Monday, July 24, 2023

Retired Horn Player Remembers Seattle Opera’s First Wagner Tubas

The Wagner Tuba was commissioned by the composer in 1874. The first tubas were built by Georg Ottensteiner in Munich, Germany.

Back in the mid-1970s, there weren’t many places to experience Der Ring des Nibelungen in its entirety. Fortunately for us, Seattle was the only place in the US to showcase Richard Wagner’s masterwork at that time. Our first Ring cycle was in 1975 under the stage direction of George London and baton of Henry Holt. That production featured nearly 200 artists, including Walter Cole, one of four Wagner tuba players.

“Those first Ring cycles were some great times,” Cole said, “especially for us—the horn players.” In addition to the music, Cole and his three colleagues were eager to play the four new Wagner tubas that the opera had acquired especially for the performance. “I’ve been a musician all my life, but that is one of my proudest moments,” said the 92-year-old retiree.

A native of the Midwest, Cole studied at the University of Nebraska and was a member of the United States Air Force Band, performing in Washington, DC, and Tacoma. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Washington and had a thirty-plus year career as a music educator. “I loved being a music teacher,” said Cole about his career.

A 1973 clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about Seattle Opera’s Wagner Tubas. Walter Cole (pictured in white shirt) was a member of the horn section at the time.

When asked which of the four operas he enjoyed most, his reply: “I enjoyed them all. When you play all of them in sequence everything builds and builds.”

The Wagner tuba, also called a Wagnertuben, Ring-tuben, or Bayreuth-tuben, was commissioned by the composer specifically to spotlight the leitmotifs in The Ring. Sound-wise, the instrument bridges the tones of the French horn and the trombone. It is often described as having the “round,” “soft,” and “full” feel of horns combined with the “majestic” resonance of trombones.

“The fact that Wagner commissioned the tubas for his Ring cycle shows how ambitious and visionary he was,” said Ludovic Morlot, who will be conducting Seattle Opera’s production. “The tubas create the perfect link between the French horns and trombones in terms of sound and color but also range. The instruments provide Wagner’s orchestral writing with even more texture—from something of an unearthly quality to a truly majestic effect.” These tones are especially prominent at the points depicting the majesty of Valhalla and when Alberich uses magical power to transform into a dragon.

Of course, the tubas played by Walter Cole and his fellow horn players have been long been replaced with ones acquired through a gift from Jeff and Martha Sherman. But that has not diminished Cole’s eagerness to see the opera and to create new musical memories. “I have my ticket and I can hardly wait to hear that wonderful music once again.”

Leadership Circle members Jeff and Martha Sherman (third and fourth from the left) with members of the Seattle Opera and Symphony Players holding the company’s own Wagner tuben.

Das Rheingold runs August 12-20, 2023 at McCaw Hall. Tickets and info at


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