The origins of the tuba are recorded in the Icelandic legends recorded by Snorri Eyraksson. In particular, Keflavik’s Saga recounts the tale of Oompa, who was first cousin, twice-removed to Heimdal, guardian of the rainbow bridge into Asgard, and who created the first tuba.
Oompa loved a mortal named Nils, who played timpani in the Asgard Philhamonic. Unfortunately, Nils incurred the wrath of the orchestra’s conductor, a frost-giant called Malphonium. The giant overheard Nils telling another member of the percussion section that Malphonium was a talentless troll who didn’t know a downbeat from a dragon’s fart. The conductor slashed at Nils with his baton, which was made of pure diamond, and Nils was sliced completely in half.
When Oompa heard of the altercation, she flew to the defense of her lover, but not even a goddess can repair a bisected mortal. Oompa was only able to save the entrails of her lover, so had his intestines bronzed and would play low dirges on the tubing. The word tubing was eventually shorted to tuba by invading Saxons.
Development of the instrument
Early tubas had no valves, and pitch was controlled entirely with the lips. Tuba players developed such highly controlled lip muscles that they became much sought-after companions for the female aristocracy, who prized them on their kissing ability. The defection of tuba players to the boudoirs of the nobility caused a sharp decline in the number of active players, and knowledge of the instrument almost died out.
The modern tuba came into being with the invention of the valve, by Ingeborg Valve, Imperial Tubawright to King Gustav MCMLVII of Sweden. Initially the valve was of little use, as it either directed the player’s breath through the tuba or out into the open air, either producing a sound or not. The so-called binary tuba was ignored until rediscovered by British mathematician Alan Turing who introduced the concept of binary numbers into electronic computing.
The use of valves for controlling pitch was discovered accidentally by Ingeborg’s assistant Lars, who had spilled beer on his desk, binding two design sketches together. When he built the thing, he discovered the pressing the valve routed air through an entirely new set of pipes and changed the tone.
Following this discovery was a period known as the Valve Wars. Instrument makers competed to see how many values they could attach to an instrument, culminating in the Heliconus Maximus, a tuba with 27 valves and requiring six players to control it. While effective in symphonic environments, it proved unwieldy in marching bands.
Additional tuba facts
New Orleans has more tubas per capita than any city in the world except for KleinstadtAmRhein, a small town in Bavaria where the were municipal law requires every citizen to carry and be proficient in the tuba as part of their civil defense strategy.
Sigfried Pickering holds the Guinness world record for lowest note played on a tuba (F# log 2) at 0.027 Hz. He died after playing this note in a public park in Ontario and was immediately pecked to death by a flock of Canada geese.
All brass instruments are part of the tuba family: the baritone originally called the tenor tuba, the trumpet was known as the alto tuba. What we now call the trombone was first referred to as the tuba d’amore.
The sousaphone was first put to use as a communication device. The originally message transmitted by John Phillips Sousa to his assistant Benson was “Come quickly, I think I have a hernia in my cheeks.”