Wagner tuba

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Wagner tuba
Double Wagner tuba by Alexander.jpg
Model 110 Double tuba in F/B built by Gebr. Alexander Mainz. Rhein. Musikinstrumentenfabrik GmbH (Mainz, Germany).
Brass instrument
Other namesen: Wagner tuba, de: Wagnertuba,
it: Tuba wagneriana,
fr: Tuba wagnérien
Related instruments
More articles or information

The Wagner tuba is a brass instrument combining features of the tuba and the French horn and first used in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.[1] The sound produced by this instrument is described as "smoky," "metallic," "unearthly" and "majestic."[2] Wagner tubas (or tenortuben and basstuben) are also referred to as Wagnertuben, Waldhortntuben, Bayreuth-tuben, Ring-tuben, or Horn-tuben by German writers, but it is most common to refer to them as Wagner tubas in English. Wagner's published scores usually refer to these instruments in the plural, Tuben, but sometimes in the singular, Tuba.[3]


The Wagner tuba was originally created for Richard Wagner's operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Since then, other composers have written for it, most notably Anton Bruckner, in whose Symphony No. 7 a quartet of them is first heard in the slow movement in memory of Wagner, and Richard Strauss, who composed several works that used the Wagner tuba, including his Alpine Symphony.

Wagner was inspired to invent the Wagner tuba after a brief visit to Paris in 1853. He visited the shop of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone and saxhorn. They showed him a saxhorn, which is similar to the instrument that Wagner ultimately wanted, and later had constructed by the C. W. Moritz firm in Berlin. Wagner wanted an instrument that had the flexibility of a saxhorns and sound of a lur.[4]

The Wagner tuba aural effect is obtained by a conical bore (like a horn) and the use of the horn mouthpiece (tapered and conical, as opposed to the parabolic cup mouthpiece such as on a trombone).[5] The saxhorn had a more cylindrical and larger bore, used the parabolic cupped mouthpiece, and thus had a more brassy tone that wasn't quite suitable for Wagner's tonal intent.


The Wagner tuba is built with rotary valves, which (like those on the horn) are played with the left hand.[3] Horn players traditionally double on Wagner tubas because the mouthpiece and fingering are identical.[2] The size of the bore of the Wagner tuba is midway between that of a euphonium and a horn. [6] The Wagner tuba also shares a similar bore size to that of a cornophone, which results in a similar sound as well. [7]

The Wagner tuba nominally exists in two sizes, tenor in B and bass in F, with ranges comparable to those of horns in the same pitches while being less adept at the highest notes. Several 20th-century and later manufacturers have, however, combined the two instruments into a double Wagner tuba that can easily be configured in either B or F.[6]

Wagner tubas are normally written as transposing instruments, but the notation used varies considerably and is a common source of confusion — Wagner himself used three different and incompatible notations in the course of the Ring, and all three of these systems (plus some others) have been used by subsequent composers.[3]

An additional source of confusion is that the instruments are invariably designated in orchestral scores simply as tubas, sometimes leaving it unclear whether the score means true bass tubas or Wagner tubas.[6] (For example, orchestras sometimes assume the two tenor tubas in Janáček's Sinfonietta are Wagner tubas, when the score means euphoniums.)

The name "Wagner tuba" is considered problematic, possibly incorrect, by many theorists. Kent Kennan says they are poorly named since "they are really modified horns" rather than tubas.[8]


Composers such as Wagner who made use of this instrument would later inspire future composers to also write for the Wagner tuba. Wagner tubas appear in the work of composers such as Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, Béla Bartók, and many more.[6] Anton Bruckner employed Wagner tubas in his Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. In both symphonies', the four Wagner tubas are played by players who alternate between horn and Wagner tuba, which is the same procedure Wagner used in the Ring. This change is simplified by the fact that the horn and Wagner tuba use the same mouthpiece and same fingering.

As time passed, the availability and convenience of including Wagner tubas in concert programs began to become a reoccurring issue. In the 20th century, prominent composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinksy began to write sparingly for this medium, while other composers attempted to continue writing for this medium in the 1960s.[9] These composers would continue to face the same issues as their predecessors which would ultimately lead to composers avoiding writing for the instrument all together.

Rued Langaard, a great admirer of Bruckner, wrote for eight horns in his First Symphony (1908-11), four of these parts were written for tenor and bass tubas. When this work was eventually premiered, the orchestra decided against using Wagner tubas and instead played the parts on horn, this experience would lead to a frustrated Langaard excluding Wagner tubas from future works. [9]

In performance[edit]

Wagner tubas are typically played by players who are also playing a horn. The staves for the Wagner tubas then logically go below those of the horns and above the standard tubas.[2]

If they are played by players who are not also playing a horn, they are placed below the trombones, above the regular tuba, which is then called a "contrabass tuba."

These composers have written for the instrument:


  1. ^ Duckett, Bob (2008). "Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th edition) edited by Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008. xx+1,708 pp., ISBN: 0 19 860864 0 £20.00 $29.95". Reference Reviews. 19 (1): 33–33. doi:10.1108/09504120510573710. ISSN 0950-4125.
  2. ^ a b c Jepson, Barbara (April 4, 2013). "Music: It Takes Brass to Play the Wagner Tuba". The Wall Street Journal.
  3. ^ a b c Keays, James Harvey. "An investigation into the origins of the Wagner Tuba," DMA diss., (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1977).
  4. ^ David M. Guion (2009). "The Wagner Tuba: A History (review)". Notes. 65 (4): 787–789. doi:10.1353/not.0.0190. ISSN 1534-150X.
  5. ^ John Humphries, The Early Horn (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), p. 41.
  6. ^ a b c d Silva, Ana Sofia. "The Origins and Revival of a Wagner Tuba." MM thesis, (University of South Dakota, 2013).
  7. ^ Norman, Lisa (2010). "Wagner Tubas and Related Instruments: An Acoustical Comparison". The Galpin Society Journal. 63: 143–58 – via JSTOR.
  8. ^ Kent Kennan & Donald Grantham, The Technique of Orchestration (New York: Prentice Hall, 1990), p. 348: "It has frequently been pointed out that the name tubas is a misnomer inasmuch as they are really modified horns."
  9. ^ a b Melton, William (May 2004). "Greetings from Heaven or Demonic Noise?: A History of the Wagner Tuba - Part 8: Revival". The Horn Call - Journal of the International Horn Society. 34: 43–52 – via ProQuest.

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