Book Reviews

The Wagner Tuba: A History, William Melton

William Melton, The Wagner Tuba: A History. Edition Ebenos, Aachen, Germany, 2008. ISBN 978-3-9808379-1-0. €24. Related Website

This book’s multi-coloured cover showing a Wagner Tuba floating in the sky above a tiny Festspielhaus set against distant mountains provides a striking contrast to the more mundane covers of most other books about musical instruments. On the back we read “The History of the Wagner Tuba: One Part of the History of Gebr. Alexander,” though in fact Melton’s book is not a panegyric for that particular maker but something far more objective. He has ranged far and wide for both primary and secondary sources, although the reader will not find information on acoustics, materials or dimensions. Here we read biographies of obscure composers and instrument makers, lists of members of horn sections and details of Wagner’s domestic life. The book is printed on heavy art paper, giving opportunities for photographs, including a 15-page “Gallery of Wagner Tubas by Contemporary Manufacturers.”

Melton (American-born and now a horn player in Sinfonie Orchester Aachen) has chosen to deal with an unusual subject, always a doubling instrument and therefore never the one most familiar to its player, reviled for problems with intonation and prone to have its music performed on other instruments. The Wagner tuba was invented by the composer to bridge the gap in the brass section between the sounds of trombones and horns. Its profile lies between that of the valved bugle-horn (the euphonium) and French horn and it is played by horn players using a similar mouthpiece and rotary-valves operated by the left hand. Wagner groups them in sections of four, two tenors in F and two basses in Bb. Pretty well all of the preceding statements have to be qualified by the word “usually.” As Melton relates, there were many existing instruments capable of inspiring Wagner in the design of the tubas. Some of them, especially Cerveny’s cornon of 1844 which Wagner may have heard in Dresden, were remarkably similar and all of them were tried and tested. However, as in so many aspects of his life and work, Wagner was determined to go his own way. The author’s suggestions as to why Wagner initially chose to ask Alexander, at the time renowned only for the manufacture of woodwinds (notably clarinets), to make his new brass instruments rather than Moritz, builder of the first basstuba, would have been welcome.

A generous number of music examples (48 in all) and end-notes (totalling 811: there are 14 references in the first sentence alone) contribute to the comprehensive nature of the book. The author usefully explores the extraordinary number of notations used by Wagner and hence adopted by later composers. Wagner quite often changes the instruments’ notation within the same work and in some instances the results are so ambiguous that performers have still to reach agreement about the pitch of certain passages. Paradoxically, in this case the German, of a nationality renowned for its logical thinking, was at odds with his Belgian contemporary Sax, working in Paris, whose system of notation for saxhorns and saxophones remains a model of simplicity and practicality.

Amongst a smattering of errors is the statement that the ‘new bass tuba [was] termed “contrabass tuba” by Wagner’. In fact they were two different instruments: the original basstuba, pitched in F, was specified by Wagner in some of his earlier works, but following the invention of the contrabass tuba in BBb or CC (probably by Cerveny in 1845) he specified this instrument from Das Rheingold (1853-54) onwards. He treated the two instruments quite differently. Similarly, the author alters Wagner’s own term ‘contrabass trombone’ to ‘bass trombone’. The contrabass is of lower pitch. In the opera pit, a team of trumpets (including bass trumpet) and trombones (including contrabass) sits at one extremity while horns, tubas and contrabass tuba sit at the other, providing contrasting timbres.

The claim that Wieprecht and Moritz led the way for the appearance of ‘the myriad family of bugle horns . . . cornet, fluegelhorn, alto horn, baritone and euphonium)’ by their invention of the basstuba in 1835 reverses the actual chronology. The basstuba could only be constructed after methods of making its large valves were devised. The statement that Moritz’s firm was in 1862 accorded the title Court Instrument Maker is curious as Moritz is described thus in the basstuba patent of 1835, almost 30 years earlier.

As stated here, Sommer of Weimar developed the euphonium, but it is not true to state that it was later called the baritone horn: this instrument already existed and was then, as later, different in profile from the euphonium. To consider that tubas may have been contemplated by Janacek for the Sinfonietta is to overlook the fact that the first movement, in which two tenor tubas are prominent, was inspired by a military band: euphoniums are always used here. A euphonium also plays tenor tuba in Holst’s Planets; this British composer had been an orchestral trombonist and knew the instrument that he wanted.

After the exploration of possible inspirations for the tubas and an exposition of their use by Wagner, the following chapters are bound to be something of an anti-climax. ‘Wagner’s Heirs’ tend to be mainly obscure composers trying to make a reputation through gargantuan works, although Bruckner and Stravinsky stand out. ‘Modern Voices’ continues this theme, showing that fascination with the tubas wound down after World War I. ‘Revival’ charts the use of the instruments since about 1960, when different musical idioms have been widely explored, often including unusual instruments. Jazz and particularly film music, which sometimes utilised as many as eight tubas (it was claimed in 2002 that one out of every four American film scores used the instruments), gave employment to versatile horn-players. But how often are the tubas heard as individual voices, or as a section playing in four parts as Wagner envisaged?

There are some things left unsaid in this book. The drawing of the cross-section of a Lur mouthpiece is not shown alongside a Wagner tuba mouthpiece so that we might compare and contrast. Information about the instruments pictured (including those in the Gallery of Wagner tubas) is restricted to the names of the maker and the model. Even manufacturers’ leaflets give information on important aspects like bore and bell diameter. Some of these instruments seem to have remarkably similar profiles to valved bugle horns. It is tantalizing not to have at least basic technical data.

Melton confirms that at their first public appearance, in 1874, the tubas (a set made by Ottensteiner of Munich) were still far from technically perfect. Moritz delivered a set in 1877, but when Richter later conducted excerpts from the Ring in London Munich players were imported, probably playing instruments by Ottensteiner. By 1890 Alexander had made a definitive set, delivered to Bayreuth for opera performances also conducted by Richter. Other makers, including those in a number of European countries, have sought to make tubas which avoid the problems for players resulting from poor intonation.

It is notable that when Henry Wood was planning his Wagner performances in 1895, following Richter’s concerts in London including tubas, he commissioned a set of instruments by Mahillon. (At the Parisian Lamoureux concerts in 1888 Besson cornophones played the parts.) Of saxhorn shape, with four piston-valves and large mouthpiece receivers, this reviewer was privileged to join three Covent Garden musicians in playing on them the tubas passages from the Ring. These experienced opera house players expressed their satisfaction with the tone, tuning and security of the instruments. For performances at the Norwich Festival in 1908 Wood rehearsed four members of the Kettering Rifles Band playing them at intervals over a period of two years. However, in New York, owing to the number of immigrant German musicians authentic tubas were heard as early as 1886.

The final development in the Wagner Tuba story concerns attempts to make a satisfactory double instrument, after the fashion of the double horn. The author and others quoted here claim that this results in a loss of contrast in timbre between the F and Bb instruments. But those who read this book should then turn to a recent article that complements much of what is said here, and in at least one instance contradicts it.

Appearing in Galpin Society Journal LXIII (May 2010, pages 143-158) is an article by Lisa Norman, Arnold Myers and Murray Campbell entitled “Wagner Tubas and Related Instruments: An Acoustical Comparison.” This is “an initial foray into the acoustical identity of the Wagner tuba, providing a broad comparison with related instruments, and also looking more closely at what influences the response, timbre and intonation of a specific instrument.” The instruments include tubas by Alexander, Mahillon, Moritz and Schopper alongside cornophones and baritones. There is a great deal to be learnt here from the input impedance curves for the various instruments (and also a euphonium and trombone for purposes of comparison) along with comparative bore profiles of a significant selection. Information is provided in the form of graphs and tables making it easy to compare the data for each instrument. This is then expanded in the text.

Surprisingly, acoustical tests did not show particular problems in tuning, although overall more recent instruments performed better. Most interestingly, the double Wagner Tuba showed the greatest variation in brassy timbre between the two sides of the instrument. These scientific conclusions fail to confirm two of the characteristics of the instruments most commonly perceived by players: poor tuning and the double instrument’s lack of differentiation between F and Bb sides. Perhaps it is fair to conclude that these perceptions result from the individual musician’s lack of familiarity with instruments which in many cases are brought out of the opera house’s store-rooms only occasionally.

-- Clifford Bevan

New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History by Bruce Boyd Raeburn

neworleansstylejazzBruce Boyd Raeburn. New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009. ISBN 0-472-03321-2. 342 pages.

For a relatively young art form, jazz has spawned an immense and remarkably diverse supporting literature. In the mid-1930s, books delineating its origins, founders, foremost practitioners, and stylistic attributes began cropping up. Documenting the already 40-year old music, these books appeared first in France and then America. Amid the growing body of literature certain works have assumed great importance in influencing how later scholars approached jazz. Perhaps no other text exerted as profound an impact on jazz discourse, particularly it’s origin in and subsequent diffusion from New Orleans, as Jazzmen, a collection of articles edited by Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey, Jr. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1939). The text provided the catalyst for a trend in subsequent histories whereupon swing bands, bebop, free, fusion, and still more styles were woven into the historical narratives as extensions of the original style; evolution through an accumulation of artistic innovations. The idea of progress was anathema to Smith, Ramsey, and many of the record collectors and discographers who had been the earliest advocates of jazz as a distinct art form. For this group of cognoscenti hot music was not just the leaping off point for the jazz art, it was the art itself.

Pocket Cornets by Nick DeCarlis

pocketcornetPocket Cornets: Actual Size. A Pictorial Overview of the Smallest Antique & Vintage Cornets Ever Made,. By Nick DeCarlis. Published by the author, 2009. 75 pages hardcover. Information: and

This beautifully designed and illustrated book features a detailed examination of many of the instruments from the author’s private collection of several dozen rare pocket cornets arranged chronologically from an 1872 Distin instrument to various Amati, Holton, and Alexander pocket cornets from the 1960s and 1970s. The 8x9 ½ inch page format of this publication enabled DeCarlis to feature beautiful “life size” color photos of the instruments. They are so sharp and clear that I found myself constantly reaching toward the page with my right hand imagining that I could grab the cornet and pull it from the page. Details of length (typically 8 or 7 inches), bell diameter, bore size, key and pitch and serial numbers are given for each instrument featured. There are also numerous photos of related material such as illustrations of the makers, 19th and early 20th century performers holding pocket cornets, instrument cases, original advertisements, and catalogues. A brief historical background is also given along with a description of various unusual design configurations.

The Trumpet Book by Gabriele Cassone

cassonecoverThe Trumpet Book by Gabriele Cassone. Zecchini Editore Pub. 2009 ISBN 978-88-87203-80-6. 336 pages. $75. With accompanying CD. Website:

When I received the original Italian language edition of Gabriele Cassone’s La Tromba (2002) some years back, I thought that it was not only the most beautifully published book on the trumpet (over 400 exquisite color photographs on glossy large format paper), but perhaps the most beautiful book on any musical instrument I’ve seen. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Italian is about on par with that of the great Louis Armstrong. When on one of his many tours of Italy and asked how his Italian was, the great trumpeter responded, “Oh fine, pizza!!” I may be able to order a few more types of food but now we have the English translation of Cassone’s wonderful book and it is even more beautiful than the original Italian edition. There are additional photos and some photos enlarged and made slightly brighter.

British Jazz History

Catherine Parsonage, The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935, Ashgate, 2005.
ISBN 978-0-7546-5076-8. 322 pages.

It is relatively unnoticed that the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote extensively on jazz under cover of the nom de plume Francis Newton (derived from the name of Billie Holiday's Marxist trumpeter Frankie Newton). I have always felt drawn to his reasoning that the success of jazz on a global scale - the rapidly shared ownership of it by a world-wide audience - was not just a consequence of the impact of the music itself. Hobsbawm offered the idea that "American Negro music benefited from being American. It was received not merely as the exotic, the primitive, the non-bourgeois, but as the modern." He was not speaking of modernism here, but of modernity. The point is a simple one, but it is all the more telling because of that: jazz, as one of the two great cultural exports of the USA (the other is the movie), contained a new mode of communication, but it was received so readily and with such great attention - certainly in the UK - because it was a part of the much broader phenomenon of Americanism: a phenomenon that reconfigured popular culture and touched virtually every aspect of the life of ordinary people. In current parlance, we might say that for most of the twentieth century anything from America was cool in Europe.

Catherine Parsonage's admirable book sort of picks up this thread, but her approach has a somewhat different emphasis. The Americanism of jazz is clearly there, but she examines a network of influences and especially the impact of black entertainment as the exotic, a characteristic which she believes gave succour to those who sought cultural change after the ravages of war and social deprivation. Dr. Parsonage makes her case especially persuasively because of the emphasis she places on the deep history of black entertainment in Britain and her avowed intent to explain the place of jazz in the UK not merely in terms of reception but as a "reciprocal process," a process which was "more complex than a simple replication or reflection of developments in America." Her title The Evolution of Jazz in Britain is carefully chosen, because this is not just about British jazz: it contains key arguments about key themes in the history of jazz and its antecedents in a cultural domain that was very different from the one from which jazz issued. It makes no attempt at a chronicle; rather Parsonage takes a thematic approach. The nine chapters are arranged in two unequal parts, "Historical and Theoretical Perspectives" and "The Evolving Presence of Jazz in Britain." In both she demonstrates a sound knowledge of both the music and the theoretical perspectives that have so far been exploited on this subject. Some topics have particularly caught her attention. For example, she devotes a whole chapter to the reception of the British productions of Will Marion Cook's In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy.

This is probably the best book of its type on British jazz, and it lays the ground for further studies, hopefully by Parsonage, who knows the sources both in the UK and the USA, and has the ability to look at them from a variety of perspectives. I have just one quibble, and that is the end date for this study. The book has its origins in the author's 2002 City University PhD thesis, which looked at the period between 1880 and 1927, and this explains the emphasis on the early reception of black music culture in Britain. The period is quite properly extended here - to 1935. I gather that this end date was chosen because of changes to British laws that limited work permits of foreign musicians working in the UK. This is logical enough, but it still seems a little odd - after all, events that got underway four years later might have provided a more significant watershed. Those extra few years would also have provided an opportunity to take into account the impact of a certain Benny Carter, who arrived in London in 1936 via other European resorts and quickly established himself as the staff arranger for the BBC dance orchestra. Carter's impact on jazz in London was monumental. His arrangements and his playing had a direct and memorable influence on an important generation of British jazz musicians because of who and what he was, and because he worked at the heart of the British popular music establishment. Given the quality of this book and Parsonage's obvious destiny to be a major figure in this orbit of study, this may have been a missed opportunity. But this really is just a quibble; Dr Parsonage has written a book containing impressive insights: it will endure as an important contribution to this field of study.

--Trevor Herbert

The Trumpet by Edward Tarr

Edward H. Tarr, The Trumpet, Trans. S.E. Plank, Revised and Enlarged Limited Edition. Hickman Music Editions, 2008. 176 pages. $49 hardbound, $35 soft cover.

Ed Tarr’s excellent book on the trumpet has gone through a fairly extensive publishing journey. It was first published in German in 1977, went through a few editions then finally appeared in English translation in 1988. The latest edition, revised by the author, has been published by the noted trumpet player, editor, publisher, and teacher, David Hickman, in a larger size format. The book remains a wonderful overview of the history of the trumpet and its updated material adds to its significance to the field.

There are 8 extensive chapters in this book: The Early History of the Trumpet, Asiatic Forms of the Trumpet, Trumpet from the Fall of Rome until the Crusades, The Trumpet in the Late Middle Ages, The Trumpet in the Renaissance, The Golden Age of the Natural Trumpet, The Trumpet in an Era of Decline, and The Modern Epoch of the Trumpet: 1815- Today. The new information added is not extensive in most chapters of the book. Occasional references have been added concerning important new research or discoveries of music or instruments such as that of the Guitbert trumpet (1442) or the discovery of Verdi’s Adagio for Trumpet.  The extensive last chapter, on the modern instrument, has been heavily revised, as might be expected. The new information includes information on 20th and 21st century trumpeters, organizations, research, and performance activities. Tarr offers interesting observations on recent developments and performers. There are also many more photos included in this chapter. For this new information alone the new edition is a valuable asset.

What with the volatile state of book publishing, we are lucky that this new limited edition has found its way back in print. It remains an important study of the history of the trumpet.

-- Jeffrey Nussbaum

The Trumpet by Edward Tarr

tarr trumpetEdward H. Tarr, The Trumpet, Trans. S.E. Plank, Revised and Enlarged Limited Edition. Hickman Music Editions, 2008. 176 pages. $49 hardbound, $35 soft cover.

Ed Tarr’s excellent book on the trumpet has gone through a fairly extensive publishing journey. It was first published in German in 1977, went through a few editions then finally appeared in English translation in 1988. The latest edition, revised by the author, has been published by the noted trumpet player, editor, publisher, and teacher, David Hickman, in a larger size format. The book remains a wonderful overview of the history of the trumpet and its updated material adds to its significance to the field.

Jazz Bones

jbonesKurt Dietrich, Jazz 'Bones: The World of the Jazz Trombone; Advance Music, 2005. ISBN 3-89221-069-1. 612 pages. 

I admired Kurt Dietrich's Duke's 'Bones (1995), which provided an imaginative and in some ways unique approach to the study of a particular performance tradition: the tradition initiated by Nanton, Tizol and Brown that formed a legacy for the many others who occupied their chairs in Ellington's band. I was struck by the empathy Dietrich had with the players. It is not merely that he admired them - this was not mere adoration: he seemed to be able to read their styles and idioms in terms that derived from the way they were, rather than what he was able to observe from available sources.