The Euphonium in the Orchestra

Why has the Euphonium never made a major impression on the orchestra?  Unlike the saxophone, there isn’t as clear of an answer.  With an instrument like the saxophone, there is the idea that a new and “unneeded” sound is being thrust into the already existing orchestra, but with the Euphonium, this is not the case.  The Euphonium is simply another member of the tuba family, and the tuba has been a firm member of the orchestra since the middle of the 1800s.

The Low Brass Unit

The standard low brass arrangement in the orchestra has been three trombones (2 Tenors and a Bass usually) and one tuba (composers rarely specify Bass or Contrabass Tuba).  Occasionally a fourth trombone is added or a second tuba.  Composers tend to think of this group as a cohesive unit.

It isn’t.

Verdi was the first to recognize this.  Verdi hated the tuba.  He knew that its rounded sound would not blend well with the harsh trombones.  Verdi instead chose to have his bottom brass part be played on a Cimbasso.  As to what instrument he actually preferred, that is a matter of heated academic debate, but it is generally accepted that the Cimbasso – at least in later Verdi works – was meant to be a valved Contrabass Trombone.

Wagner too realized that the tuba didn’t fit well with the trombones.  Instead of eliminating the tuba, he chose to use modified horns, the so-called Wagner Tubas, to make a cohesive family of tuba-like instruments. Both situations can be made into huge doctoral dissertations in and of themselves. However, for 60 years or so, the Euphonium lingered in the wind bands content to play counter melodies and tenor arias.

The Early Literature

Richard Strauss was the first to include the instrument in his orchestra.  The inclusion was purely accidental though.  In his 1897 tone poem, Don Quixote, he included a part for “Tenor Tuba” fully intending the part to be played on a Tenor Wagner Tuba.  Scoring for a single Wagner Tuba is highly unusual and almost never done.  Strauss realized how odd this was after the first performance, and suggested that the military Euphonium (German Baryton) be used in its place.  Every performance since has followed this route.  Strauss followed this up by included a part for Tenor Tuba in his Ein Heldenleben from 1898 one year later.  These are the only two works where Strauss scored for Tenor Tuba.  It is interesting to note that the scoring of Ein Heldenleben was completed before the premier of Don Quixote where the instrument change had to be made.  Perhaps this is why Strauss never wrote for the instrument again.

Mahler next tried to score for the Euphonium/Tenor Tuba in his Sixth Symphony from 1903-04.  This part, along with parts for Tenorhorn and Bass Tuba (in addition to the already present Contrabass Tuba) were part of a massive brass chorale from the finale of the 4th movement, but were ultimately left out of the final scoring.  It would have been fascinating to see a “tuba” section of Tenorhorn (Baritone Horn), Tenor Tuba (Euphonium), Bass Tuba, and Contrabass Tuba.  Mahler did however use a Tenorhorn in the opening of his Seventh Symphony.  However, this is not – I repeat, this is NOT – a part for the Euphonium.

British light music, that is music that was not intended to be as serious in nature as normal concert music, often had parts for the Euphonium in their scoring.  Gustav Holst knew this well playing in the Carl Rosa Opera Orchestra one of the leading light orchestras in the UK.  It is no surprise that he included the most famous Euphonium part in all the literature in his The Planets.  Holst’s instrument isn’t an afterthought or a mistake, but a genuine part of the ensemble

Why Didn’t the Euphonium Catch On?

There are a lot of theories as to why the Euphonium wasn’t incorporated into the orchestra.  Looking on the face of it, it should have easily been adopted into the orchestra around the same time as the tuba, but this never happened.  It was forever a “band instrument.”


Orchestras were tuned in the late 1800s and early 1900s to somewhere around a=435, which is slightly lower than today (a=440-442/3).  However, bands were regularly tuned to about a=457.5 nearly a quarter step higher than the orchestras.  British bands kept this pitch until well after World War 2 (into the 50s or 60s). This means that a band instrument could not be brought into the orchestra.   In order for an instrument, like a Euphonium, to be used in the orchestra, the maker would have to create a wholly new instrument slightly larger than the band instrument.  On a conical bore instrument this would have been difficult.  With no existing orchestral literature, there was no need to make instruments at the lower pitch.


The second reason probably has to do with the name of the instrument.  As pretty of a name as Euphonium is, it doesn’t tell what the instrument is.  It separates the instrument out from the rest and makes no connection to the rest of the brass.  Perhaps it isn’t strange that all of the early composers chose to write their parts for “Tenor Tuba” and not for “Euphonium.” Even today, when a Euphonium player tells a layperson what instrument they play they have to go through all sorts of explanations.  But, the term Tenor Tuba is considered non-standard.  I vouch that Tenor Tuba is the best term possible for the instrument.  It’s an accurate descriptor and it does not alienate the rest of the brass family.

The Great War

World War I brought to a screeching halt the production of large scale orchestral works.  The European economic collapse meant an end to the ever expanding orchestras of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss.  Only in the economically stable UK did some progression go on (see The Planets).  The U.S. was now becoming the center of wind instrument manufacturing with companies like Conn, Beuscher, and Martin producing many fine instruments.  However, American orchestral music was on a completely different trajectory.  Americans were trying to find their own voice.  Only the distinctive Roy Harris found use of the Euphonium (he always referred to it as a “Baritone”).

In the economic ruins of Central Europe, composers were turning to new ideas such as 12-tone composition, serialism, and eventually to electronics after World War II.

Today’s World

Today, we live in a world of relative economic prosperity.  Our instruments are of the most advanced design ever seen. And we have players who can perform works older generations could never dream of.

Universities are now cranking out graduates with degrees in Euphonium performance at the rate of several dozen per year.  However, there are simply no jobs.  There may be less than a dozen civilian professional wind bands in the country.  Military bands are more abundant, but not always an option.  A Euphonium may be called for every few seasons in a major professional orchestra (and every few decades in a smaller regional orchestra).  Euphonium is rare, if not virtually non-existent in jazz or in any other myriad of genres.

Euphonium players are lonely and bored.  They need love.

Step 1: Drop the name Euphonium – call it a Tenor Tuba.

Step 2: Start scoring for the Tenor Tuba in orchestral works.  Maybe we should even think of scoring for 2 Tenor Tubas and a Bass Tuba like we score for 2 Tenor Trombones and a Bass Trombone.  Perhaps we go for a full section of four: 2 Tenor Tubas, Bass Tuba, and Contrabass Tuba.

Step 3: Convince today’s orchestras to program music being composed today.  Ever orchestral program should have at least one piece written in the last 50 years.  Sadly, my local major orchestra goes entire seasons without programming anything current or relevant.

Let’s welcome the Tenor Tuba with full arms into the orchestra.  They have nowhere else to go.