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.

Saxophone sections in the orchestra – Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about several pieces that include a saxophone section in their instrumentation.  Today, I will present potentialities and realities.

Reality 1 – The soloist supreme

Generally, when we hear a saxophone in the orchestra, they are a featured soloist.  Pieces like L’Arlesienne, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Pictures at an Exhibition are all well known for their saxophone usage, but in every case they are featured soloists.  The saxophone is not here to blend in and add to the whole, but rather to contrast and stick out.

There is nothing whatsoever wrong about this approach.  The saxophone is a marvelous soloist.  In fact, because it is an unusual voice, it can make for a dramatic scoring potential.

Reality 2 – The magical section

When a section is used, the effect is often times to invoke an otherworldly quality, e.g. The Wooden Prince and Fervaal. Again, this means that the saxophone section is thought of as separate from the rest of the ensemble.

Reality 3 – Where to sit

Something an composer may not think about is where the saxophones are going to sit in the ensemble.  This is no small matter. With the current orchestral seating chart, the four woodwind sections sit together in a nice well meshed unit.  There are two rows:

seating chart

In this arrangement, the principal players of each section are all right in the center of the ensemble.  With a fifth section, this balance is thrown off.

One solution to this is a third row behind the clarinets and bassoons.  The principal player, however, would not be in line with the other principals.  Another solution would be in a group to either the left or the right of the main woodwinds.  This would work well if the side not occupied by the saxophones is occupied by the horns.

seating chart 2

The above arrangement keeps the saxophones all together with B-flat instrument and E-flat instruments behind on another and high saxes and low saxes together.  It also places the saxophones next to the double reeds, their natural tonal allies.  Tenor Saxophone will be near the Bassoon (a favorite combination of Prokofiev), Alto Saxophone will be near the English Horn.  Soprano Saxophone will be near the Oboe.  In my mind, this is the best solution to where to place the odd ensemble.  This arrangement presupposes a section of four instruments, but this needn’t be a limit.  Just as more Horns can be placed in the rows, so can more saxophones.

seating chart 3

This arrangement give some other advantages.  It places the saxophones closer to the horns and the clarinets, while still keeping them close to the bassoons.  Assuming that the “principal” saxophone is the Soprano, then they would not be in line with the other principals, but if the “principal” is the Alto, then the solution is perfect.  It also places the Tenor Saxophone next to the principal Bassoon and the Baritone Saxophone next to the 2nd Bassoon – a very logical solution.  The only disadvantage is distance from the saxophones to the oboes.

Last, but not least, I present a purely hypothetical situation for expanded woodwind section.

seating chart 4

Since arranging 5 sections is tricky, why not use a more friendly 6?  To achieve this, I’ve added a recorder quartet to the mix.  In doing this, I now have all the flute-like instruments on one row.  The double reeds (including a Bass Oboe and a Tenor Bassoon) are now together on the second row.  Finally, all the single reeds (with extra instruments as well – E-flat and Contrabass Clarinet and Bass Saxophone) are together on the third row.  The principal players of each section are firmly in the center of the ensemble.

Of course, there are many variants to each of the above possibilities, but these give you some idea of what could be done.

Creative Saxophone Scoring

Having studied a lot of scores and played in a lot of ensembles and played the saxophones themselves, I have come to several conclusions on how best it may be to score for the saxophones in an ensemble.

Option 1 – As a quartet equal to the Horns

Before Horn players throw something at me, hear me out.  I suggest them being equal to, but not the equivalent of Horns.  by having two mid-range quartets, we have have interesting dialogues between the two (especially if the groups are placed spatially apart).  The Horns act as a bridge between the other brass instruments having characteristics of trumpets, trombones, and tubas.  The saxophones can do the same for the woodwinds.

However, the effect of doubling Horns and saxophones, except in a massive tutti section, is counterproductive and diminishes the effect of both instruments.

Option 2 – As woodwind “glue”

The orchestral woodwinds are not a cohesive sound unit like the strings or brass.  Strings all have the bow to produce their sound.  Brass all have a similar mouthpiece to produce theirs.  The woodwinds are really three separate families thrown together.  As the saxophones have characteristics of all three of these families, it is only natural to use them to bind together the disparate qualities of the group.  The biggest disparity comes between the clarinets and the double reeds (particularly the Oboe). If a saxophone ensemble is used as a foundation to the woodwind section, then the other instruments can come out as the soloists that they are.  This is perhaps why the saxophone is so advantageous in the band.

Option 3 – As string doubles

Saxophone, surprising, can act in a very similar way to the string instruments.  If the composer wants a more forceful attack to the string sound, then adding saxophones to the mix can be an effective way of punching up the sound.

1st Violin + Soprano Saxophone

2nd Violin + Soprano or Alto Saxophone

Viola + Alto or Tenor Saxophone

Cello + Tenor or Baritone Saxophone

Bass + whatever low saxophone you happen to have (Contrabass Saxophone would be ideal, but unlikely)


Whatever the scoring option, I feel like the saxophone can be a valuable addition to the orchestra if used creatively.  It can be as expressive as an Oboe, as technically advanced as a Flute, or as plaintive as a Bassoon, yet, they are still a rarity.  Perhaps the ultimate decision comes down to money.  Since a regular saxophone section isn’t on the payroll of any orchestra, few composers are able to use them.  Since composers can’t use them, orchestras don’t keep saxophonists on the payroll.