Can anyone handle a Wagner tuba?

Can anyone handle a Wagner tuba?


norman lebrecht

November 17, 2019

The latest tutorial from Berlin Phil’s Sarah Willis is a cracker.



  • Axl says:

    Ah, the Wagner tuba – my absolutely favorite brass instrument!

  • kundry says:

    Agreed! It is a hard instrument , but they make it sound fabulous, even before they added the BassTuba. They also have a very easy going and positive attitude – the most important element of a great ensemble and Sarah Willis is , by far, the heart, the cheerleader and the most positive energy in the BPO – she just can’t help it ! Bravi!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting. A Wagner tuba is actually some kind of bass horn. My suspicion is that horns and trombones were not so good and smooth in the 19th century and that for that reason, when Wagner needed a smooth, round brass bass sound he could not get it from his players anywhere so he had to invent a problem solution. But nowadays, both horn and trombone players are very good in the low registers. So, from a musical point of view, Wagner tubas are no longer necessary and are only used for Wagner and Bruckner scores because they are written there. But they have become obsolete.

    • Tamino says:

      Wrong. Even if they were an invention of necessity only back then. The sound they create can not be created on trombones or horns, even if the notes are played technically correct.

    • Ricky Irizarry says:

      Dear Mr. Borstlap: I do enjoy reading your contributions to this blog. However, I must take an exception to your previous remarks. Although Miss Willis barely addressed the matter (no negligence on her part implied) the fact remains that the Wagner Tuben cannot be replaced, for acoustical reasons Wagner was very much aware of. He figured there a timbre gap between the horns and the trombone/tuba formations. This explains the convoluted shape of the instrument and why it is played by hornists and not trombonists/tubists. Space does not allow more elaboration but I would like to encourage you to listen to the Recognition Scene in R. Strauss’ ELEKTRA. No other instrument would be able to conjure the mystery and power of this scene.

      I am a professional horn player; lately I earn my living as a conductor. Hopefully, all of these experiences were time well spent.

      • John Borstlap says:

        No doubt as a player yourself I take you on your word. But in my experience, mixing low horn sound with trombones in a smooth way is quite possible, depending on the music and on the players. But of course, it all depends upon the imagination of the composer, and as for the Elektra scene: has it ever been tried on horns and trombones, I wonder? I don’t think so. And then, timbre is merely a part of the resulting effect; it’s the notes who do the trick, and the way they are played. No doubt the Wagner horn sound is rounder, but how much difference would that make musically?

        We know about the problem of the oldfashioned horns being gradualy replaced by ventil horns in the 19th century and that the new instruments did not sound very good in the first years of use. We also know about Wagner’s complaints about some woodwinds which sound strange nowadays – that they were too loud; and his irritation that harps never made enough noise. Also, brass changed quite dramatically in the 1st half of the 20th century which extended their capacities quite much, also in terms of timbre. So, I still think that it is quite possible – no more than that – that Wagner tubas were invented to compensate for inadequacies of other brass.

        Anyway, here is the Elektra recognition scene:

        • Saxon Broken says:


          Your comments, highlighting your lack of understanding of the timbres of the different instruments, helps to explain your ‘success’ as a composer…

          • John Borstlap says:

            A very inappropriate and rather infantile reaction.

            “No civilized person defecates in public” (comment on Slipped Disc).

    • Jim says:

      You are surprisingly SO wrong. Nothing sounds like a WT (except a WT) the sound would be wrong if played on hns/low brass, TOTALLY different colour. The mouthpiece is different shape to trbn and bass tuba, so many things. I wonder if you are being mischievous………..

      • John Borstlap says:

        The WT is a kind of bass horn. That is the heart of the matter. Wagner and Bruckner used the timbre for a low, round, organ-like sound. And there are other ways to achieve that end as well. Sometimes they are called ‘tenor tubas’ in scores where Wagner tubas are meant, showing the vagueness as to timbre; Wagner himself called the instruments ‘Tenortuben’, and got in a mess with notations (Stravinsky’s Sacre has 2 tenor tubas which are suspected to be meant as WT’s). So, the timbre of WT’s is not a clear matter at all.

  • Ricky Irizarry says:

    Such an extraordinary way to start the day. Perfection/sheer beauty, as a matter of course, in barely a couple of minutes. After listening to something like this, you fear having to deal with the ugliness and idiocy of everyday life. I have played Bruckner’s 8th; after this I am not sure I ever did. Thank you, Mr. Lebrecht.

  • John Marshall says:

    Brilliant-what a ‘ballsy’ sound.

  • Tamino says:

    The amount of work, practicing, instrument making, centuries of performance practice etc. etc. that goes into playing that chorale… It is mind boggling when you think about it.

    What a pinnacle of human aspirations and achievements, a Bruckner symphony and its marvelous performance like here.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This kind of enthusiasm can also be found at unexpected places. My PA plays the Wagner tuba as a hobby and believes it is an effective instrument to underline feminist causes. When she turns-up at her work with the instrument, I know there’s trouble ahead.

  • DeepSouthSenior says:

    I agree with those who believe that the Wagner tubas have a special sound that cannot be replicated, and that their absence would be a great loss. I especially love the “growly” sound, without the heft or power of the trombones but lacking the richness of the horns. It’s a tribute to Bruckner’s genius that he knew when to use them, and when to switch exclusively to horns. Appreciating this level of detail is one of the great joys of music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It depends upon what the composer wants.

      Bruckner handled the orchestra as if it were an organ (like Franck), and must have thought of the WTs as an organ stop.

      The first bars of Gotterdammerung employ WTs thrown into the mix, contributing to the organ-like sound. Of course, in this instance, that effect would also be possible with horns and trombones: