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History

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Tuba in Bb, Cerveny & Sons, Hradec Králové, Czechia, ca. 1910 (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)

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Bass helicon

The modern tuba is the result of numerous attempts to make a bass instrument that was capable not only of producing a sound that carried well but also enabled satisfactory intonation. In 1835 Johann Moritz and the trombonist Wilhelm Wieprecht (1802–1872) were granted a Prussian patent in Berlin for the bass tuba. This instrument was made of brass, keyed in F and had five piston valves (“Berlin valves”).

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 fundamental pitch 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 order to achieve greater volume in the bass several instrument makers looked to Wieprecht’s invention for inspiration and started making larger instruments with wider bore profiles. In 1845 the Bohemian instrument maker Vaclav Frantisek Czerveny (1819–1896) made a contrabass tuba in C and F in the town of Hradec Králové. He called the instrument the contrabass and subcontrabass and it found a niche principally in wind band music.

Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was the first composer to introduce the contrabass tuba into the opera orchestra, which he did in his Ring of the Nibelung. Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) called for it in his 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, Richard Strauss (1864–1949) in his Elektra.

In 1883 Czerveny developed an instrument with a particularly wide bore of around 21 mm. This was the famous “Kaiser bass”. The instrument was pitched variously in F, Eb, C and Bb, the shape was either elliptical, helicon-shaped or tuba-shaped, the sound mellow and rich.

At the same time contrabass tubas were also known in Italy; there they were made by Pelliti of Milan and were called pellitones.

In the USA the instrument maker Conn made the first sousaphone in 1908, an instrument invented by the composer John Philip Sousa primarily for outdoor use. It had a wide bore and was keyed either in Eb or Bb.

The development of modern bass and contrabass tubas tends toward a widening of the bore.

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Bass sousaphone