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History 2 – the modern bass tuba

1835 – the birth of the modern bass tuba

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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.

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.

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Bombardon

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.