Salome is one of the most challenging operas to play. Musicians are tasked with a score that pushes the limits of what’s considered playable for an orchestra. LA Opera Orchestra Principal Bassoonist William May had a further challenge. In less than a year, May learned a rare instrument to play in Salome – the heckelphone.
The heckelphone was invented in 1904 in Germany by Wilhelm Heckel. It was designed to add a low voice to the oboe section of the orchestra. (While it resembles the oboe, it plays an octave lower.) Richard Strauss became the most popular champion of the heckelphone and Salome was the first opera to the use the instrument. Salome still remains the most famous use of the instrument.
Of learning the heckelphone, May says, “I’ve wanted to learn something different and Salome offered the perfect opportunity for me to do so.”
The heckelphone itself is rare – there are only 100 in existence – and naturally so are players who can learn the instrument. Although it resembles the oboe, sometimes bassoon players learn to play the heckelphone, because the reeds used are essentially a modified bassoon reed.
“I started learning the heckelphone in June of last year,” says May. In a little over six months, May learned the heckelphone and was ready to go by the time Salome rehearsals began in late January.
He continues, “I basically taught myself. The fingerings are generally the same as the oboe, although there are several different key systems that were experimented with on different instruments. My particular instrument is set up like an oboe, so I found an oboe fingering chart to work off. The reeds are similar enough, so that it hasn’t been a challenge to find something that feels comfortable. I did spend a lot of time listening to Salome – tons of listening – and practicing.”
When asked where the heckelphone can be heard in Salome, May says, “While there isn’t a major solo, there are three smaller solos where the heckelphone is prominent. The most noticeable is during the moment when Salome rejects Herod’s attempt to drink wine with her and she says ‘I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.’ During this the heckelphone plays a comical solo with short staccato notes in the lower range.”
The fourth scene in Salome – which includes the dance scene and comprises a little more than half the opera – is the most thrilling for May to play and as the opera is his favorite, he was more than up for the challenge of learning a new instrument.
“Salome is genius, because it’s so ahead of its time. I like that I can go from playing music that’s grotesque and terrifying to playing music that’s rapturous,” says May. He continues, “The orchestra is also perfect at telling the story, so much so, that you could probably play the piece without singers and still get the gist of what’s going on.”
While May will go back to playing the bassoon for the remainder of the season – including in Tosca, for which he is particularly excited – he will finish his experience on Salome having learned a rare instrument and there’s no doubt he will play it again someday.
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