What’s a Wagner tuba?

Q: What instrument is named after a tuba, looks like a French horn, and sounds like a trombone?

No, that’s not the beginning of a super nerdy orchestra joke but it’s a pretty good description of the hybrid horn that is the Wagner tuba. A quartet of the rare instruments features in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in the May 5 season finale concert EPIC BRUCKNER.

Q: What’s the origin of the instrument?

The Wagner tuba was created for composer Richard Wagner. Wagner really liked the sound of the tuba but he found the tuba’s tone was too heavy to play the melody, so he conceived of a hybrid instrument that was a cross between a horn and a tuba. The body of the instrument looks like a French horn (also just called horn for short), but the bell part at the end of the instrument – which kind of resembles the end of a trombone – points upwards, like a tuba. Wagner used the instruments in his later operas and Bruckner, who was a big fan of Wagner, used them for the first time in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 7, in honor of Wagner.


Q: Who plays it in the orchestra?

The style of playing is most similar to that of the French horn and the mouthpiece is the same as the horn, so it’s horn players who play them in the orchestra. For this concert, we will hire four additional horn players to play a quartet of Wagner tubas which function almost as a choir, comprising different voices that each play a different part.


Q: What do Wagner tubas sound like?

Been to a movie? Chances are you’ve heard this music before. The first phrase of the Universal Pictures signature logo theme is played by horns and the second (starting at the eight second mark) is played by eight Wagner tubas.

Here they are again. This time, four horn players from the Berlin Philharmonic demonstrate passages from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and share their favorite (and least favorite) passages from Bruckner’s music on the French horn and Wagner tuba.


Nicky Roosevelt

Meet the California Symphony’s Nicky Roosevelt

French Horn on top, Wagner tuba on my apron. I am 2nd horn with the California Symphony and will be staying in that chair for the Bruckner and Balch concert. There are 4 other colleagues who will be playing Wagner tubas.”

As for what playing Bruckner is like, I remember playing his 7th symphony a long time ago. [Chances like that] don’t come around too often because it takes a larger than usual orchestra. What I really remember is how long I had that symphony in my head, accompanying my daily life for a month, I think. How cool is that?”

That happened with our last concert here in Walnut Creek when we played John Williams’ music. So many wonderful tunes running through my mind and body (I felt like dancing).”


You can hear the quartet of Wagner tubas in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in the EPIC BRUCKNER May 5 season finale concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets and information available here or by calling the Lesher Center Box Office at 925.934.7469. Tickets are $42-$72 and the price for students 25 and under is $20.


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