Classical: First Night: Bruckner's Seventh

It wasn't until he came to compose his mighty Symphony No 7 that Anton Bruckner (above) decided to augment his orchestral brass section with a quartet of Wagner tubas, using them to stunning effect. Richard Wagner invented the extra middle-register brass instrument as part of his expansion of tonal resources for his epic Ring of the Nibelungen tetralogy. He commissioned a set of tubas to his own design from a Berlin maker for the premiere of The Ring in Bayreuth in 1876.

Overawed by his own visit to Bayreuth, Bruckner decided to incorporate Wagner tubas into his Seventh. But their use is no act of slavish devotion. The instruments strengthen the brass's middle register and add a glowing, burnished tone to Bruckner's own unique sonorities.

With Wagner and Bruckner (and Richard Strauss to boot) played regularly today, Wagner tubas are still being produced. But what happens when an orchestra such as the New Queen's Hall comes along with a polemic to perform the great music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as it might have been heard at the time? "Period" oboes, trumpets, trombones and what- have-you do, of course, exist, and the orchestra employs them to startling effect. But Wagner tubas?

To begin with, the modern Wagner tuba is quite a different animal from the instrument of Wagner's time - odd, considering that their core repertoire remains that of Wagner and a couple of his younger contemporaries. The New Queen's Hall Orchestra has not been stumped by its desire to give an "authentic" account of Bruckner's Seventh, as Royal Opera House bass tuba player, Ashley Wall explains: "The original Queen's Hall orchestra used a set of Wagner tubas, when necessary, which were personally owned by Sir Henry Wood. Later, Sir Henry donated the tubas to the Royal Academy. When storage became a problem they were acquired by a trombonist of the Royal Opera orchestra; and then passed on to me. So we have a set of Wagner tubas, made in 1892, four years before Bruckner's death, which should do him proud in this `period' Seventh."

And how do they differ? "It's all to do with pitching," says Hall. "Music of a century ago was played about a semitone lower than it is now. New Wagner tubas had to raise their pitch to keep up. But if everything is lower-pitched, as with the rest of the instruments in the New Queen's Hall, then Sir Henry's tubas again come into their own."

The New Queen's Hall Orchestra play Bruckner's Symphony No 7 at the Barbican Hall (0171-638 8891) Tue, 8pm

Duncan Hadfield

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