German composer Paul Hindemith wrote more than forty sonatas. In addition to at least one sonata for each standard orchestral woodwind, brass, and string instrument, he wrote for a number of less-common solo instruments, including the English horn, the viola d’amore, and the althorn. Although he was primarily a viola player, Hindemith owned and could play many of the instruments for which he wrote; he apparently had a particular interest in the bassoon. An entry in the Heckel visitor’s log indicates that Hindemith purchased a bassoon from the firm on October 9, 1927.2
Hindemith wrote his Sonate for bassoon in 1938, during a tumultuous time in his life. Performances of his music had been banned in Germany in 1936, and in May 1938 he was one of the composers singled out for scorn at a Nazi exhibit of Entartete (Degenerate) Musik in Düsseldorf. He soon decided to leave Germany, and emigrated to Switzerland in September 1938.3. The premiere of his Sonate for bassoon took place in Zurich on November 6 of that year, performed by bassoonist Gustav Studl and pianist Walter Frey. The concert also included his Sonata for Piano, four hands, performed by Frey and Hindemith himself.4
Bernard Garfield in the mid-1960s, with his black 7000-series Heckel (more info)
The earliest recordings of Hindemith’s bassoon Sonate were made in the United States, to which the composer had emigrated in early 1940. As far as I can tell, the very first recording of the piece was made by Bernard Garfield (with pianist Theodore Lettvin) on EMS Recordings, released in 1950. I contacted the Hindemith Institute in Frankfurt, and they confirmed that the Garfield recording is the earliest of which they’re aware. Leonard Sharrow also made an early recording of the piece for the Oxford Recording Company, probably some time in the 1950s, but I have been unable to find precise dates of recording or release.
Garfield, who will turn 93 this Friday, is best known for serving as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Principal Bassoonist from 1957 to 2000. He is one of my grandteachers — Jeffrey Lyman, with whom I studied at Arizona State, studied with him, among others. Garfield has also composed a number of works, mostly featuring the bassoon in various combinations. His recordings of some of the pillars of the bassoon repertoire are still in print, and are easily obtainable, including the Mozart Concerto and Weber Andante e Rondo Ongarese (both with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra).
But, his recording of the Hindemith Sonate has never been re-released, and is quite difficult to find (this likely has to do with the fact that the owner of EMS Recordings, Jack Skurnick, died suddenly in 1952, leaving the company’s recordings to languish). I must admit that I wasn’t even aware Garfield had made a recording of the piece until San Francisco Symphony principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson made a Facebook post about three months ago, asking about its availability. It took me quite a while to track down a copy, although unfortunately it’s a somewhat worn and crackly one. But, I’m still happy to present a digitized version here:
EDIT: According to Anthony Georgeson, Garfield acquired the 7000-series Heckel in the photo above after he made this recording; he’s using a 9000-series here.
Auguste Mesnard was born November 17, 1875 in Cognac, France. He began his musical career as a violinist, studying at the Ecole Nationale de Musique d’Angoulème, and earning a first prize from there in 1891. After an unsuccessful audition to enter the Paris Conservatoire, one of his musical colleagues in Angoulème suggested that he take up the bassoon instead. He evidently took to the instrument right away, as he managed to gain entry to Eugène Bourdeau’s bassoon class at the Paris Conservatoire only two years later (November 1893). He won a first prize there in 1897, and went on to bassoon positions in the Concerts Rouge, Orchestra Lamoureux, and Societé Nationale de Musique. In his position as second bassoonist with the Orchestra Lamoureux, he played the premieres of Debussy’s Nocturnes and L’Après-midi d’un faune.
Mesnard and I were associate 1st bassoonists with the N.Y. Philharmonic Orchestra for 2 seasons under W. Mengelberg, conductor. I imagine that Mengelberg did not like the French bassoon sound and thus was picking on Mesnard. They had an argument after a rehearsal and Mesnard resigned. And I would have done the same thing if I had been treated in a similar manner.2
Mesnard’s career continued for another 20+ years, playing with the touring Wagnerian Opera Company, the Capital Theater Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, the Roxy Theater Orchestra, and an orchestra supported by the Works Progress Administration.3 Mesnard retired in 1945 at the age of 70, and died in New York in October 1974, just shy of his 100th birthday.4
Mesnard began writing his memoirs in 1943, shortly before his retirement, and worked on them over the next decade or so. These were never published, but copies of the typescript reside in the libraries of Southern Illinois University and the International Double Reed Society. I haven’t been able to examine this yet myself, but French bassoon specialist Laurence Ibisch wrote an article about Mesnard in the October 1978 issue of The Double Reed, with information taken from the memoirs.5 Unless otherwise noted, all the information in the preceding biographical sketch comes from Ibisch’s article.
Ibisch also owns and regularly plays on Mesnard’s Buffet bassoon — the very one in the photo above.6 It was made in 1900, and has sixteen keys (rather than the 22 present on the Jancourt “perfected” system). Buffets are commonly made of rosewood, but this instrument has only a rosewood wing joint. The rest of the instrument is made of much lighter maple, which is more common for German bassoons.
During his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, Mesnard also worked worked as a recording artist for the Columbia Gramophone Company. Recording companies in that era generally didn’t credit individual orchestra members, so it’s probably impossible to know how many ensemble recordings he participated in. His one recording as a soloist was made on October 14, 1916 — a duet with harpist Charles Schuetze. The piece they recorded, Serenade by Edmond Filippucci (1869–1948), is almost certainly an arrangement. Filippucci’s music is not easy to come by today either in printed or recorded forms, so I haven’t been able to identify the piece itself. But a likely candidate is his 2 Pièces pour violon avec accompagnement de piano: Nº 1. Sérénade, published in 1894.
Mesnard and Schuetze recorded four takes, the last of which was issued on Columbia A2161 in 1917 (backed with the Columbia Miniature Orchestra playing The Music Box).7 This is from the era of acoustic recording (no microphones), and my copy of the disc has been well-used. So, the recording has a fair amount of background noise. But, it’s still quite enjoyable. Listen to Serenade here:
While you’re listening, read this short review of the recording, published in the Bridgeport (CT) Evening Farmer in March 1917:
An extraordinary Columbia recording is a woodwind (bassoon) and harp duet: Filipucci’s “Serenade,” played by Auguste Mesnard and Charles Schuetze, solo members of the New York Philharmonic Society. A zephyr-like harp introduction is followed by a lovely interweaving of beautiful inspiring notes. The light delicate voice of the harp over the deep undertones of the bassoon is indeed eloquent of evening—shimmer-moonbeams gleaming over the shadows of night. So far as is known, the “Serenade” is the only recording extant of a harp and bassoon duet.8
Mesnard also recorded “The Elephant and the Fly” with flutist Marshall Lufsky in December 1916, but this was evidently never released.9 His colleague Benjamin Kohon recorded the same piece in 1918 for Edison Records. That version was released, and is available to stream from the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive.
Arthur Edward Johnstone, Instruments of the Modern Symphony Orchestra: A Pictorial and Explanatory Guide for Music Lovers (New York: Carl Fischer, Inc., 1917), 32. ↩
Benjamin Kohon, “Letter to the Editor,” The Double Reed 2, 1 (1978). ↩
The Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration was responsible for the creation of 34 new orchestras around the country, and also supported a variety of other performance, educational, and scholarly activities related to music. Presumably, Mesnard was a member of the New York Civic Orchestra, but I haven’t yet been able to confirm this. ↩
“United States Social Security Death Index,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VSNF-26P : 20 May 2014), Auguste Mesnard, Oct 1974; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing). ↩
Laurence Ibisch, “A French Bassoonist in the United States,” The Double Reed 1, no. 2 (October 1978): 5–7. ↩
Laurence Ibisch, e‑mail message to author, March 20, 2017. ↩
I’ve written previously about the three earliest recordings of Carl Maria von Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo — two featuring German-American bassoonist William Gruner (1920 and 1926), and one with French bassoonist Fernand Oubradous (1938). As a number of people pointed out, I left out another early recording by Eli Carmen from the late 40s. I didn’t have a copy at the time, but I’ve managed to get my hands on one now. This one’s a bit of an oddball: it’s only the Rondo, it was recorded for a children’s record label, and it was released on a vinyl 78rpm disc. As far as I can tell, this recording has never been rereleased, but you can listen to it below.
Both labels of my disc — a later Children’s Record Guild release, originally recorded for Young People’s Records. Click for a larger version.
Elias Carmen was born in New York in 1912 to Russian immigrant parents. His father was a tailor.1 He started on the French system, but switched to the German bassoon when he began studies with Simon Kovar. Carmen and Sol Schoenbach were the first two German bassoon students at Juilliard.2 Carmen played with many orchestras during his carer, most notably the Minneapolis Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the New York City Ballet. He taught at both the Manhattan School of Music and Yale. Carmen died following an auto accident on December 21, 1973.3
Carmen appeared on a great number of orchestral recordings with the NBC Symphony, as well as recordings of chamber music by Beethoven, Ludwig Spohr, Arthur Berger, and Mel Powell. He also recorded Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor, “La Notte” with flutist Julius Baker on Odyssey.4 But this partial Weber is his only truly solo recording.
YPR 1009 Cover
Young People’s Records was established in the late 1940s, and sold records on a subscription model. Existing children’s records were meant to be played for children by their parents or teachers. But YPR wanted kids (ages 2 to 11) to actually use the records themselves. To this end, YPR was one of the first companies to exclusively use the then-new flexible vinylite for their discs, rather than the older and much more fragile shellac. A large quantity of the recorded material was written specifically for YPR — mainly songs in various styles, but also instrumental works and even mini-operas. YPR’s editorial board, which included eminent American composers and teachers Howard Hanson and Douglas Moore, no doubt encouraged the prevalence of new commissions. Recordings of Classical or Romantic composers, such as Weber, comprised a relatively small portion of YPR’s catalog.5
Records of YPR’s recording session dates evidently haven’t survived, but Eli Carmen’s Rondo was released in November 1949. Max Goberman conducted this and YPR’s other classical selections, and what’s billed here as the “YPR Symphony Orchestra” was assembled largely from Goberman’s own New York Sinfonietta. YPR emphasized music’s educational and developmental benefits in both its advertising and its packaging. The text on this record’s sleeve give a kid-friendly explanation of Rondo form:
Rondo for Bassoon and Orchestra by Carl Maria Von Weber (pronounced Fon Vaber) 1786 — 1826
When you tell an idea in words, it is called a story. When you tell an idea in music, it is called a melody. Just as you can tell a story in many different ways, so you can tell a melody in many different ways — and one of those ways is a rondo. (Other ways are marches, different kinds of dances, sonatas, sets of variations. None of these ways of telling a melody have words or stories attached to them.)
The rondo way of telling musical ideas is to keep coming back to the first idea, or melody. In this rondo — its full name is Hungarian Rondo for Bassoon and Orchestra — we hear a melody, then a new melody, then the first melody, then another new melody, then the first melody again. Sometimes these melodies are played by the bassoon alone, sometimes by the orchestra alone and sometimes by bassoon and orchestra.
And a further note “To Parents” explains why this particular work was chosen for the series:
…Young People’s Records believes the rondo to be a good form for children’s listening because it is readily apparent and acceptable. The recurrence of a basic melody is something the child can easily follow without becoming lost in intricate problems of design and form. We have chosen this particular rondo for children because of the appeal of the bassoon as an instrument.…
Hear Eli Carmen’s Rondo here:
For more about Young People’s Records and the Children’s Record Guild, see David Bonner’s 2008 book Revolutionizing Children’s Records and his web site: yprcrg.blogspot.com. The Shellackophile has also digitized and posted a number of YPR titles, which you can download (thanks to him for the image of the cover above, as it’s missing from my disc).
1920 United States Federal Census, Brooklyn Assembly District 2, Kings, New York (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, microfilm publication T625, roll T625_1146, page 6A). ↩
The vast majority of people who have recorded bassoon in jazz contexts have been doublers who primarily play saxophone, such as Illinois Jacquet, Frankie Trumbauer, and Ben Wendel. A very small number of players (Paul Hanson and Michael Rabinowitz are the best known) truly specialize in playing jazz on the bassoon. But there is a third category as well: orchestral bassoonists who have occasionally ventured into jazz contexts.
In 1935, Sol Schoenbach recorded four tunes by British jazz pianist Reginald Foresythe in a small group that also included Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. Kenneth Pasmanick, longtime principal bassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra, played on two albums by guitarist Charlie Byrd. And Manuel Ziegler, principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic from 1957 to 1981, recorded a number of albums in the late 1950s with Gunther Schuller, the Modern Jazz Society, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
But one of the most surprising (to me, at least) and impressive jazz outings by an orchestral bassoonist is Klaus Thunemann’s appearance on German pianist Michael Naura’s 1975 album Vanessa (ECM 1053). Naura and Thunemann are joined by Wolfgang Schlüter on marimba, Eberhard Weber on bass, and Joe Nay on drums. Schlüter and Naura worked together extensively, and Weber and Nay collaborated with them on a number of albums. But this is Thunemann’s only recording with the group, and as far as I can tell, his only jazz recording period. On the back cover of the album, Naura writes:
…we team up with Klaus Thunemann, who is solo bassoonist in the ‘Northern German Radio Symphony Orchestra’ (NDR), professor at the Hannover College of Music, and who plays Schönberg under Pierre Boulez equally as compellingly as he does Vivaldi with the ‘I Musici di Roma.’ I believe it was precisely this distance from which Thunemann has for many years and with interest viewed jazz, that provided the stimulus which inspired us when we made this recording.
Thunemann figures prominently in three of the album’s six tracks. “Salvatore” opens the album, and at 11:38, is by far the longest tune on the record. It features a soaring, lyrical bassoon melody followed by two and a half minutes of improvisation by Thunemann. Schlüter takes his turn, then the whole group engages in some very open-ended improvisation, including some bassoon multiphonics. The bassoon melody returns at the end. “Baboon” begins and ends as a dirty, funky tune in which Thunemann explores a rough and even sometimes growling tone. The middle is a blazingly fast group improvisation that does not include bassoon. Thunemann gets a co-writing credit on the album’s last tune, “Black Pigeon”. It opens with almost two minutes of bassoon improvisation — much of it completely solo. About two minutes in, it launches into a mid-tempo groove, with bassoon melody and a long marimba solo from Schlüter. Thunemann takes another solo turn before returning to the melody at the end.
All in all, this album contains the most extensive and impressive improvisation I’ve heard from someone we think of as a one of the giants of the “legit” bassoon world. Thunemann sounds at ease in the ensemble, and uses his considerable technique to great advantage, running all over the horn and engaging in extended techniques such as multiphonics, growling, and pitch bends. He even, much to my delight, explores realms of tone very different from what you hear on, say, his well-known recording of the Weber Concerto. You can read a more general review of the album on the between sound and space blog.
I learned of the existence of this album while working on my dissertation on the bassoon in jazz, and included it my discography. But at the time I wasn’t able to actually get my hands on a copy — it hasn’t ever been rereleased on CD. The first time I heard any of it was when Jolene Masone posted one track last year as part of the “Best Bassoon Week Ever!” series on her blog. That one tune blew me away, and I renewed my search for the album, finally snagging a copy on eBay.
At this point in the post, I would typically include one track transferred from the album. But this time I can do one better — I managed to dig up and post video footage of Thunemann with the Michael Naura Quintet playing “Salvatore” at the Kongresshalle in Frankfurt am Main, September 27, 1974:
Be sure to check out the free improvisation (including bassoon multiphonics), which starts around the 10-minute mark in this live version. And if that’s not your thing, the band returns to the form around 12:25.
Most of the early recordings that feature the bassoon did so in a comical fashion. A handful of artists recorded Quentin Ashlyn’s song “The Bassoon” in the first decades of the 20th century, and I have in my collection a couple of very strange (at least to modern ears) “laughing records” from the same era that include the bassoon. In 1911, Carl Borgwald recorded Julius Fučík’s classic “Der Alte Brummbär” in 1911 (released as “Polka Fantastique” in the U.S.). And in 1918, Edison released two somewhat silly piccolo/bassoon duets: “The Elephant and The Fly” and “The Nightingale and the Frog”, both featuring Benjamin Kohon, who would later become principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic. The earliest “serious” bassoon piece on disc (the earliest that I’ve been able to locate, anyway) was not the Mozart Concerto, as one might guess. Rather, it was Carl Maria von Weber’s Andante e Rondo Ongarese. In fact, this Romantic showpiece was recorded three separate times between 1920 and 1938.
Aside from being historical curiosities, these recordings give us a glimpse of early twentieth century bassoon playing. And as far as I can tell, none of these recordings have ever been re-released. Below you will find copies of all three, digitized from discs in my collection. I’ve applied a bit of noise reduction and removed the worst of the pops and clicks, but these are far from professional-quality transfers. I’d recommend listening to these on headphones or real speakers, as they may be a bit difficult to hear on laptop, tablet, or phone speakers.
The three discs in chronological order. Click for a larger version.
The first two of these were in fact made by the same man: William Gruner, who played bassoon in the Philadelphia Orchestra 1906–1917 and 1929–1951. Gruner was born in Berlin on January 12, 1883 and arrived in the United States aboard the S.S. Deutschland in April 1906. He became a U.S. citizen in 1914, and lived near Philadelphia until his death in February 1971. In the period between his two stints with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1917–1929), Gruner worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company, making numerous recordings with the Victor Orchestra and numerous smaller groups.1
William Gruner, from his 1923 U.S. Passport Application
Gruner and the Victor Orchestra first recorded Andante e Rondo Ongarese in June 1920. They recorded ten takes over the space of three recording sessions in Victor’s Camden, New Jersey studios. The last of these, recorded on June 24th, was issued as “Hungarian Fantasie” on the B side of Victor 18684, a ten-inch 78rpm disc. The piece was severely cut down to fit this format: it lasts a mere three minutes and thirteen seconds. (For comparison, complete recordings I have by Milan Turkovic, Nadina Mackie Jackson, and Masahito Tanaka clock in at 9:53, 9:02, and 9:20, respectively.) After the initial 16 measures of the Andante, a two bar orchestral transition launches us right into the Rondo. The Rondo is a bit more substantial, but is missing huge chunks (including most of that dreaded last page of 16th-note triplets). The end of the piece has been rewritten, too. Hear it for yourself:
When Gruner made this recording in 1920, the technology involved was quite similar to that invented by Thomas Edison 43 years earlier: the performers played into a large horn that transmitted sound waves to a flexible diaphragm connected to a stylus that cut the sound directly onto a wax disc. This method produced recordings with limited frequency and dynamic range and required performers to crowd around a single horn to be heard. But in 1925 Victor (and many of their competitors) adopted a new electrical recording process that used microphones, vacuum tube amplifiers, and an electromagnetic recording head. This system allowed for much greater dynamic and frequency response, and produced a generally much better sounding recording.
Gruner and the Victor Orchestra returned to the studio on October 19, 1926, and recorded an additional five takes of the Weber with the new electrical recording system. They used the same pared-down arrangement — electrical recording did nothing to mitigate the format’s time constraints. This new recording was released in June 1927 as the B side of Victor 20525, another ten-inch 78rpm disc. Although Victor didn’t set about re-recording their entire catalog after switching to electrical recording, this is in instance in which they clearly wanted to re-create an earlier disc. The A sides of the two discs are recordings of Tourbillon (Whirlwind), a piece for flute and piano by Adolph Krantz, albeit featuring different performers.2
If you made it all the way through Gruner’s 1920 recording, you probably don’t need to listen to all of this one. His interpretation doesn’t change appreciably, although it is interesting to hear the differences between the two recording processes.
The French bassoonist Fernand Oubradous recorded Andante e Rondo Ongarese in Paris in 1938, accompanied by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under the direction of Roger Désormière. Oubradous was born in Paris on February 12, 1903. He won his Premiere prix from the Paris Conservatoire in 1923 — after only a single year of bassoon study. He played with the Paris Opéra, the Orchestre Lamoureux, the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, and the Trio d’Anches de Paris. In addition to Weber’s Andante e Rondo Ongarese, Oubradous recorded concerti by Mozart, Weber, and Boismortier and a great deal of chamber music. But his first job after graduating from the Conservatoire was as music director of the Théâtre de l’Atelier, and he received much acclaim as a conductor throughout his career. Oubradous died in Paris in January 1986.3 For more on Oubradous, see these two sites (both in French): fernand.oubradous.free.fr and Fernand Oubradous — Site de l’association Fou de Basson.
Oubradous’s recording of the piece is nearly complete, thanks to it being issued on both sides of a twelve-inch 78rpm disc (L’Oiseau-Lyre O.L. 14). This is likely attributable to the fact that Éditions de l’Oiseau-Lyre has always had a more specialist and scholarly focus than more mass-market companies like Victor. Side A is the Andante, which is just over four minutes long. The Rondo (on side B) is slightly longer at four minutes and sixteen seconds. The Rondo had to be cut down a bit to fit; forty-two measures have been excised. This is mostly mostly repeated themes and sections of orchestral interludes, but the entire last statement of the rondo theme has been removed as well. There’s one other interesting change: the four measures of quarter-note trills in the middle of the last flashy section have been taken out of the solo part and given to one of the orchestral bassoonists!
It’s clear that recording technology and disc manufacture had improved quite a bit in the 12 years since Gruner’s second recording. The bassoon is clearer and more present (the fact that he was playing a French bassoon helps, too), and the orchestra’s sound has far more depth and definition. Frankly, the quality of the bassoon playing is much higher, as well. Although this particular recording hasn’t been rereleased, you can occasionally find Oubradous’s Mozart Concerto on CD on Amazon, or as mp3s here.
John Ardoin, The Philadelphia Orchestra: A Century of Music (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999); William Gruner, Petition for Naturalization, March 20, 1913, Naturalization Petitions for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1795–1930 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, microfilm series M1522, roll 93), 335; William Gruner, 165–03-6373, Social Security Death Index, 1935-Current (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2011); William Gruner, Draft Registration Card, September 12, 1918, World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918, (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, microfilm series M1509, roll PA83), 278. ↩
The earlier disc (Victor 18684) features flutist Arthur Brooke of the Boston Symphony, while the performance on the later disc (Victor 20525) is by Clement Barone, a member of the Victor Orchestra and formerly principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. ↩