The Wagner tuba: the orchestra’s least known brass member

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What is the most recently member of the orchestra? The tuba, invented in 1835 would seem to qualify, except that Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and some other very important works require an even newer instrument called the Wagner tuba. The invention of valves in 1815 led to the development of numerous new brass instruments. None of them produced the kind of sound Wagner envisioned as he started work on Das Rheingold. In 1854 he set out to find someone who could design something suitable.

Playable specimens of the ancient Norse lur, when played by hornists of Wagner’s time had a noble and solemn tone somewhat between that of the modern horn and the trombone. Wagner wanted that kind of sound to invoke the Norse legends he adopted as the basis of the Ring Cycle. He also wanted something to improve the blend between horns and trombones and between horns and contrabass tuba.

Many manufacturers, including Sax, Moritz, and Cerveny, made families of conical-bore, tuba-like instruments. Wagner found none of them satisfactory, although he was forced to use them for concert performances of Ring excerpts in the 1860s. In 1866, he hired Hans Richter, an aspiring orchestra conductor, as a copyist. Among his other talents, Richter was an accomplished hornist. Soon, Wagner depended on him for much more than copying scores and parts. He appears to have had a hand in designing the new instruments.

Wagner composed the Ring Cycle before his new tubas actually existed. Final rehearsals were in progress (1874) before the original Wagner tubas were delivered: two tenor and two bass instruments to be played by the third and fourth pairs of hornists. The manufacturer, Johann Georg Ottensteiner of Munich, had learned the craft of making brass instruments in Paris from Adolphe Sax. Wagner liked Sax’s instruments but couldn’t bear to deal with Sax himself. The manufacturers Moritz and Alexander later made sets of the new tubas. The Alexander model became definitive.

The Ring Cycle turned out to be the only music Wagner ever wrote for his new tubas. Only a few other composers used them, either. Anton Bruckner called for Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. Richard Strauss used a quartet of them in several works, including Elektra, which contains the most difficult parts ever written for Wagner tubas. In Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben he chose to use a single tenor tuba instead of the usual quartet. The only other composers of the time to use Wagner tubas appear to be Adalbert von Goldschmidt, Jean Louis Nicodé, Friedrich Klose, and Felix Draeske, all well-respected in their lifetimes.

Arnold Schoenberg’s most Wagnerian piece, Gurre-Lieder, requires a quartet of Wagner tubas. Oddly enough, Igor Stravinsky, who did not care for the music of any of the aforementioned composers, used a quartet of Wagner tubas in Firebird and The Rite of Spring. Béla Bartók called for two tenor tubas in Kossuth and The Miraculous Mandarin. Gustav Holst, Leos Janácek, and Danish composers Paul von Klenau and F. Rued Langaard also wrote a few pieces with Wagner tuba parts. Nearly all of this music appeared before the First World War. By the end of the Second World War, many of the companies that made Wagner tubas ceased to exist.

Even during Wagner’s and Bruckner’s lifetimes, when music with Wagner tuba parts was performed outside Germany or Austria, some other instrument usually substituted. It certainly appeared that Wagner had tried to introduce a new instrument to the orchestra and failed. It has a very small, if very distinguished, repertoire. It is difficult to play in tune, and so sound terrible in the hands of a section without a great deal of practice and familiarity. So who would have thought that there would be a revival of the Wagner tuba?

Beginning in the 1960s, English composer Elisabeth Lutyens, Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, and German composers Bernd Alois Zimmerman and Hans Werner Henze, among others, began to use Wagner tubas in very new ways. Younger composers, including Pulitzer Prize winner Christopher Rouse, continue to use it.

Eventually, as various performers began to champion the Wagner tuba, it moved out of the concert hall. Besides chamber music and even solo pieces, it passed into popular culture. Many individuals became comfortable both in “classical” music and “popular” music. David Duke, for example, played both horn and jazz piano, making him one of the first people who could play jazz and rock rhythms idiomatically on the horn. He took his Wagner tuba to a recording session in 1964, and soon arranger Gene Page started using it in arrangements for Motown.

The Wagner tuba’s introduction to Hollywood quickly followed, as composers of film scores always welcome novel sounds. Since few people attend brass chamber music concerts and no one actually sees the orchestra that plays a sound track, the revival of the Wagner tuba remains little recognized, but it shows no sign of stopping.

Source: The Wagner Tuba: a History / by William Melton (Edition Ebenos, 2008), ISBN 9783980837910.

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