- (Note: range does not include pedal notes)
The Bass Tuba, a common sight in the orchestra, is now a rarity in the band. The tuba we all know and love is the Contrabass Tuba. The Bass Tuba is pitched either in F or E-flat a fourth or fifth below the Euphonium. F is the instrument of choice in the United States and for much of Europe, while the E-flat instrument is common in Britain. At one time, Bass Tubas were quite often seen in the concert band, and many older parts reflect this. Look at the tuba part in Holst’s First Suite in E-flat and you will see a tuba part that is strangely high. This upper part was intended for a Bass Tuba, and not our common Contrabass.
The Bass Tuba was the first tuba to be used, and most of the orchestral literature from the Nineteenth Century is written for this smaller instrument. Only with Wagner’s Ring Cycle do we finally get a composer who writes for anything other than the Bass.
Every professional tuba player will possess both a Bass and a Contrabass instrument. Some parts, such as the passages in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, are simply not playable on the big Contrabass.
With this in mind, why do we not include the Bass Tuba in our bands? British brass bands have always had parts for both Bass and Contrabass Tubas, why can’t we do the same?
To most composers and bandestrators, the tuba, whether it is a Bass or a Contrabass, is simply the bass instrument of the entire band, and they can see it in no other role. But, the two instruments have different functions.
I was privileged a few years back to attend a recital of one of the world’s greatest tuba players. I was amazed at the lightness and smoothness of his sound. This lightness, I was to find out later, was from the fact that he was playing on a Bass Tuba (particularly one in E-flat). Up until this point, I had only ever heard the sound of the Contrabass. What a difference! The Bass Tuba is more like a giant, lower pitched Euphonium. It is flexible, facile, and engagingly beautiful. It won’t have the gravitas or depth of the larger Contrabass, but we don’t expect that from this instrument.
Bass Tubas, at least those in use in this country, always have at least four valves (some might even have five or six). Therefore, the lower end of the range is hard to define. The standard low note of a three valve F Bass Tuba is just the B-natural below the bass clef (and the E-flat Bass is a step lower). The fourth valve will extend this to at least a G below (F on the E-flat Bass).
At the upper end of the range, writing to E-flat or F above the bass clef should be well within the reach of most players. Higher passages are possible. The famous tuba solo in Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition ascends to a G-sharp, but take into account that the French tuba was a six-valve instrument in C pitched a second above the Euphonium. This note would have been easy for that instrument. There should not be a need to write above F for the Bass Tuba. After all, we have plenty of Euphoniums in the ensemble to take over these notes.
Solos for the Bass Tuba come across far better than they do on the Contrabass. In its upper register, it almost becomes another member of the Horn section. Its lighter sound will also blend better with the low woodwinds.
My ideal situation would be to have a tuba section exactly like that of a British brass band that is two Bass Tubas and two Contrabass Tubas. Each would serve different roles, but together they could make for a powerful bass to the entire ensemble.
Vivaldi’s Winter played on E-flat Tuba
Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto on F Tuba