most instruments do not possess a low B-flat (though some do).  It is probably wise not to include this note, or provide an ossia when the note is used.

If a Bass Oboe is used, it can bridge that octave-and-a-half gap in between the oboe family and the bassoon family.  Were I to have my preference, I would always choose having a Bass Oboe over the Oboe d’Amore as the next member of the oboe section.

Occasionally, the instrument is known as a Baritone Oboe by manufacturers, but this designation is never seen in scores.

Bach on Bass Oboe

An except from Strauss’ Salome (a part intended for the Heckelphone)

A transcription of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante  on Oboe and Bass Oboe.  Special note Alex Klein is considered one of the finest Oboists in the world.

Saturn from Holst’s Planets.  The Bass Oboe appears at 1:30.

Grainger’s The Warriors.  Bass Oboe solo starts at 5:25.  This is the longest and most exposed Bass Oboe solo in all of the orchestral literature at nearly a full minute in length.

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.

Conclusion

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.

What to do with new instruments? Part 2 – Bass Oboe

Continuing on my series of how composers deal with new instruments, I now move to the Bass Oboe.  In order to differentiate it from the Heckelphone, I will only address scores that specify the instrument as a Bass Oboe.  With some of these works, there is some confusion as to the instrument that is intended.  For my purposes, only is the part is marked Heckelphone will I treat it as being written for such an instrument.

Loreé came out the their Bass (Baryton) Oboe in 1889, the same year that Fontaine-Besson unveiled their Contrabass Clarinet.  Unlike the Contrabass Clarinet, the Bass Oboe had to wait nearly 20 years before composers started to take note of it.

Delius 1908

Fredrick Delius was the first composer to use the Bass Oboe in a major work, his Dance Rhapsody 1. The piece opens with the Bass Oboe and the English Horn in a sinuous duet.  The part continues throughout the work, and at no time does the player double another instrument.  The odd thing about this part is its notation at sounding pitch in both treble and bass clef.  Because of this, the part has a somewhat higher tessitura than would be expected.  Delius treats it like a 2nd English Horn most of the time.  Only once does the Bass Oboe descend to the low B.  Range is a semi-tone shy of two octaves (low B to high B-flat).  The part is complex and well woven into the fabric of the orchestra.  At no point does the instrument stick out as being an “add-on” to an already existing ensemble.

Delius also used the Bass Oboe in Fenimore and Gerda, Paris, A Mass of Life, Requiem, and Songs of Sunset.

Holst 1914

Literature for the Bass Oboe begins and ends with Holst’s Planets.  Well, not really.  There are plenty of other pieces that call for the Bass Oboe, but none as significant as Holst’s work.

Holst has his Bass Oboe double Oboe 3.  Bass Oboe is played in Mars (1), Mercury (3), Saturn (5), Uranus (6), and Neptune (7); while Oboe 3 is used only in Venus (2) and Jupiter (4).  We can see that the bulk of the part is on the Bass Oboe.  In a 12 page long part, roughly 4 are for Oboe and 8 are for Bass Oboe.  The range of the part (Bass Oboe only) is a semi-tone shy of two octaves (exact same range as the Delius).  The majority of the part lies in the mid to lower range, but is not confined there.  The part has great agility and is equal to the parts for the other oboes (Oboe and English Horn).  There are several solos and exposed parts as well as essential ensemble playing.  When Holst does not need the low sound, in the peaceful Venus and the joyful Jupiter, he has the player pick up the regular Oboe.  The other movements has a more sinister edge where the Bass Oboe’s sound is perfect.  Holst uses standard notation with the Bass Oboe sounding one octave lower than written.

Holst never used the instrument again.

Grainger 1919

Since the primary focus of the blog is composing for band, it seems odd that one of the earliest works for the Bass Oboe is a work for band, Grainger’s “Children’s March.”  This work call for a prominent Bass Oboe part throughout, but it is most often played on the English Horn.  Oddly enough, there is no English Horn part in the score.  The part only descends below the range of the English Horn a few times, and those times are well covered by the rest of the band.

Grainger 1922

While Grainger wasn’t totally successful in his Bass Oboe scoring in the Children’s March, his score to The Warriors makes up for that.  Sadly, the score is nearly impossible to get my hands on, or else I would do a more in depth analysis of it.  But, what is evident is the minute-long solo in the middle of the piece for Bass Oboe.  Grainger is known for his “democratic” scoreing where everyone gets an equal part.  Solos like this are unheard of in his music (this may be the longest solo in any of his instrumental works).  The work is dedicated to Delius who first started the use of the Bass Oboe.

Grainger would use the Bass Oboe one more time in his career, in an odd arrangement of his Hill Song 1 where the Bass Oboe is a substitute for the Tenor Sarrusophone.  Strangely, this version has never been played…

Conclusion

What do all these works have in common? They are all English.  While the French were the ones to develop the Bass Oboe, the English were the first to exploit it.  In fact, we can find no major use of the Bass Oboe in French music at all.  Over in Germany, the Heckelphone was being exploited while in England the Bass Oboe was taking hold.  France was right out.

After these works, occasional pieces would crop up, but few managed to survive in the repertoire. More modern composers are making use of the instrument again and it is becoming more frequent, though not as frequent as the Contrabass Clarinet.

Heckelphone and Lupophone

Heckelphone

Heckelphone range

I seriously debated including the Heckelphone in a chapter unto itself.  In practicality, it is an instrument the same pitch as the Bass Oboe, but in use it is something quite different.  It is made by a bassoon manufacturer, and is most often played by bassoonists with Bassoon reeds, but it is far from a bassoon.  A conundrum!

What to call the instrument is one thing, its use is something different.  It was designed as a large oboe that descends to the low A the bottom space of the bass clef.  Most orchestrators have called the Bass Oboe and the Heckelphone interchangeable, but I have not found this to be the case.  The Heckelphone is a powerful instrument capable of great projection due to the cross-section of its bore which is twice the diameter of the Oboe and not twice the area like Bass Oboe.  This makes a huge difference.  The Heckelphone is more of a soloist while the Bass Oboe is more of a team player.  For most works, I prefer the Bass Oboe.

All this said, even if you write a part for the Heckelphone, like so many of Strauss’ works, today they will inevitably be played upon the Bass Oboe.  Only around one hundred Heckelphones are extant today, and while they are still in current manufacture, the price is exorbitantly high and the waiting list is painfully long.  I wouldn’t write for the instrument in an ensemble setting unless I knew there was a player and instrument available.

A demonstration of the Heckelphone

A little bit of new age music on the Heckelphone

Trio op. 47 by Hindemith.  Considered the greatest chamber work using the Heckelphone.

Lupophone

Lupophone range

As Heckel has the sole market for the Heckelphone (and no other manufacturer is allowed to produce them, or for that matter wants to!), the modern manufacturers of Guntram Wolf and Benedict Eppelsheim have invented their own instrument of a similar design.  The Lupophone (Lupos is Latin for Wolf) is a wide bore bass oboe that descends not to the B of the Bass Oboe or the A of the Heckelphone, but all the way down to an F.  This extension is to facilitate the Heckelphone part in Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie which descends to a heretofore unreachable F.  Looking over the score of Strauss’ work, it does seem that a few of these lower notes are used in soloistic passages.  I can’t wait to hear a recording of Eine Alpensinfonie with a Lupophone.

I mentioned this instrument in my post about the hypothetical F Baritone Oboe.  While this instrument is in C, its extended range to low F makes it functionally an F Baritone.

Having personally played instruments made by Wolf and Eppelsheim, I can attest to how well these instruments play.  Instruments produced by these manufacturers are marvels of modern acoustic research and design.  I look forward to hearing more from the Lupophone!

Demonstration of the Lupophone (for use with modern/contemporary techniques)

A modern work for Lupophone

The solo from Strauss’ Salome.  Compare this with the Bass Oboe from a few posts previous.  Note the fuller sound of the Lupophone.

Oboes Part 3 – Oboes in the Band

The Oboe in the Band

As I mentioned in the subsection on the Oboe itself, the Oboe does not share well with others.  That said, the English Horn is like a young girl who is in love with the whole world.  She wants to be around everyone, and everyone is enlightened by her presence.  It is odd how a simple difference in a fifth and a different shape to the bell changes the whole outlook of an instrument.  The other lower oboes tend to fall along the lines of the English Horn.

I also mentioned in the subsection on the Oboe that there are generally only two Oboes in the band.  This number does not include the English Hornist, who forms the third member of the ensemble.  I personally would love to see the band’s oboe section expanded to include a fourth player on the Bass Oboe.  What rich and wonderful combination can be had with such an ensemble!

Most professional Oboists own or have access to an English Horn.  This means it is theoretically possible to have all members of the oboe section playing English Horn at once.  Or what about a low quartet made of Oboe d’Amore, two English Horns, and a Bass Oboe?

Groups more than four can be attempted, but they are advised against.  Oboists tend to clash with their own personalities.  I have been in a room with a dozen or more oboists, and I wouldn’t wish that fate upon any!  (By the way, only Bassoonists are allowed to say this about their soprano kindred.  I’m sure they say equal things about us!)

Were I to have an expanded section, I would always expand the oboe family on the lower end.  A full bodied section could be as such:

Player 1. Oboe

Player 2. Oboe

Player 3. Oboe d’Amore, Oboe

Player 4. English Horn, Oboe

Player 5. English Horn, Oboe

Player 6. Bass Oboe, Oboe

With a section like this, we can open up nearly every combination of oboes possible.  All members can switch to Oboe if such a strident sound is needed.  At the low end, we can have a full quartet of low oboes.  I do not include the Piccolo Oboe here, only because it is so unknown to players, that its inclusion would be tenuous at best, but if one were available, then any of the Oboe players could potentially double on the instrument.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Piccolo Oboe (F), 10 Oboes, Oboe d’Amore, 2 English Horns, and Bass Oboe.