Composers Datebook®

Of Wagner, Tubas, and Gyorgy Kurtag

Composer's Datebook - Aug. 13, 2023


It's said that Nature abhors a vacuum – and so, apparently, did Richard Wagner, who devised a brass instrument to bridge a gap he perceived between the horns and the trombones in the orchestra of his day. And so the "Wagner tuba" was born, a brass instrument Wagner designed for the 1876 premiere of his cycle of four Ring operas in Bayreuth, Germany, which began on today’s date that year with Das Rheingold – the first opera in the Ring cycle.

Other composers have also scored for Wagner tubas, including Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss, both ardent Wagner fans, and also Igor Stravinsky, who, though certainly not a Wagnerite, did include Wagner tubas in the early versions of some of his famous ballet scores.

Some contemporary composers include parts for the Wagner tuba in their works as well, and a quartet of these instruments appears in a 1994 score the Hungarian composer, György Kurtág wrote for the Berlin Philharmonic and its then music director, Claudio Abbado. Kurtág is noted for his short, epigrammatic and very introspective chamber works, and "Stele" is his first major work for a large, conventional, arranged symphony orchestra.

Music Played in Today's Program

Győrgy Kurtág (b. 1926) Stele, op. 33 SWR Symphony; Michael Gielen, conductor. Hänssler 93001

On This Day


  • 1879 - English composer John Ireland, in Inglewood (Bowdon), Cheshire;


  • 1912 - French opera composer Jules Massenet, age 70, in Paris;


  • 1841 - R. Schumann: "Concert Fantasy" for Piano and Orchestra, at a closed rehearsal of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Felik Mendelssohn, with Clara Schumann (8 and 1/2 months pregnant) as the soloist; This "Concert Fantasy" was revised as the first movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto in a, Op. 54, which Clara Schumann premiered in Dresden on December 4, 1845 at a concert conducted by Ferdinand Hiller;

  • 1876 - First complete performance of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle begins at Bayreuth with a performance of "Das Rheingold" (this opera had received its premiere performance in Munich on Sept. 22, 1869);

  • 1964 - Mahler: Symphony No. 10, arranged for performance by the English musicologist Deryck Cooke, is performed complete for the first time by the London Symphony conducted by Berthold Goldschmidt; With the assistance of Colin and David Matthews, Cooke revised his performing edition of Mahler's Tenth, and this revised version - known as "Cooke II" - was first performed on October 15, 1972, by the New Philharmonia under Wyn Morris;

  • 1973 - Thea Musgrave: Viola Concerto at a London Proms Concert, with her husband, Peter Mark, the soloist;

  • 1976 - Duke Ellington: ballet "Three Black Kings" (posthumously), at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York, by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Duke Ellington Orchestra conducted by Mercer Ellington.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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