An integral part of the serpent family, the striking Ophicleide has been a cornerstone offering of some of the world’s most prestigious Orchestras for some 200 years; first invented by French instrument maker Jean Hilaire Asté in 1817. So, during those 2 centuries, what would we consider some of the best music for Ophicleide?
What does the Ophicleide sound like?
Originally created to provide the lowest notes in the brass section of an Orchestra, the Ophicleide’s remarkable sound is often described as ‘brilliant’, ‘bright’, and intense but rarely ‘low’ due to the way in which this instrument produces sound; starting with the longest length of tubing which you then shorten by opening the keys.
This means that, actually, the Ophicleide isn’t really very low at all, and is difficult to play which led to it’s inevitable near-demise by 1900, once the capabilities of the Tuba were fully realised.
Music for Ophicleide
Born to embrace the romantic era Orchestra, the unforgettable sound of the Ophicleide was most called for in operas of the time, including:
Giuseppe Verdi: Les Vepres Siciliennes - a grand opera in 5 acts, Les Vepres Siciliennes is famously based on a real, historic rebellion; the Sicilian Vespers of 1282.
Wagner: Das Liebesmahl der Apostel - a rarely performed and little known piece by this particularly prominent composer, Das Liebesmahl der Apostel is described by Wagner himself as "a sort of folkloric miracle play".
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream - written when Mendelssohn was just 17 years old, A Midsummer Night’s Dream - an overture written for one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, was described by music scholars of the time as the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.
Replacing the Serpent
The Ophicleide was invented to replace the Serpent; a renaissance woodwind instrument which, with its snaking body and holes instead of keys.
A comparatively primitive instrument, when the Serpent was overtaken by the much more sophisticated Ophicleide, it too took over the Serpent’s historic music, such as:
- Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Military March
- Berlioz’s Grand Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale
- Klose’s Das Leben ein Traum
- Wagner’s Flying Dutchman
Modern uses for the Ophicleide
Replaced by the Tuba - which could effortlessly reach much lower notes and in bands by the Euphonium which is easier to play - from the mid-1800s, the Ophicleide quickly slipped out of fashion and became almost unheard of by 1900 (as mentioned above).
However, today, the Ophicleide is once again a sought-after - albeit rare! - instrument appearing in Orchestras to revive some of the most stunning pieces of romantic classical music.
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