The Ophicleide is a great rasping and farting low-pitched brass instrument — keyed, rather than having the valves of all modern brass instruments except the saxophones (though they are classed as woodwind, for all that they are made of brass — In Romania there exists a wooden soprano saxophone, and I saw one of these in a music shop in Athens shortly after the fall of Ceausescu, when all sorts of weird and wonderful Romanian items were coming into Greece. The shop’s proprietors were intrigued and persuaded me to play a few notes on it; it sounded very strange, though not at all like the clarinet it superficially resembles. I regret now not having bought it, but in the shop there was also a valve trombone, an instrument I love, and if I bought all the instruments I want to my house would resemble Snow’s Hill Manor (see further down) and besides I was in Athens to buy a normal alto saxophone. But I digress, in fact I digress from my digression, but no matter — this whole blog is a farrago of nested digressions) — the distinction between keyed and valved wind instruments needs another essay; back to the ophicleide: Berlioz has a part for ophicleide in his most popular work, the Symphonie Fantastique, but it’s almost always played on the tuba. The excellent John Eliot Gardiner did a recording with a specially assembled orchestra using all the right instruments of the time, including an ophicleide and the full version of the cornet obbligato in the ballroom movement, but a girlfriend made off with my copy of the CD, which is no longer in the catalogues. She almost certainly doesn’t even appreciate what she stole; another reason she is no longer in my catalogue.
I have only ever seen one ophicleide; it was at Snow’s Hill Manor in Oxfordshire or is it Gloucestershire. The previous owner of the place — it now belongs to the National Trust — was a meta-collector; a collector of collections, including one of musical instruments. This ophicleide had a bell shaped like the gaping mouth of a serpent — ‘Ophicleide’ is Greek for ‘Keyed serpent’ though the actual serpent is a quite other woodwind instrument, also keyed. (Is that clear? No of course not; never mind.) Fortunately or unfortunately, the NT wouldn’t let me play the thing, though I do know how to.
I put in a picture of an ophicleide the other day. Here’s another picture of two ophicleides, with two serpents to the left of them. In fact these too are in the Snowshill (as it seems it’s spelt) collection: