Conductor steals ophicleide- film at eleven

Having finished the first part of the dress rehearsal for my Kelvin Ensemble concert with a rather raucous (in the best sense) run-through of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, I called a break. Across the hallway from the breathtakingly beautiful Bute Hall is another architectural treasure on the Glasgow University Campus- the Hunterian Museum.

Now, it is not every day that one can combine a dress rehearsal with a visit to a museum (unless the concert is in the museum), so I had to take advantage of my fifteen minutes of freedom to see as much as I could of the Hunterian.

On entering, one is struck by two things-the incredibly beautiful space, and the skeleton of the wooly mammoth staring straight at you.

I wouldn’t presume to inform non-Glaswegians what to expect from a visit to the Hunterian. However, in my very, very brief visit I deduced that much of the collection consists of private collections of past faculty and friends of the University. The result is an astonishingly interesting but wildly disjoint array of exhibits.

After checking out the mammoth and a few choice dinosaur skulls, I turned 90 degrees and saw a collection of death masks and the like. This is the sort of thing one is likely to see in many historical museums that examine historical cultural attitudes to death and dying.

What was unusual here was the identity of the deceased, whose mask and a bronze of his hand lay before me 8 feet from a wooly mammoth- Fryderyck Chopin.

I couldn’t stop staring at Chopin’s hand- the bronze was eerily lifelike in every detail. I’d heard he had delicate hands, but that is a bit of an understatement. The wrist was slender and very feminine and the fingers long, delicate and fragile with impeccably trimmed nails. They were the hands of an aristocratic young woman, not a pianist. There was no discernable build-up of muscle mass at all. Fascinating…

I then moved into a large hall and discovered a collection of old musical instruments- some beautiful old oboes, clarinets, bassoons and some odd brass instruments like saxhorns, serpents and a cavatina horn. Then I saw something painfully tantalizing- an ophicleide in mint condition. It seemed as if destiny was having a laugh with me- Rienzi is one of only a tiny number of standard repertoire works written for ophicleide (the parts are played today on tuba). I explored the idea of borrowing/renting/stealing the ophicleide with our tubist- (when else might we have a chance to hear what the piece might sound like on the right instrument?), but the tubist didn’t seem quite ready to storm the museum and I didn’t think I had the cash on me to bribe the guards…..

Of course, I was 100% certain that if I attempted to purloin the ophicleide, which beckoned more like a mysterious temptress by the second, I would be promptly arrested. However, I thought that if that happened, it would be a grand thing for historically informed performance- the sheer freakish lunacy of a conductor, we who are supposed to figures of dignity (ahem), breaking into a museum to steak an instrument nobody had ever heard of would be sure to make the national news. Might even help my career. It would certainly help the ophicleide’s career as the staff at BBC News 24 hunt accross London to find an ophicleide expert to come on the air and explain what is so wonderful about this forgotten instrument that a conductor would steal one in broad daylight. Orchestras would begin to carry an ophicleide specialist- conservatorys might offer degrees. Ophicleide festivals might spring up all over the world- perhaps we would hear the sound of an all-ophicleide marching band next New Year’s!

Ah well- perhaps some day. (The piece also has a serpent part (which would probably be played now on contra-bassoon in most orchestras), but the serpent uses a brass mouthpiece, so the contra player would not be able to switch to the serpent under any circumstances). Actually this overture is an interesting document of the evolution of the orchestral wind section in the first half of the 19th Century, and uses several instruments that have largely fallen out use- in addition to pic, flutes, oboes and bassoons, Wagner writes for C Clarinets instead of the usual Bb or A (Beethoven was also a fan of the C Clarinet, but most modern players prefer to transpose on the grounds that C Clarinets have inherent pitch problems- some conductors think that all clarinets have inherent pitch problems….). Then there is the interloper- the brass-family serpent lurking in the woodwind as an ersatz (but louder) contra-bassoon. The horn section was conceived as a pair of valve-horns and a pair of natural horns, a combination also favored by Schumann but one which completely fell out of use- I don’t think I’ve ever heard the piece on anything other than 4 modern horns. Likewise the trumpets- two valve trumpets and two natural trumpets! The alto-trombone is making a comeback these days, but people like a big noise in Wagner, so this piece is usually done tenor-tenor-bass rather than alto-tenor-bass trombone trio Wagner asks for.

Then there is the ophicleide, now pushed to the side by the more gargantuan tones of the tuba….Right there, in the case between the velociraptor skull and the collection of 17th century tea sets. Taunting me. Taunting me.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Conductor steals ophicleide- film at eleven”

  1. ComposerBastard

    “There was no discernable muscle tone at all. Fascinating…”

    ummm…he died from TB…i’m not sure there was any left to discern…

    Q: what does a C clarinet sound like?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi CB-

    What I should have said was there was evidence of muscularization on the hand that one would associate with a pianist- the hand actually looked very healthy….

    A- Brighter and thinner than a Bb of A

  3. Daniel Wolf

    There is at least one piece in which substituting a tuba for an ophicleide just won’t do — The Symphonie Fantastique. Back in the 1960’s, the orchestra at UC Berkeley borrowed two instruments from the museum collection for a performance. The recordings using ophicleide by Norrington and Gardiner are both terrific. Bass trombonist Douglas Yeo of the Boston Symphony is perhaps the leading North American ophicleidist. (His web site is here: ). Even more information about the ophicleide is here .

    The “alto” marking in a trombone part is a a topic with considerable controversy. For 19th century repertoire, it is most likely a part marking, i.e. a higher range on a tenor instrument perhaps with narrower bore , and not a call for the smaller instrument in Eb or F (likewise, the modern “bass” trombone, is usually an instrument with Bb tenor length but larger bore, with or without an extension valve, and not the larger instrument in open G, F, Eb etc.) Ken Schifrin writes authoritatively about the use of the alto in orchestral reperoire (here: ). That said, the alto trombone is a fine instrument (I play it myself) with its own character and more contemporary composers should use it.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Daniel-
    Thanks for the comment, and for the interesting links. I had meant to link to Doug Yeo’s website, partiucalry his discussions of the serpent —
    and more here-

     Here’s a shot of Doug actually playing the serpent part in a performance of Rienzi under James Conlon


    The Ken Schiffrin dissertation is new to me, but was a very interesting read. I’m not sure I would reach all of the same conclusions he has from piece to piece. The case of Berlioz is particularly interesting- his eventual decision to go with tenor over alto in contradiction of his original intent in Symphonie Fantastique seems more a grudging admission of the lack of proficiency among players of the day and perhaps a recognition of the technological limitations of the alto of the time.

    In this case, a modern alto with a slightly larger bore than one of Berlioz’s era might be exactly what he was looking for when he wrote the piece- he did say he wanted a true alto in the manuscript. Yes, he had doubts about thd sound of the alto, but who’s sound was he hearing? Perhaps the modern alto and the modern player give us an opportunity to re-examine whether compromises made by a composer in one era still need to be made today?

    Rienzi seems a pretty open and shut case in spite of Schifrin’s doubts- the overall scoring is so typical of the early Romantic era. We’re a long way from the world of Tristan…. I’ve never heard it done on alto, and I’m very used to it on tenor, but Wagner’s intent (especially in the context of natural trumpets and horns) seems pretty clear.

    Thanks for writing and for the links!


  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi CB

    Well, the C would be exactly halfway in between the size and timbre of an A and an Eb clarinet- I did Beethoven 5 with C’s a few years back and the difference wasn’t all that enormous, but this is partly a matter of context- a C might not blend so well with a beautiful modern Heckel, but with a thinner sounding period instrument, the blend might be interesing. Any comment from our bassoonist readers or clarinetists?

    OEA rock- they’re the dominant period band in Britain these days…

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