It is interesting to think, that of all the brass instruments in existence, only one family has never been adopted into any wind band group. These instruments are the Wagner Tuben. Tuben is the plural for Tube in German. I prefer referring to these instruments in plural as Tuben rather than Tubas to avoid confusion with true tubas.
The Wagner Tuba is essentially a wide bore Horn in an oval shape with the bell pointing upwards. They are always played by Horn players with a Horn mouthpiece. The instruments were dreamt of by Richard Wagner as a wholly new sound for his Ring cycle. Contrary to popular belief, they are the only real instrumental invention that Wagner made (the Bass Trumpet and Contrabass Trombone were already in existence, but were poorly known military instruments). The Wagner Tuben were originally developed from the French saxhorns, but quickly evolved away from that family.
The literature for these instruments is very limited, but the works that call for them are so significant that nearly every major orchestra will possess a set. We can find Wagner Tuben called for in Wagner’s Ring, Bruckner’s last three symphonies, various works by Richard Strauss, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and a small handful of other works from the Twentieth Century.
In nearly every case, four Wagner Tuben are required by the composer: two B-flat Tenor Tubas and two F Bass Tubas. In sound they are hard to tell apart from one another, with the B-flat having a slightly smaller sound than the F does. Only in the Rite of Spring does Stravinsky stray from the four tuba system as he uses only a pair of B-flat Tenors. With the exception of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, every time the Wagner Tuben are used, they are played by Horns 5-8. Bruckner has two quartets, one of Horns and the other of Wagner Tubas, and the players never switch between the two instruments. Again, in every case there is a minimum section of eight Horns (Schoenberg uses ten in his Gurrelieder, and Strauss uses twenty in his Eine Alpensinfonie). Both Wagner and Bruckner included the normal Contrabass Tuba as the fifth member of the section.
Both instruments are written down to a low F-sharp just below the bass clef. The Tenor Wagner Tuba sounds a major second lower (low E), while the Bass Wagner Tuba sounds a fourth lower (low B below the bass clef). Many times the tuben are equipped with a fourth valve that lowers the pitch a fourth (effectively down to a written C). With this valve, the Tenor Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low C below the bass clef, and the Bass Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low G below the bass clef). These extra low notes are little used.
Historic notation for these instruments makes my brain hurt. I have found at least five different notation systems for which these instruments have been written (including the confusing notation of writing the B-flat instruments in E-flat and the F instruments in B-flat). The best and most widely accepted method is to write for the B-flat instrument sounding down a major second and the F instrument sounding down a perfect fifth. However, this may not be the best solution. Many orchestras are now using “Double” Tuben. These are exactly akin to the Double Horn where the B-flat and F instruments are combined into a single instrument. As these Double Tuben are becoming more and more prevalent, there is every reason to think that we will see all Wagner Tuben written in solely F notation, exactly like Horns are. In fact, the majority of the Wagner Tuben in the United States are Double Tuben, so the preferred method among Hornists is to have all the parts written in F.
The Wagner Tuben are not flexible instruments. Seldom have composers written passages where there is a real demand for technique. Both Wagner and Bruckner used this instrument to portray an other-worldly realm. For Wagner this was Valhalla, while for Bruckner it was Heaven. This is the sound for which the instrument was invented. Four Wagner Tuben in a chorale is one of the most beautiful sounds ever emitted from the brass section. It is often compared to a strange combination between a Horn and a trombone. There is a certain aspect of rich magic and sorcery to the sound of the Wagner Tuba that sends chills down my spine.
I know of no reason they have never been included in the band. Solemnity has never been in huge demand for wind groups, but it is an effect greatly needed from wind groups. The Wagner Tuben portray this better than any other instrument ever constructed.
As these instruments are almost always used as a double for the Horn, it might be best to use their unique tone color only in certain magical moments. I would love to hear mixtures of middle brass where the Wagner Tuben, Alto and Baritone Horns, Flügelhorns, and Euphoniums blend to form a choir. The effect could be a majestic sound hither to unknown. Wagner Tuben and Bassoons or Bass Clarinet will make for a goblinesque sound.
A few notes on playing the instrument. Players, in general, are never fully comfortable on the Wagner Tuba, as even the most advanced Horn player will only touch the instrument every few years. Intonation is said to be the bugbear of the Wagner Tuba, as the player cannot manipulate the tuning via the hand in the bell like on the Horn. Mutes are seldom used, though available. Muting of the instrument takes away its other-worldly quality, though I must readily admit, my absolute favorite Wagner Tuba passage in all the orchestral literature is the chorale in the beginning of the third part of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. This chorale (alongside a few passages in Eine Alpensinfonie) is among the only known usages of muted Wagner Tuba, and in the case of the Schoenberg, I must admit, the effect is striking.
One more note before leaving the Wagner Tuben. There is no standardized placement for the instruments in the score. Depending on which score you look at, they are either placed below the trombones and above the true tuba, or directly below the Horns. I prefer the later notation, as it clearly shows the affinity between the Wagner Tuben and the Horns, especially since they will be played by the same musicians.
Introduction to the Wagner Tuba
Bruckner’s 7th Symphony excerpt on Wagner Tuben
Work for 8 Wagner Tuben