Second thoughts on the ophicleide

I wrote earlier about the ophicleide mainly to introduce a humorous poem. I later received a stern reprimand from a friend of mine, who objected to my statement that “it does not have a lot of love or respect now.” He wondered how I could possibly justify the statement and  hoped I would write another article after I learned more about it.

That friend, Douglas Yeo, deserves more attention to and respect for his comments to me than almost anyone else I know. He is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also plays other instruments such as bass trumpet and, um, ophicleide as needed. According to Yeo, no European orchestra would ever perform, say, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with a tuba replacing the ophicleide part. (He has also played a major role in the revival of a still earlier instrument, the serpent and even commissioned a concerto for it.)

Yeo used to be very active in email discussion lists and online forums. That is how I first learned of his interest in and dedication to the serpent. In recent years, he has largely withdrawn from those media, but still maintains an excellent website, where I see he played ophicleide in a performance of Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society in 2001.

I do not claim to have done any extensive research on the ophicleide since receiving his challenge, but I have explored some other interesting web sites. Nick Byrne’s includes, among much else, some sound clips. Since the ophicleide relies on tone holes rather than valves to change the pitch, I expected a fuzzier, much more serpent-like sound. It much more nearly resembles the sound of an English baritone horn–a much lighter sound than the euphonium.

Several sites listed dates of orchestral performances with ophicleide. Except Yeo’s, none I saw have a date earlier than 2003.  I found an article by Roger Bobo, “Ophicleide and Cimbasso,” in which he passionately supports the revival of the cimbasso, a valved contrabass trombone designed for Giuseppe Verdi, but finds the “fad” for the ophicleide merely amusing.

I personally welcome the revival of both instruments. I have long enjoyed “historically informed performances” of Baroque and Classical (and earlier) music and consider that it’s about time to revive all manner of obsolete instruments for “historically informed performance” of Romantic music, too. Surely not all performances must use period instruments, but every listener ought to have the opportunity to hear some that do, whether live or recorded.

I still like the poem.

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