VIENNA ACADEMY > Brass           > Tubas > Bass tuba > HISTORY

The term tuba is derived from the Latin word tuba (tuba) and in classical antiquity described a cylindrical lip-vibrated instrument (the Roman trumpet), which saw service principally as a signaling instrument. However the name, which found itself attached to a wide variety of instruments over the centuries, was the only thing this archaic instrument had in common with the modern tuba.

Since classical antiquity the name “tuba” has been applied to a wide variety of instruments.


Baroque and classical music – the tuba’s distant relatives




Serpent in C, presumably around 1970, Christopher Monk, Surrey, England (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)


The tuba curva, a brass instrument made in Paris in 1791 for the festivities following the French Revolution, was modeled on the Roman trumpet and is regarded as a forerunner of the modern tuba. This instrument had a very powerful sound, no valves or keys and a range limited to the lowest naturals.

Another distant relative of the tuba is the serpent, a conical, wooden instrument about 213 cm long with six finger-holes and a cup mouthpiece made of ivory or horn which appeared in the 17th century. It was placed beside the choir in French and English churches to support the voices in full passages, lending particular strength to the male voices. According to reports the serpent blended with the voices even more effectively than the organ did, although Berlioz was one who did not share this view. In his opinion the instrument’s sound blended only poorly with the choir and was not suitable for sensitive ears.

One of the serpent’s weaknesses was the fact that it was not possible to play any scale accurately because notes a step apart were played using the same fingering, pitch alterations being possible only by varying lip-tension – up to a fourth. Changes in volume also presented difficulties.

In 1825 a serpentone was in use at La Scala in Milan, which was nothing unusual in 19th century Italy. The premieres of Handel’s Fireworks Music (1749), Mendelssohn’s oratorium Paulus (1836) and Wagner’s Rienzi (1842) all featured the serpent. The instrument remained in use for around 250 years, until the 1890s.

The serpent was called for in symphony orchestras only very rarely, although it was a very common feature of oratorio festivals.

The serpent is a distant relative of the tuba. It emerged in the 17th century and was a wooden instrument with six finger-holes. It supported the male voices in the choir.


The 19th century – the century of the ophicleide




Silver valve horn in F, E.G. Wright, Boston 1854 (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)


In 1810 the Irishman Joseph Halliday was granted a patent for a keyed bugle, the so-called Royal Kent Bugle. This conical instrument had copper tubing (125–135 cm long with a diameter of 12–25 mm), a very fast flare to a 15 cm wide bell and at least six keys.

This very agile instrument was used as a powerful soprano instrument for playing the melody line in brass bands, but was only seldom asked for in symphony orchestras (an exception is Rossini’s opera "Semiramide", 1823). In France this instrument was called the trompette cromatique or bugle à clefs, in Germany it was known as the Klappenhorn. Because of the virtuosity of this soprano instrument it was deemed necessary to make a bass counterpart: the century of the ophicleide began.

At the turn of the 19th century, efforts to develop a bass instrument to the popular Royal Kent bugle produced the ophicleide.


Ophicleide in C, J.H. Ebblewhite, London 1850–1854 (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)


The ophicleide, which looked like a bassoon, had conical tubing made of brass (approx. 274 cm long, as on a Bb instrument, tube diameter 12.5–35.5 mm) with several keyed side-holes. By opening the holes the air column was shortened and the pitch increased; it worked on the same principle as woodwind instruments. A number of naturals could then be played from the fundamental tone thus produced.

The range, a maximum of around three octaves, depended on the ability of the player. Intonation was very uncertain because several fingerings were possible for each note. The mouthpiece was cup-shaped, with a flat rim, the bell faced upward and had a diameter of about 21 cm. The huge volume made great demands on the breathing and the round, euphonium-like sound – which was very rugged in the bass – was very effective with brass played en masse. It also blended very well with the choir.

From 1821 until the end of the 19th century the ophicleide was widely used as a bass voice. It is called for by Mendelssohn (Midsummer Night’s Dream Music, 1843, Reformation Symphony)), Schumann, Meyerbeer (Robert the Devil), Verdi and Wagner (Rienzi). Hector Berlioz required several ophicleides in his Fantastic Symphony, but was one of the first composers to develop an enthusiasm for tubas, with which he proceeded to replace the ophicleides. Today all ophicleide parts are played by the bass tuba.

The ophicleide had several keys and its appearance owed much to the bassoon. It was used as a bass instrument until the end of the century.

Tenor saxhorn

From the 1820s onward numerous bass instruments of similar construction but with different names were built; in 1829, for instance, W. Riedl made a valved instrument in Vienna which was modeled on the ophicleide and became known as the bombardon. This wide-bored instrument had a powerful tone and was still used in military bands after the advent of the tuba. The French counterpart of the bombardon was made by the industrious and well-known instrument maker Adolphe Sax (1814–1894), who in 1843 was granted a patent for a group of valved brass instruments which covered the entire tonal range: the usual names for these instruments were saxhorn, saxtromba and saxtuba and they were used mainly in military circles.

It served as a model for a variety of other bass instruments, such as the bombardon and the saxtuba.


1835 – the birth of the modern bass tuba




Tuba, Ant. Holy, Pilsen, Bohemia, ca. 1850/60 (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)


In 1835 Johann Moritz and the trombonist Wilhelm Wieprecht (1802–1872) were granted a Prussian patent in Berlin for the bass tuba. Although valved instruments in the bass register already existed (e.g. the bombardon) this was the first instrument to bear the name bass tuba.

The bass tuba was made of brass, keyed in F and had five piston valves (“Berlin valves”). The first three valves were operated by the right hand, the other two by the left.
The 1st and 2nd valves lowered the fundamental note by a whole tone and a semitone respectively in relation to the key of F; the 3rd valve lowered the instrument’s tuning by a fourth, from F to C. The 4th and 5th valves lowered the pitch from C by a whole tone and a semitone (wide half step, wide whole step) respectively. The relatively narrow bore meant that the bass notes were not particularly loud or powerful.

In the course of the reorganization of Prussian military music Wieprecht introduced two bass tubas into every band, which aided the instrument’s distribution and further development. Because the gap between the 1st and 2nd naturals could not be bridged on an instrument with three valves, subsequent tubas were made with four to six valves.

The fact that the bombardon and the bass tuba existed at the same time often led to confusion. Hector Berlioz described Wieprecht’s tuba as a bombardon with an improved mechanism and stated that its timbre was very much like that of the ophicleide. In France, the tuba was known for a long time as the ophicléide-à-pistons. Two features distinguished the tuba from the bombardon: the wide bore profile and the valves, the new “Berlin pistons”. The following explanation helps to clear up the confusion surrounding the two instruments: the bass instrument used in military bands was called the bombardon, while its counterpart in the symphony orchestra was known as the tuba.

In 1835 Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Moritz were granted a patent for a bass instrument with five valves, which they called a bass tuba.


The introduction of the tuba solved the problem of a satisfactory bass voice in military and wind bands. Despite this symphony orchestras were slow to adopt it.

Hector Berlioz first encountered the bass tuba on tour in Germany and describes it as follows: “In Prussia the bass tuba has replaced the ophicleide; it is a large wind instrument with five rotary valves which give it a large compass in the low register. The low notes are blurred, but when two tubas double an octave apart this produces an enormous resonance. In the middle and upper registers the sound is very refined and not as flat as the ophicleide's, rich, vibrant and well-matched to the timbre of the trombones and trumpets, which the tuba serves as the bass voice.” Berlioz was one of the first composers to embrace the tuba with enthusiasm, using it in virtually all his scores in place of the ophicleide.

Gradually the bass tuba began appearing in various orchestras and by the second half of the 19th century it had been widely adopted in German orchestras.

The tuba provided military and brass bands with a satisfactory bass instrument and soon found its way into the symphony orchestra, too.


Present day



Present day tubas have a fast rate of flare of about 1:10 to 1:20 from mouthpiece to bell. Pedals play well on account of the wide conical bore. Nowadays instruments with five or six valves are the most widespread – this number is necessary to be able to play the full chromatic scale (eleven half steps downward) and to ensure pure intonation.

The bell of the orchestral tuba faces upward. The helicon is used in wind bands and dance bands, while the sousaphone is found in American wind and military bands.

The modern tuba has a widely flaring tube and five or six valves. The bell of the orchestral tuba points upward.