Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2341:
WAGNER'S TUBA

John Lienhard presents Roger Kaza

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.

Richard Wagner 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 work.

(Theme music)


For much more detail on the history of the Wagner tuba see William Melton's excellent on line article.

Baines, Anthony, Brass Instruments, Their History and Development. (New York: Dover Publications, 1976).

Roger Kaza with a Wagner Tuba Roger Kaza is an Assistant Professor of Horn at the Moores School of Music, University of Houston. He is also Associate Principal Horn of the Houston Symphony, and Principal Horn of the Chautauqua Symphony at the historic Chautauqua Institution in up-state New York. He has appeared as a soloist with many orchestras in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and has lectured and performed for the In-ternational Horn Society. Kaza has made a specialty of investigating the natural acoustics of western canyons, and played his horn in Grand Canyon, Santa Elena Canyon, Black Canyon, and many others.

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
Wagner Tubas (Courtesy the Houston Symphony) made by Engelbert Schmid, Mindelzell, Germany

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.