The ophicleide: a Romantic instrument lost in the depths of the orchestra?

Published on 19/11/2015

An introductory note by Jérôme Lejeune

RICERCAR’s artistic director

When I was assembling the second volume of the A Guide to Musical Instruments (1800-1950) (RIC 106), I needed a recording of a serpent being played. I had the luck to find a young musician — Patrick Wibart — who had first trained as a tuba player before specialising in the family of low brass instruments as they were at the beginning of the 19th century. You can imagine my amazement at my discovery, through him, that the sounds made by these instruments could after all be much more than of purely historical interest. Patrick sent me a live recording of a concerto by Félicien David shortly afterwards.

I became convinced that it would be most interesting to flesh out the article in the Guide to Musical Instruments by discussing the solo repertoire written for the instrument; despite Berlioz giving it the initial statement of the Dies Irae theme in his Symphonie Fantastique, it is all too often lost in the depths of the orchestra. Several skilled players of the instrument also gave concerts in halls throughout Europe during this time. A number of books of instruction for the ophicleide were published during the 1840s; the level of skill that these players were required to possess can easily be discerned from them.

It is true that the instrument’s repertoire contains a number of works that belong to the genre of salon music, one that is today often treated with disdain. This music, however, mirrors the immense success of the opera at that time: using themes from opera that have today been long forgotten, composers wrote more and more brilliant variations, waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises as well as more programmatic pieces.

This recording describes the short-lived existence of an instrument that played an important role in 19th century musical life, appearing in the orchestra, in civil and military brass and wind bands and even in church. Although it was gradually replaced by the tuba, it is more and more frequently called upon today, even in ‘modern’ orchestras, to perform the works that were conceived with its particular sonority in mind.

This CD should therefore be regarded as an indispensable complement to the Guide to Musical Instruments!