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At the Fleisher Collection I’m on an orchestra listserv and the ophicleide came up for discussion. (This is what happens on orchestra listservs.) Anyway, it’s a brass instrument in the bass/baritone range that has been displaced by the tuba, and I was arguing for its continued use, at least in the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. The two tuba parts in it—unusual enough—Berlioz actually wrote for two ophicleides, and one ought to cut The Father of Orchestration some slack, I was thinking.

True, it’s tough to find the instrument nowadays, let alone a person to play it well, but if classical music was easy, anybody could do it and hey, I heard the Pottstown Symphony perform it last year with Jay Krush—an expert in historical brass performance—playing the 1st tuba part on ophicleide, and it was a revelation.

It was difficult to explain the very real effect the ophicleide had from within and on the brass section, but, contra an opinion someone had that it should never be used in a modern orchestra, I blustered that I’d write for one in a New York minute (blustering being something else that happens on orchestra listservs). I wrote, “The sound of the ophicleide is hard to describe: not quite piercing, not quite rough, not quite raw, but some of all that.”

That was OK but I was describing by negatives. I was thinking I could do better when the online Broad Street Review arrived with Ted K. Hechtman’s memorial to Levi Stubbs: “A voice that was smooth and pleading and as full of gravel as a quarry all at the same time.” (The BSR has since published my letter, a shorter version of this post.)

StubbsI thought, man, that’s the ophicleide!, and sent that line over to the listserv as the encapsulation of what I was trying to say. Whatever you may think about an inside-baseball discussion on obscure instruments (or whatever you may think of pop music being brought into an orchestral discussion), let me tell you: Stubbs (left) yawping “Bernadette” after that measure of silence shocks and thrills like the “March to the Scaffold” in Symphonie fantastique, the ophicleide caterwauling from the crowd, insanely growling and prodding and urging and threatening, almost but never quite, never ever, losing control.

So if you’re ever wondering what an ophicleide sounds like, just think of Levi Stubbs, and think of Bernadette, and that’ll get you there.

Thank you, Mr. Hechtman, and thank you, Messrs. Berlioz and Stubbs.

(In a New York minute, I’m telling you.)

But how can they control you, Bernadette, when they cannot control themselves, Bernadette?

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