Back from Oblivion

John Barns
3MBS FM Libretto (Australia)

When composers such as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Verdi and Wagner wrote important parts for an instrument, one wonders why it would have passed so quickly into oblivion? Such was the fate which befell the ophicleide, patented by the Frenchman Jean Hilaire Asté in 1821. Its part in orchestral compositions these days is usually assigned to the tuba, not always the most felicitous of arrangements.

The ophicleide was, to some extent, an offshoot of that ungainly instrument, the serpent, and produces sounds somewhere in between a horn and a trombone. It certainly possesses a lighter and less lugubrious aural texture than the tuba. In the right hands it is capable of producing quite beautiful sounds and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Nick Byrne does just that, ably accompanied by the skilled David Miller.


The music ranges from robust performances of Handel’s O Ruddier than the Cherry and works by two obscure 19th century composers, Dieudonné Dagnelies and Kaspar Kummer (both virtuoso pieces, brilliantly played), to the gentler Ich liebe dich by Grieg and Elgar’s Romance. The contemporary English composer Simon Proctor is obviously doing his bit to restore the ophicleide to some degree of prominence; the Adagio from his Ophicleide Concerto makes sensuously pleasant listening.

Melba is to be congratulated on resurrecting this unjustly neglected instrument and in a beautifully engineered recording.