It's an obscure hybrid of tuba and saxophone and evolved from the serpent, this rich-toned keyed brass instrument has a mouthpiece that makes it part of the bugle family. Very much out of vogue but perhaps making a comeback, the ophicleide's name (pronounced ‘offyclyde’) comes from the Greek word ophis (ὄφις) "serpent" and kleis (κλείς) "keys", since it was conceived of as a serpent with keys. It also resembles the sudophone, but originates from the older serpent, a Renaissance instrument with a curved body and key holes that were often out of tune or hard to play.
The ophicleide was invented in 1817 and patented in 1821 by French instrument maker Jean Hilaire Asté (also known as Halary or Haleri) to extend the keyed bugle or Royal Kent bugle family. In the 19th century it became an important brass instrument, featuring in many orchestral works, from Olimpie by Gaspare Spontini in 1819, to Felix Mendelssohn's Elias and Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (originally scored for English bass horn) and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, originally also included the serpent.
It appears in many French mid-19th century serious operas by Meyerbeer, Halevy, Saint-Saëns, and Auber, English operas by Michael Balfe, Vincent Wallace, and was also a cornerstone instrument for Verdi and Wagner.
Images of the instrument are rare, but there is a delightfully comic depiction of the difficulties of playing shown in a 19th-century series of priest Monsieur le Curé and his Ophicleide printed by Albert Bergeret & Co., in Nancy, France. Here are a few more
Unlike the saxophone and other brass instruments, it works in a counterintuitive way – instead of covering holes, the keys mostly uncover when pressed for different notes. It can be unwieldly and difficult to play, but when do correctly, has a rich, distinctive sound. John Elliot explains more about the instrument and talks about its role in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique:
And here's an except from the Dies Irae taken from that same Berlioz work:
Tony George demonstrates the Wessex Ophicleide
Continuing the Wessex connection, here's Gabriel Fauré's Après un rêve, featuring the B-flat ophicleide:
It also features in Arthur Sullivan's a popular work by the composer before he teamed up with the lyricist W.S. Gilbert, the Overture Di Ballo:
Here we can also catch the Sydney Ophicleide Quartet playing the ophicleide in Mendelssohn's Festlied zur Stiftungsfeier and Telemann's Allegro from Quartet a 4:
The 20th-century American composer William Perry wrote a Concerto for Ophicleide and Orchestra for the Australian virtuoso, Nick Byrne.
Until it was superseded by the saxophone, the ophicleide (also called oficleide) was used in Brazilian choro bands well into the 20th century – soloist Irineu de Almeida as a prominent player. Let's enjoy an excerpt from this video, at 1m45sec:
And here's more with a solo introduction:
And a jaunty piece called Pisca-Pasca:
Any other ophicleide music or images come to mind? Feel free to share other examples in songs, instrumentals, on albums, or other contexts in comments below. You can also get in touch the contact page, and also visit us on social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. and Song Bar Instagram. Please subscribe, follow and share.
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