Contrabass Ophicleide

OphicleidesThe ophicleide is a keyed brass musical instrument similar to the tuba. It is a conical-bore keyed instrument belonging to the bugle family and has a similar shape to the sudrophone.

The instrument’s name comes from the Greek word ophis “serpent” + kleis “keys”, since it was conceived of as a serpent with keys. Like the serpent, some found it difficult to play, and early twentieth century musicians felt it had a somewhat unpredictable sound, leading to the doggerel:

“The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent.”


The bass ophicleide was first scored for in the opera Olimpie by Gaspare Spontini in 1819. Other famous works which employ it include Felix Mendelssohn’s Elias and Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally scored for English Bass Horn), as well as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which was originally scored to include both an ophicleide and a serpent. The instrument was standard in French mid-19th century serious operas by Meyerbeer, Halevy, and Auber, as well as English operas by Michael Balfe, Vincent Wallace, and others. Verdi and Wagner also composed for the ophicleide as did Sir Arthur Sullivan in his Overture Di Ballo (which, like Wagner’s Rienzi, also has an additional part for serpent).

Tony George demonstrates the Wessex Ophicleide

Sydney Ophicleide Quartet

This instrument reminds me of the french horn. Very smooth and rich.


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