Richard Wagner’s vision of a new sound
Wagner tubas bear the name of the composer Richard Wagner, because it was at his instigation that they were made and in one of his works that they were first played. In 1851/52 Wagner was already composing his opera Rhinegold, the first part of his tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung (UA 1869–1876), when he started looking for a new sound for which no instrument yet existed. His idea was to create a tone in keeping with the horns (middle register) and the low brass in the bass register, the bass and contrabass tubas. That an instrument of this kind would also bridge the gap in tone between the trombones was a welcome side effect.
At the same time Wagner intended a heroic, solemn and stately instrument as a contrast to the lyrical horn. In the end, he was able to realize his idea with the help of existing instruments.
In 1844 Vaclav František Czerveny (1819–1896) from Hradec Králové (Königgratz) brought a tuba-like instrument with a horn mouthpiece onto the market. This was the cornon, and it became very popular in Austrian, German and Swiss military bands in which it often replaced the horn. There is much evidence to suggest that this instrument was known to Wagner.
Saxhorns in France
In October 1853 Wagner was staying in Paris, where he met the well-known instrument maker Adolphe Sax (1814–1894). In 1845 Sax had patented a type of bugle-horn he himself had conceived, the saxhorn. In 1846 he was awarded a patent for the saxophone. The saxhorns were a family of bugle-horns made in nine different tunings from soprano to contrabass, covering the entire spectrum. The idea behind the creation of this family was uniformity of timbre. The saxhorns possessed great precision, purity and ease of intonation and the narrow bore profile also gave them a thin timbre. All French wind instruments tend to have a narrower bore than their German counterparts. However, the saxhorns’ greatest advantage was the fact that they all shared the same fingering and timbre, making them an entirely homogeneous group. It was this that made them so successful.
A bit of everything
Although the principle of the horn mouthpiece was adopted from the cornon, its wide bore was not. On the other hand, the narrow bore of the saxhorns was adopted but not the deep, cup-shaped mouthpiece. The result was a new ”tuba”, which later became known as the Wagner tuba and was able to achieve the desired combination of the horn, tuba and trombone timbre. It was also said at the time that the new instrument ”refined” the tuba sound. What distinguished the Wagner tuba from the horn was its wider and more conical bore, while this bore was considerably narrower than the bass tuba’s.
Richard Wagner used two of each Wagner tuba in the orchestra, i.e., two tenor tubas in Bb (Eb in Siegfried) and two bass tubas in F. But it was not only Wagner who scored for them. In later scores the new instruments were described in various ways and employed in various combinations, e.g., as ”tenor tubas in Bb” and ”bass tubas in F” by Anton Bruckner in his 7th Symphony, or as a ”tenor tuba in Bb” and a ”tenor tuba in F” by Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst and Maurice Ravel.
In Don Quixote only one Wagner tuba is used (as a tenor tuba in Bb), playing an octave above the bass tuba or in combination with the horns and bassoons. Gustav Holst and Maurice Ravel use them singly, too.
Wagner tubas are made either by the Alexander brothers in Mainz or the firm of Mahillon in Brussels. Nowadays double instruments are used: the tenor Wagner tuba in (high) Bb/F and the bass Wagner tuba in F/(low) Bb. In film music Wagner tubas have often been used when a particularly heroic horn sound is required. This is still the case today. Overall the Wagner tubas’ timbre lies somewhere between the horn, the bass tuba and the trombone. Composers may assume that Wagner tubas (and hornists who can play them) are available in modern opera and symphony orchestras.