It never rains but it pours. Here is what I believe to be one of the most unique and beautiful tárogatók in existence. This is an original Stowasser instrument, made around 1902. While V.J. Schunda is generally acknowledged to be the inventor of the modern tárogató, some controversy surrounds that claim, as János Stowasser also submitted a patent for an almost identical instrument within days of Schunda’s application. However it happened, the two “S”s of tárogató represent the pinnacle of the art.
The Stowassers were a family of musical instrument makers, a bunch of brothers and sons working both in Graslitz and Budapest. They were famed for their band instruments, even inventing the Helicon in 1845. Trumpets and various brass instruments were their forté, as well as a whole family of saxophones, including a contrabass sax in Eb. But woodwinds were not unknown to them, as lovely Stowasser clarinets prove.
Sometime in the 1890s, either V.J. Schunda or János Stowasser modified the traditional tárogató along the lines of the new soprano saxophone. The original instrument was like a primitive oboe, with a double reed mounted on a thin conical pipe bearing finger holes but no keys. Schunda and/or Stowasswer made the instrument longer–in Bb–with a wider bore and a single-reed mouthpiece like the saxophone or clarinet. Various keys were added for chromatic notes, for intonation, and to extend the range downward.
But here the Schunda and Stowasser stories diverge. Schunda continued with a more conservative design, while Stowasser innovated, based seemingly on his experience and abilities as a maker of other wind instruments. More keys were added, including a double octave key in order to extend the range to the top of the second octave and beyond. Rounded keys for little fingers were flattened and rollers were added, more akin to those of the saxophone. In addition, Stowasser experimented with the bore profile, narrowing the top and increasing the bore cone angle. The acme of tárogató perfection was reached with his four ring #19865 model, which was widely copied and remains the standard design for tárogatók to this day. And while most manufacturers made instruments only in Bb, Stowasser advertised a family of seven sizes, going down to a contrabass tárogató in Eb.
Sadly, while Stowasser was a prolific maker, the Budapest factory burned down in 1917, so Stowasser tárogatók were made for only 20 years. While Romanian copies abound, original Stowasser instruments are still highly prized for their quality. It is possible to find them for sale, but it is difficult to find ones in really good condition. Those that exist have usually been heavily played, and are battered and worn. The wooden walls of Stowasser instruments in particular were made very thin, and many have cracked over the years, some repairable and some not.
I have a Stowasser 19865 instrument in Bb, and it is a joy to play for its ease of response, tone quality and good intonation. With that instrument I thought I was done with tárogatók, until I ran across a Stowasser that blew my mind.
In January of this year I happened to see a Stowasser advertised on eBay. The instrument appeared stunning, hardly used, with no cracks, no wear, still sporting the original lacquer finish. I tried to ignore it, telling myself that I hardly needed another one, but I kept coming back to look. Then I saw something else that I couldn’t believe–this instrument was extended one semitone to low A! I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. But sure enough, there was a double thumb key instead of the usual single one. I had never heard of such a thing, and I still have found no other mention of another.
But something was funny–the instrument was too short. What was this? I wrote to the seller, a reputable and experienced dealer of woodwinds, and neither of us could figure out what key it was in. It took several months to solve the mystery.
Peter Hurd, of oboes.us, is one of the most knowledgeable woodwind specialists it has been my pleasure to run across. His knowledge, it seems, is exceeded only by his integrity and desire to serve his customers and their music. I let him know that I might be interested in this beautiful instrument, but only if it were playable in modern pitch. Peter immediately took it off eBay and sent it in for a complete overhaul. When it came back, he reported that the instrument was apparently in C, but that it played some 30-40 cents flat using the two mouthpieces that came with it. We both surmised that perhaps this was some special order instrument that had been made in a regional pitch. Sadly, I decided that as beautiful and unique as the instrument was, I could not spend all that money on a museum piece. I put it out of my mind.
Imagine my surprise, when some time later, I received a message from Peter: a colleague had put a different mouthpiece on the instrument, and it now played perfectly in tune in C at A=440.
Now I understood. The mouthpieces included with the instrument were traditional Bb mouthpieces, which because of their larger size made the instrument play flat. If a more modern mouthpiece would play it tune, then it should be entirely possible to modify the existing mouthpieces to also play in tune. I jumped! Peter was kind enough to send the instrument on approval.
When it arrived, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. To find a 110-year-old instrument in almost new condition is unusual, but to find one so rare and unique is such condition is almost unheard of. I tried it, and sure enough, it was 30 cents flat. So I popped out to the corner convenience store and bought some chewing gum. Softening it up, I put a wad in the mouthpiece and shaped it to the interior. Now the instrument played beautifully in tune!
Much as I like my Bb Stowasser, this one beats it on all counts. The tuning is excellent from top to bottom. Because of its small finger hole and the closed key below it, E is often flat. It is excellent on this instrument. Middle C# is usually flat. On this horn it isn’t. The instrument plays beautifully and solidly right to the top C, which is usually a bit sharp, but not here.
It is also surprising how a single step upwards can completely change the character of the sound. While the Bb tarogato has flavors of the Cor Anglais, the C Stowasser is bright and penetrating, much more oboe-like than its larger sibling. And to have such an instrument in concert C is anything but ‘disconcerting’–wonderful to be able to read flute and oboe parts without transposition.
Below I lay out a photo spread of this beauty, but I must make a plug here. My appreciation for Peter Hurd knows no bounds. Buying an instrument sight unseen is more often than not a disappointing experience at some level. Not this time. Peter may be in business, but he obviously loves his instruments, and his focus is on the love and not the money. If you are in the market for a double-reed instrument particularly, go visit him at oboes.us. I cannot say enough good things about my interaction with him.
Here is the C Stowasser on top next to the Bb instrument.
The lower part of the two instruments. Note the extra key just above the tenon ring on the C instrument. This is the Bb, which would normally be on the bell.
Here is the double thumb key, and the linkages to the Bb and the extra A keys.
The top joint.
Maker’s marks on the bell, still with the original gold.
The walls are extremely thin on Stowassers, leading to a lot of cracking.
This even came with an original rosewood mouthpiece cap!