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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 2 October 2011

Instrumental Insights: The Trumpet

by Amy Horvey / October 1, 2011

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A brief history of the trumpet

Early History
The trumpet has taken on so many different forms over its long history that it can be hard to define what the instrument actually is. In the Renaissance and Baroque periods you can find trumpets made of wood, slide trumpets, coiled “hunting” trumpets—but what was most common seems to have been a long metal lip-blown tube that could only play the notes of the natural harmonic series. This focus on natural tones means that the trumpet often symbolizes the divine, or God as the King of the world in Baroque music; you can often hear this in Bach’s cantatas.

The tromba, as the Italians called it, was played by special trumpet guilds which came out of medieval metal working guilds. They had deep links with the aristocratic and military worlds, and no royal court was complete without a corps of trumpeters. The fact that the Baroque trumpet is staggeringly difficult to play also has something to do with this. It’s always very interesting to read treatises from the Baroque which discuss the social world of the trumpeter. Johann Ernst Altenberg’s treatise, for example, advises the correct way for a trumpet to carry a message to enemy lines and notes that a trumpeter “shall and must live in grand style, especially when he is young and single.”

By the end of the 18th century trumpets were being built with keyholes, clockwork slide mechanisms, and tuning holes, but it was the introduction of piston valves in the early 19th century that really created the modern trumpet, making it possible to play chromatically in all keys. Still, the Baroque trumpet has a special timbre and mystique that makes it an essential instrument in its own right.

Modern Mastery
A trumpet with piston valves can do things that the Baroque trumpeters could only dream of: play in all keys, chromatically, and with an amazing range. With the mass production techniques of the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t long before the trumpet became an instrument not restricted to the aristocracy, but played by colliery bands, amateur ensembles, orchestras, and modern military bands.

Still, while the trumpet leads the 19th century orchestral brass section, there’s surprisingly little Romantic solo music in its repertoire. However, after the pioneering work done by John Philip Sousa’s lead cornettist, Herbert L. Clarke, and early jazz performers like Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, the trumpet began to come into its own as a solo instrument in the 20th century. The technological and technical possibilities of the trumpet are still growing, as well the possibilities that come from combining the instrument with electronics. Trumpet repertoire is rapidly expanding, and it’s a field in which there is still much important research to be done.

Some of the most interesting work being done by trumpeters today comes from the early music movement, where new information about ancient times is constantly changing how we approach the instrument. And it would be remiss to ignore the important contributions being made by players from jazz, free improvisation, and non-Western traditions.

Buzz off!

The production of sound on a brass instrument, such as the trumpet, is achieved by blowing air through “m” shaped lips, or “buzzing” into the mouthpiece. Through changes of embouchure (the position, tension and flexibility of the lips in relation to the mouthpiece) overtones and harmonics are created which allow for changes of pitch. The size, shape and dimensions of the mouthpiece used directly affect the resulting timbre of the instrument. These elements also influence facility and comfort for the player.

Amy Horvey’s Trumpet Tips

For the beginner
What would you consider to be an important, yet often overlooked element of instrument care that trumpeters should follow in order to maintain their instrument?
Get your trumpet cleaned and calibrated regularly by a professional! It's a precision instrument and having everything tuned up and in working order can make a big difference. I go to Ron Partch Brasswind in Toronto, who uses ultrasound vibrations to internally clean the horn; hi-tech stuff.

For the intermediate
What is an essential daily routine that intermediate-level trumpeters should have in their arsenal to maintain and further develop their playing?
Practice in 20-minute increments, making sure that you rest as much as you play. Practice your fundamentals: air flow exercises, lip flexibilities, scales, and Clarke studies.

For the advanced
What would you recommend as a potentially inexpensive way to upgrade a trumpet for someone who may not be able to afford a professional instrument?
You can try second-hand instruments. Fortunately, trumpets are relatively cheap instruments and you can find an inexpensive horn that can last a lifetime!

If you could recommend one work and recording that would romance anyone into falling in love with the trumpet, what would it be and why?

Giacinto Scelsi's phantasmic Quattro pezzi would have to be my choice. It's a piece from the 1950s and there are not many recordings available, so I can't resist blowing my own horn, so to speak, and recommending my own recording on my album Interview, released on the Malasartes Musique label.

Trumpeter Amy Horvey regularly works with the National Arts Centre and Montreal Symphony Orchestras. She has appeared in festivals including the Montreal Baroque Festival, the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, and the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad, and has worked with leading early music ensembles including Ensemble Caprice and the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal. She teaches at Concordia University. amyhorvey.com

Did You Know?

While the trumpet was still trying to find its identity through the 18th century, two works left their mark and continue to be significant pieces of the repertoire: a trumpet concerto by Franz Joseph Haydn (1796) and another by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1803). Both works were written for Austrian trumpet virtuoso Anton Weidinger.

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