Last December, in a very dusty corner of a storeroom at the Royal Opera House, some remarkable old instruments were found. Some were still in their original wooden boxes but, sadly, others had been thrown in with a pile of old iron music stands and other rubbish, and so are quite badly damaged.
Still with its original box is a brass 3 valve G bass trombone made by Besson. Being difficult to date, but likely to be from before the First World War, it may have been used at that time to play the cimbasso part in the Italian opera repertoire (usually played on authentic instruments today, but for many years played either by the tubist or an extra bass trombone player). It is difficult to blow, and it is easy to see how it came to be discarded.
The other instruments are all more interesting and a short digression into Opera House history may help to show why.
In 1892 the old Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden became the Royal Opera. It was the year of the first performance at Covent Garden of Wagner's Ring cycle (conducted by Mahler) and the change of name was no doubt influenced by this as, until then, all performances had been sung in Italian. For this Ring a bass trumpet and Wagner tubas would have been required, and it seems likely that it is these very instruments that have been discovered. They are made by Mahillon: the bass trumpet is in D with four piston valves, and three of the four Wagner tubas were found, one tenor in Bb (the other Bb is missing) and two basses in F. These Wagner tubas are of four in-line piston valve design, and interestingly, were built to be played by trombone players (not horn players as is conventional) as they have leadpipes suitable for the small-bore trombone mouthpieces in use at that time. Along with their maker's name, they are also inscribed "Gold Medal Paris 1878". They blow easily and seem ideally suited to the Wagner tuba repertoire.
The remaining three instruments are all inscribed "R.I.O Covent Garden" (Royal Italian Opera) which therefore dates them to before 1892. They include a matching pair of "tubas" made by Antoine Courtois, one inscribed "Basse Ut" (i.e. in C, a tone above our conventional euphonium) and the other "Contre Basse Mib" (Eb bass tuba). The design of these two "tubas" is pure "euphonium", as we know it. How long before 1892 these two 'tubas' came into use at Covent Garden is interesting in relation to the last instrument found, and another short digression may be helpful in understanding why.
Many of you will probably have read Trevor Herbert's fascinating article entitled A Lament for Sam Hughes - The Last Ophicleidist and seen his photograph taken in 1862 during his days as a Kneller Hall professor. Amongst Sam Hughes' many achievements (including earning £26 a week in 1853 on tour with the Jullien Orchestra in America!) was that of being the ophicleidist of the orchestra of the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden. In a programme for a Promenade Concert at Covent Garden dated October 30th 1877, he appears no less than five times as a featured soloist - to put this in perspective, the cornet soloist, always one of the most popular solo instrumentalists in a concert of that period, appears only three times. Sam Hughes continued to play at Covent Garden to the end of his outstanding career (sometime in the late 1880s) and it seems likely that it is his last (and "lost") ophicleide that is the other instrument that has been found. Also made by Antoine Courtois and having the "R.I.O. Covent Garden" inscription, it has the forward facing vent (a hole of approximately three inches in diameter) in the bell that enables the sound to project forward. This is Sam Hughes' own design, as is the twelfth key which is a feature of the four other ophicleides in existence that can be directly associated with him (see Sam Hughes - Ophicleidist by Stephen J Weston, published by Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments). Made in silver-plated nickel silver, this fascinating instrument has remained in its wooden box for over 100 years and has only required repadding (the new pads made to Sam Hughes' original design by Peter Barton) and some cosmetic restoration to bring this 'sleeping beauty' back to life. These latter three instruments date from the time of the demise of the ophicleide (possibly kept alive slightly longer in London than elsewhere due to talent of its last great exponent) and the introduction of the orchestral bass and tenor tubas (Eb bass and euphonium).
Was Sam Hughes aware of the arrival at Covent Garden of the tubas? Unlike so many ophicleide players he seems never to have been tempted away by the "new" instruments. In February 1994, an illustrated concert was given to The Friends of Covent Garden by the present Royal Opera House trombone and tuba section, at which most of the rediscovered instruments were played.