This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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A Detroit Contrabassoon

18 November 2011

Detroit - a name attached to teams like the Red Wings, the Pistons, and the Tigers; to  brands like Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors; and to one of America's great musical institutions, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1946 a Detroit News photographer went to a rehearsal of the Detroit Symphony and focused on the imposing features of the Contrabassoon to take this picture of musicians at work.

The lowest of all orchestral instruments, the contrabassoon or kontrafagott is approximately 18 feet long. The modern instrument is folded into a more compact form with the bell nearly touching the floor, but this contrabassoon is from an earlier design and places the bell at about the same height as the regular bassoon. It uses a double reed that is larger than the bassoon reed and gives it a unique sonority that supports not only the woodwind instruments but the entire bass sound of an orchestra. It can make a pretty overpowering honk and I believe the fuzzy pineapple thing at the bottom of the photo is a mute for the contrabassoon. 

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this special sound of the orchestra, is to watch this YouTube video of a duet for bassoon and contrabassoon.  The music is by P.D.Q. Bach, a.k. Peter Schickele, and is performed by students at Western Washington University. Part 2 is also worth a listen.

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The back of the photograph has two dates stamped: NOV 10, 1946 and 1946 OCT 21 3PM.  In 1939 the Detroit Symphony succumbed to the financial challenges of the depression and gave up using their original Orchestra Hall. After trying other concert venues, in 1946 they took over the Wilson Theatre and renamed it the Detroit Music Hall.  The first subscription concert was on October 24, 1946 with Karl Krueger, conductor.

The program was:
Beethoven ~ Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72A
Brahms ~  Sym. No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Barber ~ Adagio for Strings
Liadov ~ Kikimora, Op. 63
Delius ~ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Ravel ~ Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé

Though there is a contrabassoon in the Brahms, only the Ravel has 3 bassoons and contra. So the sound you can almost hear in this photo is from Ravel's 2nd Suite from Daphnis and Chloe.


The musician is labeled on the photo as Gerold A. Schon. The 1930 US Census, the most recent available to the public, recorded a Gerold A. Schon, living in Detroit, born 1893 Chicago, wife's name Gertrude Schon, who listed his profession as Musician, Music Professor. But in my search of the internet, there was also a Gerold Schon listed as a cellist who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1918-20. The same name also turned up as a cello soloist in concert programs for the US Marine Band from the 1920's.

As luck would have it, offered up a US passport application from 1923, complete with a small photo of Gerold and Gertrude. He even signed it too. Could this be the same man, 23 years younger? The 6 ft+ height, the glasses, and the receding hairline would seem a close match, but the applicant asks for the passport to be sent to a Mancini U.S.M.B. - the United States Marine Band in Washington D.C.

The Reading PA Eagle from NOV 16, 1922 has a concert review of the Marine Band and mentions cellists Fritz Mueller and Gerold Schon. So I think the photographer got the wrong name and this man is not the bassoonist, but is instead Gerold Schon - the cellist who played with the Marine Band, and probably with the Detroit Symphony. It seems very unlikely that a cellist would abandon that instrument to pursue a career as a bassoonist.

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This past year, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra were engaged in a lengthy labor action with its board and management, which shut down concerts from October 2010 to April 2011. They have now resumed performances for this season but their struggle is shared by many musicians around the country, whose orchestras are also threatened by debt and even bankruptcy.

So far I have been unable to get a musician roster from the archives of the Detroit Symphony which would give me a definitive answer, but if you lift enough stones on the internet you can sometimes uncover some interesting clues. In the Fall, 2006 issue of Michigan Jewish History (p4 -16), there was a story on the Little Symphony of Detroit, a chamber orchestra started in 1948 by Bernard Rosen, bass clarinetist of the DSO. His idea was to create a small orchestra performing without a conductor to add to the concerts of the Detroit Symphony.

But in 1949, the DSO faced difficult contract negotiations, with harsh concessions demanded that would reduce the season from 20 weeks to 16, cut the $100 a week salary, and even terminate all 90 musicians for the 1949-50 season. In the end that is what happened, and the DSO folded, leaving the musician-run Little Symphony as the only orchestral concert group in Detroit. It's a great story about commitment to music, labor, and the city of Detroit. And on the last page of the article is a photo of a wind octet of the Little Symphony of Detroit, giving all the musician's names including a Gerald Schoen, bassoon.

The bassoonist in both photos is clearly the same man. Though there is a possibility that the man in the passport could have changed his instrument and the spelling of his name, it seems very unlikely. So I believe the gentleman with the contrabassoon is Gerald Schoen, though  when I get confirmation I will update this. And if indeed Gerold Schon was a cellist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the personal manager must have struggled to keep the names right on the paychecks.

UPDATE: 30 NOV 2011
I've received some information from the archivist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that confirms that Gerald Schon was indeed the contra-bassoonist in the photo. The other bassoonists were: Leonard Sharrow, principal bassoon, William Kruse, and Hugh Cooper. Mr. Schon seems to have spelled his name Schon and not Schoen. He was also listed in the DSO musician roster for the 1927-28 season as G. Schon. But what makes for more confusion is that in that season there was also a G. Schon in the cello section, undoubtedly the Gerold Schon who played with the Marine Band, and a J. Schon also in the bassoon section.  Now who was HE related to? Gerold or Gerald?

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
whose theme this weekend was a 1930's Chevrolet.
Click the link for more enthusiast of vintage photographs and good stories.


Liz Stratton said...

Loved listening the the contra while reading your post. The struggle musicians face is unfortunate and it is sad to think of orchestras being disbanded.

Marilyn said...

What a massive instrument, I have never seen anything like it.

Postcardy said...

It wouldn't bee too unusual to have two members with the same or similar names.

It must take great lung capacity to play the contrabassoon. While watching the video, I couldn't help being amused by the action of the musician's shirt moving up and down.

mary said...

Fascinating research you have done on this photo! My first reaction was: I couldn't get my son to carry his trombone to school, how could I have gotten him to take that one back and forth to home and school?

barbara and nancy said...

I felt the same as postcardy. I was so distracted by the shirt action of the player on the left. Silk was a poor choice.
The music was interesting.
Loved your trying to solve the Gerald mystery. Quite a story.
Nancy Javier
Ladies of the grove

Little Nell said...

I’d never heard of a contra bassoon before. I wonder how these orchestra carted their huge instruments around when they played in other cities or venues on tour.

Bob Scotney said...

I had never heard of a contrabassoon either. I'm no musician but the sound of that instrument on the video was mesmerising.
People rave (well some of them) about Motown but the Detroit sound on those orchestras must have been great to listen to.

Karen S. said...

Wow, I've never seen such a massive pipe styled instrument, very interesting...and great photos and facts as only you can offer!

Christine H. said...

I can't help but wondering how much the contra bassoon disassembles and how it is transported. For some reason, my computer isn't letting me watch any Youtube, so I was sad to miss out on hearing it.

Alan Burnett said...

And there was me thinking how on earth will Mike link to the theme this week! I should have known better - you never cease to amaze me.

Pat transplanted to MN said...

Oh I have not thought about a contrabassoon in years. We had one in the local symphony in CA....always stood out from the rest to me! Quite a bit of research here on Schon. I agree, it is a shame and a sad reflections on today for orchestras and symphonies to become part of the past. People will never know what they have missed.


music and an enigma, a fine combo!!


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