Today, horn player Roger Kaza tells us about the tuba Wagner built.
The University of Houston's music school presents this program
about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The gods at Valhalla bought their castle with
the gold of the river Rhine. That's the very short version of what happens
in Richard Wagner's music-drama Das Rheingold, and, since some of
that gold was cursed, Wagner had about 15 more hours of explaining to do.
His four-opera epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, was the result.
But how do you depict Valhalla in sound? Which instrument of the orchestra
do you use? Wagner, one of the most restless minds in music history,
apparently pondered the latter question for over 20 years. His answer:
none of them. Instead, he went on a holy-grail-like quest for an altogether
new brass instrument, one with a tone halfway between the mellow French
horns and the declamatory trombones. The Wagner tuba was born -- at least
in the mind of a composer.
Wagner's search brought him to many of the foremost instrument makers of his time,
including Adolphus Sax, known as much for his "Saxhorns" then as he is for his
saxophones now. But building an instrument no one has ever heard before requires
money, and Wagner never seemed to have any. Finally, in 1874, his patron and arch fan,
King Ludwig II of Bavaria
granted Wagner the funds to build, among other things, his tuba.
But who was going to play it? Most instruments require, well, at least a few years
to master, and Wagner's complete Ring was to soon premier at the new theater in
Bayreuth. His friend, the conductor Hans Richter, provided the answer. Have four
of the horn players play them, he advised -- after all, they are already accustomed to
battling one unwieldy instrument ... they won't mind another.
Indeed, the Wagner tuba is unwieldy, looking, as it does, like a sawed-off,
underfed euphonium. It curls tentatively forward like a mini-Sousaphone. Truth
be told, it is a tuba in name only, and plays more in the tenor range of the
orchestra. But its strange, almost otherworldly tone was perfect for the gloomy
nether-regions of the Nibelung saga.
Wagner also added some other uncommon brass instruments to his symphonic arsenal:
a bass trumpet, and an enormous contrabass trombone. He seemed to conceive
of the brass section as a huge continuous tonal palette.
Yet it turned out to be a palette for his music alone. Only a few other major
composers scored for Wagner tuba. Wagner's devotee Anton Bruckner wrote some
beautiful Wagner tuba chorales in his last three symphonies. Richard Strauss
used them in one of his tone poems, and in two operas. Even Igor Stravinsky
added a pair to the tumultuous climax of Part One of the Rite of Spring.
But the Wagner tuba never really joined the symphony orchestra. It was an
unexpected guest. Like the gods of Valhalla that inspired its creation, it remains
aloof and apart from the realm of everyday mortal instruments.
I'm Roger Kaza, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For much more detail on the history of the Wagner tuba see
Melton's excellent on line article.
Baines, Anthony, Brass Instruments, Their History and Development.
(New York: Dover Publications, 1976).
The audio clip of Wagner tubas is from: R. Wagner, Das Rheingold.
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon, 445-295-2. The Wagner
image above is courtesy of Wikipedia. Wagner tuba photos by John Lienhard.
Wagner Tuba (Courtesy the Houston Symphony) made by Engelbert
Schmid, Mindelzell, Germany
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2019 by John H.