The History of the Tuba Family and Its Related Keys

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  • Topic: Tuba, Brass instrument, Orchestra
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  • Published : May 3, 2013
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The history and development of the tuba family and its fundamental keys

Introduction

The tuba is one of the youngest members of the modern day standard orchestra and it is still less than 200 years old. It is also one of the only orchestral instruments which has initially been patented; this was done in Prussia, September 1835 by Wilhelm Wieprecht.

In this modern age we have the full range of instrumentation available for any ensemble, this was not always the case as Herbert & Wallace (1997) quote Ridley:

Medieval and early Renaissance… instruments were normally played in consorts or choruses of their own kind, in various pitches, the bass often being supplied by an instrument of a different character because of difficulty in constructing an effective instrument of the group in a sufficiently low pitch.

(P. 143)

This remained the same with the brass family until the late eighteenth century, but it did have earlier predecessors. In the fifteenth century a simple instrument was invented by Edmé Guillaume called the serpent. These instruments were conical tubes of wood which were curved and then wrapped in leather and coiled to facilitate the finger holes for the instrumentalist. The only similarity it has to its modern day equivalent is that a cup shaped mouthpiece was used to create the sound; it is for this reason that it is classified as being part of the brass family. These were used to reinforce bass vocal lines in choirs; generally they were soft spoken instruments which had little or no dynamic range. They were also adopted by military bands in the late eighteenth century and three keys were added to give improved tuning on certain notes which gave it its name of the serpent militaire. It was, however, its lack of dynamic contrast which led to its repertoire within the orchestral medium being quite limited.

It was due to the efforts of Halari in Paris in 1817 that his search to improve the serpent that led him to developments with the ophicléide. An instrument which was made of brass, similar to the earlier constructed keyed bugle, which resembled a large metal bassoon with tone holes similar to that of a modern day saxophone. Herbert (1991) states that its name can be split as so; “ophis = serpent, kleis = cover or stopper” (P.173). The ophicléide was more powerful than the serpent and quickly became used within the orchestra by composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Mendelssohn. It also found its way into the early wind bands in many countries being used by the military as well as civilians. It was the popularity of the ophicléide which prompted the development of the lower brass family, this combined with the onset of the valve era.

The development of the tuba family has two main origins with Wieprecht in Prussia and Adolphe Sax in France. This has led to many varied instruments of different keys and variations of style of instrument. Having two main styles of instrument they seem to have become very regional with the Prussian style instrument being used very much in Germany and the USA and the Sax family being used mainly within the UK and France.

I intend to cover the history of the instrument in some detail and also cover how this affects the rest of the world. This will also include investigation into the current English situation and how this sound affects the ensembles in which we play, looking specifically at the use within the United Kingdom. This will include research from both the instrumentalists and conductors points of view and how we can use this information to make improvements within the United Kingdom in the future.

The Early Prussian Development

It was Wieprecht who described the situation as unsatisfactory in 1835, as detailed by Herbert and Wallace (1997), by saying ”For 10 years now I have been working with military bands, and have felt, I suppose, most sorely the need for a true contrabass wind instrument.” (P.147-148). He also continued to comment...
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