Ephraim Higgs was a renowned instrument maker in Stratfield upon Clyde, in Northern England. He made woodwind instruments. His oboes were world-renowned, and much sought after by oboe virtuosi. His clarinets were also famous – one was owned by the brilliant oboist Rodger Stolzfuss.
At the time of his death, his catalog listed no fewer than 788 instruments – oboes, clarinets, English horns (which, as we all know, are not horns at all), flutes, pan-pipes, ….
A few celebrated orchestras of the time had Higgs instruments in all their wind sections. All the instruments except the yet-to-come bassoon. No one had ever seen or heard a bassoon, but its existence was hinted at by a certain barely-perceptible, yet unidentified sense of something missing in the orchestral sound. Conductors believed that if only they had just one of these unknown instruments, the sound would be perfect.
A detailed search of Higgs’ catalogs and workrooms turned up not a single unknown instrument. In an obscure appendix to his notebooks, a diligent researcher found a reference to “a new instrument, which I call a bassoon, capable of magnificent sound, which would unify orchestral sound”. A few marginal notes were appended, but there wasn’t enough room on the page for Higgs to provide more detail.
Disappointment ran rampant throughout the musical world. Papers appeared in noted musical journals detailing how a Higgs bassoon would complete the orchestral sound – one now almost dull and lifeless. There were conferences in major musical cities, with learned scholars attempting to describe the marvelous orchestral sound the Higgs bassoon would provide.
Inquiries were sent to museum and collectors worldwide. Those that responded came back negative. No Higgs bassoons.
Some researchers attempted to construct the Higgs by taking an ordinary shawm, examining the waveforms and suggesting additional frequencies to fill the void predicted by elaborate mathematical analysis. Their experiments were unsuccessful. Some researchers believed that if they only had more time, or perhaps more funding, there might be a breakthrough. So heated and intense became this search, and so often unfruitful, that many started calling the Higgs the “Gottes-instrument” – the one from which all other wind instruments would emerge, and beside which, are mere shadows.
A few years ago, a young post-doctoral student went to Zurich, where he started going through the archives of the Schweitzer Museum für Musicalishes Geschichte und Kunst. In an obscure sub-basement, he found a trunk labeled “HIX”. It occurred to him that this might be the phonetic German rendering of “Higgs”. He carefully opened the trunk, and found notebooks marked “E. Higgs”. The notebooks described in some detail experiments involving combining an English horn with an oboe. These proved unfruitful, except for material for the young post-doc’s next paper.
At the bottom of the trunk, however, was a false bottom. Hidden in the compartment was an object, carefully wrapped in blue velvet. Inside was an oddly-shaped instrument. Inside the body, he could make out carefully-carved lettering: “E. HIGGS FECIT MDCCXLIII”. A parchment note wrapped around it read “Bassoon Nr 1”.