14 August 2013

It Takes Brass to Play the Wagner Tuba


When Richard Wagner began composing "The Ring of the Nibelung," his visionary opera cycle, he became dissatisfied with a particular musical theme. The solution, he decided, was not to rewrite the passage but to foster the creation of a new instrument to perform it—the Wagner tuba.

Because of its range and mouthpiece, this tuba-shaped hybrid is actually played by members of the French horn section, but never mind. Developed at Wagner's request at a time when the technical capabilities of modern brass instruments were being expanded, it enabled him to fill a gap in tone color between the mellow lyricism of the horns and the penetrating brilliance of the trombones. He was inspired, in part, by the gradation of sound in military bands. In the "Ring," four Wagner tubas join an enlarged brass section that includes other orchestral rarities like the bass trumpet, contrabass trombone and contrabass tuba, creating "choirs" of gleaming brass.
These instruments play an important role in the "Ring," an epic tale of greed, revenge, love and redemption that will be presented around the globe this year during the bicentenary of Wagner's birth. In the U.S., the first complete, four-opera cycle will begin on April 6 at the Metropolitan Opera with a reprise of the Robert Lepage production. Throughout the "Ring," the brass are associated with some of the major recurring musical themes, called "leitmotifs"—leading motives linked to particular characters, concepts, props and more.

Read the full article: Wall Street Journal

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