In a tongue-in-cheek article posted here a few years ago I confessed to a certain dissatisfaction with the word “euphonium.” While that is the correct term for the large, conical-bored, valved brass instrument with a fundamental pitch of B-flat1, I have also contended that the word “euphonium”—following a similar Greek word meaning “pleasant sounding”—is really a remnant of nineteenth-century marketing. It is something of a “three-dollar word” coined as much to sell instruments as anything else. Because the history of low brass instrument nomenclature is not as “nice and neat” as current players might like to think, I’ve tried to avoid an elitist mindset which faults band directors and others for calling this instrument and labeling its parts as “baritone.” The distinction between the baritone horn and euphonium, while significant, has never been as clear in the American context as the British one, or at least it wasn’t before British-style euphoniums began to take hold in this country around 1950. In working with band directors and students I have emphasized means of conceptualizing and achieving a characteristic euphonium sound, but have downplayed the importance of the word “euphonium.”
Yesterday I presented a clinic at the American School Band Directors Association Region 5 Conference, entitled “Getting the Right Euphonium Sound.” In that clinic I took the approach indicated above—I discussed and demonstrated what the characteristic sound of the euphonium is, how it differs from a trombone sound (or, for that matter, a baritone horn sound), and how to instruct students to achieve that sound. At the same time, I was less insistent about using the term “euphonium,” especially in concert band contexts where most of the parts are often labeled “baritone,” even where the euphonium is the intended instrument and timbre. We had a great question-and-answer time at the conclusion of the clinic, and one question in particular made me begin to rethink this approach.
The director who asked the question teaches at a school where most students rent or buy their own euphoniums, rather than using school-owned instruments as is the norm in many districts. She has begun to encounter a significant problem in that parents of “baritone” players have been perusing online catalogs and then purchasing British-style baritone horns, rather than the euphoniums that are the actual desired instruments. This particular problem might not have occurred in previous generations, when American manufacturers in particular had a habit of labeling their top-line instruments as “euphoniums” and their lesser-grade ones “baritones,” despite there being little or no distinction in sound or construction. But in the current global market quality manufacturers such as Yamaha and Besson that market instruments to American wind bands also make instruments for British brass bands, where the “baritones” and “euphoniums” are markedly different animals. Well-meaning parents who have always heard the terms “baritone” and “euphonium” used interchangeably (if they have heard the latter term at all) are understandably displeased to learn that the baritone horns they have purchased for their children are not usable due to their not having the correct sound for the American concert band context.
In the previous post mentioned above I indicated a wish that the low brass community would dump the word “euphonium” and use “tenor tuba” instead. I would still be glad to see this, and the distinction between this instrument and the baritone horn would remain. But for now, “euphonium” is still the correct term, and while composers for American wind bands have not always appreciated the distinction between baritones and euphoniums, manufacturers do, and the instruments currently marketed as “baritones” are almost never called for in wind band repertoire. While sound is more important than nomenclature, directors who want their parents and students to purchase the correct instruments will have to insist that they buy euphoniums. As it turns out, precision in terminology is important, after all.