The Trumpeter’s Plight: Advancing the Role of the Trumpet in Symphonic Works

If you happen to know any trumpet player, it is likely that you’ve heard them groan at least once or twice about some composer or another. Perhaps they wrote the trumpet part in some fiendish key, like E, which forces a B flat trumpet to transpose (the practice of taking a piece of music from one key and writing or reading it in a different one) by tritones, or perhaps they’ve made their part as melodically and harmonically useful as a set of timpani in their symphony, barely more than a bit of breath support for the woodwinds and strings who do all of the actual music-playing. Though this latter practice is far more common for earlier classical symphonies, like Mozart’s or Beethoven’s, the music of this era is still quite often played – and still unapologetically in a key which requires the player to transpose the whole thing by sight. Though I believe that most trumpeters don’t mind all that much – the mental work required for transposing the simple parts makes the monotony of prolonged rest, predictable rhythms, and almost singular use of the tonic or dominant notes just that much more bearable.

All the same, there’s probably not a trumpet player who doesn’t wish for more exciting parts in these symphonies, parts worthy of the highly-developed and capable instruments in their hands, and likely no trumpeter who doesn’t also wish all the writers of the romantic period and onwards could simply write for a trumpet in Bb or C, instead of constantly changing from Eb to F to D to G and so on, forcing them to keep track of the necessary transposition through the whole piece, never once playing the note that they see written on the page, a Bb played as a D sounding as C, an F played as a Bb sounding as Ab.

Why all the confusion? Why all the changes between eras? Why does transposing matter?

To begin with, a little trumpet anatomy: the modern-day trumpet consists of an elongated brass pipe that bends twice over and has three or four valves which the trumpeter controls with one hand while holding the instrument with the other. The antiquated trumpet is generally a singular elongated tube with no valves and no bends – this is generally known as the natural trumpet, a variation of which is commonly referred to as a bugle, the instrument you see commonly in movies set in olden times, used when royalty is being heralded or when a proclamation is being made. The most natural of horns, of course, are those used in even older times on the battlefield, made of some animal or another. These however relate more to the horn, commonly known as French horn, than the trumpet, given their natural curves. The valved, or keyed, trumpet did not actually exist prior to the 1790s, and didn’t officially make its mark until 1818 when Heinrich Stöltzel made the Stöltzel valve to be used in trumpets and horns, though it was an upward struggle throughout the 1800s to make the valved instrument a commonplace object. The difference between these two, valved and unvalved, and the common uses of each, is what defines the difference between classical trumpet playing, which is monotonous, and the romantic era, which is chaotic and ill-defined.

So what does the valve actually do? See, before the valve, the trumpet was a very limited instrument, for a natural trumpet is only capable of playing in succession notes that belonged to the overtone series of the natural key of the instrument – this series being consecutive members of the dominant 7th chord, preceded by pure octaves and fifths in the lower registers. In other words, without valves they could barely play four of the twelve notes that belong to an octave, and there was a great number of notes that simply did not exist on a natural horn. The ability to play all 12 notes is what defines a chromatic instrument, like violins or clarinets, and is usually necessary for carrying a tune. Naturally, no chromatic notes meant no melody for the trumpet. Hello, octaves, fifths, and hundred-measure rests. Mozart, I really appreciate the third written in there that one time. It really made me feel like a major part of the orchestra. (Major, get it?)

In order to make it possible for the singular instrument to be able to play in all the different keys composers liked to write in, tools by the name of crooks were developed – little brass pieces of varying length that could be inserted into the instrument, making it either higher or lower, effectively changing the base key of the instrument from C to F to G, but still keeping it stuck on the overtone series of that relative pitch. This, however, was the start of composers learning to change the trumpet’s key multiple times within the same piece. Instead of simply leaving them out during a modulation, they could still use the trumpet simply by changing the crook…as often as 60 times during a singular piece. This custom is one which did not leave the composer’s mindset until well into the 20th century, leaving a trail of disastrously confusing trumpet parts in their wake.

This also led to many scenes such as this one which composer Hector Berlioz comedically points out in a letter to Liszt about the struggles of being a composer-conductor:

“ ‘Let me hear the trumpets by themselves…What are you doing? I should be hearing a third, you’re playing a second. The second trumpet in C has a D, give me your D…Good. Now, the first trumpet has a C which sounds F. Let me hear your C…Hey! What the devil! You’ve given me an E flat.’
‘Excuse me, I’m playing what’s written.’
‘But you’re not, you are a tone out.’
‘I’m sorry I’m playing a C.’
‘What key is your trumpet in?’
‘E flat.’
‘Ah, that’s what is is – you should be playing an F trumpet.’
‘Oh yes, I hadn’t looked properly. Sorry, you’re quite right.’” (229)

A Life of Love & Music : The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Translated and Edited by David Cairns, 1987

Multiple-keyed trumpets and crooks were not only confusing for the player, but all the more infuriating for the conductor who was forced to deal with trumpeters that failed to note the change in key halfway through a piece, effectively making them play entirely out of tune with the rest of the orchestra.

Berlioz, as it happens, was also one of the first to become a vocal advocate for the next generation of brass instruments – including the valved trumpet. This marvelous instrument allowed for the player to simply hold down various configurations of the buttons that opened different airways in the instrument, instantly changing the length of the tube, and thus the overtone series that was being used.

What this truly means is that the trumpeter is now not only able to play in all the different keys – but to play all of them at once! A chromatic instrument: hello melody! Hey orchestra, here’s your new king of loud sound and melodic fanfare!

Like all adaptations, however, the new trumpet didn’t suddenly overturn the previous market for natural trumpets. (“What, you’re telling me I have to buy yet another trumpet?! But I just got my new crooks a year ago – and my wife’s already been berating me about the chump change I get from even playing these gigs!”) And the players were actually of the more accepting kind – they at least got to have fun with their new toys, and joined the ranks of esteemed chromatic instruments like woodwinds and strings. (“Hey, you think maybe we’ll get to have one of those cool concertos written for us now?”, the 2nd trumpet nudges the 1st trumpet player. “Oh yeah, I was talking to that Haydn guy the other day and he said he’d write one for Arban!”) The common composer, on the other hand, was much slower to learn of this new technology, and even slower in adapting it, or even understanding the true possibilities of the trumpet that were now only just starting to make themselves known. This is why it took until the likes of Mahler and Strauss in the later 19th and early 20th centuries for the trumpet to finally be written for masterfully.

Berlioz writes about this delayed and stratified change in the common European orchestra:

“Cylinder, or chromatic, horns are the only kind in use in Stuttgart. That able instrument-maker Adolphe Sax, who has now settled in Paris, has conclusively demonstrated the superiority of this system to the piston method. The latter has been virtually abandoned all over Germany, and the cylinder method is becoming generally used for horns, trumpets, bombardons and bass tubas. […] I was surprised to find the Stuttgart military band, which is rather a good one, still using the two-piston Trumpet, a very unsatisfactory instrument, in sonority and one quality far behind the cylinder trumpet which has been adopted almost everywhere else. I do not, of course, include Paris. We shall discover it some ten years from now.” (222)

He writes of Paris being particularly obstinate. During his time, the Academy of Paris, which dictated the way music and the arts were to be created and consumed in France, was extremely conservative in its acceptance of newer artistic styles and forms. For this very reason, it took Berlioz three attempts to win the coveted composer’s prize of the Prix de Rome before it was granted to him – for, the first time his revolutionary style insulted the judges, the second time they canceled the 1st prize altogether (so angry were they at how good his composition was, how little it fit in with their institutionalized idea of music), and the 3rd time he finally decided to cater to their sensibilities and make a piece even the conservative judging panel could be satisfied with.

Clearly, with all these differently-orchestrated groups around Europe, there was no way for even the well-informed composer to know what kind of instrument any given performance of their work might have in use – and therefore it would be wise for them to be conservative in their trumpet composition, to use music written with crook changes, to avoid chromaticism. Some, however, avoided the valved trumpet simply for their taste. In a letter to Mademoiselle Louise Bertin, Berlioz writes:

“A number of composers object to the rotary-valve horn because, they maintain, its timbre is inferior to that of the natural horn. I have several times experimented by listening to open notes of the natural horn and of the chromatic or rotary-valve horn one after the other, and I must confess I could not detect the slightest difference in timbre or volume. […] The same prejudice for some time opposed the use of rotary-valve trumpets (now general throughout Germany), but less violently than in the case of the new horns. The question of the stopped notes naturally did not apply, since no composer wrote them for the trumpet. Opposition has been confined to the argument that the tone of the trumpet loses much of its brilliance with the rotary-valve mechanism. This is not true, to my ear at least. Even if a more sensitive ear than mine can perceive a difference between the two instruments, it will surely be admitted that the disadvantage resulting from such a difference is not to be compared with the advantage of being able to play up and down the chromatic scale easily and without the smallest unevenness of tone over a range of two and a half octaves. For this reason I can only rejoice that the natural trumpet has been almost completely superseded in Germany today. In France we still have practically no chromatic or rotary-valve trumpets. Up till now the incredible popularity of the cornet has stood in the way – quite wrongly, in my view, for the cornet has nothing like the trumpet’s nobility and splendor of timbre. It is not that we lack instruments. Adolphe Sax is now making rotary-valve trumpets, large and small, in all possible keys, familiar and unfamiliar, instruments whose excellent tone-quality and finished workmanship are indisputable. It is scarcely to be believed that this gifted young artist should be finding it difficult to maintain his position and make a career in Paris. The persecutions he suffers are worthy of the Middle ages and recall the antics of the enemies of Benvenuto, the Florentine sculptor.” (262)

Unreasonable, is what Berlioz calls this bias against the valve trumpet. He himself used it to great success in his Symphonie Fantastique, and employed it well throughout his career. But so it was: the composers, orchestras, and trumpeters of the 19th century only ever-so-slowly came to a consensus about what the trumpet could and should be to an orchestra, and only in the latter half of the 20th century finally, mercifully, did the majority of music for trumpets start to be written either in Bb or in C.

But, since no one is going back to rewrite the trumpet parts in readable and unified sheet music, the modern trumpeter is left with the everlasting grimace of being handed a piece in E then G then F. Transposition requires much patience, a knowledge of musical theory, and for those trumpeters who have to do so on the fly, the practiced ability to disassociate notes on a page from notes in the mind, hand, and ear. A practice, which any other instrumentalist will tell you, is not so easily achieved.

Avril Saavedra is a producer for WHRB Classical. Tune in for classical music on WHRB weekdays from 1-10pm, Saturdays from 1-9pm, and Sundays from 2pm-12am!