Like many of its counterparts in the larger wind instrument category, the tuba family is the product of many years of experimentation and continual adjustment on the part of inventors, musicians, and instrument builders all over the world. The main difference here is in the relatively rapid standardization of the instrument, especially when compared to many other brass instruments; while the trumpet, trombone, and horn benefited from many centuries of refinement, the tuba as it is known today was largely developed within the space of 180 years. This has mainly to do with the reasons behind the invention of the tuba; the instrument does not have a definitive ancestor, but is rather the result of an avid multi-generation search for a true bass wind instrument.[1] One of the earliest notable results of this search includes an instrument that has recently made a resurgence among specialists of archaic instruments: the serpent.[2]

            The serpent is thought to have been invented as a kind of bass cornett around the year 1590 by a canon of the French city Auxerre, Edmé Guillaume.[3] The instrument consisted of a bent wooden tube in an “S” shape, with a curved brass crook and wooden or ivory mouthpiece.[4]  Soon after its invention, the serpent was used as a supporting voice for church choirs throughout 17th century France.[5] Initially intended for use primarily within the church, the intonation and tonal qualities of the serpent were seen as lacking; the ergonomically-designed tone holes were designed to fit three fingers on each hand, and not for any acoustical reason, while the instrument’s wide, cone-shaped bore caused further issues with intonation.[6] Nevertheless, the serpent was later adapted for use in military bands in the late eighteenth century as the serpent militaire, with a modified shape (to facilitate performance on horseback), a more robust construction, and keyed tone holes for more practical usage.[7] There were also at this time a number of serpent-like instruments built in a bassoon shape, most notably the basson russe, or Russian bassoon (most likely built by Régibo of Lille in 1789).[8] Additionally, the English bass horn, an invention of French serpentist Alexandre Frichot, was popular for several decades in mainland England; it consisted of a conical tube bent into a V-shape and with a long, curving crook for the mouthpiece.[9] To varying degrees, each of these “serpent-likes” was designed to occupy the bass role within an ensemble of wind and/or vocal voices, (a feature that would later link the serpent in conception to the tuba). Despite usage in works by Ludwig van Beethoven (Military March in D Major, 1816 – Fig. 1), and, in a locally-produced upright form, several opera scores of the Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, the acoustical flaws of the serpent would soon lead to its demise in favor of the more refined ophicleide.[10]

Fig. 1 – The first page of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Militair-Marsch, WoO 24, featuring a part for the serpent.

First patented by Jean-Hilaire Asté (“Halary”) in Paris in 1821, the ophicleide covered the same range as the serpent but featured a much-improved temperament and tone quality via the use of brass construction materials and a more acoustically-refined key system.[11] The ophicleide was essentially a tenor/bass extension of the principles of the keyed bugle, which was also a patented instrument of Halary’s design.[12] Although it would take some time for it to be in regular use across the European continent, the ophicleide did indeed see much wider usage than the antiquated serpent. Many composers started to use the ophicleide for roles previously assigned to the serpent, most notably Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Giachino Rossini.[13] Military band usage was limited, due to the fragile mechanisms of the instrument, but ophicleide solos became increasingly popular as more and more accomplished ophicleidists mastered the instrument and performed widely.[14]

The ophicleide, though, would suffer the same fate as the serpent, as the search for an effective bass wind instrument continued unabated. At issue was the still relatively-narrow pitch range of the ophicleide: although seen as a major upgrade from the serpent and bass horn, the ophicleide could only reach a further one and a half tones lower in comparison.[15] What many composers, conductors, and instrument makers sought was a bass instrument that could reach lower pitch depths than the current bass winds, while also retaining the higher register. The search for such an instrument led to the filing of Prussian Patent No. 19 on September 12th, 1835, specifying a “chromatic Bass-Tuba” that can “descend one octave lower than the serpent and English bass horn, and six notes lower than the ophicleide, while yet retaining the high notes of these three said instruments.”[16] The filer, Wilhelm Wieprecht, applied for the patent in conjunction with the Berlin instrument maker, Johann Gottfried Moritz.[17] Such an instrument was made possible by a recent advance in valve design, dubbed the Röhrenventil, and later called the Berliner-Pumpe. Devised in 1827 by instrument maker and hornist Heinrich Stölzel, this valve was of a sufficient diameter to be used in the wide bore of a true bass instrument.[18] The resultant instrument combined the strength and stability of tone from an ophicleide with the increased agility and wide range afforded by the use of the new valve system. Wieprecht and Moritz’s new “Bass-Tuba” featured many of the hallmarks of modern tuba design: the instrument was pitched in F and C (switched via valve mechanism), and featured five valves.[19] In order, the five valves of Wieprecht’s tuba lowered the instrument by 1, ½, 1 ½, ¾, and 2 ½ tones.[20] In essence a “double tuba,” this instrument allowed for a range that encompassed 6 whole tones beneath the ophicleide’s lowest notes, while still allowing for the high range of the serpent and bass horn.[21] Although the initial prototypes of the horn were lacking in dynamic range, the new tubas were warmly received in many quarters; one famous example is Berlioz’s adoption of the new instrument, going so far as to rewrite old scores to replace the ophicleide with new tuba parts.[22]


[1] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace,(Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 143-8.

[2] Clifford Bevan, The Tuba Family (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 47-8.

[3] The source for this claim comes from the Abbé Jean Leboeuf, in his 1743 history Mémoire concernant l’histoire ecclesiastique et civile d’Auxerre (see Grove Music article on the Serpent, written by Reginald Morley-Pegge, et al.). Even so, this date is not considered established fact, and there is still much debate about the instrument’s true provenance.

[4] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace, (Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 143.

[5] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace, (Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 143.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Reginald Morley-Pegge, “Russian bassoon”, Oxford University Press, accessed November 26, 2016, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.bgsu.edu:8080/subscriber/article/grove/music/24169.

[9] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace,(Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 143.

[10] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace,(Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 143.

[11] Clifford Bevan, The Tuba Family (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 59-61.

[12] Anthony Baines, Brass Instruments: Their History and Development (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993), 198.

[13] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace,(Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 143-6.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Clifford Bevan, The Tuba Family (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 83-4.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Because of the acoustic requirements of such a low fundamental pitch, a true bass wind instrument requires a large diameter in order for the lip vibrations entering the horn to vibrate at the correct frequency. Before this time, there were no valves of a suitable diameter that would allow such an instrument to be built, but the Berliner-Pumpe, changed that (see Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace,(Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 148.)

[19] Robin Hayward, “The Microtonal Tuba,” The Galpin Society Journal 64 (March 2011): 126.

[20] Reginald Morley-Pegge, “Tuba (i)”, Oxford University Press, accessed November 26, 2016, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.bgsu.edu:8080/subscriber/article/grove/music/28525.

[21] Clifford Bevan, The Tuba Family (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 83-4.

[22] Clifford Bevan, “The low brass”, in The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, ed. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace,(Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 149.