Polcas e Boas features an ophicleide. This unusual instrument was invented in France in the early 19th century by Jean Hilaire Asté (1775–1840), known as Halary. "Ophicleide" literally means "keyed serpent". The first serpents were carved from wood and covered in leather. The tubing of a C serpent is 8 foot long. They only had 6 finger holes in places the player's hands could reach. Later serpents tried to overcome this severe technical limitation by adding keys. Halary created a new instrument in brass with the conical bore of the serpent straightened out, and folded in half like a bassoon. He put holes covered with pads in acoustically plausible places, and made them all reachable by levers. All the pads (except the one for the very lowest note) are closed by default. Soon composers like Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Verdi and even the young Wagner were including ophicleide parts in their orchestral works.
While Halary was refining the ophicleide, other inventors were coming up with designs for the piston and rotary valves we see in brass instruments day. This technical advance soon led to the decline of the ophicleide and its cousin the keyed bugle (for which Haydn wrote his 'trumpet' concerto), as valved instruments are capable of more consistent sound and intonation. By the end of the nineteenth century the ophicleide was pretty much extinct in Europe. However, in Cuba and Brazil the ophicleide lingered on, and continued to be used well into the twentieth century.
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a working 9-keyed C ophicleide dating from around 1845, made by Jean Finck (1783-1858) in Strasbourg. Having got to grips with the fingering system (which is quite unlike that of any other wind instrument) and worked out some alternate fingerings to control out of tune notes, I was eager to find opportunities to play the thing. Apart from 3 local orchestral gigs (Mendelssohn Elijah, Verdi Requiem and Berlioz Trojans) which involved long tacit sections, and an occasional quadrille band set up by Bill Tuck, these opportunities proved non-existent.
I therefore became very excited when I came across several historical ophicleide recordings from Brazil on 78 rpm discs posted on YouTube. These date from the very early 1900s, and feature a composer and ophicleidist called Irineu de Almeida, who was the teacher of Pixinguinha, a huge figure in Choro music. The brilliant young Brazilian trombonist and ophicleidist Everson Moraes has done extensive research on Irineu, and put out an album and book of lead sheets of his music. Here is Irineu in action in 1911. And here is Everson (with his brother Aquiles on cornet) playing Irineu’s music.
One of these recordings is a quartet with cornet, clarinet, ophicleide and tuba, and it struck me that would be a great line-up for a band playing this repertoire, possibly with the addition of percussion and/or chordal instrument. I used lockdown to start transcribing and arranging pieces, some from recordings, others from scores available on IMSLP and a few Brazilian sites, persuaded some outstanding players to join me, and Polcas e Boas was born.