2.3 The creation of the Wagner tuba

Within this context surrounding Richard Wagner and the cycle of operas The Ring of the Nibelung, the Wagner tuba was born. This new instrument had the intention of satisfying the composer's sonic desires for the theme of Valhalla. Valhalla refers to the majestic hall of the gods in Norse and Germanic mythology, and its leitmotif aims to evoke the grandeur, authority, and sometimes tragedy associated with this place. Therefore, this theme is often heard when the gods discuss divine matters or when their destiny is referenced. The inspiration for the composition of this leitmotif occurred on July 16, 1853 (during his exile) as he walked through Julier Pass, a mountain pass located in the Swiss Alps.

The leitmotif (in D-flat major) was initially written for the trombone section with the indication "dolce" (William Melton 2008). However, from the moment Wagner heard it, he was not convinced by the sound result. Therefore, he changed the instrumentation to "tuben," though at that moment, he did not know which instrument it would be. What he could assert at that time, evident in the operas he composed, is that the horn plays a very important role. An example of this is the reference to Heimdall's Gjallarhorn (norse god of light and guardian of the rainbow bridge of the gods) or its appearance in different scenes placed in helmets or used for drinking. Hermann Matzke and Hans Kunitz (cited in Melton 2008, p. 11) suggest that Wagner might have had the Nordic horn, Lur, in mind when seeking the sound for the Valhalla theme. The sound it emits, according to Karl Geiringer (cited in Melton 2008, p. 11), is described as "deeper and wilder, noble and solemn sounds, something between a horn and tenor trombone, the loudest and the most pleasing tone possible."

This poses the following question: Did Wagner have the Lur in mind when creating the Wagner tuba?

This seems entirely possible. The Wagner tuba is intended to bridge the timbral gap between the French horn and the trombone. Engelbert Humperdinck (who was Wagner's apprentice) later likened the sound of the Wagner tuba to that of the French horn but more intense and solid, better suited for blending with the choirs of trumpets and trombones. Just as the French horn has the function of blending the different sounds of the orchestra, the tuba would have the same function with the brass section, creating a better blend and a more solid color. The contrabass tuba or bass trumpet, also used by Wagner in the Ring of the Nibelung, fulfill the same function.


During the 19th century, with the rise of militarism, the major European nations (especially Prussia, France, and Austria) became highly interested in wind bands, as these were a symbol of their greatness and strength. Therefore, many innovations took place, and instruments were created that are still in use today, such as the cornet, alto horn, baritone, or euphonium (along with others that have fallen out of use over time). This benefited Wagner in his search for the new instrument. There is a theory that he was interested in and inspired by instruments like the deutsches horn (from the L.A. Schröder family of luthiers), the Cornon (Cerveny), or saxhorns (Adolph Sax, the creator of the modern saxophone). There are indications that the latter were considered by Wagner to be used as the missing instrument. However, all efforts were in vain, as none of the instruments satisfied his needs (William Melton 2008).

At this point, with the imminent premiere of the first opera of the cycle (Das Rheingold ), two individuals become significant: Hans von Bülow and Hans Richter and. Richter, a horn player, had a close relationship with Wagner, even becoming his secretary. He played the motifs of the operas for Wagner's delight. Hans von Bülow was the conductor in charge of premiering the operas "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" and "Tristan und Isolde" and had a good relationship with Wagner. However, this relationship faded when Wagner began a romantic involvement with Hans's wife, Cosima (daughter of Franz Liszt), infuriating Hans and leading him to resign from his position at the Royal Bavarian Theatre. This left Wagner without a conductor for the opera's premiere. This, coupled with other challenges such as a lack of financial resources and the musical complexity of the work, hindered its premiere and pushed the issue of the Wagner tubas to the background. As a result, instead of using the tubas for the premiere, the horn section (led by Franz Strauss) had to perform with a military instrument called bugle horns on July 22, 1869, (Williem Melton 2008, "The Apprentice").

The premiere of the second opera, "Die Walküre," also took place without Wagner tubas. Nevertheless, at this moment (summer of 1870), it was not a major concern for Wagner. Among other things, he had his sights set on the construction of a theater that would fulfill his dream of performing the entire cycle consecutively in that venue. Despite this, the parts for the Wagner tubas (referred to as "tuben") were transcribed and described by Wagner for the publication of the printed score on March 20, 1873:


8 Horns, 4 of which alternate on the 4 tubas described as follows, that is:
2 tenor tubas in B flat, wich correspond in register to the horns in F and are thus to be played by the first players of the third and fourth pairs of horns, and two bass tubas in F, which correspond in register to the low horns in B flat and thus would most efficaciously played by the second players of the aforementioned pairs (R.Wagner cited in Melton 2008, p. 36).

In January 1874, the situation of the Wagner tubas improved when King Ludwig II of Bavaria offered 100,000 thalers (a European currency used from the 16th to the 19th century) to bring Wagner's project of The Ring of the Nibelung to fruition. This grant was primarily intended for the completion of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth (a theatre), where Wagner aimed to stage the entire cycle of the four operas. Additionally, it served, among many other matters, to fulfill the commission for the Wagner tubas. The person in charge of this task was the craftsman Georg Ottensteiner, who lived in Munich but had been trained in Paris, thus possessing expertise in the mentioned saxhorns.

The Wagner tubas were finally constructed by early 1875 and were first played as a quartet on March 1 of that same year in Vienna. At that point, Wagner was close to realizing his dream and began creating and working with the orchestra representing the complete cycle in the Festspielhaus, which was already under construction. Rehearsals for the operas began on August 1, and it was then that Wagner could hear the Valhalla motif for the first time, as he had envisioned it for the past 20 years.


   You can listen to the Valhalla theme here: https://youtu.be/qw_SwaedUU0?t=12 

The premiere of the complete Ring of the Nibelung cycle finally took place at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on August 13rd, 14th, 16th and 17th, 1876. The initial impressions of the Wagner tubas were very positive. Critics such as Egon Voss and Peter Nietzsche (cited in Melton 2008, p. 50) stated, "When the newly-built Castle of the gods becomes visible at the beginning of the second scene of Rheingold, it is lent its own wholly unique coloring through the distinctive, previously unexploited timbre of the tubas". At the same time, Heinrich Porges (who attended the first rehearsals) claimed, "The pronouncement of the Valhalla motif conveyed the impression of a profound, truly exalted peace" (cited in Melton 2008, p. 51). Even Camille Saint-Saëns (cited in Melton 2008, p. 52) reported, "Over rolling thunder, the brass of the orchestra blasts the call of the thunder god up to the clouds" (referring to the opening measures). They were also praised by many other musicians who heard them, including Richard Strauss and Alfred Sous.