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Heckeled? Contra-versial Insights into ArtScience

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast——Xerox Corporation
Stanford, CA 94305-6004 USA
(650) 725-1008


Often the optimal means to that serendipitous find is the circuitous route. With that stipulated at the outset, what earthly relevance could such a specialized page about contrabassoons on an obscure website——seemingly from the most "Siberian sector of Cyberia"——have to our nearly four-decade pursuit of matters relating to ArtScience?

Just about everything!

Consider all the exhaustive studies over the past half-century on a nearly subatomic level employing every new technology available to attempt measurement of whether such-and-such variance of "x microns" within "area y" of this or that Amati, Guarneri, or Stradivarius proves conclusively that the contours of this set of curves, rather than the type of wood, method of seasoning or, even, application of varnish explains the superiority of tone produced by the instrument. Such study would no doubt have intrigued if not amused our oracular namesake half a millennium after his death.

But what, then, does the violin maker have to do with the Heckel contrabassoon?

On 10 October 2002 the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere performance of Urban Legends by Michael Tilson Thomas with the composer conducting. Alas, I only learned of the radio broadcast nearly two years later. Not to worry . . . our old family friend, the self-proclaimed "Edouardo d'Ancona, Kontrafagottspieler" seemed the most logical person to contact. His reply reflected the deepest understanding of all aesthetic considerations as well as the vast expertise amassed over many years at RCA and NBC that earned him an Emmy Award in 1965 for his pioneering research resulting in what to this day remains standardized color on television. He emailed:

"I'm happy, nay, eager to respond to your note on Urban Legends. It so happens that KUSC here broadcasts some of the San Francisco concerts and I heard the performance of the contrabassoon work by MTT. And, having advance notice of the broadcast with the piece, I was able to record it onto the hard disk in my computer. So If you'd like I can burn a CD for you!"

But, I have a probably controversial (or should I say, "contra-versial"?) comment on contrabassoons: They have no pitch! I say this with some anguish in view of my history——my one and only year as a professional musician was that year in the Rochester Philharmonic where I played third and contrabassoon. So I know much of the orchestral literature where it appears, and I'm intimately familiar with the beast and its sound.

But it has no pitch! That is to say, for the lower half of its register, the sound is more of a rattle without much of the fundamental tone present.

A Fourier analysis would show the fundamental as being there, but there is a raft of harmonics in what is essentially a pulsed waveform bouncing around in that sixteen foot pipe. When coupled with the regular bassoon in octaves, it is a rich enforcement of the bass for the woodwind section. Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music, for example, ends with a slow progression of chords, culminating with a poignantly beautiful, rich, C major chord. There, the contra's lowest C adds a wonderful fullness to the sound of the winds. But as a solo instrument in a concerto, particularly in faster passages, it is simply, for me, a sequence of pitchless rattles.


And in its upper register where there is a pitch to it, it has this peculiar throaty and somewhat unattractive sound.

Again, sorry.

There are many effective appearances of the instrument in the standard orchestral literature——Sorcerer's Apprentice, Ma mère l'Oye, and as the bass in the opening chorale in Brahms 1st [Symphony], last movement, etc. Most effective in those.

The San Fran performance was fine. Soloist was the orchestra's contra person, Stephen Braunstein. The score has, in addition to the strings and electric bass, lots of percussion, celesta and a piano. Very complex composition with many wild effects and passages. A fascinating work."

Within a few days the snail-mail brought the promised CD along with another, Contradiction, by Allen Savedoff, including the most magnificent arrangement by Kim Scharnberg of Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," featuring dueling contrabassoons. Curiously, none of the inherent problems described by Ancona were apparent in any of Savedoff's playing.

A quick web search yielded savedoff.com , replete with the page on retrofitting contrabassoons. Perhaps someday, Braunstein, Savedoff or some other artist will perform Urban Legends on an upgraded instrument capable of the fullest expression of the music as conceived. In the meantime, Professor Savedoff has put out a sequel to Contradiction titled Savoir Faire. Both are available through Capstone Records, amazon.com or any number of other providers.

With profound sadness, one notes the passing of Ed Ancona on 8 November 2005, age 84, in Los Angeles, California.



Updated 1st January 2006

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