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A Brief History of Horn Evolution

5. A Branch of the Family Tree


The German word for Wagner Tubas is "Tuben," which in the German language is plural.  However, some English speaking musicians use the word "Tuben" when referring to only one Wagner Tuba, adding an "s" ("tubens") to speak of more than one.  Notwithstanding improper grammatical usage, they are speaking of one of the branches of the horn's family tree.

This brass instrument and relative of the horn was invented in the late 1800's to meet the specifications of the German opera composer Richard Wagner. He wanted an instrument that would add depth to the brass section and provide a tonal color that would bridge the colors of the horn and the trombone.

Wagner tuba

It is usually played with a French horn mouthpiece by a horn player, though the instrument is otherwise quite different from the French horn. It is in an oval shape, held in the lap of the player, with the bell pointing up. The outer bell diameter is smaller than that of a horn. But the throat of the bell is much wider.  It is almost wide enough for the player to stick his or her whole arm inside the instrument, though unlike the horn, the player does not even place the hand in the bell.

The resultant tone is open, pure and very direct almost to the point of being brash, unlike the relatively veiled and distant quality of the horn with its backward pointing bell covered always by a player's hand. And due to the very wide throat of the bell, the sound is bigger and darker than the trombone. It is the perfect sound for depicting the bad guys in Wagner operas, or the spiritual majesty of a Bruckner Symphony.

Originally built either in B flat or F (tenor tuba or bass tuba), several companies in the Twentieth Century also started making a double Wagner Tuba, combining both B flat and F, on the same principal as a double horn.

A single Wagner Tuba has four, in-line, rotary valves manipulated by the left hand. The valves work in the same manner as on most French horns: first valve lowers the pitch by a whole step, 2nd valve by a half step, 3rd valve by one and a half steps. The 4th valve (very rare on the horn, but common on the Wagner Tuba) lowers the pitch by two and a half steps (a perfect fourth). On the double, there are three in-line valves, and a thumb valve which changes the key of the instrument from F to B flat.

Wagner used them in all four operas in "The Ring." Bruckner used them in his Symphonies 7, 8 and 9, and Stravinsky used two in "The Rite of Spring." Other composers like Richard Strauss, Edgard Varese, Arnold Schoenberg, and even the contemporary composer Christopher Rouse have all used Wagner Tubas in their orchestral works. Hollywood has also discovered the Wagner Tuba, it was first used in the 1968 film "Ice Station Zebra."

Wagner tuba

Some horn players dislike playing the Wagner Tuba because it is inherently out of tune and requires lots of fussing and a very good sense of intonation to play it well. Others love that challenge, especially because on most engagements where they are asked to play on both horn and Wagner Tuba, the contract specifies that the player be paid "doubling" fees - an extra percentage (up to 50%) higher than the basic rate paid for the engagement if playing on just one instrument.

- End of Exhibition Gallery Tour -


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