Tuba as metaphor

Posted on August 31, 2007. Filed under: Music, Musings |

When I was about 8 years old, my parents bought me a recording called “Tubby the Tuba”, with music by George Kleinsinger, written in 1945.  Apparently, “Tubby” was a familiar story, although new to me.  My mother told me she had played Tuba in her high school band.  (All the other instruments had been taken)!  This album was special because the stories were beautifully narrated by Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney.  Unlike a lot of other recordings, this one has not been transferred to CD format, so I have not been able to locate a copy, other that at “vintage” record stores.  However, I did come across a video of an animated movie of the story, starring, remarkably, the voices of no less than Pearl Bailey, Jack Gilford, Hermoine Gingold, and Dick van Dyke (as Tubby)!  There is also a recording called Manhattan Transfer Meets Tubby the Tuba.  I’ll need to look that one up.  Although, at this point, I’d love to see the movie, I’m glad that as a child, I was introduced to this story as an audio-only recording, reminiscent of the radio shows of time gone by.  This way, I was able to use my imagination to visualize Tubby and his friends.

Tubby is a member of a miraculous orchestra wherein all the instruments have personalities and can talk.  Tubby is one frustrated little Tuba, though, because he never gets to play his own melody.  All he ever gets to do is play a boring, repetitive bass line.  The flutes have beautiful melodies (and never let him forget it), and he feels the violins are just show-offs!  When he tries to play a high, delicate little melody, he is rejected and made fun of by the conductor and other instruments.  Tubby is so unhappy that he decides to leave his orchestra, hit the road, and find his own song elsewhere.

He comes across a marching band, and is, at first thrilled by this-so different from his home orchestra!  But, he soon realizes that in the band, too, his part is only to back up the other instruments with his “oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa”, and decides to continue his search.  Tubby has other wonderful adventures on his journey, but to sum it up, he finally throws himself down, wearily, in a forest by a pond-and there he hears the most beautiful melody ever.  He discovers the lovely melody is sung by a huge bullfrog, and wonders if the frog will share the melody with him.  The frog is happy to share, and, elated, Tubby takes his song back to the orchestra.  The other instruments are so delighted they want to try Tubby’s melody, too.

I well remember Tubby’s song.  The plaintive melody nearly broke my young heart with its sadness, beauty, and then hope as it modulated to a major key near the end.  These wonderful, funny “Tubby” stories introduce kids to the sounds of various instruments and to different musical genres-orchestral, jazz, marching band, etc.  There are other pieces written to teach kids about musical instruments, most notably Peter and the Wolf by Serge Prokofiev and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten, but Tubby is my favorite.  I could always identify with the frustrated little Tuba who felt he didn’t fit in, and who wanted to express his creativity in his own way.

It’s true that orchestral works featuring the Tuba are rare.  Both John Williams and Ralph Vaughn Williams have written pieces entitled Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra, and there’s a fascinating recent concerto by Samuel Jones which was inspired by the wind tunnel, used for scientific experiments, at the University of Washington.  You can hear Tubby’s story (narrated by Victor Jory) at this website (about 10 minutes long).

May each of us find our own melody.

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2 Responses to “Tuba as metaphor”

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I played the tuba in high school, but I didn’t choose it because all the other instruments were taken; I chose it because it was the biggest and coolest-looking instrument there was. 🙂

Allright! Go tubawoman! I think in my Mom’s time, this instrument was not considered “nice” for a girl. The kids she raised have different opinions about this 😀


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