Sunday 25 August 2019

Oom-pah... the inspiring tale of Tubby the Tuba

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

History: You can trace the development of the tuba through Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream
History: You can trace the development of the tuba through Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream

George Hamilton

On the radio, we've access to what's known as a Jingle Bank, a huge selection of variations of the theme music used to identify RTÉ lyric fm.

The jingles feature instruments from right across the spectrum. The lower the range, the more humorous the sound, and when it gets down to the tuba, we're all smiling.

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There's something about the big brass instrument with the deep voice that encourages humour. Maybe it's the oom-pah that inspired 'Tubby the Tuba', the song made famous by the American entertainer Danny Kaye.

The lyrics had Tubby lamenting that he "never had a tune to play". It would be the tuba's principal function to provide a bassline as the lowest-pitched member of the brass section.

But a friendly amphibian offered Tubby his 'Bullfrog Serenade' and, like all good children's songs, this one had a happy ending.

It's hard to imagine a large-scale ensemble without its tuba. Listening to the Garda Band performing 'Amhrán na bhFiann' before the recent soccer international at the Aviva Stadium, I was struck by the excellence of the tuba, played by Garda James McCafferty.

James's tuba didn't take the melody, but it rounded out the sound in exemplary fashion.

That should have come as no surprise. Pat Kenny, the inspector in charge of the Garda Band, actually played the tuba before he took up the baton.

You can trace the development of the tuba in the history of one much-loved orchestral suite, the incidental music composed by Felix Mendelssohn for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

What was destined to grace a royal occasion in 1843 - a command performance of the play for King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia - began life as a teenage challenge.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was a particular favourite in the Mendelssohn household when Fanny, his elder sister (a talented pianist and composer herself, known also by her married name of Hensel) and Felix were growing up.

Felix composed an overture. Whether or not he was thinking of setting the whole play to music, he was quite happy for this companion piece to get a public airing.

He'd just turned 18 when it was first performed in 1827, prior to the invention of the tuba.

The low brass part was taken by an English bass horn, an instrument with finger holes, like a woodwind. One critic, a friend of the composer believe it or not, described it as clumsy, perfectly in keeping with Bottom the Weaver, a character described in the review as "boorish".

Fifteen years later, when the King of Prussia came calling, the tuba was on the scene, patented in 1835, and already a feature of military bands.

While Mendelssohn didn't opt to include it in his score, the instrument he used for the bassline was something called an ophicleide (which rhymes with the river that runs through Glasgow).

The V-shaped English bass horn had been replaced by what was effectively a tuba with keys.

The advance represented by the invention of the tuba was the inclusion of valves, which have the effect of lowering the pitch.

Mendelssohn began with an English bass horn, then moved on to an ophicleide. But when you hear his music now, that oom-pah in the bass will be provided by a tuba.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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