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Bass tuba - History 1 – baroque to 19th century

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.

Baroque and classical music – the tuba’s distant relatives

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.


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

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 19th century – the century of the ophicleide

Valve horn

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


Ophicleide in C, J.H. Ebblewhite, London 1850–1854 (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.

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.

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.

Tenor saxhorn

Tenor saxhorn