The Serpent and Ophicleide as Instruments of Romantic Color in Selected Works by Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Wagner

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Traditional scholarship has stated that the serpent and ophicleide (as well as their successor, the tuba) were developed and added to the standard orchestra to add a bass voice to the brass, allowing a tonal compass to match a similar downward expansion in the strings and woodwinds. A closer reading of the earliest scores calling for these instruments reveals a more coloristic purpose, related to timbre as much as to compass. Indeed, the fact that composers rarely wrote for serpent and ophicleide makes two points: it proves them to be inadequate choices as a brass bass, and when they were ... continued below

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Morgan, Richard Sanborn December 2006.

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  • Morgan, Richard Sanborn

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Traditional scholarship has stated that the serpent and ophicleide (as well as their successor, the tuba) were developed and added to the standard orchestra to add a bass voice to the brass, allowing a tonal compass to match a similar downward expansion in the strings and woodwinds. A closer reading of the earliest scores calling for these instruments reveals a more coloristic purpose, related to timbre as much as to compass. Indeed, the fact that composers rarely wrote for serpent and ophicleide makes two points: it proves them to be inadequate choices as a brass bass, and when they were called for, they had an expressive, often descriptive purpose. Despite his conservative musical education supervised by Carl Friedrich Zelter, the seventeen-year-old Mendelssohn, under the influence of A. B. Marx, used the Corno inglese di basso, an upright version of the serpent, in his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream to give a more rustic flavor to Bottom's ass-braying. Even when the English bass horn functioned as a bass voice, it was playing in contexts that were descriptive, where it often demonstrated its musical inadequacy. Berlioz's descriptive writing for the serpent and ophicleide are well known. A remarkable feature which Symphonie fantastique shares with works by the other composers is the confidence Berlioz showed in the ophicleide's functional independence by occasionally giving it an arpeggiated figure while the rest of the orchestra sustains the chord. Wagner's writing for the serpent and ophicleide in Rienzi follows the less imaginative conventions of French grand opera. In Der fliegende Holländer the ophicleide, while not used as descriptively as Mendelssohn and Berlioz, nevertheless contributes significantly to Wagner's emerging focus on the inner lives of his characters and expressive commentary on the stage action. Tubists should consider the expressive implications and the unique timbre of these instruments when performing works originally written for the forerunners of the tuba.

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  • December 2006

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  • May 12, 2008, 3:24 p.m.

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Morgan, Richard Sanborn. The Serpent and Ophicleide as Instruments of Romantic Color in Selected Works by Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Wagner, dissertation, December 2006; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5495/: accessed December 13, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .