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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Question: Did Richard Wagner really invent his own tuba?

Yes. When working on the Ring cycle, the composer felt that he needed to design an instrument hat combined the function of the French horn and the tuba. He went to various instrument makers (including the famous Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone) and Swiss artisan C.W. Moritz. Finally, it was Munich craftsman George Ottensteiner, working with a generous stipend from King Ludwig II, who built the first Wagner tubas. They were first used at a performance of Die Walküre in 1875.

Originally, there were two types of Wagner tubas, (tenor and bass) though most modern players prefer a "double tuba" that can play in either range with the flick of a valve. Either way, the the Wagner tuba looks like a small oval tuba, or a slightly elongated French horn. It is played in the lap with the bell facing up. The instrument was designed to have a narrow pipe bore (like the horn) so it can be played with a conical horn mouthpiece. Also, like the horn, the Wagner tuba has a rotary valve system, and it is notoriously difficult to keep in tune.

During performances of the Ring, four members of the eight-man horn section are required to put down their horns and pick up the Wagner tubas (usually two tenors, two basses.) This has the advantage of adding a darker quality to the orchestra, and a clear, stentorian sound in the more noble passages. A good place to hear the Wagner tubas do their stuff is in the opening of Act I of Die Walküre, where they represent the storm scene and the German thunder god, Donner.

Although Wagner only used these tubas in the Ring, they also appear in symphonies by Anton Bruckner (most notaly the Seventh, which was dedicated to Wagner) and Schoenberg's mighty Gurrelieder. Stravinsky required them for the Rite of Spring. Finally, Richard Strauss, who never met an orchestral texture he didn't like, used them in a number of his works.

In Germany, the Wagner tuba is also known as the "Ring-Tuben", the "Bayreuth-Tuben" and the "Rheingold-Tuben."
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.