From Erie Philharmonic Principal Tuba Ken Heinlein
Hello everyone! It’s my great privilege to contribute to the Erie Philharmonic blog writing a quick post about Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which is featured on our upcoming Symphonic Series concert on March 9th and 10th!
Symphonie Fantastique is novel for many reasons; it’s composition marked a complete departure from anything that had come before, and “turned up” the ideals of the Romantic revolution in music . The program behind the symphony is absolutely bonkers, and I’ll leave it to all of you to read your program booklets to find out all of the juiciest details – there are a few.
What I wanted to write about was more about Berlioz as he promoted performances of this, his first symphony. Unlike with modern orchestras, where pieces are published and then purchased by any number of groups, Berlioz himself kept the piece with him and traveled around to rehearse and perform with the orchestra (in whatever form it existed) in each town he traveled to. As such, he carried multiple orchestrations of the same piece in order to accommodate the instruments and players that were and were not present in each different town as he traveled. The version of Symphonie Fantastique that survives today is some amalgamation of these different versions.
In one of these arrangements, Berlioz called for two ophicleides. An ophicleide is an instrument made out of metal, like a modern brass instrument; it also has a mouthpiece that you buzz into. Rather than valves, however, it had keys, and it was wrapped something like a bassoon. It was part of a family of instruments known as keyed bugles. Today, these instruments are no longer played outside of historical performance groups.
Soon after Berlioz wrote this piece, the valve was patented in Vienna (by Wieprecht in 1835, actually) and modern brass instruments began to take shape. One of these brand new, modern instruments was the tuba, which is still the most modern instrument in the orchestra.
So why this whole story? Because Berlioz himself, when he first heard the tuba, said that all of his ophicleide parts should be played on tuba going forward. Even if that (possibly apocryphal) story isn’t true, tubas were already starting to phase out and replace the ophicleide anyway (we still play all of the ophicleide parts in Mendelssohn, for example, to this very day). Why is this important? Because the surviving score for Symphonie Fantastique includes parts for two ophicleides: one in C, and one in Bb, so that each might compensate for the tuning deficiencies of the other. The result of all of this?
There are two tuba parts in Symphonie Fantastique. TWO. TUBAS. (click video to see both instruments in action!)
Young tuba players like myself often grow up playing in bands, and we get used to playing in an entire section of tubas. When we move to orchestras, however, we sit principal and solo – there is just very little need for more than one tuba, and many pieces have no tuba parts at all. Every so often, however, a piece like this comes along, and I have the great honor of asking another tuba player to come join me on stage.
Along this week with me is Dr. Chris Blaha, my good friend and the Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Akron. It’s amazing to get to play on stage with him, and you’re all in for a treat.
A LOUD treat. Berlioz is scary. Symphonie Fantastique is doubly scary. And Dr. Blaha and I together on stage is downright terrifying. TWO TUBAS.
This is going to be great.
I can’t wait to see you there.
Principal Tuba, Erie Philharmonic