By Ricky O’Bannon
When a painter finds that he doesn’t have the exact color on his pallet he desires, he mixes the colors he does have to create a new hue.
When Richard Wagner was composing his Das Rheingold operatic cycle, he found himself with a similar problem and solution. The composer was looking for a sound that could combine the piercing, bright tone of a trombone with the mellower roundness of a horn.
He was inspired by a visit to the workshop of instrument maker Adolphe Sax – best known as the inventor of the saxophone – who had recently created a saxhorn to design a new instrument that could bridge a gap in the available tone colors of the orchestral brass section.
Twenty two years of trial and error produced what is now called the Wagner tuba, which Wagner used for the Valhalla motif in Das Rheingold and a few other composers would use for a handful of pieces that see regular performance in concert halls. Austrian composer Anton Bruckner was reportedly struck by the tone of the Wagner tuba during a concert and wanted to make use of the tone color in his own works. Bruckner first used the Wagner tuba in the Adagio movement of his Symphony No. 7 and used the instrument extensively in his Symphony No. 8.
BSO Associate Principal Horn Gabrielle Finck will play the Wagner tuba in an upcoming performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, and Finck talks about playing the instrument below.
* The instrument featured in the video is one of four donated by Beth Green Pierce in honor of Elwood I. Green