The lowest member of the brass family, the tuba was first introduced in 1835 by a Prussian bandmaster, Wilhelm Wieprecht. This tuba was pitched in F (the fundamental note) and made with five piston valves. By the 1840’s and 1850’s, other instrument makers began constructing tubas with rotary valves in addition to piston valves and made tubas of various types and sizes. The first contrabass tubas were built by the Bohemian instrument maker, Vaclav Cerveny. They were pitched in C (with “CC” as the fundamental) and Bb (with “BBb” as the fundamental) like the common tubas of today. Soon after these developments, the tuba was accepted in Germany as an orchestral and band instrument and by the mid to late nineteenth century, was used in British and French groups as well. The first major composer to include the tuba in his compositions was Hector Berlioz, a Frenchman who appreciated the tuba as a counterpart to the many higher wind instruments for which he wrote.
The tuba, like all brass instruments, is sounded by the vibration of the player’s lips. Its tubing is coiled in an elliptical pattern with the bell pointing upwards. Its wide bell, conical bore, and deep, cup-shaped mouthpiece help give the tuba its deep, rich sound. Compared to other brass instruments, the tuba requires the largest volume of air and least amount of air pressure in order to be played. It may have anywhere from three to seven valves (either piston or rotary in type) which are used to alter the length of the instrument, allowing for various notes. Tubas are constructed in various keys. Most common are the CC tuba, commonly used today in symphony orchestras, the BBb tuba, which is found in bands and some orchestras, and Eb and F tubas which are smaller and more appropriate for music with higher passages or of a lighter nature.
Today the tuba is heard in symphony orchestras, bands, brass and mixed instrumental ensembles, and occasionally in jazz ensembles, popular groups, film scores and as a solo instrument. The tuba’s role is typically to provide momentum to the music with a forward moving bass line. It provides support for additional instruments, much like the bass of a string section. The tuba, however, can also be used as a melodic instrument. Composers such as Wagner, Berlioz, Bernstein, Gershwin and especially Mahler continued to expand the melodic role of the tuba within the orchestra. Tubists occasionally use mutes made of such materials as metal or cardboard which fit into the bell to alter the volume and timbre of sound. Standard solo repertoire for the tuba include Vaughan Williams’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, Hindemith’s Sonata for Tuba and Piano and Gregson’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. Well known players include Arnold Jacobs (the late, master teacher and former Chicago Symphony tubist) as well as Harvey Phillips and Sam Pilafian.