The Wagner Tuba versus the Horn

The idea of the magical Wagner Tuba has always fascinated me.  I think it’s the rarity of the instrument combined with the musical connotation with the otherworldly realm that makes it such an alluring instrument.  However, I’ve never had the pleasure to work with these instruments up close.  If I recall correctly, I’ve only seen them in performance twice.  once in a performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and the other in a performance of The Rite of Spring.  Neither of these works give the Tuben a real chance to shine.  Instead they are background, filler, and occasionally countermelodies.

With this said, it can be hard for an orchestrator to get an idea of how the Wagner Tuben and the Horns differ in their sounds.  I’ve found a few sources detailing the differences, but recently, I’ve found a single video of a quartet of Horns and a quartet of Tuben playing an arrangement of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.  This really gives the listener a clear example of how the two instruments differ in sound.  The Tuben are what I would call fuzzier and warmer, while the Horns are clearer and more direct.  The interplay between the two groups is really fantastic.  The Tuben form a base to the sound of the Horns.

Horns Part 4 – Horns in the Band

Horns in the Band

            Traditionally, there are four Horn parts in every work for band (works for young ensembles excluded).  This number is rarely deviated from.  In the orchestra, there are numerous examples of scoring for more or less than the traditional four horns.  Most Classical works use only two horns.  Works like Holst’s Planets use six Horns.  Mahler used seven in his First Symphony.  Many, many composers have used eight.  Schönberg used ten in Gürreleider.  Strauss used twenty in his Alpine Symphony.  And Havergal Brian used 24 in his Gothic Symphony.  Yet, the band has never used more than four.

            With its nearly four octave range, huge chords spaced over several octaves are possible for a group of massed Horns.  This is one reason that the Horn section is always larger than the sections for other brass instruments.  Or rather, I should say that there are always more Horn parts than parts for other brass instruments.

            I would love to envision a work that utilizes the full section of eight Horns like the larger symphonic works.  It would take the edge off the trumpet dominant sound of modern band works.  Many groups, both professional and amateur, have access to eight competent Horn players.  Why not utilize the resources?

The Bumper

            I nearly every larger ensemble, there is always one more Horn player than is actually scored for.  This extra player is known as the bumper.  The bumper almost always plays off of the first Horn part.  In tutti passages the bumper will reinforce the sound or give the principal player a well-deserved rest.  While the ubiquity of the bumper is almost universal among professional and semi-professional groups, no composer has taken the opportunity to make use of this resource.  If a composer were so inclined, they could indicate when and where the bumper would play for a precise desired effect.  However, remember with the bumper, their main job is to make sure the principal player does not tire out.


            If dealing with a professional group, we might consider having four of the Horn players double on Wagner Tuba for a wider palate of sound.

Ranges and Scoring

            The Horn in its highest register is dramatic and exciting.  It can easily drown out an orchestra.

In the middle register, the Horn is the great blender.  The sound of the Horn in this range can blend in seamlessly with every other instrument of the band or orchestra.

In its lowest register, the Horn can be sinister and snarling at a loud dynamic or soft and unobtrusive when played softly.

As I mentioned above, the Horn can blend with every instrument with a good deal of success.  The low register of the flute can match the tone color of a muted Horn, Bassoons share the exact same range, clarinets share their ability to be able to blend.  The only scoring oddity is Horns and trumpets.  The timbres are somewhat dissimilar.  Don’t use Horns as the bass to a trumpet ensemble unless you are very careful (trombones will be a much better substitute).

Vienna Horns playing the theme to Back to the Future (12 Horns)

Vienna Horns playing themes from Pirates of the Carribean

Opening to Mahler’s Symphony 3 (8 Horns in unison)

Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie – part for offstage horns (12 off stage, 8 on stage – 4 move back and forth)