Some music sources call the ophicleide (OFF-eh-clide) an “obsolete bass brass instrument which was replaced by the tuba.” Factually that is correct, but to totally equate the two brass instruments would be doing a disservice to the neglected ophicleide.
First invented in the early 1800’s as a replacement for the difficult-to-perform serpent, the ophicleide added the feature of keys (the name is the Greek equivalent of “Keyed Serpent”). The new instrument was welcomed into orchestras quickly by composers because it provided a satisfactory low brass sound. Musicians still found the new instrument difficult to master.
The ophicleide was first written for in an 1819 opera by Gaspare Spontini. Other composers followed, including Felix Mendelssohn with the oratorio Elias and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was perhaps most famously used in the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Verdi and Wagner were among later composers who wrote for it.
When the tuba was invented, it overshadowed the ophicleide. The tuba was easier to play and more reliable an instrument. However, some musicians say that to two instruments aren’t completely interchangeable. There are subtle tones in the lower notes that, when played quietly, are more sublime in the older instrument. The ophicleide can, at times, sound like a euphonium, a trombone, a tuba, and as one YouTube commenter stated, “It sounds like a bassoon had a baby with a French horn.”
When the tuba was invented in the mid 1800’s, its popularity grew quickly. Richard Wagner was introduced to a tuba made by Adolphe Sax and was entranced. He had just started writing Das Rheigold and included the tuba in the famous “Entrance of the gods Into Valhalla”. Meanwhile, Berlioz favored the tuba over the ophicleide due to its “impressively noble” tones. He returned to his older musical scores and replace the parts he wrote for the ophilcleide with the new instrument. The ophicleide quickly lost the favor of composers and musicians alike.
Hear what is possible with the ophilcleide in the capable hands of musician Wibart Patrick:
Born in 1897 in former Austria/Hungary, Erich Korngold became an American citizen in 1943 and resided in California. He is remembered for his composition of film scores in the 1930s/40s and was the first composer to receive and Oscar. After WWII, Korngold turned his focus to writing music for the concert hall. He wrote his violin concerto, dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of his childhood mentor Gustav Mahler. Its positive public approval and premiere and recordings by Jascha Heifetz made it a quick addition to the standard violin repertoire.
Here is Korngold’s Violin Concerto played beautifully by violinist Stefan Jackiw, and the Orquesta Sinfonica de RTVE conducted by Carlos Kalmar.
Howard Blake is best known for his work in film and television including the music for the holiday classic “The Snowman” which included the song “Walking in the Air.” In 1992, Howard Blake jumped at the opportunity to compose a violin concerto, which he titled “Leeds.”
The concerto was commissioned by the City of Leeds to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the granting of its charter as a city. It was first performed by soloist Christiane Edinger with the Northern Philharmonia conducted by Paul Daniel at Leeds Town Hall 6th February 1993. The ensemble also performed on the premiere recording.
The piece is unapologetically melodic, with lush solo lines for the violinist and sweeping orchestration that creates a vivid atmosphere. The opening movement is as long as the first movement to Tchaikovsky’s lone violin concerto (around 19 minutes). The orchestra starts out in low and ominous tones as the soloist enters with a mesmerizing gypsy-like tune. The orchestra then undulates behind the dance-like solo before breaking into a dramatic display by the lower strings. The brass eventually break forth with a call that seems to echo from across a valley. The movement evokes many different tones and emotions in very quick succession, the violin soaring over the other instruments like a seagull above the cliffs.
The concerto was dedicated to the composer’s late mother, who was a violinist. The second movement, entitled “Calma,” seems to ache with the beauty that accompanies the reminiscence of a dearly departed loved one. The low strings begin the main theme which is then carried on by the violins which is then broken down throughout the orchestra. The movement is one slow crescendo into a song that suggests the lush soundtrack of an epic movie. Dissonance is introduced but resolved quickly before the violin again takes the lead with slow steady lines.
The final movement begins with the capricious play between soloist and woodwinds. The strings enter as the violin introduces a hoe-down like fiddle tune. The movement is fast and the melody is fleeting. The soloist gets to display the many sides of the violin with many measures of pizzicato playing. The finale is quick and unassuming.
Currently there is only one performance of the Leeds Concerto available. There is no performance of the work scheduled in the near future.
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