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Wagner Tuba
Wagner tuba.jpg
Other names en: Wagner tuba, de: Wagnertuba,
it: Tuba wagneriana
Related instruments

The Wagner tuba is a comparatively rare brass instrument that combines elements of both the horn and the tuba. It 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. The euphonium is sometimes used as a substitute when a Wagner tuba cannot be obtained.

Wagner was inspired to invent this instrument after a brief visit to Paris in 1853, when he visited the shop of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. Wagner wanted an instrument that could intone the Valhalla motif somberly like a trombone but with a less incisive tone like that of a horn. That effect was obtained by a conical bore (like a horn) and the use of the horn mouthpiece (tapered as opposed to a cup mouthpiece such as on a trombone).[1] The instrument is built with rotary valves which, like those on the horn, are played with the left hand.

The Wagner tuba nominally exists in two sizes, tenor in B-flat 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 in B-flat and F. Wagner tuben 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. An additional source of confusion is the fact that the instruments are invariably designated in orchestral scores simply as "tubas", leaving it sometimes unclear as to whether true tubas or Wagner tuben are intended (for example, the two tenor tubas in Janáček's Sinfonietta are sometimes wrongly assumed to be Wagner tuben).

The sound of the Wagner tuba is mellower than that of the horn and sounds more distant, yet also more focused. Bruckner generally uses them for pensive melodic passages at piano to pianissimo dynamics. They can hold their own in a forte tutti but Bruckner generally gives them sustained tones rather than melodic motifs in such passages. In Bruckner's Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, the four Wagner tuben are played by four players who alternate between playing 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.

Where on the orchestral score the Wagner tuben are placed depend on who plays them. If they are played by players who are also playing horn, the staves for the Wagner tuben logically go below those of the horns and above the trumpets. If they are played by players who are not also playing horn, they are placed below the trombones, above the regular tuba, which is then called a "contrabass tuba."

The name "Wagner tuba" is considered problematic, possibly incorrect, by many theorists. Kent Kennan says they could go by just about any other name since "they are really modified horns."[2] But since they have been called "Wagner tubas" for so long, changing to a more sensible name is unlikely.

Other composers who have written for the instrument include Béla Bartók, Alec Wilder, Stephen Caudel, Andrew Downes, Felix Draeseke, Alexander Kaloian, Elisabeth Lutyens, Michael Nyman, Ragnar Søderlind, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Sofia Gubaidulina.


  1. ^ The Early Horn By John Humphries Cambridge University Press, 2000 page 41
  2. ^ Kent Kennan & Donald Grantham, The Technique of Orchestration. New York: Prentice Hall (1990): 348. "It has frequently been pointed out that the name tubas is a misnomer inasmuch as they are really modified horns."
  • Raymond Bryant, Anthony C. Baines, John Webb, "Wagner tuba" The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 26, ed. Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2001

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