In the basement of a house on Mount Auburn Street, behind a microwave and a coffeemaker, is (possibly) the largest tuba in the world. It’s nearly 7 feet tall, has 60 feet of tubing, weighs about 100 pounds, and takes three people to play. Known as a subcontrabass tuba, the instrument has a BBBb pitch, a full octave lower than the lowest traditional tuba.
First-time encounters typically start like this: “Why?”
The gimmick of the instrument’s size was almost definitely a consideration for its creator, says Mark Olson, director of the Harvard University Band — but not the only one. The search for a novel timbre likely also enticed the mind behind the design.
“A tuba is the foundation of a band,” said Olson, noting that an instrument an octave lower than a traditional tuba can add a unique sound to an ensemble.
The second most common question asked about the tuba — “How did this get here?” — is much harder to answer.
According to a 2014 New York Times article, Harvard’s subcontrabass was originally commissioned by John Philip Sousa. A dedicated group of enthusiasts on the message board TubeNet occasionally review the facts about giant tubas, and they disagree. They believe that Harvard owns the tuba commissioned by American bandmaster Patrick Gilmore for a performance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.