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History of the Trumpet In Classical Music

Jan 8, 2008
After Bach and Handel, trumpet playing declined. Haydn, the great successor of these two masters, did not do well with trumpets. When Haydn entered the service of Prince Esterhazy, music-loving prince of Austria, his orchestra at first did not include trumpets at all.

As late as 1766, the regular personnel of this orchestra, one of the foremost in Europe, consisted of six violins and violas, one cello, one string bass, one flute, two oboes, two bassoons and four horns but no trumpets or cornets. Several years later the resources of the orchestra were enlarged so that trumpets and tympani could be added when needed.

Even when Haydn did use trumpets, he scored for them so they played an octave or a sixth above the horns. To this thin arrangement he added drums for accompaniment. He probably felt the need of filling in with something, and the drums seemed the most appropriate.

Mozart, who was at first Haydn's pupil but whose genius lifted him to a place above his master, seemed to share Haydn's dislike for trumpets. This antipathy for trumpets was due to an extremely sensitive nature. Until Mozart was ten years old, the sound of the trumpet was excruciatingly painful to him, and he could not endure it.

As an adult he found little pleasure in trumpets, and he used them sparingly. In 1788 he wrote his three greatest symphonies, but in only two of them did he use the trumpet. He could not endure the high clarion parts written by Bach and HandeL He even rearranged some of this music, giving the high clarion parts to the clarinets.

Beethoven generally wrote for two trumpets and often used them as solo instruments. This can hardly be interpreted to mean that Beethoven was particularly fond of the trumpet, for it was a known custom of his to score as much as possible for all players in the orchestra and to pass around the solo parts in order to keep them all interested.

In general he followed the custom of Mozart and Haydn in handling the trumpets, writing for them parts which were an octave, a sixth or sometimes a third above the horns, all to the accompaniment of the pounding of the tympani.

Although it probably was just as well that the trend was away from the high clarion writing of Bach and Handel, the composers who followed failed to invent any writing for the trumpet which was as interesting. Bach and Handel and their predecessors made the trumpet one of the most interesting instruments in the orchestra.

They no doubt went to extreme lengths and exhausted the possibilities along this line, but they have to be given credit for resourcefulness and inventiveness. When composers after Bach and Handel abandoned this style of writing, they failed to bring forth anything to take its place.

They used the trumpets much as bugles are used today in drum corps. The trumpet parts were thin chords whose poverty of design was covered up in the noise of the tympani. They apparently did not think well of the long trumpets on which it was possible to play chromatically in the upper registers.

This kind of playing was a man killer for the trumpeters, but it did have possibilities which some feel were not fully exploited. These old masters also knew about adding crooks to the simple trumpet, in order to obtain, by jumping from one trumpet to the other, something approximating chromatic playing. Wagner's success with this type of instrument shows well enough that Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven overlooked possibilities in the trumpet of their time.

Instead of taking advantage of the long trumpet with its diatonic and chromatic upper registers, and instead of using the trumpet with crooks as did Wagner, they contented themselves with writing thin tonic and dominant chords for these instruments.

Possibly it is expecting too much, even from such geniuses as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, to look for trumpet writing beyond the thin chords based on the tonic and dominant. After all, although Wagner did great things on the simple trumpet without valves, he had set before him the example of piston-trumpet performance.

He chose the simple trumpet because he preferred the tone to that of the valve trumpet, but the example of the valve trumpet must have suggested the superior trumpet writing for the simple trumpet. To appreciate what Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were up against, we need only examine what sort of music is written for the regular military bugle today.

Bugle calls are limited to five or six notes. Other notes are possible, but these five or six are the best in quality and the easiest to blow.

The obstacles in making music with these notes are obvious. They have wide gaps between them, and their range limits the music to a monotonous span. In the upper part of the scale the notes are closer together and have greater musical possibilities, but these notes are hard to play and can be blown only by a few powerful individuals.

Even with the accurately built instruments today, many players cannot hit the ninth and tenth partials; on the crude bugles two hundred years or more ago it is doubtful if many players could go beyond the sixth. It is little wonder that early composers did not think seriously about the musical possibilities of such instruments.
About the Author
Malcolm Blake has spent years of his life devoted to studying music online and off. He is currently working on projects on learning to play guitar online and how to learn guitar chords flawlessly.
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