And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
A relic of times gone by, the Ophicleide is a monster amongst the brass instruments. It’s been maligned out of existence by critics and composers and performers, yet it remains an important part of both the orchestral and band literature and history.
The name Ophicleide means “keyed serpent.” The Serpent was a wooden instrument shaped in a twisted s-shape (hence the name serpent) that was not played by a reed but rather by a mouthpiece like a horn or trumpet. The Serpent had been the bass of the brass family since at least the 1500s. It was almost exclusively restricted to the realm of the church and the high mass. Only rarely did it ever see inclusion in the orchestra. The Ophicleide was an early 19th Century invention to make the cumbersome and awkward Serpent more playable. The instrument is Bassoon-like in that it is a double parallel tube and held to the right side. It has large keys that make it look like a saxophone. In fact, the Ophicleide’s main claim to fame is that it is the possible ancestor of the saxophone. The legend goes that Adolphe Sax placed a Bass Clarinet mouthpiece on a Bass Ophicleide and thus the saxophone was born. As Sax’s father was a manufacturer of Ophicleides, it is quite possible that this happened, though there is no evidence to it whatsoever.
Unlike the Serpent, the Ophicleide was immediately introduced into the orchestra. It became the first usable bass brass instrument. We find it first coming to prominence in a work like Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz in 1830 (remember, this is only 3 years after Beethoven had died). Berlioz invoked two Ophicleides and four Bassoons to chant out the Dies Irae, the song of the dead. Today when this piece is played, the Ophicleide parts are always played by two tubas, but the effect is all but lost. The parts are too high for comfort for most tuba players, and the sound of the tuba drowns out four Bassoons who try their hardest to keep up.
Dies Irae excerpt
Symphonie Fantastique Movement 5 – Note this performance is played on all period instrument including two Ophicleides.
We think of the Ophicleide as an early 19th Century instrument, but it was used until at least the 1870s in some places, and in South America until the early 20th Century. Both Wagner and Verdi used the instrument, the latter in his famous Requiem. Only once in a great rare while will we ever hear an actual Ophicleide play the parts intended for it.
Originally, there were three sizes of Ophicleide: the Alto or Quintclave, the Bass (pitched in both C and B-flat), and the Contrabass. The Alto had only a brief popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, and has never been used much since. The Contrabass is easily the rarest of all brass instruments with a single instrument in playable condition – a modern replica made in the 1980s.
The decline of the Ophicleide came from multiple angles. In the orchestra, composers wanted a more powerful bass instrument with a lower range, and the tuba won the day. In the band, a completely different story of extinction arose. For the winner of solo competitions held for the leading Ophicleide players of the day, the prize was a brand new, top of the line Euphonium. Manufacturer marketing killed the instrument. It is possible that no new Ophicleides have been made since the late 1800s save for a few modern replicas.
All of the orchestrators who mention the Ophicleide (which is pretty much Berlioz’s original text – all others being side notes), mention nothing good coming from the instrument except for a few places where a held note has some added benefit in chorales or to evoke the dead.
I believed this for the longest time.
Then I finally heard what a player could accomplish on the instrument. And I realized that Berlioz was wrong. Like the Bassoon, the Ophicleide is not a bass instrument. It’s a tenor. It has a gorgeous singing voice that cannot be matched by any other brass instrument. The sound is almost a cross between a Euphonium and a Bassoon. It is an agile and lyrical instrument.
The reason I quoted from Lewis Carroll at the beginning is that I can just envision the Ophicleide being the monster Jaberwock just rising up from its slumber. The word “burbled” describes the sound perfectly. I picture a duet in rising thirds over a murmur of clarinets, just beginning to evoke the woodland creatures awaking after a dawn shower.
As there are two different versions of the Bass Ophicleide, the C and the B-flat, it would be best to only write for the instrument in C (which descends to a low B below the bass clef) and leave it to the player to produce whatever instrument they happen to possess.
I’d love to see a revival of the instrument, but alas I don’t think it will ever happen. However, there are a few valiant players making an attempt to revive the extinct.
Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo. As a Bassoonist, I’m ashamed to say that this performer plays this better than I ever could on an extinct instrument.
An example of a rare Alto Ophicleide or Quintclave. This instrument is pitched in E-flat a minor third above the C Bass (and a 4th above the B-flat Bass).
A modern composition for Ophicleide and orchestra.