The Wagner Tuba is a brass instrument invented by Richard Wagner for his epic four-opera Ring Cycle. He wanted a unique sound combining elements of a tenor tuba and a french horn.
The resulting instrument is played by horn players, who sometimes have trouble playing it well!
In 1853, Richard Wagner was working on the start of his Ring Cycle.He wanted a way to depict the glorious golden castle of the gods, Valhalla, in sound.
First, he thought about using trombones for the Valhalla motif. But they didn't sound quite right. He then had an idea for a noble sound that would evoke old Norse legends in his audience's mind.
Wagner visited Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone) in Paris, and liked the inventor's "saxhorns" so much that he decided to use them for his Valhalla theme. But later he couldn't find any saxhorns in the military bands in Germany.
So he searched for something else. It needed to be dignified, but also soft and dark. There were already quite a few experimental brass instruments around, but none of them were quite right for him. What to do, what to do...
He realized that there was a gap in the timbre (the unique sound of an instrument) between the trombones and the horns. So he decided to do explore a bit on his own, and kill two birds with one stone.
He could fill the gap, which would also get him the right sound he needed to illustrate Valhalla. The whole brass section would be blended in the process. His brass palette would be a rich, continuous range, unbroken from the deep rumbling bass tubas to the high-pitched trumpets.
This would give him a hugely powerful sound for his epic drama, although he actually used the brass section very sparingly in his operas.
It took another two decades for Wagner to get enough money together and finally manufacture his "little tuba". In the end, he created the brand new Wagner tuba, an odd mix of a tenor tuba and a french horn (though definitely more of a french horn).
The instrument has a pure, distant, and majestic sound, but is also capable of being deep, dark, and morbid. Perfect for depicting the evil in the Ring Cycle!
Here's the Valhalla theme, played by four Wagner tubas. This is the noble sound that Wagner was after from the beginning:
The instrument is basically a horn (it's played the same way) except that it's wider and longer, so of course the sound is different. The bell (where the sound comes out) also points up into the air, instead of down like on a horn. Much better for hearing its majestic resonance!
Wagner only managed to get his special instrument made very shortly before the premiere of the Ring Cycle, after asking Hans Richter (the conductor of the Ring Cycle premiere and a horn player) to get them constructed in Berlin.
Because of this, he had to make it playable for musicians who could already play a similar instrument. Horn players were the obvious choice, since the Wagner tuba is so similar, and even uses the same mouthpiece:
In the Ring Cycle, which is the only piece that Wagner used his little invention in, the composer uses it in a group of four. These four players are the same ones that play horns numbers 5-8 in the brass lineup (yes, Wagner asks for 8 horns!).
So half the time these players play Wagner tubas, and the rest of the time they play normal french horns.
The instrument is actually famously tricky to play, since it likes to be erratic. Horn players find it quirky and fussy. Some don't like the challenge!
I think it's a great example of how inventive a musician and thinker Wagner was, and another example of his incredible legacy to music.
Why not explore all of Wagner's operas which features this unique instrument.
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