What to Play on your Wagner Tuba

John Ericson

Tenor and bass Wagner tubenFirst, it would be ideal that you became familiar during your studies in college with the Wagner tuba. The best initial materials to study are something along the lines of a Kopprasch etude or two and the Wagner and Bruckner excerpts found in Playing the Wagner Tuba (Horn Notes Edition). Spend some time on both the tenor and the bass if possible; you want to have no fear of either instrument with some basic understanding of the notations and fingerings. Public performance of a short etude or solo work on a recital or in a studio class would also be a good idea--more on that in a moment.

However, what happens more often is that you need to figure out how to play Wagner tuba in just a few weeks or days (!) before an important performance of a major work by Bruckner, Strauss, or Wagner. In this case you need to order the Wagner tuba book ASAP, practice your music for the performance, and drill a bit of technique on something like a Kopprasch etude or two. It is very important to work out some sort of general technique that is not just rote learning of your parts for the concert.

In my own case, I had a few weeks to figure out the instrument and did exactly the above; I got my part to Bruckner 7 (the second bass tuba part in F) and also worked on some Kopprasch. It helped a great deal that also we had an extra sectional rehearsal before the first full orchestra service with the Rochester Philharmonic, always a very good idea. You don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you are doing in your first rehearsal.

A year later I was able to play the Wagner tuba again on Bruckner 8 with the Rochester Philharmonic. For this one I got the instrument shortly before Christmas and took it home with me. One of my former teachers was conducting a “tuba Christmas” concert at the mall and I played it on Wagner tuba! It was a nice diversion, and got me out of the box of orchestral music a bit.

Since that time I have performed the instrument in a number of different venues. The following are my two main suggestions for non-orchestral works to perform on Wagner tuba:

Horn ensemble works. A single Wagner tuba sounds great as the bottom voice in many horn ensemble works, bringing more depth to the ensemble, and there are duets and quartets that will sound great on Wagner tubas or combinations of horns and Wagner tubas.

Solo works. This is a controversial topic; some say the Wagner tuba should never be used for solo performances. There are several solo works that are actually for the instrument, in particular the Skurrile Elegie über Richard Wagner, Op. 86 No. 2 for tenor Wagner tuba and string quartet by the Dutch composer Jan Koetsier. This work is unfortunately only performable with a string quartet.

I have two personal favorite solos with piano that I have performed on tenor Wagner tuba. First, the Air (“on the G string”) by J. S. Bach, as published in Frøydis’ Favorite Prunes, Vol. 3 is just lovely on Wagner tuba. The Suite for French Horn or Bassoon or Cello and Piano by Frank Levy would also make an excellent recital selection. This work, published in 1961, is in eight short movements all of which lie well in the range of the Wagner tuba.

It may take a little thinking out of the box but there is quite a bit of music that really will work well on Wagner tuba. I have even tried to play a little jazz on Wagner tuba; it is a very interesting sound with some potential.

But let me conclude with one warning: if you play too much Wagner tuba you may find yourself being influenced by the tuba culture. Before long you may find yourself doing extreme breathing exercises, storing things in your bell, wearing your cap backwards, looking for bigger mouthpieces, playing louder, lower notes than your buds, and even performing at a tuba Christmas at a mall. Don’t leave the horn culture; you are still a horn player!

For more information visit The Wagner Tuba Page in Horn Articles Online and also purchase Playing the Wagner Tuba from Horn Notes Edition.

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