1902 Encyclopedia > Ophicleide


OPHICLEIDE is a brass musical instrument with keys. It belongs to that class of instruments in which the column of air is set in vibration by a trembling of the lips applied to the edge of a hemispherical cup at the extremity of the tube, called the " embouchure." The lips vibrate from the action of the breath and play the part of reeds ; the degree of pressure of the embouchure determines the rapidity of their vibration, on which, concurrently with the length of the tube, depends the pitch, or relative posi-tion, of the sound produced.

The name "ophicleide" is compounded of two Greek words, ____, serpent, and _____, keys,—the instrument owing, in fact, its origin to the appli-cation of keys to the serpent, a wind instrument the invention of which is generally attributed to Edme Guillaume, canon of Auxerre, somewhere about 1590. He contrived it to serve as a bass to the zinken, instruments now entirely obsolete.

The serpent, represented by fig. 1, is composed of two pieces of wood, hollowed out and cut to the desired contour. They are joined together by gluing so as to form a tube, and are bound with leather to ensure solid-ity. The upper extremity ends with a bent brass tube or crook, to which the mouthpiece is applied. The tube is pierced laterally with six holes, the first three of which are covered by three fingers of the right hand, and the others by the corresponding fingers of the left hand. When all the holes are thus closed the instrument will produce the following sounds, of which the first is funda-mental and the rest are harmonics:—
1234 5678

The instrumentalist fills up the gaps in the diatonic or natural scale by the successive opening of the lateral holes after the manner practised in fingering the flute. The serpent remained in its primitive form for nearly two centuries, and then only it was attempted to improve it by adding keys. From the time of its origin it had served principally as an accompaniment to the liturgical chanting, but towards the middle of the 18th century it began to be employed as a bass for military music, and, notwithstanding its numerous imperfections, it was but slowly given up.

Fig. 2 represents a curious serpent made, about 1830, by L. Embach and Co., Amsterdam. The six lateral holes are here placed more rationally along the tube, but, being beyond the reach of the fingers, they are covered by open keys, besides which the instrument also bears six closed keys for the following tones :—

The primitive form of the serpent was most inconvenient, and it was a musician named Regibo, belonging to the orchestra of the church of St Pierre at Lille, who, about 1780, first thought of giving it the shape of a bassoon (Gerber, Lexicon der Tonkiinstler, Leipsic, 1790). The merit of this innovation was rapidly recognized in England and Germany. Still to follow Gerber (Lexicon, 1812), one Frichot, who was established in London, published in 1800 a description of an instrument, entirely of brass, manu-factured by J. Astor, which he claimed as his invention, calling it the basshorn, but which was no other in principle than the new serpent of Regibo. It only made its way to France and Belgium after the passage of the allied armies in 1815. We here reproduce (fig. 3) the drawing of a wooden serpent with bell and mouthpiece of brass, after a scale published by B. Schott of Mainz, in 1816. The English brass basshorn was designated on the Continent the English or the Bussian basshorn, the "serpent anglais," or the " basson russe." Under this last name all instruments of the form, whether of wood or brass, were later on confounded in France and Bel-gium. The " bas-son russe" re-mained in great vogue until the appearance of the ophicleide, to dis-appear with it in the complete re-volution brought about by the in-vention of pistons.

The invention of the ophicleide is generally but falsely attributed to Alexandre Frichot, a professor of music at Lisieux, department of Calvados, France. The instru-ment, which the inventor called " basse-trompette," was approved of as early as 13th November 1806 by a com-mission composed of professors of the Paris Conservatoire, but the patent bears the date 31st December 1810. The " basse-trompette," which Frichot in his specification had at first, in imitation of the English basshorn, called "basse cor," was, like the English instrument, entirely of brass, and had, like it, six holes; it only differed in a more favourable disposition brought about by the curvings of the tube, and by the application of four crooks which permitted the instrument to be tuned " in C low pitch and C high pitch for military bands, in CJ for churches, and in D for concert use." The close relationship between the two instruments suggests the question whether this was the Frichot who worked with Astor in London in 1800.

The first idea of adding keys to instruments with cupped mouthpieces, unprovided with lateral holes, with the aim of filling up some of the gaps between the notes of the harmonic scale, goes back, according to Gerber (Lexicon of 1790), to Kolbel, a hornplayer in the Bussian imperial band about 1754. Weidinger, trumpeter in the Austrian imperial band, improved upon this first attempt, and applied it in 1800 to the trumpet. But the honour be-longs to Joseph Halliday, bandmaster of the Cavan militia, of being the first to conceive, in 1810, the disposition of a certain number of keys along the tube, setting out from its lower extremity, with the idea of producing by their successive or simultaneous opening a chromatic scale throughout the extent of the instrument. The bugle-horn was the object of his reform; the only scale of which, he says, in the preamble of his patent, " until my invention


contained but five tones, viz.
My improvements on that instrument are five keys, to be used by the performer according to the annexed scale, which, with its five original notes, render it capable of pro-ducing twenty-five separate tones in regular progression." Fig. 4 represents the keyed bugle of Joseph Halliday.

It was not until 1815 that the use of the new instru-ment spread upon the Continent. We find in the account-books of a Belgian maker, Tuerlinckx of Mechlin, that his first supply of a bugle-horn bears the date of 25th March 1815, and it was made "aen den Heer Muldener, lieutenant in het régiment duc d'York."
The acoustic principle inaugurated by Halliday consisted in binding together by chromatic degrees
the second and third harmonics
He attained it, as we have just seen, by the help
of five keys. The principle once discovered, it became easy to extend it to instruments of the largest size, of which the com-pass, like the "basson russe," began at the lowest sound. It
was simply necessary to bind the fundamental
by a larger number
to the next harmonic sound

of keys. This was done in 1817 by Jean Hilaire Asté, known as Halary, a professor of music and instrument-maker at Paris. We find the description of the instruments for which he sought a patent in the Sap-port de l'Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France, meeting of 19th July 1817. These instruments were three in number:—(1) the clavi-tube, a keyed trumpet; (2) the quinti-tube, or quinti-clave ; (3) the ophicleide, a keyed serpent. The clavi-tube was no other than the bugle-horn slightly modified in some details of construction, and reproduced in the different tonalities Ab, F, Eb, D, C, Bb, A, and Ab. The quinti-tube had nearly the form of a bassoon, and was, in the first instance, armed with eight keys,
and constructed in two tonalities, F and Eb. This was the instrument afterwards named "alto ophicleide." The ophicleide, of which we reproduce a drawing (fig. 5), had the same form as the quinti-tube. It was at first ad-justed with nine or ten keys, and the number was carried on to twelve,—each key to give a semitone (additional patent of 16th August 1822). The ophicleide or bass of the harmony was made in C and in Bb, the contra-bass in F and in Eb.
It is certain that from the point of view of j,IQ ^~_Q )hi0i vie
invention Halary's labours had only secondary ' ^ jraiâr
importance ; but, if the principle of keyed chro- r^ '
matic instruments with cupped mouthpiece goes back to Halliday, it was Halary's merit to know how to take advantage of the prin-ciple in extending it to instruments of diverse tonalities, in group-ing them in one single family, that of the bugles, in so complete a manner that the improvements of modern manufacture have not widened its limits either in the grave or the acute direction. Keyed chromatic wind instruments made their way rapidly ; to their in-troduction into military full or brass bands we can date the regenera-tion of military music. After pistons had been invented some forty years, instruments with keys could still reckon their partisans.

Now these have utterly disappeared and pistons or rotary cylinders-remain absolute masters of the situation.

The invention of the piston is due to Stoelzel, a Silesian, and Bliimel of Waldenburg (patent of 12th April 1818). It was first signalized by G. B. Bierey, leader of the National Theatre of Breslau, in No. 18 of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (Leipsic, 1815). The inventors first applied their discovery to the horn, trumpet, and trombone, and this application consisted of only two pistons, or "ventile," as they called them. We have seen up to this point that chromatic intervals were produced in instruments with cupped mouthpiece by shortenings of the tube by means of lateral openings. It is evident that a column of air so cut off must be very inferior-in sonorousness to one vibrating from the mouthpiece to the ex-tremity of the bell; this has been the capital defect of keyed instru-ments. Stoelzel and Bliimel proceeded in contrary fashion : they produced chromatic intervals by lengthening the tube, just as in the trombone with slides. They introduced contrivances the move-ment of which permitted an instantaneous communication between, the principal tube and two additional tubes, lowering the instru-ment respectively a tone and a half-tone, or by their simultaneous-employment one tone and a half. As these combinations did not suffice to produce a complete chromatic scale, a third piston with an, additional tube of a tone and a half was soon afterwards added by the inventors.

Suppose an instrument giving without pistons the harmonics

by the employment of the second piston those sounds become

by the first,

by the third, or union of the first and second,

by the union of the second and third,
— %^ "
by the union of the first and third,
Here is the whole theory of the fingering of these instruments à pistons, of which the compass downwards is only bounded by the first harmonic.
A serious defect exists, however, in these piston instruments,—the want of truth of intonation whenever a note is produced by more than one piston. Let us take, for ex-
This note

by joining all three pistons,
ample, the low G i
is produced, as we have just seen, by the union of the first and third pistons ; in employing the first piston the pitch of the instrument is lowered a major second, and to produce the lowering to a fourth (two tones and a half) a further lowering of a minor third (one tone and a half) is necessary. Now the additional pipe to produce this lowering from C is neces-sarily proportionately shorter than what is required for a pipe already lowered a tone by the employment of the first piston. It there-fore results, as will be seen from this special case, that all notes produced by several pistons at one time are too high in pitch.
The invention of Stoelzel and Bliimel, like all new ideas, was not accepted without opposition; notwithstanding its crushing superiority it had a lively struggle to sustain, and it is only within the last thirty years that the system of keys has been finally superseded by pistons. We close this article with the
curious representation (fig. 6) of an ophicleide with pistons manufac-
tured about 1836 by C. Mahillon of Brussels, then at the beginning
of his career. • (V. M.)


The report of the Académie des Beaux-Arts on the subject of this invention shows a strange misconception of it, which it is interesting to recall. "As to the two instruments which M. Halary designs under the names of ' quinti-clave ' and ' ophicleide, ' they bear a great resemblance to those submitted to the Academy in the sitting of the 11th of March 1811 by M. Dumas, which he designed under the names of 'basse et contrebasse guerrières.' . . . The opinion of our commission on the quinti-clave and ophicleide is that M. Halary can only claim the merit of an improvement and not that of an entire invention ; still, for an equitable judgment on this point, we should compare the one with the other, and this our commission cannot do, not having the instruments of M. Dumas at our disposal." This is what the commission ought to have had, but it would have sufficed had they referred to the report of the sittings of 6th and 8th April, in which it is clearly explained that the instruments presented by M. Dumas were bass clarinets (Moniteur Universel of 19th April 1811).
We designedly omit the employment of the word "brass" to qualify these instruments. The substance which determines the form of a column of air is demonstrably indifferent for the timbre or quality of tone so long as the sides of the tubes are equally elastic and rigid.

The above article was written by: Victor Mahillon.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries