Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

Ophibariton (Fr.). See Russian bassoon. Ophicleide

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See Russian bassoon.


(Fr. ophicléide, basse d’harmonie, contrebasse d’harmonie; Ger. Ophikleide; It. oficleide).

A keyed brasswind instrument, the bass member of the family whose soprano is the keyed bugle (it is classified as an Aerophone: trumpet). It was patented by the French maker Halary (Jean Hilaire Asté) in 1821. The word ‘ophicleide’ was compounded from the Greek ‘ophis’ (a serpent) and ‘kleis’ (a cover or stopper); however, the ophicleide differs from the Serpent, even from those late types in which direct fingering was abandoned and all toneholes were covered by keys. ‘Ophicléide’ was the name given by Halary to the largest of the family of instruments covered by his patent, but it has come to be used for other sizes. The name was later extended to other instruments of like tessitura and use: some early valved basses were known as ‘valved ophicleide’, ‘ophicléide à piston’ or ‘Ventilophilsleide’ (see below). The tone of the instrument is full and resonant, having some of the characteristics of both the saxophone (which developed from it) and the euphonium (which replaced it). The derogatory comments of some musical historians of an earlier generation were seen to be unjustified at the end of the 20th century, when playing of a high standard could again be heard. Composers such as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Verdi and Wagner wrote important parts for it; its characteristic tone in their works is rarely well replaced by the modern orchestral tuba.

Ophicleide is also the name of an Organ stop.

1. Description.

The bore of the ophicleide, apart from the final bell flare, is close to the frustum of a cone, and large for an instrument of its length. The bass in 8' C has a sounding length of 2·47 metres. The tube is bent in the form of a U, the limbs being only about 1·25 cm apart. The narrower limb terminates about 30 cm short of the bell rim with a cylindrical socket into which the crook fits. The crook, usually either circular or oval, receives at its narrow end the mouthpiece, which stands approximately at right angles to the main tubing. The oval form of crook, typical of later ophicleides, usually incorporates a tuning-slide. The mouthpiece is similar to that of a bass trombone, though individual players have preferred different designs. Some ophicleides have been built of wood, either leather-covered like serpents (the British ‘serpentcleide’) or highly polished, but most are of brass.

Ophicleides have been built with nine to 12 keys, 11 being by far the commonest number. The nearest to the bell stands open at rest and is closed to sound the lowest note; all the others stand closed. The tone holes are wider than the serpent’s. The touchpieces controlling the keys are in two groups, arranged to be played with the left hand above the right, as with the bassoon. In early ophicleides the key-heads were flat discs, faced with leather, which closed down on short chimneys surrounding the holes; later instruments had cupped key-heads with stuffed pads. With all the keys unoperated, the bass ophicleide in C can sound the lowest eight or so natural notes of a conical tube with the fundamental 8' C, that is C, c, g, c', e', g', b', c'' (that is, the first eight or so pitches of the harmonic series). Closing the lowest key lowers the series by a semitone; on an 11-key instrument the keys provide the player with 12 effective tube lengths whose fundamental notes are a semitone apart, giving a fully chromatic compass of three octaves or so. For notes above f duplicate fingerings are possible since their frequencies occur among the harmonics of more than one series. Some notes require, and many notes are improved by, ‘venting’, i.e. operating one or more keys nearer to the bell than the principal key for that note. Some later instruments have overlapping touchpieces to facilitate this. The choice of fingering and venting is not standardized and instruction books differ. Fingering chart from A. Héral’s Méthode pour neuf, dix et onze clés (Paris, n.d.), indicates the commonest fingerings (keys 3 and 5 are for the thumbs and are not visible in the plate). The nine-key ophicleide requires the simultaneous operating of adjacent keys for two notes in the bottom octave, but gives each finger only one key to control (L4 is never used).

While the ophicleide undoubtedly surpasses the upright serpent and the bass horn in power and clarity, it does have defects. As with other keyed brasswind instruments, notes requiring the opening of keys remote from the bell are generally poorer and weaker than others. Even when the fundamentals (pedal notes) are naturally well in tune, overblown notes with the same fingerings are not always so. A skilled player can minimize the tonal discrepancies and play in tune by judicious fingering and lipping. The instrument’s power, though impressive when it first appeared, is no match for modern orchestral brass.

The ophicleide has been built in a number of sizes. The best-known instruction book, the Méthode complète d’ophicléïde (Paris, n.d.) of V. Caussinus and F. Berr, mentions no fewer than six: altos in F or E, basses in C or B and contrabasses in F or E. Basses have been by far the most common, and the C more common than the B. A contralto in A is also known (an example is in the Musée de la Musique, Paris).

The alto ophicleides, originally called ‘quinticlaves’ by Halary, were not used in the orchestra, and in bands they were soon replaced by valved instruments such as the clavicor. Contrabass ophicleides (known as ‘monster ophicleides’) were pitched in 12' F or 13' E.

2. History.

The ophicleide may owe its origin to some form of upright serpent. A more plausible, though still unsubstantiated, story is that while reviewing allied troops after Waterloo the Grand Duke Konstantin of Russia was so impressed by the playing of John Distin, solo keyed bugle in the Grenadier Guards Band, that he requested a copy of Distin’s instrument. Distin complied by taking his bugle to Halary in Paris to be copied. In 1817 Halary submitted to the Institut de France, the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts and the Athénée des Arts three instruments which he called, respectively: ‘clavitube’ (a normal keyed bugle despite his description of it as ‘trompette à clef’); ‘quinticlave’ (an alto ophicleide built in upright form); and ‘ophicléide’ (the bass instrument known today). These were patented in 1821, with a supplementary coverage for three additional keys on the ophicleide in 1822. The nine-key ophicleide of 1821, however, seems to have been the basis of future work. A number of design modifications were proposed and patented by various makers in France and Britain (where the instrument was most used) but none found widespread acceptance apart from the cupped key-heads mentioned above and the use of pillar, rod and axle key-mounts rather than saddles. For example, by 1861 Gautrot aîné (the most prolific maker of ophicleides) had introduced a model with six keys and one valve, but few seem to have been made. Two unpatented improvements were the 12th key (for G, which eliminated some slurring problems) and the large vent hole near the bell associated with the English virtuoso, Samuel Hughes (1825c1895).

There were a number of celebrated ophicleide soloists, although by far the most widespread use of the instrument was as the bass in bands, with occasional solos extending in to the tenor range. V. Caussinus was the only ophicleidist of whom Berlioz spoke highly. William Ponder (d 1841) introduced the contrabass ophicleide to Britain at the 1834 Birmingham Festival. Prospère (Jean Prospère Guivier) performed, also on the contrabass, at music festivals and in Jullien’s promenade concerts, also accompanying the latter on his tour of the USA. Hughes was able to make a career as an ophicleide soloist, playing in the principal orchestras, for the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, for the professional Cyfarthfa brass band, and as a professor at Kneller Hall and the Guildhall School of Music (the latter appointment in 1888 probably merely titular).

The ophicleide was very widely used in France, in both bands and orchestras; after about 1870 it ceased to be scored for by composers, but its replacement by valved instruments such as bass and contrabass saxhorns it was more protracted. In Britain it was in use by the late 1820s, but in the leading brass bands it was being rapidly replaced by valved instruments by 1860 – the best ophicleidists were presented with euphoniums as contest prizes. In other European countries it was less used, but is reported to have survived in Spanish churches and remote Italian village bands into the 20th century.

3. The valved ophicleide.

By 1836 Guichard had brought out a valved ophicleide, preserving the shape and general bore profile of the keyed ophicleide but with three valves – virtually a primitive tuba. Three valves do not provide a complete octave of fundamentals, however, and give intonation problems when the valves are used in combination. The French orchestral tuba in 8' C overcame these defects by the use of five or six valves (see Tuba). Subsequent models of valved ophicleide such as those of Uhlmann (Vienna, 1839) preserved the familiar overall shape of the ophicleide but employed a tube length of 12' F (which gives the complete chromatic compass from B' upwards of the C ophicleide) or longer. There is no clear distinction between these instruments and bombardons or narrow-bore tubas.


tutors for the ophicleide

V. Caussinus: Solfège-Méthode pour ophicléïde-basse (Paris, c1840)

J.G. Kastner: Méthode élémentaire pour l'ophicléïde (Paris, c1840)

F. Berr and V. Caussinus: Méthode complète d'ophicléïde
(Paris, c1845)

V. Cornette: Méthode d'ophicléïde
(Paris, c1845)

T. Garnier: Méthode élémentaire et facile d'ophicléïde à pistons ou à cylindres (Paris, c1845)

Steiger: Méthode élémentaire et graduée d'ophicléïde (Paris, c1845)

Chromatic Scale for Ophicleide (London, c1845)

H. Schiltz: Tutor for the Ophicleide (London, 1853)

A. Héral: Méthode d'ophicléïde, contentant les principes de musique, ceux de l'instrument, les gammes, 24 leçons, 12 duos (Lyons, n.d.)

Méthode pour ophicléïde, à neuf, dix et onze clés (Paris, n.d.)


F. Gevaert: Traité général d’instrumentation (Ghent, 1863)

G. Chouquet: Le Musée du Conservatoire national de musique (Paris, 1875)

C. Pierre: Les facteurs d’instruments de musique: les luthiers et la facture instrumentale: Précis historique (Paris, 1893/R)

A. Carse: Musical Wind Instruments (London, 1939/R)

A. Carse: The Orchestra from Beethoven to Berlioz (Cambridge, 1948/R)

A. Baines: Brass Instruments, their History and Development (London, 1976/R)

C. Bevan: The Tuba Family (London, 1978)

S.J. Weston: ‘Improvements to the Nine-keyed Ophicleide’, GSJ, xxxvi (1983), 109–14

S. Weston: The Ophicleide: its Background, Invention and Development (MPhil thesis, U. of Leicester, 1984)

S. Weston: ‘Turton's Ophicleide’, GSJ, xxxvii (1984), 116–17

S.J. Weston: Samuel Hughes, Ophicleidist (Edinburgh, 1986)

H. Heyde: Das Ventilblasinstrument: seine Entwickling im deutschsprachigen Raum von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1987)

S. Weston: ‘Ophicleide Crooks’, GSJ, xlii (1989), 130–34

J. Webb: ‘Ophicleide Crooks’, GSJ, xliv (1991), 157 only

B. Kenyon de Pascual: ‘The Ophicleide in Spain’, HBSJ, vii (1995), 142–5


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