Each December, tuba players from around the world gather at the foot of the Christmas tree in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza for the annual celebration of Tuba Christmas. The air reverberates with the rich and stately harmony of hundreds of tuba, euphonium, baritone, and sousaphone players performing a specially arranged repertoire of Christmas carols and seasonal melodies.
While Tuba Christmas shines a spotlight on a superbly expressive and virtuosic instrument often hidden in the back of an orchestra or band, it was originally conceived as a tribute to William J. Bell, who is often referred to as the father of American tuba playing. Born on Christmas Day in 1902, Bell was an exceptional performer, pedagogue, and mentor who established the benchmark for modern standards of tuba playing in the United States.
A tuba-related Christmas gift came early to The Met this year when a singular instrument, dubbed the "Bellophone," was generously donated to the Museum by Eli Newberger (a former student of Bell) and his wife, Carolyn. Bell commissioned the H. N. White Company to produce this combined tuba-baritone in 1930. Through this feat of engineering and construction, Bell sought one brass instrument capable of playing the wide range called for in the tuba and low brass parts of orchestral and band repertoire. Typically players would need to switch between bass tubas and tenor tubas or baritones built in a variety of keys and sizes to handle these parts, but the Bellophone alleviated the need for a tuba player to have several instruments at hand during a performance.
To achieve this, the instrument was built to function both as a tuba and as a baritone. It has two separate bells but a shared set of four Périnet valves, as well as a separate rotary valve that directs air into either the baritone or tuba section of the instrument. Of the two mouthpiece receivers, one serves both instruments and leads to the rotary change valve, while the other allows the tuba to be played independently; thus, two players can play the instrument simultaneously. Bell performed on this Bellophone with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Band of America, and the Goldman Band.
The Bellophone will be featured in the newly refurbished galleries of the Department of Musical Instruments, which will reopen throughout 2017 and 2018.
Tuba Christmas in New York City will take place this year on Sunday, December 11, at 3:30 pm at the Rink at Rockefeller Center.
Of Note: "Leader of the Band" (February 26, 2015)