When I was 7 years old I sang in the boys choir of a big church in Los Angeles. (That was 70 years ago!) Every Saturday around 11:30 a m, when the choir rehearsal ended I went exploring in this, what I thought was a huge church. very soon my explorations focused on the pipe room of the church's organ. There were openings in the wall in the front of the sanctuary where the sound came from but behind that wall up a couple of secret stairways and behind a door, which was the entrance to the pipe room, was a whole new and powerful sonic world that I visited every Saturday; I sat on the floor and listened.
Describing the sounds I heard as a 7-year-old child with the language facility of an adult is a fascinating exercise: First the power, the loudness, was amazing and almost a little scary; it was so loud that it actually tickled my eardrums; it was clear to me that these pipes were not intended to be heard from a close distance.
I was very conscious that these pipes came in many shapes, sizes and were made of different materials; some were made of wood that looked like bamboo, from very small to very big, probably over 2 meters long. Some were the same array of sizes but made of brass with an opening near the end like a flute, where the air was split and made the vibration. At age 7, I had been playing trumpet for a year and the most interesting pipes to me were the ones that were horizontal and had bells like my trumpet; it was like being face to face with a huge brass section; these were the ones that tickled my eardrums.
While listening to this ‘wall of brass bells’ I was aware that the tone quality was the same from the very highest to the lowest notes. This was, in fact, a moment of programming my basic thoughts about what a brass choir should sound like.
It was also clear to my naive 7-year-old logic, that those very big pipes took more air to make sound than the little ones.
The sonic ideal that the sound of the brass with equal timbre from top to bottom and the physical requirements of having enough air to support those low noes with an equal resonance presented me with a dilemma that I’m still facing. The fact soon became apparent that playing the low notes with equal resonance as the high notes required both biological and sonic compromise. Quite simply, I did not have the vital capacity as the endless air supply of that powerful organ.
Ten years later I encountered another equally impressive ‘wall of sound’; it was the brass section of the famous Chicago symphony with the legendary Bud Herseth playing 1st trumpet and the equally legendary Arnold Jacobs on tuba, here was the compromise. In the natural evolution of brass instruments through the last two centuries, the tuba developed a little differently that the trumpets and trombones. By its conical design, it had the breadth of sound to be a strong foundation for any brass section but without the same richness of harmonics as the higher instruments.
Still, through the next 70 years, that ‘wall of brass bells’ has remained one of my first sonic images. I have dedicated myself to realizing that sound as much as possible. For a long period of time I believed a smaller tuba would be a solution, finally, it was clear it just didn’t produce a wide enough breadth of sound. A larger tuba seemed to be the logical answer but I was still remembering the organ pipe room.
In my efforts to realize that child’s memory of the perfect brass section, I took two works from the symphonic repertoire: Brahms Symphony #2 in D major and the final movement of the Tchaikovsky Pathotique Symphony. These were pieces that I had played hundreds of times and that I still love to hear. (They were also the first full symphonies that I had ever played). Even in those first encounters so long ago, I saw that the tuba part was simply an extension of the trumpets and trombones, (The horns were on they’re own developmental path and evolving in a singular and beautiful way). In still trying to believe that the ‘wall of brass bells’ in the organ pipe room was the ideal, I tried using my contrabassstrombone to play those two tuba parts. It was a successful experiment and answered some life long questions. There was one obvious and omni present problem; we missed the roundness and breadth of tone of the tuba.
This was especially evident in the famous chorale for three trombones and tuba in the fourth movement, (Adagio Lamentoso) of the Tchaikovsky; we missed the tuba sound on the fourth voice, (Plus the raw brass double slide of the pre 1909 Conn contrabassstrombone made small adjustments for intonation impossible!).
Conical instruments were becoming the instruments of choice for bass brass parts throughout the western world with the exception of Italy, which evolved in the direction of the cimbasso. The cimbasso was a cylindrical instrument similar to a valved basstrombone in F, a 4th lower than the trombones. It was the instrument of preference of Verdi, Puccini and even Respighi.
In 1989, I had occasion to visit a rehearsal of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra, the Opera orchestra of Florence, Italy, who were rehearsing a Puccini opera with an elderly conductor of 84 years, which makes his birth year 1905! The old maestro requested the instruments he was accustomed to in his youth, which were, valved trombones and cimbasso; they sounded wonderful and as I recall from the pipe room experience, it was very similar.
It had also become clear that that tuba was not always the best solution for playing the bottom parts in a symphony orchestra. Verdi originally intended most of his works to be played on cimbasso. Today an orchestral tubist is expected to play cimbasso but that was not the case 25 years ago. The last performance I was ever to play the Verdi Requiem I decided to use cimbasso; the results were extraordinary! Everything sounded better than tuba, the tonal colors, particularly the fanfare in the Tuba Mirum, were clearly what Verdi had envisioned.
In the brass music of Gabrieli and other Italian renaissance composers seems to also sound more appropriate on cimbasso than tuba. Certainly, the bass brass instruments of Gabrieli’s were cylindrical and cimbasso is simply more idiomatic for the Italian Renaissance period.
Which instrument is used by the modern tubist in various instrumental settings should be the choice of the tubist but certainly the more options a tubist has tried, the better he or she is prepared to make a good decision.
Something Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini said to the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic many years ago has stayed in my mind and seems to serve as a good closing for this article: “My friends, Please do not confuse dynamic and intensity”
March 31, 2016, Oaxaca, Mexico