What do the Serpent, Ophicleide, Bass Horn, Russian Bassoon, Helicon, Bass Saxhorn and the Sousaphone all have in common? Give up? They are all forms of what we now call the tuba.
The tuba is the largest and lowest sounding member of the brass family as well as being the youngest brass instrument. The tuba itself was in demand long before it was actually invented. Many inventors and instrument makers attempted to satisfy the need of composers, bandmasters and orchestra conductors for a brass instrument that could supply the bottom end of the music along with the bassoon and the string bass.
During the 1820s, various instrument manufacturers produced the ophicleide, a precursor to the tuba. It was a type of keyed-bugle instrument that could reportedly produce a pitch as low as F. However, these instruments were difficult to play. In 1835, the first bass tuba was patented by Johann Gottfried Moritz (an instrument maker) and Wilheim Wieprecht (a bandmaster). It was completely distinct from the keyed ophicleide in that it was equipped with a new type of short piston valve called the Berliner-Pumpe.
In 1849, the Helicon Bass was introduced. It was a circular coiled instrument that was meant to rest on the player’s shoulder. It has been said that, John Philip Sousa, the famous American bandleader, commissioned C. G. Conn to manufacture his redesigned ophicleide which eventually became known as the sousaphone. One opposing piece of information states that it was actually J. W. Pepper that suggested the design to Sousa and manufactured the instrument 5 years before C. G. Conn.
The tuba can be found in many kinds of ensembles ranging from the symphony orchestra to Dixieland Jazz bands. The tuba is capable of being more than a bass instrument that supports the other string and woodwind bass instruments in an ensemble. Concertos have been written for the tuba using it as the featured performer.
FYI: The first Friday in May is International Tuba Day which celebrates tubists around the world!
If you are interested in owning a piece of tuba history, stop in at the Instrumental Music Company, 2908 Ontario Rd., Green Bay, WI 54301. We have an William Frank Helicon Bass made around 1915 on display and it is for sale!