Why write a Tuba concerto?

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Why write a Tuba concerto?

The other day, an old friend gave me a recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto (with James Gourley). While the orchestral parts are quite nicely written, and fit in well with the rest of RVWs work, I was astounded at how awful the Tuba sounded. It's not that Gourley is a bad player at all, but that the Tuba is an instrument completely unfit for a virtuoso performance. It sounds like a whale being strangled by a giant squid. How anybody can find beauty in such an instrument is completely beyond me. In an orchestra, of course, the Tuba has its place and time, but alone in solo composition I cannot see the point.
It's not that Vaughan Williams is a bad composer, or that I dislike him. The symphonies are all worth listening to, and even Pilgrim's Progress is decent enough. I just cannot see why he would write this concerto if not some kind of sick practical joke upon the listening public.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

I suppose if you've got friends that play a particular instrument, or you get commissioned, why not? The problem for most of us, as far as the tuba is concerned, is that its sound carries associations that bar us from serious reaction. I recall a friend's son taking it up, and even the father couldn't keep a straight face when his boy fluffed notes during a recital.

It must drive tuba players nuts that the range of emotion and sonority that they can hear in their beloved instrument sounds, to the rest of us, like a portrayal of Falstaff in various stages of a sherry binge.

Holmboe wrote a concerto and an intermezzo for tuba. Skilled pieces but the cadenzas of the concerto sound, to my ears anyway, like nothing more than virtuoso demonstrations of the art of petomanie. Langgaard also wrote a piece that hasn't survived. He sent it to a prospective soloist telling him to burn it if he didn't like it. Not liking it, the prospective soloist complied.

At least composers of tuba concertos can expect to get their works played given the scarcity of such compositions.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Why write a tuba concerto? Quite simply, so that tuba players, like every other instrument player in the orchestra, have concertos to play. Clearly the notion that  any one of the other six billion people on this planet could find beauty in anything beyond your consciuosness, or that every professional tuba player in the world, is utterly in love with the sound of their instrument, and that's why they took it up in the first place, is completely beyond the realms of possibility.

For the life of me, I will never understand why people who have nothing positive or stimulating to contribute to this forum, don't spend their time listening to the music they do love rather than filling these pages with their snide remarks and petulant negativity.


RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Perhaps it could be attributed to Ralph's senility? But it's a fun piece to listen to, and perhaps very skillfully composed, although I am not all that familiar with tuba dynamics.

"Some say it is Napoleon, some Hitler, some Mussolini. For me it is simply Allegro con brio." – Toscanini, speaking of the Eroica

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

I haven't heard the RVW, but I can understand the desire of tuba players to want something to show off their skills and instrument. I would guess that RVW relished the technical challenge, to say nothing of the fee.


RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

AMFriedman wrote:

How anybody can find beauty in such an instrument is completely beyond me. 

That's ok - just don't listen to any tuba concertos and leave them for people who do find beauty in it. (Which reminds me of a Spike Milliganism - "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - get it out with Optrex".)

Anyway, it wasn't just some peculiar aberration on the part of Ralph Vaughan Williams - there are also tuba concertos by Golland, Gregson, Aho, Steptoe, Arutuinian, Hogberg, Lundqvist, John Williams, and Sandstrom.

And any instrument that Gerard Hoffnung thought worth playing well clearly has something going for it.

"Louder! Louder! I can still hear the singers!"

- Richard Strauss to the orchestra, at a rehearsal.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Why write a tuba concerto? Because there is more to the tuba than you think. Since the RVW was written more than 50 years ago the tuba has moved on with a speed that is greater than any other instrument. If you want to hear what the tuba can really do get your hands on a recording called "Salt of the Earth" by a British tuba player called Les Neish. The accompaniment is with brass band but the amount of musicality and technique is astounding.

If you want to know the technical possibilities of the tuba listen to the Oystein Baadsvik recording of "Winter" by Vivaldi. The RVW might be a good starting point but it is just that, the starting point. Get out there and broaden your musical horizons but as with everything you will hear what you want. So if you are the kind of person who wants to hear the tuba as a musical joke I would just ask you to politely decline the next time that someone offers to you the chance listen to a tuba.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Baadsvik's Vivaldi and also his versions of several C20th and C21st tuba concertos can be found on Spotify, along with other tuba works.


If you can you handle it.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Larry Adler used to tell a story about the gestation of RVW's romance for harmonica and orchestra.   Adler suggested some improvements to the first draft, and VW agreed, only to find Adler had more suggestions.   "Very well" said RVW, "I'll rewrite it.  And if you don't like the result, I'll revise it again.  But if you're not satisfied after that, I'll take the whole thing back and rescore it for bass tuba!".       

Peter Street

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

I wrote a tuba concerto for John Griffiths because he was such an amazing musician and could play the tuba like a trumpet or french horn.

Here is a link if you want to listen to it.


RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Well, we've heard of weirder solo instruments, that's for sure.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Tuba concertos are for wimps. What you really want is a concertante piece for FOUR tubas - like Rued Langgaard's Eleventh Symphony (which might get an airing at a certain high-profile music festival this summer...).

Look out for a fierce argument in Langgaard's favour in the June issue of Gramophone. Some of his symphonies are truly masterworks; the Eleventh is only six minutes in length, perhaps one of his more eccentric, but extremely powerful when approached with the right mindset.

I'll be on hand to bore you all about Langgaard for the next year, having just been to Denmark to research/explore his life.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Andrew Mellor wrote:

Look out for a fierce argument in Langgaard's favour in the June issue of Gramophone. Some of his symphonies are truly masterworks; the Eleventh is only six minutes in length, perhaps one of his more eccentric, but extremely powerful when approached with the right mindset.

I look forward to it. Personally, I can't make up my mind whether Langgaard's the biggest clown since Icarus or there's something really there. Perhaps 'right mindset' is the key. Antikrist's libretto reminds me of a classic '60s stoners' conversation, all non-sequitors and banalities. Maybe a spliff of Maui Wowee would help.

Or else we need an interpreter, and you just might be the person. Malcolm MacDonald has done a wonderful job of explaining Brian (with whom Langgaard's often linked) to us. Take it away, Andrew.

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Maybe, Langgaard's Symphonies need the "right mindset" to approach and, eventually, appreciate them, due to their sometimes bizarre or unusual or stressful orchestration (four tubas on concertante role).

However, his piano and chamber music, the String Quartets in particular (Dacapo has just now initiated a SACD new series), are more accessible and worth exploring.


RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

I'm sorry but I tried with Langaard, a Rozhdestvensky disc, but I could not enter his "mindworld" and the disc, eventually, went off to musicmagpie.

It should have been the sort of music I like:-(

RE: Why write a Tuba concerto?

Well, tagalie, you might well regret asking me to 'take it away', as you'd be here until Christmas!

I can say, though, that Langgaard has been a huge discovery for me and I set out my reasons why in the upcoming Gramophone piece. What it all boils down to is his skill and the fact that he simply had to say what he said (musically, I mean). When you look into the context of how Denmark treated him, you realise why the music has such force but can, occasionally, be erratic.

I seem to disagree with many other Langgaard fans about which of his works are the masterpieces and which are the misfires. With reference to Parla's comment, you certainly don't need the "right mindset" to appreciate what a unique and brilliant achievement the Fourth Symphony is, or even the choral songs (including Hostfuglen - a simple demonstration of exceptional originality and supreme craftsmanship).

There are, of the sixteen symphonies, a handful which were produced under strained personal circumstances (like the Eleventh) and can possibly mark RL out as a musical crank; that he was not, just listen to the Second Symphony. I think that piece, with its predecessor, proves that RL had no problems in the orchestration department. Subsequently, a piece like "The End of Time" shows how he moved orchestration forward (writing Adams five decades before Adams).

Gramophone will carry a review of the Nightingale Quartet's 'volume 1' of the RL complete works for string quartet in the June issue, the same issue as the Icons piece on him. I'll be blogging furiously around that time, too, leading up to that performance of the Eleventh at a 'high profile summer music festival' I alluded to.

I certainly agree with Parla, however, in relation to the piano works - though there's an Ivesian quality to these that still has you wondering what on earth RL was on about. A quick survey of his life, though, explains much.

Sorry for twisting a conversation about tuba concertos onto Rued Langgaard...


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