1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ophicleide

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OPHICLEIDE (Fr. ophicleide, basse d'harmonie; Ger.Ophikleid; Ital. oficleide), a brass wind instrument having a cup-shaped mouthpiece and keys, in fact a bass keyed-bugle. The name (from Gr. ὄφις, serpent, and κλεῖδες, keys), applied to it by Halary, the patentee of the instrument, is hardly a happy one, for there is nothing of the serpent about the ophicleide, which has the bore of the bugle and also owes the chromatic arrangement of the keys to a principle evolved by Halliday for the bugle, to be explained later on.

The ophicleide is almost perfect theoretically, for it combines the natural harmonic scale of the brass wind instruments having cup-shaped mouthpieces, such as the trumpet, with a system of keys, twelve in number, one for each chromatic semitone of the scale; it is capable of absolutely accurate intonation. It consists of a wooden, or oftener brass, tube with a conical bore having the same proportions as that of the bugle but not wide enough in proportion to its length to make the fundamental or first note of the harmonic series of much practical use. The tube, theoretically[1] 8 ft. long, is doubled upon itself once, terminating at the narrow end in a tight coil, from which protrudes the straight piece known as the crook, which bears the cup-shaped mouthpiece; the wide end of the tube terminates in a funnel-shaped bell pointing upwards.

The production of sound is effected in the ophicleide as in other instruments with cup- or funnel-shaped mouthpieces (see Horn). The lips stretched across the mouthpiece act as vibrating reeds or as the vocal chords in the larynx. The breath of the performer, compressed by being forced through the narrow opening between the lips, sets the latter in vibration. The stream of air, instead of proceeding into the cup in an even flow — in which case there would be no sound — is converted into a series of pulsations by the trembling of the lips. On being thrown into communication with the main stationary column of air at the bottom of the cup, the pulsating stream generates “sound waves,” each consisting of a half wave of expansion and of a half wave of compression. On the frequency per second of the sound waves as they strike the drum of the ear depends the pitch of the note, the acuteness of the sound varying in direct proportion to the frequency. To ensure a higher frequency in the sound waves, their length must be decreased. Two things are necessary to bring this about without shortening the length of the tube: (1) the opening between the lips, fixed at each end by contact with the edges of the mouthpiece, must be made narrower by greater tension; (2) the breath must be sent through the reduced aperture in a more compressed form and with greater force, so that the exciting current of air becomes more incisive. An exact proportion, not yet scientifically determined, evidently exists between the amount of pressure and the degree of tension, which is unconsciously regulated by the performer, excess of pressure in proportion to the tension of the lips producing a crescendo by causing amplitude of vibration instead of increased speed.

When the fundamental note of a pipe is produced, the tension of the lips and pressure of breath proportionally combined are at their minimum for that instrument. If both be doubled, a node is formed half way up the pipe, and the column of air no longer vibrates as a whole, but as two separate parts, each half the length of the tube, and the frequency of the sound waves is doubled in consequence. The practical result is the production of the second harmonic of the series an octave above the fundamental. The formation of three nodes and therefore of three separate sound waves produces a note a twelfth above the fundamental, known as the third harmonic, and so on in mathematical ratio. This harmonic series forms the natural scale of the instrument, and is for the ophicleide the following:

Britannica Ophicleide Harmonic Series.png
Fundamental.

In some cases the fundamental is difficult to obtain, and the harmonics above the eighth are not used.

The ophicleide has in addition to its natural scale eleven or twelve lateral holes covered by keys, each of which, when successively opened, raises the pitch of the harmonic series a semitone, with the exception of the first, an open key, which on being closed lowers the pitch a semitone. There were ophicleides in C and in B♭, the former being the more common; contrabass ophicleides were also occasionally made in F and E♭. The keys of the ophicleide, being placed in the lowest register, were intended to bind together by chromatic degrees the first and second harmonics. The compass is a little over three octaves, from Britannica Ophicleide Range.png with chromatic semitones throughout.

The unsatisfactory timbre of the ophicleide led to its being superseded by the bass tuba; but it seems a pity that an instrument so powerful, so easy to learn and understand, and capable of such accurate intonation, should have to be discarded. The lower register is rough, but so powerful that it can easily sustain above it masses of brass harmonics; the medium is coarse in tone, and the upper wild and unmusical.

Although a bass keyed-bugle, the ophicleide owes something of its origin to the application of keys to the serpent (q.v.), a wind instrument, the invention of which is generally attributed to Edme Guillaume, canon of Auxerre, about 1590. The serpent remained in its primitive form for nearly two centuries, and then only it was attempted to improve it by adding keys. It was a musician named Régibo,[2] belonging to the orchestra of the church of St Pierre at Lille, who, about 1780, first thought of giving it the shape of a bassoon. The merit of this innovation was rapidly recognized in England and Germany. Still, to follow Gerber,[3] one Frichot, who was established in London, published in 1800 a description of an instrument, entirely of brass, manufactured by J. Astor, which he claimed as his invention, calling it the basshorn, but which was no other in principle than the new serpent of Régibo. It only made its way to France and Belgium after the passage of the allied armies in 1815. The English brass basshorn was designated on the Continent the English or the Russian basshorn, the “serpent anglais” or the “basson russe.” Under this last name all instruments of the form, whether of wood or brass, were later on confounded in France and Belgium. The “basson russe” remained in great vogue until the appearance of the ophicleide, to disappear with it in the complete revolution brought about by the invention of pistons.

The invention of the ophicleide is generally but falsely attributed to Alexandre Frichot, a professor of music at Lisieux, department of Calvados, France. The instrument, which the inventor called “basse-trompette,” was approved of as early as 13th November 1806 by a commission composed of professors of the Paris Conservatoire, but the patent bears the date 31st December 1810. The “basse-trompette,” which Frichot in his specification had at first, in imitation of the English basshorn, called “basse cor,” was, like the English instrument, entirely of brass, and had, like it, six holes; it only differed in a more favourable disposition brought about by the curvings of the tube, and by the application of four crooks which permitted the instrument to be tuned “in C low pitch and C high pitch for military bands, in C# for churches, and in D for concert use.” The close relationship between the two instruments suggests the question whether this was the Frichot who worked with Astor in London in 1800.

The first idea of adding keys to instruments with cupped mouthpieces, unprovided with lateral holes, with the aim of filling up some of the gaps between the notes of the harmonic scale, goes back, according to Gerber (Lexicon of 1790), to Kölbel, a hornplayer in the Russian imperial band, about 1760. Anton Weidinger,[4] trumpeter in the Austrian imperial band, improved upon this first attempt, and applied it in 1800 to the trumpet. But the honour belongs to Joseph Halliday, bandmaster of the Cavan militia, of being the first to conceive, in 1810, the disposition of a certain number of keys along the tube, setting out from its lower extremity, with the idea of producing by their successive or simultaneous opening a chromatic scale throughout the extent of the instrument. The bugle-horn was the object of his reform; the scale of which, he says, in the preamble of his patent, “until my invention contained but five tones, viz. Britannica Ophicleide Pre-Keys Bugle-horn Tones.png. My improvements on that instrument are five keys, to be used by the performer according to the annexed scale, which, with its five original notes, render it capable of producing twenty-five separate tones in regular progression.” Fig. 1 represents the keyed bugle of Joseph Halliday.

Britannica Ophicleide Keyed Bugle.png
Fig. 1 — Keyed Bugle.

It was not until 1815 that the use of the new instrument spread upon the Continent. We find in the account-books of a Belgian maker, Tuerlinckx of Mechlin, that his first supply of a bugle-horn bears the date of 25th March 1815, and it was made “aen den Heer Muldener, lieutenant in het régiment duc d'York.”

Britannica Ophicleide.png
Fig. 2 — Ophicleide of Halary.

The acoustic principle inaugurated by Halliday consisted in binding together by chromatic degrees the second and third harmonics, Britannica Ophicleide Second Harmonic.png to Britannica Ophicleide Third Harmonic.png. He attained it, as we have just seen, by the help of five keys. The principle once discovered, it became easy to extend it to instruments of the largest size, of which the compass, as in the “basson russe,” began with the fundamental sound. It was simply necessary to bind this fundamental Britannica Ophicleide Fundamental Basson Russe.png to the next harmonic sound Britannica Ophicleide Second Harmonic Basson Russe.png by a larger number of keys. This was done in 1817 by Jean Hilaire Asté, known as Halary, a professor of music and instrument-maker at Paris. We find the description of the instruments for which he sought a patent in the Rapport de l'Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France, meeting of the 19th of July 1817. These instruments were three in number: (1) the clavi-tube, a keyed trumpet; (2) the quinti-tube, or quinti-clave; (3) the ophicleide, a keyed serpent. The clavi-tube was no other than the bugle-horn slightly modified in some details of construction, and reproduced in the different tonalities A♭, F, E♭, D, C, B♭, A and A♭. The quinti-tube had nearly the form of a bassoon, and was, in the first instance, armed with eight keys and constructed in two tonalities, F and E♭. This was the instrument afterwards named “alto ophicleide.” The ophicleide (fig. 2) had the same form as the quinti-tube. It was at first adjusted with nine or ten keys, and the number was carried on. to twelve — each key to give a semitone (additional patent of l6th August 1822). The ophicleide or bass of the harmony was made in C and in B♭, the contra-bass in F and in E♭.[5]

It is certain that from the point of view of invention Halary's labours had only secondary importance; but, if the principle of keyed chromatic instruments with cupped mouthpiece[6] goes back to Halliday, it was Halary's merit to know how to take advantage of the principle in extending it to instruments of diverse tonalities, in grouping them in one single family, that of the bugles, in so complete a manner that the improvements of modern manufacture have not widened its limits either in the grave or the acute direction. Keyed chromatic wind instruments made their way rapidly; to their introduction into military full or brass bands we can date the regeneration of military music. After pistons had been invented some forty years, instruments with keys could still reckon their partisans. Now these have utterly disappeared, and pistons or rotary cylinders remain absolute masters of the situation.

(V. M.; K. S.)

  1. For an explanation of the difference between theory and practice in the length of the tubes of wind instruments, see Victor Mahillon, “Le cor” (Les instruments de musique au musée du conservatoire royal de musique de Bruxelles, pt. ii. Brussels and London, 1907), pp. 27-29.
  2. Gerber, Lexicon der Tonkünstler (Leipzig, 1790).
  3. Lexikon, edition of 1812.
  4. The announcement of Weidinger's invention of a Klappentrompete, or trumpet with keys, appears in the Allg. musik. Ztg. (Leipzig, November 1802), p. 158; and further accounts are given in January 1803, p. 245, and 1815, p. 844.
  5. The report of the Académie des Beaux-Arts on the subject of this invention shows a strange misconception of it, which it is interesting to recall. “As to the two instruments which M. Halary designs under the names of 'quinti-clave' and 'ophicleide,' they bear a great resemblance to those submitted to the Academy in the sitting of the 11th of March 1811 by M. Dumas, which he designed under the names of 'basse et contrebasse guerrières.' . . . The opinion of our commission on the quinti-clave and ophicleide is that M. Halary can only claim the merit of an improvement and not that of an entire invention; still, for an equitable judgment on this point, we should compare the one with the other, and this our commission cannot do, not having the instruments of M. Dumas at our disposal.” This is what the commission ought to have had, but it would have sufficed had they referred to the report of the sittings of 6th and 8th April, in which it is clearly explained that the instruments presented by M. Dumas were bass clarinets (Moniteur Universel of 19th April 1811).
  6. We designedly omit the use of the word “brass” to qualify these instruments. The substance which determines the form of a column of air is demonstrably indifferent for the timbre or quality of tone so long as the sides of the tubes are equally elastic and rigid.