The heckelphone is of the oboe family with its pitch in baritone. It comprises three parts and has a strong conical bore. Particularly striking is the spherical bell at the foot of the instrument, which is also referred to as the love foot. It has three small side holes distributed around the rounding, from which the sound emerges.
The S-bocal is fixed to the upper part of the instrument, on which the double reed is inserted. The S-bocal of the heckelphone has the same bend as the English horn, but is slightly larger overall. The double reed consists of giant reed (Arundo donax), a reed grass. When playing the heckelphone the sound is generated by the double reed. Here, the air passes through the double reed and leaves the two reeds in motion. This causes a column of air to begin to vibrate within the instrument. Through the individual tone holes that are covered with the help of keys when playing, the length of the oscillating air column can be regulated and thus the pitch can be varied. The double reeds of the bassoon can also be used for the heckelphone provided as they have been adjusted with minor changes.
The heckelphone is one octave lower in tone than the oboe and has a powerful and lush-sonorous, yet sweet and lovely sound. The sound of the heckelphone is often described as giving the impression of hearing a human voice.
The development of the heckelphone goes back to the suggestion of the composer Richard Wagner when he was working on his piece Die Meistersinger in 1862 in Biebrich. Here, he first met Johann Adam Heckel, who introduced him to his workshop and instruments at that time. This was the foundation for a close working relationship between Wagner and Heckel. Richard Wagner was thrilled when Johann Adam’s son, Wilhelm Heckel, introduced him to his newly constructed bassoon and contrabassoon in Bayreuth in 1879. Nevertheless, he was missing a final component of the double reed instruments. He longed for an instrument that was one octave lower in tone than the oboe and at the same time had the soft and powerful sound of the alpenhorn. So Wilhelm Heckel and his sons set to work and developed the heckelphone in 1903. The instrument, whose premiere Richard Wagner did not live to experience, was first presented to the public in 1904 during a major tour of various music festivals.
Richard Strauss, who first visited Heckel’s workshop on 25 August 1900, also showed great interest in the heckelphone. In collaboration with Richard Strauss, two new versions of the heckelphone, the so- called piccolo heckelphone and the terz heckelphone were created.
The heckelphone immediately found favour with composers such as Richard Strauss, Max von Schilling and Engelbert Humperndinck. Among other things Strauss used the instrument for the main subject in his opera Salome in 1905 and Elektra in 1909. He was enthusiastic about Wilhelm Heckel’s invention and left the following thanks in the company’s guestbook:
“To the tireless inventor and improver Wilhelm Heckel with warm wishes for constant flourish and prosperity.”
– Guestbook entry of Richard Strauss at Heckel
Even with more modern composers, the heckelphone was popular. Thus, different works with a trio of instruments, including the heckelphone were seen. For example, Paul Hindemith composed a work for heckelphone, viola and piano in 1928. Even the contemporary composer Roland Vossebrecker wrote a piece for a trio, which in addition to the heckelphone used the oboe and piano.
Due to its uniqueness, the heckelphone has a very special status at Heckel. Therefore, in cooperation with enthusiastic heckelphonists and composers a music production with this instrument was created twice. In the mid-1990s a heckelphone CD was recorded for the first time with Wolfgang Schottstädt, who played works for heckelphone, among others by Paul Hindemith. A further CD was produced in collaboration with Matthias Bonitz to mark the 100th anniversary of the heckelphone, which was premiered at Biebrich Palace in 2004.