Tuba or Not Tuba?
Some music sources call the ophicleide (OFF-eh-clide) an “obsolete bass brass instrument which was replaced by the tuba.” Factually that is correct, but to totally equate the two brass instruments would be doing a disservice to the neglected ophicleide.
First invented in the early 1800’s as a replacement for the difficult-to-perform serpent, the ophicleide added the feature of keys (the name is the Greek equivalent of “Keyed Serpent”). The new instrument was welcomed into orchestras quickly by composers because it provided a satisfactory low brass sound. Musicians still found the new instrument difficult to master.
The ophicleide was first written for in an 1819 opera by Gaspare Spontini. Other composers followed, including Felix Mendelssohn with the oratorio Elias and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was perhaps most famously used in the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Verdi and Wagner were among later composers who wrote for it.
When the tuba was invented, it overshadowed the ophicleide. The tuba was easier to play and more reliable an instrument. However, some musicians say that to two instruments aren’t completely interchangeable. There are subtle tones in the lower notes that, when played quietly, are more sublime in the older instrument. The ophicleide can, at times, sound like a euphonium, a trombone, a tuba, and as one YouTube commenter stated, “It sounds like a bassoon had a baby with a French horn.”
When the tuba was invented in the mid 1800’s, its popularity grew quickly. Richard Wagner was introduced to a tuba made by Adolphe Sax and was entranced. He had just started writing Das Rheigold and included the tuba in the famous “Entrance of the gods Into Valhalla”. Meanwhile, Berlioz favored the tuba over the ophicleide due to its “impressively noble” tones. He returned to his older musical scores and replace the parts he wrote for the ophilcleide with the new instrument. The ophicleide quickly lost the favor of composers and musicians alike.
Hear what is possible with the ophilcleide in the capable hands of musician Wibart Patrick: