December 13

The Ophicleide

What do Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Giuseppe Verdi, Sir Arthur Sullivan, and Richard Wagner have in common? They all composed for the ophicleide! Patented in 1821 by French instrument maker Jean Hilaire Asté, the ophicleide was used in military bands and orchestras well into the 20th-century, though it has now been largely superseded by the tuba.  Moreover, author, composer, and organist Dr. Orlando Mansfield described this instrument as “ugly” and “curious” in a 1929 issue of The New Music Review and Church Music Review.

The New Music Review and Church Music Review, Vol. 28 No. 335 (October 1929): 407.

An early image of an ophicleide designed by instrument makers Griesling & Schott.
Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Vol. 6 No 2 (10 January 1829): [1S] 16/17.

Hector Berlioz wrote briefly about the ophicleide in his Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes.  This text was later translated and reprinted in Dwight’s Journal of Music.

Dwight’s Journal of Music, Vol. 10 No 22 (28 February 1857): 170.

An illustration of an ophicleide with a fingering chart and compass.
Cäcilia, No. 34 ([1828]): [1S] 128/29.

Berlioz selected this “monstrous” “bull” of an instrument to feature prominently in the fifth movement of his Symphonie fantastique.  When paired with its bass wind instrument cousin, the serpent, the duo creates an ominous atmosphere when performing the Medieval Latin hymn, “Dies Irae”. Let’s listen to it.

Nevertheless, the ophicleide’s “growl, grunt, or roar” led it to be the subject of humorous caricatures and some pointed comments in the press.

The Musical World, Vol. 9 No. 208 (23 December 1841): 404.

This caricature depicts, in a refreshing manner, the ophicleide as brazen and powerful.
L’Illustration, Vol. LXXXII (28 July 1883): 61.

In fact, the effort required to produce a sound on the instrument even led some to speculate that it could cause health problems.

The Musical World, Vol. 9 No. 196 (30 September 1841): 215. 

Caricatures also depicted the large size of the instrument itself.
L’Illustration, Vol. XXV (4 February 1860): 77.

While the ophicleide may have developed a reputation for being unwieldy and odd, a small community of musicians continues to perform on this unusual instrument. Some, like the Sydney Ophicleide Quartet, achieve an admirable level of tonal beauty and virtuosity.

RIPM search tip: To read more anecdotes and reviews of the ophicleide, search “ophicleide” as a keyboard in RIPM’s Retrospective Index and e-Library of Music Periodicals.

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Posted December 13, 2017 by Ben Knysak in category "Curios and Chronicles