Richard Wagner had a lot of brass

Richard Wagner would be a Facebook fanatic.  Imagine two decades of minute-by-minute updates, telling the world in minute detail of the progress being made on his operas.

“While having a coffee with Prof. Nietzsche, I came up with a fab leitmotif.”

Richard Wagner in the age of social media is a scary thought.  Here’s a composer whose Ring Cycle takes 15 hours, over four days to perform.  He built Bayreuth specifically for the performance of his operas.  He heard orchestral timbres in his head which required the creation of new instruments.

One instrument, in particular, caught my attention, as well as that of writer Barbara Jepson.

The Wagner Tuba is, by all accounts, a daunting instrument to play.  That can be attributed to two things &madash; infrequent use and a design in need of updating.  Because of the former, instrument manufacturers have not invested much time and money into improving the design.

Therefore, when preparing a performance of Wagner’s Ring, the instrument takes over your life.  Substituting another instrument doesn’t really work, as that particular sound is closely associated with the stately music of Valhalla.

Jepson quotes Seattle Opera principal horn Jeff Fair as saying, “From the moment the cycle begins, you’re planning your day-to-day activities around it. You need to get enough sleep. You’re not going to eat spicy or salty food, because that will affect your lips later in the day. They usually become puffier and that makes them less flexible. That’s true of any concert, but more so in the ‘Ring’ because of the sheer length of the operas.”

Additionally, those playing the Wagner Tuba usually double on french horn, which adds to the work load.  Brad Gemeinhardt, third horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, says that the Wagner tuba players spend a lot of time in separate rehearsal trying to fix intonation problems.  Gemeinhardt said there are times during a performance of Das Rheingold that they exit the pit to re-tune.

Some composers of note, such as Stravinsky, haves utilized the instrument, and it has turned up in a few film scores, the Matrix trilogy being one of the more recent examples.

So the next time you hear a favorite passage from Die Walkure, or maybe Das Rheingold, keep an ear out for the Wagner tuba. They’re really earning their money.

Hear the sound of the Wagner low brass below

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