A wide-bore valved brass instrument. It is used as a bass or contrabass member of the band or orchestral brass section (in the Hornbostel and Sachs system it is classified as an Aerophone: trumpet). Several members of the tuba family are commonly called by other names, e.g. the Euphonium, bombardon, Sousaphone and Helicon. The lower members of the Saxhorn group may be included in the tuba family. The Wagner tuba has characteristics of both horn and tuba. The tuba, basically a valved bugle, is a comparative newcomer to the brass section (the first instrument so named, a five-valve Bass-Tuba, was introduced in Germany in 1835).
Tuba parts are usually notated at sounding pitch, but in British brass bands and French bands the tubas are treated as transposing instruments. The instrument’s timbre is more akin to the horn than to the trumpet or trombone, but because of its massiveness of tone it is associated with the ‘heavy’ brass.
Playing the tuba demands an enormous amount of breath, especially on the larger instruments, but does not require high breath-pressure. The lips are normally loose and cushionlike; only in the high register need they be compressed or tense. In the hands of an accomplished performer the tuba can be an agile instrument, but the breath supply must constantly be renewed and, on the larger instruments, the lowest notes must be attacked with deliberation.
Tubas in use at the end of the 20th century included the tenor tuba in Bb (Fr. tuba basse, saxhorn basse; Ger. Baryton; It. flicorno basso, eufonio), a bass instrument covering much the same range as the cello; bass tubas in F and Eb (Fr. tuba contrebasse; Ger. Basstuba; It. flicorno basso-grave), contrabass instruments fulfilling a similar function to the double bass; and contrabass tubas in C and Bb (or, as makers and players would term them, ‘CC’ and ‘BBb’ respectively; the latter is often shown as ‘Bb'’).
The Faust overture, often cited as Wagner’s first work using the tuba, was composed in 1840 but not performed until 1855, after considerable revision including adjustments to the orchestration. Wagner first scored for bass tuba in Der fliegende Holländer, first performed in 1843, and specified use of the contrabass tuba in Das Rheingold (composed 1853–4). Later in the century Mahler, keenly aware of the distinctive characteristics of each orchestral instrument, often scored solo passages for tuba. Composers of the Second Viennese School, influenced no doubt by Mahler, treated the tuba equally with other individual instrumental voices. An additional tone-colour was provided by the mute, first requested by Richard Strauss in Don Quixote (1896–7).
In Eastern Europe the tuba was primarily influenced by the distinctive instrument built by Červený, who until the establishment of the Russian maker Šediva (Schediwa) in the early 1880s was apparently the sole supplier to Russia. Červený’s Kaisertuba appeared in the early 1880s: made in several pitches, with a very large bore, this design was later copied by many other manufacturers. As professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov, who had become well acquainted with the tuba’s potentialities while he was inspector of naval bands, influenced Borodin and others in their treatment of the instrument. Late 20th-century Russian orchestras used the largest and deepest tubas, but there is evidence in Tchaikovsky’s and Borodin’s works that the three-valve Eb tuba may have been in common use during the 19th century. The great ballet scores of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Stravinsky, since they were composed for performances by the Ballets Russes in Paris, tend towards the French practice of writing for the high tessitura, and do not share the deep massive style of Prokofiev and Shostakovich that is typical of 20th-century Russian composers.
At the end of the 20th century German and American bands used contrabass tubas in BBb and sometimes C; the Eb bass instrument was found in school bands. British brass bands included two instruments in E and two in BB ; military bands employed one of each (reading at concert pitch in the bass clef). French and Italian bands also included Eb and BBb tubas, notated in France in transposed bass clef, and in Italy in concert pitch bass clef. During the 1940s the British brass band composers Kenneth Cook and Eric Ball wrote quartets for two Eb and two BBb tubas. Such tuba ensembles have a largely American repertory. The Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (TUBA), founded in 1968, has played an active role in encouraging performances. At the end of the 20th century it had about 2500 members worldwide.
Although the tuba repertory has been created over a shorter period than that of other orchestral instruments, tuba players are asked to play in a wide variety of styles, partly because of the divergence of opinion among composers of different countries as to exactly what instrument is meant by ‘tuba’. Since orchestral parts for the instrument are written at concert pitch in the bass clef, the player can choose which tuba will best fit a given part.
The period since 1945 has been a time of rediscovery of the tuba; jazz musicians (such as Bill Barker, Don Butterfield and Howard Johnson), the avant-garde (e.g. the French tuba and serpent player Michel Godard) and composers of popular music have demonstrated the instrument’s unique character. The tuba can be a more subtle and agile instrument than traditionally supposed and can produce a wide variety of timbres. The doyen of tuba players in the mid-20th century was undoubtedly William (‘Bill’) Bell (1902–71), for many years a member of the Sousa Band and the New York PO, and an influential teacher. Other notable players and teachers have included: in the USA, Rex Connor (1915–95), Harvey Phillips (b 1929) and Arnold Jacobs (1915–98); in England, Stuart Roebuck (1935–94) and John Fletcher (1941–87). These two countries have produced many tuba players who have worked elsewhere; England and the USA have thus influenced stylistic and technical concepts in continental Europe and other parts of the world. A significant late 20th-century work for solo tuba and orchestra is Birtwistle’s The Cry of Anubis (1994), a ‘part tuba concerto, part tone poem’.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Serghei Bolun
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