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Gearhead: The (Somewhat) Heroic Tale of the Wagner Tuba

A look at the history of the big, heavy, low-pitched brass instrument

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Wagner Tuba
A Gebrüder Alexander 110 double Wagner tuba. (Photo: Zanetta)

It’s a big, heavy, low-pitched brass instrument. It can go oom-pah-pah, if that’s what you desire. But despite these familiar characteristics, and despite its name, a Wagner tuba isn’t really considered a tuba. Confused? Not for long.

This unusual, oval-shaped hybrid was the invention of German composer, writer and, it must be noted, rabid anti-Semite Richard Wagner (1813-1883). While composing his opera Das Rheingold in 1853, the work that would become the first part of his epic Ring cycle, Wagner envisioned a brass instrument that could play what he called the “Valhalla motif,” a recurring theme meant to evoke a realm of ancient Norse gods. The new instrument would sound like a traditional hunting horn but could play multiple notes and would fit most comfortably in the orchestra between the trombone and the French horn. 

It took two decades of tinkering and wrangling with various manufacturers before Wagner’s vision became a reality. One of those manufacturers, Adolphe Sax, was just a few years removed from patenting the saxophone, but he didn’t achieve similar success with Wagner, who was disappointed by his tuba-building efforts. 

The first true Wagner tubas were built by Georg Ottensteiner in 1874. Three years later, the C.W. Moritz firm debuted a retooled design, which became the standard. Originally, the instrument came in two versions, a B-flat tenor and an F bass. In later years, due in part to intonation issues, the two ranges were combined into a so-called “double tuba,” although traditionalists still prefer to use separate instruments when possible. Whether single or double, it’s also sometimes known by a different name, the Bayreuth (pronounced “buy-ROIT”) tuba, a reference to the German town where, in 1876, Wagner established an annual music festival celebrating his own work—a festival that, COVID allowing, continues to operate in the present day.

Strictly speaking, the Wagner tuba isn’t a tuba at all, but a modified horn. Like a horn, it has rotary valves, a conical bore, and a tapered mouthpiece; its fingering is identical to that of a French horn as well. Wagner called it a tuba, though, and his influence in the music world was so great that the name stuck. That influence, along with the instrument’s powerful but soft-edged tone, has led other composers to use it in their work, including Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Leoš Janáček, Hans Werner Henze, Michael Nyman, and Gavin Bryars. You won’t see it in an orchestra every day, but the Wagner tuba (made in our time by a variety of brass makers including Wessex, Schiller, and Hans Hoyer) can be a cool option for horn players, even if you don’t want to sound Wagnerian.

Scroll through the slideshow below to learn about new instruments and musical gear.

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.