I was singing in the choir for the Andrea Bocelli concert this evening. We were at the back of the stage, behind the orchestra. I was right behind the timpani. (I.e., kettle drums. They got quite a workout. Would you believe they even used them in “White Christmas”?) My friend Miles, who is not only bass but also brass (a retired trumpet player), drew my attention to a large instrument at the end of the row of brass. It had tubing that went down to the floor and back up, with assorted involutions and a number of keys, and a final length of tubing that bent over the shoulder and then forward again into the bell. He said, “Do you know what that’s called?”

I thought for a moment. Nope. I confessed I did not.

He did, of course. And now you will too: an ophicleide.

Now, that’s a large word for a large instrument, and with about as many curves in it as the actual item (consider the six ascenders, descenders, and dots to be a down payment on the keys – there are usually nine or twelve. Or you could just take one letter per key). It also looks as complex and unusual as the keying of the instrument is said to be. Miles was wondering if the cleide ending didn’t ironically mean “small” – he had German klein in mind. I noted that since kleid related to clothes in German, ophicleide sounded more to me like “take off your clothes.” In fact, now that I look it up, I find it is something in a different key, so to speak: the cleide comes from Greek for key, by way of French.

And the ophi? Hmm, with its hint of oomph one might think it suitable for big brass, though if you were to see ophicle in this word you would wonder again if it were some diminutive. It might even have a faint floral suggestion, or something of Hamlet’s girlfriend. But you should look at the coils of this brass beastie for a clearer clue. You might also get a hint from the fact that it was designed – in 1817 – as a replacement for a large wooden, leather-covered, finger-stopped, end-blown instrument now more often associated with early music. Said item curved back and forth and so was called a serpent. And tonight’s big instrument was meant as a keyed improvement on it (so the holes could be where the sound was best, rather than where the fingers could reach). It is a keyed serpent. Ophi is from the Greek for “serpent” or “snake.” The inventor, Jean Hilaire Asté, named it in French on the basis of Greek, ophicléide.

Now, when I heard Miles say this word, I wasn’t sure how it was spelled. As you look at it, you’ve probably been wondering how it’s pronounced. It may, in fact, leave you in a quandary, all fickle-eyed. It may help you that my first response was a play on off-glide, which is something one may have in a diphthong. But ophicleide is actually three syllables. Say “aw, fick lied” and you pretty much have it.

Which is really quite amusing. You see, the Greek kleid would, in classical times, have been said similar to “clayed” (in Modern Greek it would be more like “cleethe”). The French processed that into “clay-eed.” But English took a root from Greek that had been run through French and pronounced it like German! But only partly like German. The ei is normally said like “eye” only in German, and in English imitation of German pronunciation in non-German loan words such as this, but in German the final e would also be pronounced. So what we have here is the great English dog’s breakfast, pronunciationally.

I don’t find it a very brassy-sounding word, with its voiceless fricative and stop and the nice liquid /l/ (which is largely devoiced due to the preceding /k/ sound). It seems to me it could as easily be a name for any of a variety of other instruments, from the cute (like an ocarina) to the large (like a calliope), but in any case exotic and quaint or intricate.

And what does an ophicleide sound like? To be honest, I really couldn’t hear it. When it was playing, so were the rest of the brass, and higher and louder and closer. And Andrea Bocelli was letting loose up at the front of the stage, amplified by huge stacks of speakers hanging high above the floor at the Air Canada Centre. And then there were those timpani. I could hear them very, very well.

One response to “ophicleide

  1. Miles has since informed me that he was mistaken: the instrument was a cimbasso. And so it was: Verdi scored for it, and I find that pictures of it look just like what I saw.

    Oh well. Must taste cimbasso some time.

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