Introducing A New Helicon Family Member: Soprano Helicon
by Igor Krivokapič
After a century of feverish inventing and constructing of entire families of new conical brass instruments, one might ask why we should try to invent another such family. Isn’t it enough that we have a heritage of almost forgotten and obsolete instrument families of valve bugles such as sudrophones, cornophones, helicons, sousaphones, herculesophones, pellitones, imperial cornets, saxtubas, saxotrombas, saxhorns, flicornis, mellophones, baroxytones, antoniophones, swanhorns, ballad horns, vocal horns, or lyrophones?
However the same heritage is sad and almost absurd. After so many attempts to create a uniform family of accessible brass instruments, the only globally recognized remnants of these noble intentions are bass and contrabass concert tubas, firmly holding that one seat in the last row of the symphony orchestra and some two or so in the modern band. Additionally, we can also find the euphonium in all kinds of band music and what is left of the saxhorns in British-style brass bands.
Ferdinand Kleinschmidt, manager of Meinl Weston and tubist, in charge of all research and development, Igor (holding soprano proto types), and Gerhard A. Meinl, president of Meinl Weston/Melton and B&S tubas holding raw BB-flat Helicon branches .
It’s as if we only had double basses, some rare cellos, but no violins and violas.
Searching for answers, we can investigate areas of both irrational prejudices as well justified reasons against the use of most of the above-mentioned instruments. It’s said that existing B-flat baritone, E-flat alto horns, and B-flat soprano flugelhorns have a lot of disadvantages in their sound projection, dynamic range, etc. They are often described as “weak” instruments, either comparing them to low conical brasses (euphoniums and tubas) or to trombones, French horns, and trumpets. Even their timbre is not so special that it would make them clearly different or a better choice from trombone, trumpet or French horn. The case with those rare existing contemporary sopranino e-flat flugelhorns is identical—they have a beautiful middle register while playing them not too loud or not too soft, but terrible higher and low registers with insurmountable intonation problems. The greatest disadvantage of these “petite bugles” is their sound or timbre, which is very close to one of a soprano e-flat cornet. But, almost the same sound could be obtained by playing the small e-flat trumpets in a soft manner. It should be pointed out that these small valve bugles were designed to be the violins, violas, and violoncelli of brass but observing the actual situation they will be extinct within the next 50 years!
Slovenian TV team at work filming Meister Andreas Gambs working on a soprano Helicon bell
The gist of the problems connected with the high or middle conical brass instruments is closely connected with their usage. Since the flugelhorn, alto horn, baritone or small flugelhorn is usually the brass player’s second or even third instrument, the manufacturers (in a way to sell them) then try to adopt the bore, mouthpieces, and the whole instrument as much as possible to the players first choice (trumpet, French horn, trombone). These instruments have few or none true top artists or specialists who play them, and they are rarely taught and studied at conservatories.
Searching for a solution for introducing a complete and uniform family of wide bore conical brass instruments with rich, magnificent, noble, soft, dark, and a well balanced but gentle sound in every register and at all dynamics, we had to radically change the mediocre and opportunistic philosophy used on all models above the contemporary euphonium. Instead of approaching their construction to the closest “mainstream brass wind,” we used a pattern of the only one globally successful—the modern concert tuba.
Going even further, we found the best model for the whole family. To obtain the sonority with the volume of an organ combined with the living sensibility and expressiveness of a human voice, eminent German-maker, Melton, developed the design from the acoustical proportions of the mighty Červený Imperial BB-flat Contrabass Helicon. Led by the three essential ideas—to preserve, to renew and to create—an entire new family of helicons will be introduced:
- Soprano in E-flat
- Alto in B-flat
- Tenor in E-flat
- Baritone in B-flat
- Bass in F (or EE-flat)
- Contrabass in BB-flat (or CC)
Again one should ask why to use this weird and obsolete design, but those who tried old giant helicons, would easily confirm their superb sound, projection, and incredible ease of playing. So the answer is hidden in the almost perfect acoustical shape of the helicon.
The coiled brass instruments have existed from the dawn of our civilization, known to Westerners under the names as lur, cornu, or buccina, which were used in ritual ceremonies, military triumphal parades, and circus games. Playing them was also a respected job in the mighty army of the Roman Empire. Restored in the beginning of the 19th century under the name of helicon, they developed as a marching variation of the then newborn bass tuba. In ensuing decades they developed into an entire family of coiled brass winds used as part of a splendid appearance within military bands of Imperialistic-era empires. By the end of the 20th Century, their use in such militaristic splendor has gradually disappeared. Although helicons have garnered fascination from their magnificent appearance, they have never provoked an artistic curiosity, a perfection of musicality, and/or a genuine inquiry into musical creativity.
In spring 2006 we started with the smallest one: the E-flat Soprano.
There were some attempts before to construct a circular or coiled valve brass instrument, pitched in high E-flat. Probably the most famous of them are American Civil War E-flat Cornets made in a helicon shape. We can only guess the reasons for that shape. Since most of the instruments of the era were made in the “over-the-shoulder” manner with bells pointed backwards, only the “melody makers” B-flat and E-flat cornets were coiled with bells pointed up and forwards. However the shape and bore of the main tube of these “helicon cornets” was more or less the same as the one of then contemporary cornopeans or modern cornets, so in this case we can talk more about the appearance than any acoustical attempt of searching the new sonority. In the same period of time, we can also find completely circular French E-flat Cornets, made by Lecomte. They might just follow the original appearance of a Post Horn from which the modern Cornet was derived, or could be just another trick in designing the brass instruments. But what could be for sure: these completely round instruments had to be extremely easy for blowing!
Our intention in designing the modern Soprano Helicon was of course taking the acoustical advantages of a helicon form in terms of easy blowing but on the other hand, we didn’t want to make just another circular Petite Bugle or Soprano Cornet. So comparing to them the helicon must have clearly larger bore and wider tapered conical tube with a large bell for the instrument of the size. We deliberately chose the pitch of high E-flat, so the future musicians can easily play the soprano line within the middle register of the instrument going mostly up to written g2. Since we wanted Soprano Helicon to become a first and leading voice of the family (speaking in terminology of Band – taking the role of 1st Flugelhorn or 1st Cornet and not the role of Petite Bugle, or Soprano Cornet), another reason for choosing high E-flat was the open and piercing nature of so pitched brass winds.
The crew of Melton’s Development Department, led by Ferdinand Kleinschmidt and Andreas Gambs made the first prototype May 2006. This instrument had a bore of an E-flat alto horn, so the smallest alto horn mouthpiece was used for playing it. The tapering and bell size was from the Melton MW-F10 flugelhorn. The instrument had an intense dark sound and great low register down to the lowest pedal tones, but, on the other hand, it had a problematic high register, starting with the written middle “c.” Although the intention of creating a soprano helicon was to make a brass instrument with a voluminous dark sound, we still exaggerated in the case of the first prototype—what sense does it make to build a soprano instrument with a timbre of an alto.
So the next prototype, which was ready a month later, used a regular bore of B-flat flugelhorn and a deep cup flugelhorn mouthpiece. The tapering of the main tube had to be reshaped but the bell size stayed the same – 160 mm. The instrument had four valves (the 4th was a quarter-step valve). It was also reshaped in a way that the main tube section had a tuning slide after the 4th valve instead of having it at the beginning like the flugelhorns. The 4th valve also had a trigger mechanism to prolong the tube for better intonation of tones between low F-sharp and pedal C, which is operated by the right thumb. The 4th valve itself is operated by the left hand. Another characteristic of this instrument was the bore profile, which remained conical even between the valve sections. The instrument still preserved the richness and volume of the 1st prototype, and it still had the great low register but played well also in the higher “soprano” tessitura.
The instrument was ready for the first public appearance. Matej Rihter, the eminent Slovenian trumpeter dared to do the first step, playing the hauntingly, beautiful Après un rêve by Gabriel Fauré at the 2006 Mid Europe Festival in Schladming, Austria (www.mideurope.at) on July 14. After this debut, the instrument underwent further improvements and finalizations at the Melton factory in Geretsried.
One of the problems was the complicated right thumb mechanism for the 4th valve trigger, which was very indirect and so far slow in reaction. The concept was changed, and the trigger is now operated with the left hand. Since the main tubing tended to be too long, the general intonation was a bit flat. With simple pulling out a general tuning slide and the third valve tuning slides, an E-flat instrument could be easily changed from E-flat to a D instrument, what is especially appropriate for performing the baroque and classical repertoire for corno da caccia, which was often composed in D. Ferdinand and Andreas decided to equip the instrument with a set of the two tuning slides (D and E-flat) and two 2nd valve slides. Then the soprano helicon needed a lacquer and Melton “Kunstgravur.” By the end of September 2006, the first soprano helicon was completely finished and sold to Irena Nadler who is now the first regular student in the world, learning this instrument.
As we expected, the soprano helicon has the following characteristics.
- It has a unique, special timbre and musical personality (e.g. half way between the modern valve corno da caccia and B-flat flugelhorn)
- It is an easy blowing instrument, well balanced in all registers and dynamics.
- It has a useful range of more than three octaves, starting with pedal tones up to c3
- It can easily be played with a big velocity and has a potential to become a virtuoso instrument.
- It sounds “big enough” to bear a leading melodic line as well as in different band scorings as in symphony orchestra
The next steps for the “newborn child” are of course creating the repertoire for it and further public presentations, recitals, concerts, and promotions. Early into 2007, we plan to record a CD of solo soprano helicon accompanied with band and string orchestra in addition many additional projects.
Igor Krivokapič is a freelance artist and composer. He has composed more than 30 compositions from symphonic, chamber, choral, and solo music as well as electronic and tape music and ethno projects for traditional wind band. In the process of his creativity he sincerely and attentively dedicates himself to the choice of instruments, especially those being ignored and overlooked, and, for this reason, many of his compositions have been written for unusual and even unique instrumental groups adding fresh and original sonority and musical language to his compositions. His music has been performed in the U.S.A., Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Germany, Canada, Croatia, and Yugoslavia. In 2000 and 2001, he was awarded by the International Composers Competition in Povoletto (Italy). Twice (in 1996 and 1997) he was a delegate at the UNESCO Rostrum of Contemporary Music in Paris.
He has organized several authorial projects: multimedial MUSIKE (Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana 1992), ŽIGOR authorial evening of chamber music (GML Ljubljana 1995), and KAŠA for traditional wind band (commissioned by the Druga godba Festival at its 15th anniversary, Ljubljana 1999). In Boston, U.S.A., he participated in the Tuesday Night New Music and Electric Monday concert series. The music of Igor Krivokapič is regularly on the programs of the Association of Slovenian Composers’ Atelje concerts and Nights of the Slovenian Composers. According to the special demand of musicians his music has been performed at numerous concerts and festivals in the above countries. Nine of his compositions have been recorded at radio studios, two have been published on two CDs, and five have been printed by various musical editors
Krivokapič was born on November 10, 1965 in Ljubljana, Slovenia and now resides in the picturesque Polhov Gradec. He finished his musical studies at the Academy of Music in Ljubljana (the tuba) and was further trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, U.S.A., where he obtained a Masters in Music under the tutelage of Professor Toby Hanks and, in composition, under Professor Caleb Morgan (electronic composition), Professor Bob Ceely (classical composition), and Professor Malcom Peyton (orchestration). Before dedicating himself completely to composing he was a solo tubist with the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra (during the years 1985–1995) and served as a symphonic music producer at the Radio Slovenia (during 1996–1999).