Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music.
At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory.
The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented in the late 16th century, had its tone holes cut to fit players’ fingers. They were acoustically neither drilled in the right places nor large enough.
The late 18th century saw the beginnings of dramatic improvements in keys for woodwind instruments. By 1801, keys had also been applied to the trumpet ,and by 1811 to the bugle.
The French instrument-maker Halary introduced a family of keyed bugles, which he called ophicleides, in 1817. The name is derived from Greek and means roughly “keyed serpent,” although it hardly resembles the serpent in any way except for the length of its conical tube.
The smaller sizes never caught on, but the bass ophicleide immediately proved its worth in the orchestra. The tuba eventually supplanted it. Valves make the tuba tonally superior and easier to play.
Nonetheless, ophecleides persisted in French, English, and Italian orchestras for several decades after the introduction of the first successful tuba.
Both the serpent and ophicleide are undergoing revival, but for generations no one took either instrument seriously. Check out this funny poem about the opnicleide.
Saxtromba / Saxtuba / Independent-valve trombone
Adolphe Sax is best known as the inventor of the saxophone. His claim to have . invented the saxhorn (1845) immediately embroiled him in legal disputes, and even today not everyone considers that his instruments are different enough from earlier valved bugles to deserve a patent.
Less well known and successful, Sax introduced the saxtromba to French military music, also in 1845. He intended saxtromba to occupy the acoustic space between trombones and saxhorns.
It has a conical bore, but not as wide as the saxhorn’s. He hoped that with its more brilliant sound it would supplant the trumpet and trombone in cavalry bands. Not for long.
Bands during the French Revolution reintroduced two ancient instruments under the name buccin and tuba corva (curved tuba).
“Tuba” didn’t come to mean a bass instrument until much later. The saxtuba is essentially a tuba corva with valves.
Sax built it, like his other instruments, in sizes from soprano to bass. He apparently designed it at the same time as the saxhorn and saxtromba, but did not make it until he became director of the stage band at the Opéra.
Fromental Halévy used saxtubas in his opera La juif errant (not to be confused with his earlier masterpiece La juive) in 1852. They lasted no longer than the opera remained in the repertoire.
In 1852 Sax introduced his oddest looking invention, a a trombone with six independent valves. Most valved instruments have a serious acoustical problem. Each valve increases the sounding length of the tube.
An increase in length of about 6% is needed to lower the pitch a semitone. If each valve is long enough to lower the pitch by one, two, or three semitones, any combination of valves will be sharp.
Sax decided to make valves that would only be used one at a time. With no valves depressed, the instrument was as long as a slide trombone in 7th position. Instead of lengthening the tube, each would shorten it.
In principle, it should play perfectly in tune, assuming equal temperament. In practice, the slide trombone has better intonation, and orchestra don’t play equal temperament.
Sax’s design is much heavier than an ordinary valve trombone and more difficult to play.
His first design leaked, so he made an even heavier version with a separate bell for each valve.
The independent valve trombone offered no advantage to amateur players, who accounted for the bulk of sales of brass instruments. The orchestra of the Opéra used it for a while. It’s nothing more than a curiosity now.
Italian orchestras and bands of the 19th century abandoned the slide trombone entirely. Gioacchino Bimboni, the leading Italian valve trombone virtuoso, began to manufacture trombones in 1831. In 1850 he introduced a trombone with seven valves, which he named after himself.
Very little research has been done on Italian instrumental music. Italian composers produced hardly any purely orchestral music. Only a few researchers have looked into the remarkable body of Italian military band music. And so Bimboni and other Italian trombonists of the time remain almost completely unknown.
So far, the bimbonifono remains nothing more than an entry in Langwill’s index of musical instrument manufacturers. Until someone looks into it, it will not be possible to assess how much anyone actually used it.
For now, it can stand as representative of all of the other inventors who named instruments for themselves and did not achieve fame for them.
In 1856, French bandmaster Pierre-Auguste Sarrus designed a family of conical keyed brass instruments with double reeds. Sax’s saxophone and saxhorn families may have provided inspiration.
A saxophone is sort of like an ophicleide with a clarinet reed, and the sarrusophone is sort of like an ophicleide with an oboe or bassoon reed.
Sarrus hoped his invention would replace oboes and bassoons in military bands, just as Sax hoped the saxtromba would replace trumpets and trombones. And with somewhat greater success.
Sax himself actively opposed the sarrusophone. He was official leader of French military music and did not take kindly to rival innovators.
Some French units adopted Sarrusophones anyway, and continued to use them into the 1920s. English, American, and Italian bands have made sporadic use of sarrusophones.
When Richard Wagner conceived his Ring Cycle, he had heard hornists playing the ancient Norse lur.
He wanted a similar sound to invoke Norse legends, and also an intermediary between the horns and trombones on the one hand and the tuba on the other.
He found available instruments unsuitable for his purpose. He liked the sound of saxhorns, but didn’t like dealing with Sax.
With the help of his conductor Hans Richter, an accomplished hornist, Wagner designed new instruments and commissioned Johann Georg Ottensteiner of Munich to manufacture them. They became known as Wagner tubas.
He wrote parts for two tenors and two basses. The third and fourth pairs of horns doubled on the Wagner tubas. Not until final rehearsals were in progress in 1874 did Ottensteiner deliver the instruments.
Wagner never used them again.
Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, among others, wrote parts for the Wagner tuba. It has a small but distinguished orchestral repertoire. Most often, however, performances substitute other instruments.
The Wagner tuba is a difficult instrument to play in tune. In the hands of musicians who are not accustomed to playing them, they can sound awful. Nevertheless, they have found a new home in Hollywood film scores.
Giuseppe Verdi disliked the combination of trombones and tuba. He preferred the idea of a contrabass trombone at the bottom of the low brass. In 1881 he asked the leading Italian manufacture of wind instruments, Pelitti, to design one.
The new instrument had four valves and a shape something like a slide trombone, except the “slide” part rests on the floor. The bell and mouthpiece receiver are bent to make the bell face forward and the mouthpiece accessible to the player.
Pelitti called the new instrument “Verdi contrabass trombone,” but somehow it has acquired the name “cimbasso.” Unfortunately, that’s also the name of various unrelated earlier instruments.
Since even Italian orchestras now use the slide trombone exclusively, substituting a slide contrabass trombone would seem reasonable, but opera orchestras hire three trombones and a tuba player.
Major companies have a cimbasso that their tuba players use for operas by Verdi and Puccini. Like the Wagner tuba, the cimbasso is also finding a home in film scores.
The fundamentals of the oboe and bassoon are more than two octaves apart. Some composers have felt a need for an instrument that comes between the two. The Nürnberg maker Denner made at least one baritone oboe (ca. 1700), an octave below the standard oboe.
Other manufacturers tried their hand at them over the next two centuries, but none of the designs caught on. A bass oboe, with a fundamental between the baritone oboe and bassoon, also exists.
Wagner complained to bassoon-maker Wilhelm Heckel in 1879 about the lack of sufficiently powerful baritone oboe. Heckel began to experiment, but it was not until 1904 that his son introduced the Heckelphone.
The oboe has a slight conical bore. The Heckelphone has a wide conical bore, which gives its tone more power. Most composers have been quite content to write for an orchestra with no baritone oboe. Richard Strauss wrote an important heckelphone part in Salome.
The heckelphone has never become common, but it is successful enough that it can be used for whatever parts exist for baritone or bass oboe.
Sibyl Marcuse. Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary. Corrected edition. New York: Norton, 1975.
Adam Carse. Musical Wind Instruments. (1939). Reprinted New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.
David M. Guion. A History of the Trombone. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 20 volumes. Washington, D.C.: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1980.
Scott Irvine. “A Little Background on the Cimbasso, or, What’s That Thing Next to the Trombones?” Canadian Opera Company.
Ophicleide. Source unknown
Saxtromba. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Saxtuba. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Sax model trombone. Scanned from Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, March 31, 1872
Sax trombone, 6 valves, 7 bells. Source unknown
Sarrusophone. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Wagner tuba. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Cimbasso. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Heckelphone. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.