Wagner Tuba:  The Story behind a project

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Almost one year ago I wanted to have a set of Wagner Tuben for students to practice/tryout on at the inaugural Conn-Selmer Academy Summer Course.  Problems related to my health, and instrumental insurance issues meant that I couldn't arrange it in time. (I will rectify it for this summer)  What came out of last summer was a desire to give students a better understanding of what the Wagner Tuba is and to demystify it.

May 22, 2013 will be Wagner's 200th birthday, and I couldn't stop thinking about finding a way to commemorate it via the Wagner Tuba.  Our orchestra in Liège, Belgium will have a week long festival dedicated to Wagner's birthday, but I had noticed that the International Horn Society annual symposium in Memphis was dedicated to "Horn and Song", and obviously connected to Benjamin Britten's birthday.  

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The gears in my head started spinning and smoke started to pour out my ears.  When I get a project going in my head I can't sleep running it through, over and over.  I vaguely remembered a piece for Wagner Tuba and string quartet by Jan Koetsier that I had read about in William Melton's:  "A History of the Wagner Tuba" and started researching other possible pieces which could be used to create a program.  I found nothing that didn't include large horn/Wagner tuben ensembles or unusual combinations of instruments.  I felt the only solution was to find a composer and have a piece written for Wagner Tuba solo which, at the very least, would simplify rehearsal scheduling.

I posted something about all this on Facebook, and Dan Phillips, the host of the IHS Symposium in Memphis, mentioned:  "Why not play it in Memphis next summer?"  Why not indeed.  Wagner's birthday in 2013 and no Wagner Tuba performances scheduled at the International Horn Society Symposium.  The guantlet had been thrown down.

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Last Autumn I had planned to present the horn to the composition class of the Conservatory in Liège where I am horn professor.  It then struck me that maybe some of these students might be insterested in writing for this ignored instrument, so I presented both the horn and Wagner Tuba to the class.  Since the students have to compose a certain number of pieces throughout the year, and for their final exam, their composition professor Michel Fourgon agreed that if any students wanted to write for the instrument the resulting composition would count for their final grade.  Lo, and behold 2 students took on the challenge.  I placed a limit of ±3 minutes. (3 minutes of Bb Wagner Tuba is much more tiring than 3 minutes of horn)  Both pieces were delivered on time (amazingly!) during Easter break.

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I proposed to the orchestra a lunchtime concert program about the Wagner Tuba, the week before the Wagner festival.  The planning is still in the works with only 2 weeks to go: panic, panic, but in addition to the two new works and the Jan Koetiser "Skürrile Elegie auf Richard W." for Bb Wagner Tuba and String Quartet we needed 45 more minutes of concert material, but only using 4 Wagner Tuben.  So the concert "The History of the Wagner Tuba" was born.  Using a slideshow, recorded audio examples, live quartet excerpts played by my colleagues in the horn section, commentary, and the 3 other pieces a structure started to come about.

Excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle, Bruckner's 7th Symphony Adagio, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring,  Janacek's Sinfonietta, Christopher Rouse's 1st Symphony are all being used in addition to jazz by Jim Rattigan and Arkady Shilkloper.  Stories about the invention of the instrument, as well as a comparison of the same Wagner excerpt on Saxhorn and Wagner Tuba. Information about Schoenberg, Strauss (Franz and Richard), orchestration, and even an interesting story about John Philip Sousa.  It is going to be an hour long Wagner extravaganza.  I may not survive it, but will certainly be fun.  Special thanks must be given to William Melton, author of The Wagner Tuba:  A History (edition ebenos:  http://ebenos.de/)  Excerpts from this book have been published in "The Horn Call" by the IHS. 

In the end all I want to do is share my passion for this instrumental oddity which, seemingly obscure, is in reality a constant presence in the orchestra of today, and in more and more varied ways.  There is much more to the Wagner Tuba than just Wagner and three Bruckner symphonies, and I can't wait to share that with the audience.  The next best thing is that I will have the honor and privilege of playing these three pieces in Memphis this summer for the IHS Symposium, and I can't wait.

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As I am sure you have figured out some of this post was written prior to the Wagner Tuba demonstration concert.  I must make something very clear;  the pieces I performed required an enormous amount of time to prepare.  Those who play Wagner Tuba will say that I am mad, that the instrument isn't worth all that effort.  I beg to differ.  I have never felt more at ease with the Wagner Tuba than now, it holds no terror for me.  That is not to say that it is easy, it will never be easy, but it does mean that after the pieces I have worked on Bruckner 7 will not create the same tension as in the past.  I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, and on Facebook, that the Wagner Tuba vibrates the depths of your soul, and I truly believe that.  I easily spent 100 hours practicing Wagner Tuba since last September.  It remains a frustrating instrument, a fragile instrument, a difficult instrument, but above all it is a glorious instrument.  

I vowed that regardless of the result I would not have any regrets about this project.  I learned a lot about myself and the instrument (historically and musically) during this process which will stand me in good stead for the future.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2015