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The Trumpet in the Romantic Era

    The trumpet has possibly the longest tale of instrumental evolution in the whole chronicle of music history, beginning when the first human produced a signal on a hollowed out animal horn, through the times of emperors and courts, majestic coronations and military confrontations,  up to the present day of precision construction and development methods aided by computer generated models. Perhaps only the flute can rival the trumpet’s longevity, both of which owe their ancient beginnings and perennial survival to a simple construction, desirable tone, and musical indispensability. It would be interesting to note here that the trumpet, born so many centuries ago as a tube through which lip-vibrated air is amplified, had changed surprisingly little by the beginning of the 19th century; metal had replaced bone as a construction material, and a few holes had been drilled into the bore to facilitate notes beyond the natural harmonic series (a system borrowed from the woodwinds, and found to be undesirable when applied brass instruments). In 1800, the trumpet was still a large, difficult-to-tune instrument with no possibility for a full chromatic compass. All that would change by the close of the century. The time period of approximately 1800-1875 saw the trumpet evolve from a Broque relic essentially into the model we know today.

    One incongruity in this study is that the timeline of advances in trumpet technology is not mirrored in the contemporaneous music literature (or at least in major, accessible works by knowledgeable, mainstream composers, recognizable names to our 21st century ears). This is due to two factors, one being the requisite time needed for a new idea to travel, literally, from country to country; the other is that this nascient technology was not immediately accepted as a viable alternative or improvement on the status quo of performance practice at that time. Any study on this topic then should include an actual timeline of the advances in the trumpet’s technology, augmented by a practical survey of how the acceptance (or rejection) of the new developments is reflected in the music of the age. As we will see, actual performance practice lagged about 10-20 years behind the advancements in manufacturing.

    The trumpet of Bach (see figure 4a), a large, lightweight instrument with some tone holes, had fallen out of favor as a solo instrument virtually right after his death, owing both to changing musical tastes and the compositional exhaustion of the instrument by the Baroque composers (Grove). The high, florid clarino style which is so immediately identifiable with the Baroque age was going out of style, and the Classical composers instead focused on the principale, the lowest of the three Baroque trumpet parts, which played in what we would consider the medium range (Baines 184 and Harvard). The problem with this switch is that the natural trumpet lost its melodic possibilities when not playing in the extreme high register, due to the nature of the harmonic series (the trumpet can only produce intervals of seconds in the 4th octave above the fundamental). In a moderate range, the trumpet was limited to the tones of bugle calls and fanfares, a role it had played for centuries. It could be argued that Beethoven’s main theme for the Eroica Symphony of 1804 was specifically chosen so the trumpets could play it during the tutti climaxes (example 1). In this example we can see Beethoven’s Eb (natural) trumpet, a relatively low horn, had its fundamental as the written C (real Eb) two octaves below middle C (allowing the low G (the fifth) in the second octave and the E (third) in the third octave; Bb’s (sevenths) were still attained by hand-stopping and were difficult to tune. Further,  while the trumpet may be completely at home in this hunting-call context, it remained awkward or useless in very similar situations.  We can see how the trumpet was able to produce the D (second) in the 4th octave but not the third, interrupting what should be a line in octaves, and producing risky and awkward jumps (example 2). We also see that different horns responded differently; notice how Beethoven avoids the written high G for his Eb horns (examples 3 and 5), even when this higher octave is needed to play the melody correctly, but on the smaller C horn,  (used in the second movement only) he approaches the G without fear (example 4). It was this limited and inconsistent usefulness of the orchestral trumpet that started a revolution in trumpet construction to produce an instrument with a full chromatic compass, in any register, and with desirable intonation and even tone quality.
    One of the first experimental models was the keyed bugle, the instrument for which the Haydn and Hummel trumpet concertos (1796 and 1803) were written (Grove; see figure 3b). It was a well-established instrument (at least in military bands) by the dawn of the 19th century; Weindinger in Austria had supposedly produced a 5-key instrument which was nearly chromatic even before 1800, and the keyed bugle, or keyed trumpet (figure 4c), was used in some capacity until the 1840’s, although it was gradually replaced by better designs. What kept the keyed bugle out of orchestras was its tone, which remained that of a bugle. But the main shortcoming of the instrument in an increasingly chromatic musical world was its inherently flawed construction. Without being fully chromatic, and with uneven tone, crooks would still have to be used occasionally to change the fundamental pitch of the horn. Since the keys were in fixed locations on the tube and were of fixed size, in reality only one crook would be in the optimal pitch center for the instrument to function in tune, for the proportions of tube lengths would otherwise be changed from that which would produce the best sound. Another model which was in use for many decades, if only in England, was the slide trumpet (figure 4b), in essence a soprano trombone. One would think this would be the obvious solution, save that it was difficult to play and could only reach third position, making it also not a fully chromatic instrument. In 1812 and 1813, one sees through the music of Beethoven and Rossini, that composers were struggling with the same acoustic problems, and the trumpet was playing the same stereotypical roles (examples 6 and 7).

    In 1813, a Silesian named Bhümel invented a valve system which would revolutionize the trumpet. Patented in 1815 by Stölzel and demonstrated by him in Leipzig in 1817, this two-valve system allowed the trumpet to play more or less a chromatic scale (except in the lower registers where open partials were farther apart) (Fennel 15 and Carse 208; figure 1d). One would think that such an invention would be immediately lauded by the musical community, but the Stölzel valve was met with distrust, especially in Germany, and it stands to reason: players had become proficient in hand-stopping, composers felt secure continuing to write the traditional trumpet parts they had always known, and the valve system was not as secure as it is today. In 1820 the original tube-valve had evolved into a double-tube box valve (made of wood and made airtight by wax, figure 1e), which was slightly more effective and more widely received (Grove). But by 1824, even in one of the most trumpet-heavy sections of his 9th Symphony, it is evident Beethoven is still using hand-stopping on natural trumpets, although perhaps trumpet models or performance practice had excelled by this time to allow acceptable intonation on the close harmonies (example 8). Rossini had found a compositional solution to a technical problem in his overture to William Tell (example 9), but even by 1829 we can see the Stölzel valve system had not taken root, neither in the concert hall or the opera stage, in Germany nor in Italy. In fact, according to Carse, “nearly 20 years passed after the invention of the Blümel-Stölzel valve before valve horns and trumpets began to be specified in full [orchestral] scores” (212). By this time, valves themselves had changed into much the form we know them to be today.

    What did emerge during this time period was an inevitable stand-in for the nonexistent (or non-accepted) chromatic trumpet (Daubeny 105). The cornet (cornet à pistons), however, enjoyed no better a fate than the Stölzel valve. In his 1844 Treatise, Berlioz states the popular reaction to the cornet with sardonic wit and eloquence: “The cornet is very much in certain musical circles where elevation and purity of style are not considered essential qualities” (295). The cornet was a three valved instrument, and used the piston valves which would soon redirect trumpet manufacture, yet the cornet’s flaws lied not in its innovation, but its parentage. The cornet was born around 1830 (although accounts of the birth of a proto-cornet vary from 10 to 30 years earlier) when Halary added piston valves to a posthorn creating a trumpet-like instrument, the cornopean (figure 3c). The instrument looked like a miniature trumpet, but with a shorter, larger bore, a deeper mouthpiece, and a larger bell (figure 3d). The cornet was, in effect, the illegitimate offspring of what was a hybrid to begin with; it borrowed some technology from the keyed bugle (figure 3b) and produced an instrument with a higher fundamental and a fuller compass than the trumpet, but it also had a more diffuse tone, less projection, played a shorter high range, and balanced poorly with the brass section (Berlioz). On top of all these inherent flaws, the cornet, due to its ease of playing, became known as an amateur's instrument, played by students and farcical theater shows (much the fate of the C melody sax in the early 1900’s).
    While the musical community largely rejected the cornet as a viable orchestral instrument, some notable composers, particularly the French, adopted it as a melodic counterpart to the trumpet, and a ‘second soprano’ voice which could fill in harmony notes of a tutti left unplayed (and unplayable) by the trumpets (Carse 249). A few side-by side examples show the responsibilities given to the cornets and trumpets in certain instances, the former exploiting the florid melodic lines while the latter merely supports the sound in a role it had been playing since antiquity (examples 10 and 12).

    While the French employed their cornets à pistons, the rest of the musical world was holding out for a reliable improvement to the trumpet, and due to this expectation advancements came quickly. In Vienna in 1823 Riedl and Josef Kali improved the double tube valve, and three years later Josef was teaching at the Prague Conservatory, extolling the virtues of valved trumpets. At this time Spontini sent a few 3-Stölzel valve specimens to France, resulting in Halary’s French 2-valved trumpet in 1828 (figure 4d). Leopold Uhlmann added a third valve, cork buffers and the springs still used today in rotary valves to Austrian trumpets in 1830 (Carse 209), and in 1835 the rotary valve was created by his countryman J.F.Riedl (Grove, figure 1f). Despite their preoccupation with the inferior cornet, it was a Frenchman, François Périnet, who in 1838 invented the gros piston, an improvement on Stölzel’s tube valve which is in effect the modern piston valve (figure 1a). From this point the trumpet received added support from Berlioz’ Treatise on Instrumentation (1844) which predicted the valved trumpet would become the new workhorse soprano brass voice in the future, and from Adolphe Sax’s mechanisms for his saxhorns in 1845. Sax’s technology streamlined the components of the instrument and gave it greater stability. By 1846 the Stölzel valve began to decline in favor of the Périnet valves, and the F trumpet gave way to the smaller Bb horn around 1850. “By the 1850’s the higher [Bb] instrument had largely found its way in and become...the ‘ordinary’ trumpet’ in Germany” (Baines 232).
    By this time, the trumpet was the accepted head of the brass section, and fully chromatic rotary and piston valve instruments were being used in orchestras across Europe. Carse notes that “Just before the mid-century Donizetti, Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner all helped to bring the valve instruments into the orchestra” (212). No longer would crooking and stopping be necessary to play in minor keys, as it was 20 years earlier (example 11; an ambitious display by Mendelssohn, but still an obvious employment of hand-stopping and not of valves). Now trumpets could play any pitch in any range with nearly uniform precision, and truly musical melodic lines were now being entrusted to them (example 14). At times one sees in a score from this time an indication to crook into a different key, but this was done largely for two reasons; firstly, some scholars believe it was to appease the establishment (some conservatories continued to support earlier valve systems and even natural brass well into the late 1800’s), and at times it appears to be merely a whimsy or habit of the composer. Baines states “Tonalities specified in orchestral scores are small evidence of what instruments players actually used or use. Behind the glorious scoring in Parsifal where Wagner writes F trumpet sehr zart up to h[armonic #]12 there is a belief in Germany that the instrument used was the Bb (or C), said at the time to give a better sound then the F” (232). Also, Daubeny notes (and example 13 gives a sample that) “...Wagner excels himself by marking no less than ten changes of crook in the 96 bars of his introduction to the third act of Lohengrin [1848]. The whole entr’acte occupies only some two and a half minutes in performance, and some of these changes are without even half a bar’s rest...” (85-6). It was Wagner’s habit to write all trumpet parts in C and leave instrument selection, as is the case today, up to the performer (Strauss’s notes on Berlioz’s Treatise).
    By 1850 modern manufacturing methods were being used to produce three-piston valved trumpets, mostly in Bb and C (although other keys have survived even to this day), and in 1858 the French started developing pitch compensating systems to help them play more in tune, an indication not only of the new horns’ established place in the orchestra, but also of France’s return to the forefront of trumpet development after its cornet excursion of the 1820’s and 30’s. In fact, it was the French company Besson which gave the Romantic era trumpet its final image in 1874 (figure 4e), a shape nearly unchanged in the nearly 150 years which have led us into the 21st century. An excerpt from Verdi’s Requiem (1873) features a trio of obviously valved trumpets entrusted with inverted triads, diminished chords, octaves in the mid-high and mid-low ranges, half step shakes, and a full chromatic run (example 15). In the opening lines of Bizet’s Carmen (1875 and example 16), we hear the final evidence that we have arrived at the modern trumpet: a thoroughly chromatic, modulating melodic line, in the extreme low register, with every note and harmonic construction under the instrument’s command, including the low F#, still the lowest note in the regular range of the horn, and a far cry from the clarino twittering so many octaves above, no less than 80 years before.

Works Cited

Baines, Anthony. Brass Instruments, Their History & Development, London: Faber & Faber, 1976.

Barbour, J. Murray. Trumpets, Horns, and Music. Michigan State University Press, 1964.

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Symphony No 3 in Eb Major, Op.55 ‘Eroica’. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, 2000.

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op.93. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, 1997.

Beethoven, Ludwig van. Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, 1997.

Berlioz, Hector. Requiem Mass and Te Deum. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996.

Berlioz, Hector. Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997.

Berlioz, Hector and Strauss, Richard. Treatise on Instrumentation.  tr. Theodore Front. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, 1991.

Bizet, Georges. Carmen Suites Nos 1 and 2. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998.

Carse, Adam. The History of Orchestration. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

Daubeny, Ulric. Orchestral Wind Instruments, Ancient and Modern. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1920, reprinted 1970.

Fennel, Frederick. Time and the Winds. Kenosha, WI: LeBlanc Publications, 1954.

Mendelssohn, Felix. Symphony No. 5 ‘Reformation’. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1994.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online. “Trumpet”:

Randel, Don Michael. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. “History of the Trumpet”, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; 1986.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay. Principles of Orchestration. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

Rossini, Gioacchino. William Tell and other Overtures.  Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1994.

Schumann, Robert. Complete Symphonies.  New York: Dover Publications, 1980.

Verdi, Giuseppe. Requiem. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998.

Wagner, Richard. Walkürenritt. Vienna: Philharmonia Partituren, no date.

Wagner, Richard. Lohengrin Preludes. New York: Edwin F. Kalmus, no date.
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All material contained herein, including website design, is copyright © Patrick Valentino, unless otherwise credited.
All rights reserved. No content on this website may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission.