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Serpent Ophicleide and Bombardon Ancestors of the Tuba

The tuba, youngest member of the modern orchestra, has three primary ancestors: the serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon. Although no longer in common use, the movement for historically informed performances using instruments has brought all of them out of the attic and occasionally returned them to the concert hall.

The tuba, youngest member of the modern orchestra, has three primary ancestors: the serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon. Although no longer in common use, the movement for historically informed performances using instruments has brought all of them out of the attic and occasionally returned them to the concert hall.

During the Renaissance, before the invention of valves, only the trombone among brass instruments could play all the notes of a chromatic scale. As the soprano trombone did not yet exist, no similar instrument was available for the soprano part in a four-part texture. An instrument called the cornett came close enough. Made of wood, not brass, it had tone holes like a flute or oboe, but a cup-shaped mouthpiece like a trumpet or trombone. It sort of sound like a trumpet with the spit valve open.

Most Renaissance instruments were built in families. Besides the important soprano cornett, instrument makers also provided them in the alto, tenor, and bass registers. No one would have been able to play a bass cornett with either a straight or gently curved shape. The length of its tube required a convoluted shape resembling a slithering snake, so it became known as the serpent.

In order to play in tune, instruments with tone holes require that the holes be drilled in exactly the right place and be an appropriate size. In instruments like the serpent and the saxophone, which continuously widen from the mouthpiece to the other end, the holes farthest away from the player's mouth must be much larger than the width of her fingers.

Modern woodwinds rely on a system of keys to cover the holes. The holes can be the right size and in the right place, while the player presses down on a conveniently located part of the machinery. That kind of key work had not been invented in the Renaissance. Serpent makers could only put holes where a human hand could conveniently reach and cover them. Therefore, the player had to adjust pitch with his lips much more so than players of any other instrument.

Over the course of the next two or three centuries, many musicians had their say about the serpent. Most disliked it. After the invention of key mechanisms, several makers applied them to brass instruments. Parisian maker Halary heard a British keyed bugle after the Battle of Waterloo and decided to improve the serpent with keys. He gave his version a shape more nearly resembling a bassoon than a snake, called his invention the ophicleide, and patented it in 1821.

Acoustically far superior to the serpent, the ophicleide's tone still suffered from the holes in its tube. Some authorities on orchestration complained that its tone was too often savage and obtrusive. Nevertheless, it served as the standard bass to the brass family both in orchestras throughout most of the nineteenth century and in military bands into the twentieth.

Valved brass instruments eventually superseded keyed brass instruments, including the entire family of bugles. Adolphe Sax designed a family of valved bugles, including bass and contrabass sizes, that he modestly named saxhorns. They found a home in military bands, but not in orchestras.

Valved ophicleides, usually called bombardons in Germany, existed by the 1830s. Wilhelm Wieprecht and C. W. Moritz even designed one they called the bass tuba, but it had such a narrow bore that its lowest notes lacked a full, strong tone quality in the lower register.

Bohemian maker Václav ?ervený put the finishing touches on the modern tuba in the 1840s. Improvements in the design of valves, including some of his own innovations, enabled him to build tubas with a much wider conical bore than previously possible. His tubas, therefore, had a solid tone quality even on lower notes than the Wieprecht/Moritz tuba could reach at all.

Tubas quickly began to replace ophicleides in German and Austrian bands and orchestras. British and French orchestras did not abandon the ophicleide until after the beginning of the twentieth century.

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Comments (4)

Never heard of either of these before. Very interesting and good to read about something totally new to me.

very intriguing..

Will Kimball

For a 17th century image of a trombone and serpent playing together, see http://www.kimballtrombone.com/2010/new-timeline-image-trombone-and-serpent-together/

Will Kimball

In case anyone is interested, for several visual representations of the ophicleide, as well as comments from people like Berlioz, Shaw, and Verdi see http://www.kimballtrombone.com/tag/ophicleide-images/

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