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.
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.
As luck would have it, Ancestry.com 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.
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.
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.