Intersections Study Day

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11:55–13:05 Session 3. Embodiments

Jack Adler-McKean,

The serpent, the bombardon, and the tuba: Nineteenth-century low brass opera orchestra instrumentation and performance practice then and now

By the early 19th century, the serpent—a rudimentary mediaeval instrument designed to support plainchant in French church choirs—was being pushed ever further out of its comfort zone by composers attempting to strengthen their lower wind sections. To aid with chromatic pitch production, instrument manufacturers began to experiment with keys, and, following patenting in 1814, with various types of valve. The invention of the Baß-Tuba in 1835 and saxhorn in 1842 is broadly seen as the culmination of this developmental process; however, such instruments were created exclusively for use in bands. These inventions acquired wide popularity at great speed, but the aesthetic desires of composers and the practice traditions of performers did not align overnight. To this day, a tubist is unlikely to be aware of which lower-brass instrument a nineteenth-century composer had in mind for their music, or indeed which instrument was used for the première.

The most profound effect of such a lack of tuba-composer relationships is perhaps felt with regard to 19th-century operatic performance practices. Contemporary tubas are designed to resonate with maximum amplitude at similar formant shapes to the human voice, thus forcing vocalists to project with ever greater volume and resonance. This paper investigates the lower brass instruments for which 19th-century composers may have written and/or had at their disposal in their operatic works, demonstrated through recordings on early instruments in comparison with those used today, focussing in particular on the music of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. Through this combination of historical, organological, and practice-based methodologies, I am to show how significant an impact the employment of particular instruments can have on performance of this repertoire, as well as suggesting more generally one manner in which the so-called ‘material turn’ and ‘practice turn’ in recent music research fields can develop mutually symbiotic relationships.

Jack Adler-McKean is a performer-researcher promoting the tuba family through collaborations with internationally renowned ensembles, composers, and academic institutions. Recent projects include performances with Ensemble Modern and Klangforum Wien, music theatre productions on stage at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Philharmonie Luxembourg, collaborations on new solo works with Sarah Nemstov and George Lewis, premières at the BBC Proms and Darmstädter Ferienkurse, and recitals in Rome and Buenos Aires. Recent research activities include presentations at conferences in Paris and Klagenfurt, working with tuba students in Ankara and Jihlava, and giving seminars for composers in London and Boston. His first book, The Playing Techniques of the Tuba, was published by Bärenreiter in 2020; other writings have been featured in the Historic Brass Society Journal and Oxford Handbook of Wind Instruments, while he also curates the Contemporary Music for Tuba collection for Edition Gravis, and his own compositions and arrangements are published by Potenza Music. He was recently awarded his PhD from the Royal Northern College of Music, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain.


The Didone Project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC)
under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme,
Grant agreement No. 788986.