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Ode to my Tuba ­­- the beautiful Tallulah

By Ruth Fielder

At the age of sixteen I was told that I would no longer be able to play my beloved trumpet, due to medical complications. The only alternative, to uphold my county scholarship and commitments to orchestras and brass bands, was to take up the tuba. The arrogant trumpeter that I was back then was horrified at this cumbersome instrument, cuddling a great lump of brass that seemed to prove no merit to my sense of style or popularity. At the time, being a grumpy adolescent, this was torture.

Years on, I take pride in my position as a tuba player. My beautiful Besson Sovereign tuba is affectionately named Tallulah or Tula for short. I have learned what a delightful instrument the tuba is and how versatile and lyrical they can be when played (even if they are a little heavy). There seems to be a stigma that the tuba’s only vocation is as an instrument of the “ump-pah-pah” and counting endless bars of rests. However, more needs to be said of this sometimes under-rated instrument.

Unlike many string and woodwind instruments, the tuba has limited devoted repertoire. What is available varies in its purpose, some look to parody the instrument as the piece “Tuba Smarties” by Herbie Flowers does. Yet there are odd concertos that present the instrument in its splendour, as the Vaughan Williams’s Concerto for Bass Tuba does. Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1953 to mark the 50th anniversary of the orchestra, Vaughan Williams’s tuba concerto remains today an outstanding work for the instrument and is recognised as the first major work written for the tuba. Indeed, when it was premiered on 13 June 1954, performed by the orchestra’s principal tuba player Philip Catelinet, it was the first time that a concerto of its kind had ever been performed.

It is through the Vaughan Williams concerto that we are able to recognise the great range of the tuba and appreciate its hidden talents. While it cannot be denied that it serves the purpose of a supporting bass in orchestras and brass bands very well, it is also capable of sweeping cadenzas (when given the opportunity) and in a lead role, such as it features in this concerto, it is evident how charismatic it can be. A particular favourite movement of mine is the second, the Romanza. It is easy to presume with its size that the tuba is quite an awkward instrument, yet in this movement the real sensitivity and tenderness of the tuba is heard.

For the meantime, I continue to practise my part from the arrangement for tuba and piano; perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to play the piece with an orchestra.

Ruth Fielder is the Sales Administrator in the Sheet Music Department at Oxford University Press.

Ralph Vaughan Williams‘s wide-ranging musical activities greatly enhanced English musical life but they have also contributed to the mistaken view that his compositional work was in some way parochial. He believed in the value of music education and wrote practical competition pieces, serviceable church music, and with the 49th Parallel he found a new outlet in writing for film. His profoundly disturbing Symphony No.6 received international acclaim with more than a hundred performances in a little over two years. The Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra was composed in 1953-4 to mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of the LSO and was written for the orchestra’s principal tuba player, Philip Catelinet. It was the first major concerto to be written for the instrument, and remains today the outstanding work of its kind.

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Image credit: A gold brass tuba euphonium isolated against a white background in the vertical format. Photo by mkm3, iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Beardsell

    This was so lovely to read.

    For me, this Concerto was always the pinnacle of accomplishment, even amongst a sizeable wave of very difficult new music for tuba which emerged in the 90s. It had gravitas, relied simply on good writing rather than multi-phonic flips and half-valve chicanery and, especially in the second movement, a beautiful tune that you were proud to whistle!

    I might just go up to the loft and relive the old times….

  2. I’ll second Greg: it’s great to have someone champion this often-mocked instrument. I played one at school, and loved it. Even when we were sent to a very posh public school (which had better stay nameless) to do a snap concert, for which some sadist had chosen Beethoven’s 8th Symphony — well-known for its tuba part, you know — and they handed me the cello part instead … even after that nightmare I still hanker after my long-lost tuba.

  3. Anwen Greenaway

    As a cellist I sympathise with the ‘cumbersome’ instrument stigma, but there’s something about being forced to cuddle your instrument in order to play it that makes you love it anyway!

  4. Tom McCaslin

    I love this well written blog post, but would love for Oxford Press to revisit the edition and reprint a version that Vaughn Williams actually wrote. Philip Catelinet was a great musician but many of the markings are his and not Vaughn Williams’. Possible to revisit the original manuscript and get everything right for all of us curious Tuba players in the world????

  5. Curtis Peacock

    I agree with Tom McCaslin (aka T-Mack)!! Tuba players play the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto everyday. There are so many questionable parts to the manuscript that we are often left wondering whether we are playing it correctly or not. Please make a new edition!

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