A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Ophicleide

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OPHICLEIDE (Eng. and Germ.; Fr. Basse d'Harmonie). A barbarous name, compounded of the Greek words for snake and door-key, which has been given to an improvement on the Serpent, Russian bassoon, or Bass-horn.

The invention of this instrument is attributed by Fétis to Frichot, a French musician settled in London about the year 1790. He states moreover that Frichot published in London in the year 1800 a description and method of playing it, under the title of 'A Complete Scale and Gammut of the Bass-horn, a new instrument, invented by M. Frichot, and manufactured by J. Astor.' It seems however that a musician of the church of St. Peter, at Lille, by name Regibo, had already, in 1780, made improvements on the serpent, by adding several keys and modifying the bore, so that Regibo may in fact be considered as the inventor even of the so-called Russian bassoon, 'which returned from the north of Europe about thirty years later.' It seems agreed on all hands that the French were made acquainted with this instrument by the bands of the allied sovereigns, when the latter occupied Paris in 1815. In this year its discovery is claimed by Halary of Paris, who patented it in 1821, and whose successor is said to possess the original model, with 7 keys and a scale of 27 notes. Labbaye added new keys to it, and the number has been since raised to 11.

Two of these instruments were employed at the Musical Festival in Westminster Abbey in June 1834. At the Birmingham Festival of the same year an ophicleide as well as a contrabass ophicleide were introduced, and are noticed in a periodical of the time as 'destined to operate a great change in the constitution of the orchestra.'

The early specimens were termed Serpentcleides, and seem to have been made partially in wood, like their predecessors the Serpents; but of late brass has been exclusively employed for the whole construction. The ophicleide has been made in many keys, viz. in alto F and E♭, in C and B♭ bass, and in the lower octave of the two first, viz. the F and E♭ of the 16-foot octave. That now commonly used stands in 8-foot C, and borrows a single note from the 16-foot octave, namely the B♮, one semitone below the lowest note of the violoncello and a whole tone above the last note of the three-stringed double-bass.

The mouthpiece consists of a large metal or ivory cup, not dissimilar to those of the bass trombone and euphonium. The ophicleide possesses the usual harmonic series of all brass instruments. The fundamental tone is not however employed, its compass commencing on the first harmonic, as before noted with respect to the horn. We thus have in succession C, with its octaveand twelfth, double octave, major third, and fifth above.

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \cadenzaOn c,2 c g c' e' g'}

The first key for the thumb of the left hand, usually standing open, lowers all these notes by a semitone, giving the chord of B♮ with five sharps. The second, which is habitually closed, raises the original pitch by a like interval, giving the chord of D♭ or C♯. The principle thus stated runs through the remaining mechanism; the 3rd key giving D and its derivatives, the 4th E♭, the 5th E♭, the 6th F, or seven semitones in all. The 7th key furnishes F♯, which was formerly missing in the scale, and A♭, the 8th G♮, the 9th A♭, the 10th A♮, the 11th B♭.

A compass ia thus obtained of 38 semitones, or a little over three octaves—from the low B♮ given above, to C in the treble stave. It will be obvious that from the overlapping and coincidence of the various harmonic series many alternative methods of producing the same note with slight enharmonic changes are open to a good player. It will also be seen that the seven semitonic keys exactly reproduce by a different mechanism the successive shifts of the violin family, and the slide positions of the trombone. The instrument is therefore of far greater capabilities for accurate intonation than the three or even the four-valved contrivances which bid fair to supersede it. It is theoretically equivalent to a conical tube which can be shortened by any given number of semitones in succession. This shortening is not however obtained, as in the French horn, from the upper part by means of crooks, but from the bottom upwards, by the contrivances of lateral holes and keys. It is the bass correlative of the key or Kent bugle, in which also the method of keys preceded the more modern invention of valves.

The tone of the ophicleide is, from its difference of scale and of material, less tender and veiled than that of its predecessor the serpent, but on the other hand it has greater compass and equality than that rather primitive contrivance. For the reason stated above its intonation is more accurate than that which can be obtained from any valve instrument whatever.

There is very little concerted music for this instrument. Indeed Mendelssohn, who employs it freely in some of his works, such as the 'Elijah,' where it is written for down to 16-foot A, three lines below the bass stave, and the 'Midsummer Night's Dream' music, where it has an important part in the overture, may be considered as the only classical writer who systematically introduces it in his scores. Wagner has replaced it by bass and contrabass tubas. It figures in modern operatic music; and in the hands of its only living player, Mr. Samuel Hughes, is deservedly a popular solo instrument. The serpent parts of the older music are usually allotted to it; though even these, in the band of the Sacred Harmonic Society and elsewhere, have been transferred to the far more profound and powerful contra fagotto. It is to be regretted that an instrument which presents considerable accuracy of intonation and a characteristic quality, should be allowed to fall into entire disuse.

Tutors and instruction-books for the Ophicleide are published by Schiltz, by Berr & Caussinus, and by V. Cornette, of which the second named is the most complete.

[ W. H. S. ]