Heckelphone/Bass Oboe – The Realities

My recent experiences in booking wind players for my orchestration course has brought up a very important tip about heckelphone and bass oboe, a factor involved in the use of these instruments that you also won’t find in the orchestration manuals.

I realise, of course, that the two instruments are somewhat different. Heckelphone has a somewhat wider bore and more nasal sound that the bass (aka baritone) oboe. Then there’s also the lupophone, which has an even deeper range and apparently better control than than either of the previous. But whatever the name and exact make, this tip counts for all.

Before the reality, though, here’s the dream: an orchestra in which this tonal resource is readily available, fleshing out the oboe group by providing a solid bass under the English horn. Holst did this in the Planets, even writing a few haunting solo lines for it. Then there’s Strauss’s Alpensinfonie and Salome. Surely by now, massive scoring should have picked up and celebrated the bass oboe, shouldn’t it?

And yet it hasn’t. Certain essential orchestrators never touched it, like Stravinsky or Ravel. More recent massive scoring, especially in film music, has mostly left it alone.

Now my personal opinion is that indeed it is a neglected resource, and would definitely be a welcome ingredient. I’d support the dream of bringing it to a more central position, like the E-flat clarinet, say, or the alto flute. However, I’m all too aware of certain realities that are working against the bass oboe from the very start. Not just that it costs money to hire a player, nor that such instruments are made very expensive due to their rarity. No, the real problems here have to do with fingering, register, and embouchure.

Consider: as you may have read in my previous tips about the oboe, there are certain strengths of range. An orchestral player is going to shape their approach to their embouchure so that the center of the instrument’s range and upward gets the best sound. As the oboe’s range descends, the notes have less and less control, or what some orchestrators would call “quality.”

What this means is that the lowest notes of the English horn, from concert E3-C4, which are considered its best and most characteristic, are about an octave lower from where the best range of the oboe starts – from E4 and upwards. To take it even further, the lowest notes of the Heckelphone are an octave and a fourth below the oboe’s best range. The range may be down an octave or so from the oboe, but those bottom notes which represent the bass oboe at its best happen to be much more than an octave in distance from the very range an oboist may spend his life working on to perfect.

Oboe, English horn, Heckelphone ranges

There’s a relationship of breath, embouchure, and control that go along with an orchestral oboe player’s sense of quality playing. The approach needed for a heckelphone is not the same thing at all. The natural strengths will feel more akin to an English horn, with low fundamental tones being the focus.

But the biggest problem is that the bass oboe family is played with much larger reeds. The heckelphone reed is essentially the same as a bassoon reed. This means that as much as a unified section of oboes might be envisioned by orchestrators, the reality is that the bass oboe player will rarely be able to play fourth oboe if ever. And since the bass oboe will be only coming in here and there for textural work or a solo, it’s essentially a wasted resource unless there’s lots of money to throw around. If your work is being premiered the same night as the above pieces by Strauss or Holst, you’re in luck. Otherwise, it’s a very big ask.

Hamish McKeich, a conductor and bassoonist, demonstrating the heckelphone.

The problems don’t end there, though. The bass oboe may have a bassoonist playing it, but it’s no bassoon. The fingering is pretty much that of an oboe. So a player must be picked who either a.) used to be play oboe, or b.) doesn’t mind putting in some hours learning a new system. The outcome very well be weaker than desired, because the player is still learning his way around the instrument.

True, there are some specialist players out there, who are every bit as expert on bass oboe, heckelphone, or now lupophone, as some concert oboists. But these are exponentially rarer than these already rare instruments. Perhaps 100 or so heckelphones have ever been made. The bass or baritone oboe models are less rare. But finding people who can truly play them on a concert music level is extremely difficult – so unless your commission specifically requests the instrument, don’t count on scoring for it in an orchestration any time soon.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

3 thoughts on “Heckelphone/Bass Oboe – The Realities

  1. Would it be better if the English horn player took on the bass oboe, with one of the regular oboists covering the English horn?

  2. So, as an oboist who also plays English Horn, I have had the occasion to play bass oboe. I found that there was no difficulty in controlling the upper register (especially after working with a tuner) and that having done some research on reeds and techniques for reed making on this instrument, that I was able to come up with consistent, controllable reeds. Any oboist can do it, however, there will be those that do not want to do it or assume that the reeds must be made exactly like an oboe reed, and this is not the case, they are more of a hybrid between English Horn reeds and Bassoon reeds, leaning more closely to the former.
    The Hecklephone and Bass Oboe do not share reed types as the Hecklephone reeds are more closely related to bassoon reeds or indeed sometimes are played with bassoon reeds. I find this to be a mistake as each instrument should have reeds tailor made to it’s specifications, indeed the Lupophone also has it’s own style and sizes that are different from all the other instruments mentioned here. Many play bass oboe with English Horn cane tied to bass oboe staples which also produces inconsistent tone and control.

    The Heckelphone above is most likely suffering from issues of a dry reed or a bassoon reed instead of a specific reed for the instrument. Aside from the reed, the real issue, and why Hecklephones sounds much more wild and uncontrolled, comes from the fact that the Hecklephone’s bore ratio cross section is MUCH larger (nearly double) than that of the bass oboe or the Lupophone, this makes it far more difficult to control.

    I think if more people were to score for these instruments (particularly Lupophone or Bass Oboe as they are becoming more common) then the people who play them will become more common.

    Thank you.

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