'You play what?': The euphonium's identity crisis
One of the strangest experiences of my life took place when I was a junior in high school. I needed to have my wisdom teeth removed, and as I lay in the surgeon's chair, the nurses made light conversation while they prepped everything. I was wearing my high school marching band shirt, and as I was hooked up to the laughing gas, an assistant asked what instrument I played.
"Oh, no. This is going to take some explaining," I thought.
I told them that I played the euphonium. Unsurprisingly, they had no idea what that was. So, while I slowly breathed in nitrous oxide, I attempted to fit in as many descriptions as possible: "It's like a baby tuba. It sounds like a trombone. But it's mellow like a French horn!" Needless to say, I passed out before I could make them understand.
I should have just said I played the trumpet.
So what is it?
The name "euphonium" is derived from the ancient Greek word euphōnos, which means "sweet sounding." Developed in the 19th century, it is the same shape as a tuba, but smaller, with less coiled brass tubing.
It is a conical bore instrument, which means that the brass tube is like a slowly expanding funnel, with the narrowest point at the mouthpiece and the widest point at the bell. This cone-shaped tube causes the euphonium's sound to be mellower than the straight-tubed, cylindrical-bored trombone, although they play in the same range.
The euphonium's traditional home is the British brass band. These brass ensembles were often made up of blue-collar men, and factories organized their own bands as family-friendly working-class entertainment. Union brass bands would compete against each other for bragging rights, and no group could even think to show up without a star euphonium player. When the euphonium wasn't dazzling center stage with blazing chromatic runs and acrobatic leaps, it was singing out a countermelody, duetting with the trumpet. As families emigrated to the United States and formed new mining towns or joined new factories, the brass bands followed.
In these close-knit working communities, everyone knew what a euphonium was. So how did we get to the point where even fellow musicians aren't sure what it is?
To understand why the euphonium hasn't gained greater recognition, one must look to the orchestra, the "establishment" in the musical world. The orchestra has traditionally excluded two "band" instruments from its ranks: the saxophone and the euphonium.
Interestingly enough, these instruments both have Adolphe Sax to thank for their invention.*
Some scholars argue that these instruments are too young, as they were invented after Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Beethoven composed the pillars of orchestral music, so they missed the opportunity to become traditional instruments in an ensemble resistant to change. Others argue that they sounded too similar to instruments already in the ensemble and that orchestras, always at the mercy of their benefactors, couldn't make a good case for hiring the newcomers.
Additionally, composers needed actually to write the instruments into their scores, and the trend just didn't catch on. As a result, relatively few orchestral works include saxophone or euphonium.
It certainly does not help that the euphonium has siblings that look and sound similar. One might call the baritone its fraternal twin. They are hard to tell apart, but the baritone is a cylindrical-bore instrument, giving it a brighter tone, closer to the trombone. Its bell also is taller, and the brass tube that curls up to make the horn is narrower. On paper, they play the same notes, and composers (and even band directors) use the names interchangeably.
From there, the euphonium's siblings include the Wagner tuba, the tenor/alto horn, saxhorn, and the double-belled euphonium of The Music Man fame. With so many variations appearing in the 19th century, one can understand why perhaps it was difficult to keep up and to choose a standard.
The euphonium today
The euphonium has found a permanent home in the concert band. There, its role is usually to provide harmony, often as the leader of the tenor line. The euphonium also is a common solo instrument. Its mellow tone makes the euphonium a good team player, and band composers find lots of places to incorporate the sort of inoffensive brass sound with woodwind sections.
Even with this prominent role in the band, the euphonium is relatively unknown because many people, even fellow musicians, do not actually have a great understanding of concert bands. And it's not their fault — concert bands have never been held in the same esteem as the orchestra, which many people think of as the prime example of "high art."
The concert band, like the euphonium, is simply less steeped in centuries of tradition and prestige, and is instead concerned with the joy of music making for every person. The result is a robust U.S. educational band system, but few professional opportunities. U.S. armed-forces bands make up the majority of professional (paid) wind ensembles, and euphoniums often join for life, because of and contributing to the scarcity of seats.
"When I was a sophomore doing my undergrad at Eastman, Brian Bowman retired, and there it was: the first open seat in years," says Arthur Haecker, the trombone and euphonium professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. "Of course I auditioned, but guys wait forever for one of these auditions."
Once again, it has been years since a seat opened, and many people, like Haecker, are simply at the unfortunate mercy of timing.
Haecker proceeded to earn his master's and doctorate degrees in trombone performance, and has played orchestral trombone professionally. The switch to trombone is not uncommon for a euphonium player. If euphonium students want to continue in performance studies, it is a good idea to expand their skills to another instrument — often trombone or tuba. There, they might audition for orchestra seats or find more gig opportunities.
However, some euphonium players decide to go out on their own to establish a solo career. There are concertos in both orchestra and band repertoire for the euphonium. As a soloist, players can commission works from composers to premiere and add to the repertoire. They might teach young students or travel to give clinics and promote the instrument.
The combination of a robust high school band system and limited professional bands results in a large number of amateur bands at all levels. Many of today's adult euphonium players play in these bands, on a volunteer basis, simply for the joy of continued music making. It is in many ways the continued spirit of those British factory brass bands.
Today, the euphonium and the concert band have a symbiotic relationship. When one grows in popularity, so does the other. If one struggles to find success, they will both be in trouble. But for now, young euphonium players across the world should feel confident that they have an artistic home.
* Scholars are divided on whether to credit Sax with the development of the euphonium. He invented the piston-valved saxhorns, which were popular in regimental brass bands. Ferdinand Sommer invented the euphonion, which used the piston valve invention and which some scholars credit as the first real euphonium.
Ella Harpstead is a former classical intern for American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio who is majoring in music composition at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. She's also the pep band director and a leader of Musika Nova, and has served as euphonium section leader in the St. Olaf Band and as a director of the school's Valhalla Band.