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ophicleide

aerophone

Look carefully and you will find several links between the mysterious ophicleide and Belgium. Firstly, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Let us explain. After this bloody episode, the victorious troops and their allied leaders marched proudly to Paris led by military bands. During the march, the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia noticed one particular bandsman from an English regiment. The Grand Duke was impressed by the virtuosity of this musician on the keyed bugle, a clarion with tone holes covered by keys, which was fashionable at the time in England. The musician's name was John Distin, and Constantine asked him for a copy of the instrument in question. The French instrument maker Jean-Hilaire Asté, aka Halary, was sought for the task. Halary executed this commission, continued his research and in 1817 presented a family of three instruments based on the same principle. He baptised them with the unlikely names of "clavitube" for the soprano instrument replacing the keyed bugle, "quinti-clave" for the intermediate alto register, and "ophicleide" for the bass instrument. In 1821, he filed a patent for his invention. Before long, ophicleide became the generic term for all three offspring.

From an etymological point of view, the term "ophicleide" derives from the Greek ophis, meaning serpent, and kleis, meaning key. The instrument is a serpent in its straightened form endowed with keys. It has all the hallmarks of a hybrid: made of metal, played with a mouthpiece similar to that of a serpent but with keys covering the tone holes. Whilst perfecting his bass clarinet and using certain characteristics of the ophicleide, Adolphe Sax - another link with Belgium - stumbled upon the idea for a new instrument, which he baptised the saxophone. His first bass saxophone, as illustrated in its patent of 1846, bears a distinct resemblance to the ophicleide. Berlioz initially described the saxophone as an ophicléide à bec (ophicleide with a beak).

Above all, the ophicleide is the evolutionary link between the serpent and the tuba. Endowed with pistons, the ophicleide is transformed into a tuba or, following the improvements made by Sax - yes, him again - a bass saxhorn. Despite the growing popularity of valved instruments, the ophicleide was played in numerous orchestras and even in church until the end of the 19th century. Although Berlioz often used it to great effect, most notably in his Symphonie fantastique, he had harsh words to say about the ophicleide: "Nothing is more vulgar, I would even say more monstrous and the least appropriate to harmonise with the rest of the orchestra than these more or less rapid passages written in the form of solos for the middle register of the ophicleide in several modern operas: it's like a bull that having escaped the confines of the stable comes to frolic in the middle of a living room." Dixit Hector!

In the 21st century, the ophicleide is once again appearing in period instrument ensembles. Although it lacks the consistent timbre of the saxhorn, it's clear that this instrument is particularly agile and endowed with a beautiful sound quality. But like all instruments, it requires a good ear to play it correctly...

Lastly, for Tintin fans, there is another link with Belgium: in The Shooting Star Hergé raised the ophicleide to the status of swearword in the rich vocabulary of colourful insults uttered by his character Captain Haddock.

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Images: 
bass ophicleide, Labbaye, Paris, around 1845, mim inv. 1251
valved ophicleide, Bachmann & Mahillon, Brussels, around 1840, mim, 1282
F. Jeanningros, Ophicleide player, Paris, 2nd half of the 19th. C., mim
French patent of 1846 by Adolphe Sax, INPI Archives, Paris