A Stern Mistress
It has been said that the ophicleide is a “stern mistress” and that is an accurate description of the predicament I find myself in each time I pick up this most beguiling and seductive of instruments. Being a trombonist, one learns to take certain playing characteristics for granted: consistency of sound, flexibility of intonation and acceptance by your peers, are but a few of the traditional benefits. None of these apply to those wishing to travel the long, difficult and often lonely road that all “ophiclidians” must brave.
So why would one wish to pursue such an instrument? An injury was the catalyst for my journey with this obsessive instrument, however my interest was sparked many years earlier as a student, dreaming of its forgotten potential. For me, the ophicleide is unique. Its sound is resonant and vibrant in its upper registers, yet warm and gruff in its lower – a sound like no other.
The sensation of playing the instrument is very different from the trombone: instead of the sound coming from the front, the sound on the ophicleide comes from everywhere – sometimes from the bell, sometimes from the side, and everywhere in between. This is not the only great charm of the instrument, it also makes it challenging to record accurately. One would assume that to play this instrument would require a different approach from that required for playing a trombone. But I have not found this to be the case. Of all the related instruments to the trombone (euphonium, tenor tuba, bass trumpet) the ophicleide is the least interruptive to my mainstream career. It responds with minimum back-pressure of air, so I liken it to what we brass players like to term “buzzing” that is, playing on the mouthpiece alone. It feels healthy for a trombonist to play. The added benefit is that the ophicleide mouthpiece is of trombone-like proportions which perhaps, as opposed to those coming from the tuba, enables an immediate sense of freedom and comfort.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the instrument for a trombonist is the key-system, which is unique in design and approach. No amount of bribery of saxophonists or physical coercion of bassoonists will yield any real result as to short-cuts or secrets. The technique is truly a one-off, so hours on a playing method – I used the Caussinus as mentioned by Clifford Bevan – is the only real path. As a great teacher of mine once suggested, “five hours a day for five years is enough to make anyone a player” and that rings especially true for the ophicleide. Also, one must possess a fine ear, as the instrument holds challenges of intonation unlike any other brass instrument. This is perhaps due to its innately compromised build, and lack of further development. One only has to look at saxophones built around the same era as the Halari / Sudre instrument (1875) used in this recording, to see many similarities in the lack of refinement in mechanism and build. Perhaps one day we will find out what a modern ophicleide could be like.
The choice of repertoire on this recording is intended as an acknowledgement, not only to the origins of the instrument, but to my belief in its modern context and relevance. It is the unique quality of sound that allows the instrument to stand alone amongst its more modern cousins and benefactors of its premature obsolescence, the euphonium and tuba. The four 19th century works are an acknowledgement of the instrument’s origins, the rest an indication of its potential in a recital setting. I am very grateful to Simon Proctor for his beautiful and inspired work which is so sympathetic to the nature of the instrument. I trust it will not be the last in the ongoing story of the ophicleide.
I hope you enjoy this recording as much as I enjoyed making it.
BACK FROM OBLIVION
On 22 December 1819, the Parisian trombonist M. Mongin arrived at the Opéra to play in the stage band for the première of Spontini’s Olimpie. A new opera, and a new experience for both Mongin and his colleagues as he was playing not trombone but ophicleide, an instrument somewhat like a brass bassoon, with a long vertical tube and keys but a trombone-type mouthpiece. Here, on its first appearance, it provided the bass part for a band of horns, trumpets and trombones. It was to fulfil a similar function in France, Britain, Italy, Spain and the United States almost to the end of the 19th century.
The ophicleide had come into existence on the back of Franco–British strife when in 1815, the Battle of Waterloo having been won and lost, the victorious allies celebrated in Paris with a massed band concert. The virtuoso John Distin of the Grenadier Guards performed a keyed bugle solo. Invented in 1810 by Joseph Haliday, bandmaster of the Irish Cavan Militia, this was the first brass instrument capable of playing the ornate melodies and variations popular with Victorian music–lovers. Consequently it had spread with amazing speed throughout Britain and the United States, but not yet eastern Europe. Hearing it at the celebratory concert, Grand Duke Constantin of Russia coveted the keyed bugle, and it was arranged that Parisian instrument-maker Jean Hilaire Asté (known as Halary) would make a copy to be taken to Russia.
Halary did more than make a copy. He built variants in three sizes, the lowest of which he called ophicléide, serpent à clef or basse, patented in 1821. The name serpent à clef, or keyed serpent, shows an awareness of his instrument’s ancestry. The distinctively convoluted serpent was made of wood covered in leather, had six finger-holes with occasional keys and was played with a trombone-type mouthpiece. Invented to accompany plainchant by the cleric Edmé Guillaume of Auxerre at the end of the sixteenth century, it had since spread throughout France. Elsewhere it was used in church and military bands. It is thought that Guillaume was inspired by the cornetto, a treble pitch instrument made of wood with finger-holes and trumpet-like mouthpiece. The date of its first appearance is unknown, but similar animal horns with finger-holes existed in the 11th century.
That is as far back as the ancestry of the ophicleide can be traced. All these instruments, which are hybrids, use brass instrument-type mouthpieces where the play generated the sound by buzzing his lips. The difference between these and other brass instruments was the woodwind instrument-type finger-holes used to change the pitch, and they were marked by a distinctive vocal timbre. The downside of this hybrid acoustical system is that they were difficult to control, making great demands on technique. None of these instruments finds a regular place in the modern orchestra.
Despite these inherent difficulties, within a few years ophicleides were being made in considerable quantities. Edward Torrins of New York was probably the first American maker, in 1835 (the year the bass tuba was invented in Berlin), and by 1836 there were at least four ophicleide makers in Paris. A French musical directory that year listed twenty ophicleide professeurs with sixty professional players based in the capital, many of them doubling on trombone or, if they played in orchestras for dances, often cello or double bass. Ten years later, the Parisian instrument-makers Gautrot-Aîné stated that they held a stock of 1000 ophicleides alongside their 1000 trombones and 3000 cornets.
In England, by 1834, serpentist William Ponder had changed to ophicleide, which he played in Westminster Abbey and at festivals throughout the country. He was possibly the first to realise that the instrument was capable of more than providing the lowest part in the brass section, and became renowned for performances of the popular bass song ‘The Death of Nelson’. Another who exploited the ophicleide’s ability to play solos originally conceived for the male voice was Jean Prospère Guivier, who studied horn at the Paris Conservatoire, took up ophicleide and came to London with Jullien’s orchestra around 1840. Equally renowned was Samuel Hughes, who went with Jullien on a United States tour in 1853 as one of his leading soloists. In London he also taught ophicleide at the Royal Military School of Music and Guildhall School of Music. However by 1889, when George Bernard Shaw wrote “It seems only the other day that Mr Hughes was playing “Oh, Ruddier than the Cherry” … at Covent Garden”, the ophicleide was being superseded by the tuba.
“O Ruddier than the Cherry” (Track 7) was composed by George Frideric Handel for the giant Polyphemus in his 1718 opera Acis and Galatea. The Handel authority Winton Dean points out that the humour of Polyphemus’ music lies in its subtle exaggeration, demonstrated through the enormous vocal range, scales and octave leaps, the voice moving in unison with the bass. Demanding for the singer, it became the touchstone of ophicleide virtuosity and is without doubt the most demanding work in this present collection.
There are other transcriptions of vocal music here. “Ich liebe dich” (“I love you”) (Track 8), by the Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843–1907), was an engagement present for his cousin Nina, whom he married shortly afterwards. It is not only a beautiful melody but important in the development of Grieg’s personal style: romantic, wistful, often sad, inspired by his Scandinavian surroundings. The Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) conceived his Vocalise (Track 9) in 1912 as one of the few examples of wordless vocal music. Here the ophicleide’s vocal qualities are totally appropriate to the material.
Little of the music on this disc was composed especially for ophicleide. While the number of players in the 19th century may seem surprisingly large, ophicleides were in fact relatively scarce instruments in comparison with others in the same register, such as the cello and bassoon. Although there is a vast repertoire in the French archives, publishers, for commercial reasons, fought shy of issuing music that was solely for ophicleide.
When the French flautist Jules-Auguste-Édouard Demerssemen (1833–1866) composed his Introduction et Polonaise (Track 3) it was inspired by his discovery of the valved trombone, in widespread use in France during much of the 19th century. Composed originally for the “Trombone Saxomnitonique ou Basse à 4 Cylindres en Ut” (Sax-valved trombone or four-valved euphonium in C), the first edition of the work was dedicated to Antoine Dieppo, a Paris Opera trombonist and saxhorn professor whose playing was very much admired by Hector Berlioz. Although demanding on the player of either of valved trombone or euphonium, the Introduction et Polonaise clearly makes many more demands on the ophicleidist. Dieppo himself was very much aware of the ophicleide, which was taught at the Conservatoire by the virtuoso player Joseph Caussinus (author of Solfège-méthode pour l’ophicléide basse). In the band of the IIe. Légion, in which Dieppo played trombone, there were no less than three ophicleide players, two professional and one amateur. Yet, and despite the apparent size of the potential market, Belgian composer and conductor Dieudonné Dagnelies (1825–1894) announced that he saw his Fantaisie variée (Track 1) as being suitable for either ophicleide or bassoon.
Favourite 19th century solos for any instrument tended to fall into one of two categories. The first was the bel canto style (literally “beautiful singing”), developed by Italian singers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and characterised by the importance of good tone, legato (smooth and continuous) phrasing and agility. This last characteristic led to the second category, marked by the popularity of instrumental solos on instruments like flute, cornet (prior to that, keyed bugle) and ophicleide (later, euphonium).
The Variations for Ophicleide by the somewhat obscure German Kaspar (aka Gaspard) Kummer (1795–1870) fall into this virtuoso category. Evidently, he liked unusual instruments and clearly welcomed a challenge, having composed an Adagio and Variations for the rare cor de basset (or basset horn, a precursor of the modern alto clarinet, but with additional extension keys). He died in 1870.
The Air varié (Track 9) of Hyacinthe Eléonore Klosé (1808–1880) is also remarkable for its technical demands. Born in Corfu, he later taught bassoon at the Paris Conservatoire while performing and working with the instrument-maker Buffet on developing Boehm’s ring-key mechanism for the clarinet. With its similar fingering, the ophicleide is one of the few brass instruments which, in the hands of a skilled performer, can cope with music for inherently more nimble woodwind instruments.
While Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) created symphonies and oratorios, he also provided marches to satisfy the most ardent English patriot and short pieces welcomed by amateur players. His Romance (Track 4) was composed in 1910 for London Symphony Orchestra bassoonist (and chairman) Edwin James. The material is linked to that of the Violin Concerto on which Elgar was also working at the time. There are no indications that he was aware of the ophicleide’s existence: he was composing during the period of its decline and disappearance at the beginning of the 20th century.
Demonstrating the potential of the ophicleide to cope with newer musical idioms, the Adagio from the English composer Simon Proctor’s Ophicleide Concerto (Track 2) is part of a work-in-progress. He is an enthusiastic bass instrument composer, with works for serpent octet, a Serpent Concerto and more recently a Bassoon Concerto. While following a traditional solo movement form (including cadenza) and unmistakably impressionistic in style, the work is clearly of its time, with subtly ambiguous harmonies supporting a flowing melody based on a figure built from a rising minor 7th and its resolution. It is also striking for its exploitation of the ophicleide’s extensive range.
The final work on this CD was composed by the Argentinean Astor Piazzolla (1921–92), composer, conductor and bandoneonista (player of the button accordion). His importance in Latin America is shown by the eight pages plus discography devoted to him in the Diccionario de la Música Española e Hispanoamericana. This transcription of Oblivion (by Peter von Wienhardt) (Track 10) presents a haunting bel canto melody subtly inflected by elements of the tango. There is a link with France here as during the 1950s Piazzolla spent some years in Paris, where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger.
In the 1960s there were signs of the ophicleide’s reappearance, including a few LP tracks of variable musical quality. The seminal period instrument recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in 1989, under the direction of Roger Norrington, drew wider attention to the contribution that the ophicleide could make. The following year, in London, what appears to have been the first full-length ophicleide recital ever was given. Since then, orchestral ophicleide parts, written in some quantities by Mendelssohn and Berlioz, have begun to be played as originally intended, both in the concert hall and the opera house.
A growing number of professional brass players have now taken up this challenging but beguiling instrument, including the Sydney Symphony’s trombonist, Nick Byrne. It is appropriate that now a company famous for its recordings of the great bel canto singers should lead the way in producing the first complete CD of performances on that most bel canto of brass instruments, the ophicleide.