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History of the Ophicleide

After being greatly impressed by the keyed-bugle virtuoso John Distin at the Allied victory parades in Paris in 1815, after the second defeat of Napoleon, Grand Duke Constantin of Russia commissioned the Parisian maker Jean Hilarie Aster (known as Hilari) to produce a copy of Distin’s instrument to take back to Russia. The maker did much more than that producing a full set of instruments and sizes the largest of which was patented in 1821 and called the ophicleide. (Old Greek: ophi = serpent, cleide = keys). Its first orchestral appearance was in the stage music to Gaspare Spontini’s Olympia in 1825 and within ten years the instrument became the mainstay of the orchestral and wind band brass section, fulfilling this role for almost 50 years until the rise of the tuba in orchestras, and the euphonium in brass bands. By the beginning of the 20th century the ophicleide had almost disappeared completely in western music with few makers listing beyond the First World War, surviving in Cuban and South American music, particularly the Brazilian Chorros band. Proving popular as a solo instrument throughout the 19th Century, particularly in England, France and America, several notable soloists including Jean Prospere Guivier in France and Samuel Hughes in England, enjoyed widespread recognition and success. Sweet and resonant in its upper register while gruff and individual in its lower voice the instrument has a truly unique character and temperament all of its own. It is these unique qualities that attracted composers to write parts specific for the instrument most famously Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer and even Wagner, whose early operas Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi and Der fliegende Hollander all include specific parts for the keyed instrument. Berlioz commented that “...under a mass of brass instruments it works miracles” however solo passages can be likened to “...an escaped Bull jumping around in a drawing-room” While the modern tuba now fulfils the role that once was occupied by the ophicleide in the orchestra, where music specifies the earlier keyed instrument (ie. Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer-Night’s Dream or Elijah) the lighter and more transparent nature of the ophicleide can often prove more sympathetic.

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