The Wagner TubaWagner Tuba

The Wagner tuba combines elements of both the horn and the tuba but it is not an instrument which is frequently heard. Originally created for Richard Wagner's operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Wagner tuba has been written for by many other composers - most notably Anton Bruckner, in whose Symphony No. 7 a quartet of them is first heard in the slow movement in a memorial tribute to Wagner. The euphonium may sometimes used as a substitute when a Wagner tuba cannot be procured.

It was after a brief visit to Paris in 1853 that Wagner found the inspiration to invent this fascinating instrument. He visited the shop of Adolphe Sax, the man who invented the saxophone, with the idea in mind that he wanted to create an instrument which could express his Valhalla motif with the gravity of the trombone, but with a more rounded, noble tone than that of the French horn. To achieve this effect, a conical bore was utilised along with a horn shaped mouthpiece, as opposed to a cup mouthpiece, which is used in a trombone.

More detailed History of the Wagner Tuba

Technical Information

To all intents and purposes, the Wagner tuba exists in two different sizes: the tenor in B-flat and bass in F, and their ranges are comparable to those of horns in the same pitches while being a little less capable of achieving the highest notes. However, manufacturers in the 20th-century and indeed in the new millennium, have combined the two instruments into a double Wagner tuba in B-flat and F.

Wagner tubas are usually written as transposing instruments, but the notation used can vary considerably from composer to composer with Wagner himself being a source of much of the confusion having used three different and incompatible notations in the course of the Ring Cycle. What also really doesn't help is the fact that the instruments are invariably designated in orchestral scores simply as "tubas", leaving it sometimes unclear as to whether normal "true"tubas or Wagner tubas are intended (for example, the two tenor tubas indicated by Janáček's in his Sinfonietta are sometimes wrongly assumed to be Wagner tubas).

The sound of the Wagner tuba is mellower than that of the horn and sounds more distant, yet also more focused with a broad noble tone. Bruckner had a tendency to use Wagner tubas for pensive melodic passages at piano to pianissimo dynamics. They can certainly hold their own in a forte tutti but Bruckner generally gives them sustained tones rather than melodic motifs in such passages. In Bruckner's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, the four Wagner tubas are played by four players alternating between playing horn and Wagner tuba, which is the same procedure Wagner used in the Ring. This change is simplified by the fact that the horn and Wagner tuba use the same mouthpiece as mentioned earlier. A superb example of the truly melodic capabilities of the Wagner tuba is in the Edel Rhapsody by Stephen Caudel which pays homage to Beethoven in the heroic grandeur of its Larghetto and yet in its Allegretto it manages to "blow the dust off the crusty image of the Wagner tuba!"

The placement of the Wagner tubas in the written orchestral score, depends to a large extent on who plays them. If they are played by players doubling French horn, the staves for the Wagner tubas logically go below those of the horns and above the trumpets. However, if they are played by players who are not also playing horn, they are placed below the trombones, but above the regular tuba, which is then called a "contrabass tuba."

Other more contemporary composers who have written for the instrument include Béla Bartók, Alec Wilder, Stephen Caudel, Andrew Downes, Felix Draeseke, Alexander Kaloian, Elisabeth Lutyens, Michael Nyman, Ragnar Søderlind, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Sofia Gubaidulina.

The leading resource for this fascinating and lyrical instrument is here: Wagner Tuba

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