The Curmudgeon Returns

It's been over a year now since I wrote the article “A Curmudgeon's Confessions” questioning some of the apparent weaknesses of the euphonium. Reactions to that article indicate it caused some people to think even though several major names in the Euphonium world indicated they were not pleased with what I wrote.

At the ITEC (International Tuba Euphonium Congress) in Denver, Colorado, USA this passed June we saw several Euphonium ensembles, that is to say no tubas; they sounded good and particularly the euphonium ensemble from the Royal Northern Collage of Music in Manchester, England, under the leadership of euphonium giant Steven Mead, sounded very good. As well as simply playing well and being well prepared, they sounded good because they added baritones to their ensemble and thus added a tone color variety to their concert. That was a very smart decision but I can't help asking myself if perhaps there is still more that could be done to enrich the timbre spectrum.

The euphonium is blessed with a large number of virtuoso players, and further, among these virtuosos are a few truly world class soloists that are at an equal level of performance with the greatest instrumentalists in the world; they would ask, “So what's the problem?” It seems that the principal difference between the euphonium and tuba communities is that euphoniumists have less interest in tone variation than tubists. The euphoniumists would respond to that by pointing out the euphonium has such a beautiful sound, that they see no reason to change it? There are, however, other beautiful sounds available on very similar instruments to the euphonium and there is no question that the euphoniumist's sonic vocabulary and therefore musical power could be richly enhanced if they would explore some of those other possibilities.

The Baritone

The baritone, an instrument much like the euphonium but with a smaller bore and therefore a more condensed sound, offers a logical and attractive change of timbre; it's a beautiful sounding instrument but with a very distinct tone quality. A good euphoniumist could become just as good on the baritone in a short period of time and broaden his timbre palette enormously.

The Bass Trumpet

The bass trumpet is sadly an infrequently used instrument. This is particularly sad because the bass trumpet is a wonderful instrument and has far more potential than we ordinarily attribute it; bass trumpet would be a natural instrument for a euphoniumist to play. Because the bass trumpet it is a cylindrical instrument it would take some adjusting for a euphoniumist to become comfortable, particularly because of the greater air pressure required, but after that time of adjustment it could develop as an effective and powerful instrument for both solo and ensemble. With just a little imagination one can envision the potential of the bass trumpet, yet it mysteriously seems to be ignored and even avoided by those who are most qualified to take advantage of that potential.

The Tenor Horn

Perhaps the most fascinating instrument in the list of possible doubles is the alto horn; in Great Brittan it's called “Tenor Horn”. Depending on where you live and your musical environment it has been called alto horn, tenor horn, althorn, Eb peck horn and alto tuba. Because it is most used in the brass band world and called “Tenor Horn” I will refer to it as that in this article although it is not a tenor instrument but clearly an alto instrument.

The tenor horn, an instrument in Eb, the same length of tubing as the alto trombone, is probably the most ergonomically compatible brass instrument we have, it doesn't require large volumes of air like the euphonium or the tuba, nor is it a particularly high or low instrument, in other words the physical demands are not extreme. Yet it is hardly used outside of the brass band. Why? Most tenor trombone players double on alto trombone at some time in their careers and many play it frequently. Why haven't there been any euphoniumists with the vision to try that same natural double on the tenor horn? The reasons are abundant and chronically available: “the mouthpiece doesn't fit, it's out of tune, it just doesn't work,” etc. Well, it works for trombonists changing to alto trombone and I'm amazed that there seems to have never been an euphoniumist who had the artistic curiosity or the mechanical vision to make the few necessary modifications to pursue this wonderful possibility. Again, why?

Historically, the euphonium, like the tuba, is a young instrument and like tuba its evolution is very likely to continue. Hopefully this evolution in progress will inspire our unique and exceptional tuba/euphonium community to explore the many possibilities that are available; we have nothing to loose and much to gain.

October 22, 2006, Tokyo

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