It’s not just modern composers who experiment with the instruments that play their compositions. Many earlier composers did too, especially when looking for that perfect sound to express their imagination. This guide explains some of the more unique orchestral instruments you might see and hear from time to time in a symphony orchestra.
Not really a tuba at all, this brass instrument is played by horn players using a horn mouthpiece. Fiendishly difficult to play, Wagner tuben (plural) were devised by the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner, who wanted a brass instrument for his operas that would bridge the sound gap between horns and trombones. Wagner tuben are also found in Anton Bruckner’s last three symphonies, where their plaintive tone is featured in solemn four-part harmony.
More commonly found in bands, composer Gustav Mahler loved to include the Eb clarinet’s high-pitched, penetrating sound in his orchestral music. The tiny instrument’s attention-getting high pitches and shrieks feature prominently in all of the composer’s nine symphonies, by turns startling, comic, and surprisingly melodic.
The lowest member of the bassoon family, the “contra,” as it’s known, is pitched an octave below the bassoon. Its serpentine coils, doubled up on themselves four times, add a deep rumbling bass line to the woodwind section, a presence that is more often felt than heard. Unraveled, the contra would stretch nearly 16 feet in length! Listen for its impressive sound in Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del grazioso, which features a contra solo.
Sometimes orchestras are asked to imitate the sound of natural phenomena. The wind machine, played by percussionists, is a simple and ingenious construction consisting of a framework covered with cloth, which is rotated so that the cloth rubs against wood or cardboard. Voilá: instant hurricane. In Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, the wind machine plays full tilt through the storm scene.
Looking like a small upright piano, the celesta is actually a hybrid of sorts between piano and percussion: the tone is produced by striking steel bars with hammers, like a glockenspiel—but the hammers are connected to a keyboard, played piano-fashion. The celesta produces a light, graceful, pinging sound that is probably heard to best effect in Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker ballet music.