Focus on development of musical instruments in the 19th century

Posted on June 8, 2013

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I have been listening to some trumpet music lately. This is a fascinating instrument, one of the oldest, which requires great determination from anyone who intended to learn how to play it. Daily practice for a long time is necessary to strengthen the muscles around the mouth and to be able to provide a steady flux of air required for sustained notes and longer musical phrases. The satisfaction, however, brought about by being able to play it, must be one of the greatest music-making experiences. Due to the instruments intimate closeness and continuity with the player’s mouth and breathing, it is able to bring out and transform to sound the most subtle nuances of feeling.

Trumpets were found on numerous archaeological sites in Egypt, the Alps, Scandinavia, Peru and China, the first ones from the early-middle period of the second millennium BC. They were used in several different functions, from herding cows, commanding soldiers in the battle or calling for community gatherings. Early trumpets were manufactured using trunks of trees or bones, but metal trumpets were found BC in China and Scandinavia. Improvements in metallurgy and handling of metal sheets in the Middle age and Renaissance period led to the development of what is currently known as the Natural Trumpet. It used no keys or valves and it could only produce the notes of a single harmonic series. The fundamental harmonic series of the trumpet could only be increased by adding additional pieces of tubing i.e. crooks. A great number of pieces were composed in the Baroque and Classical era giving a prominent role to the trumpet by J.S. Bach, A. Vivaldi, G.F. Handel and G.P. Telemann.

Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto con molti istromenti in C major. Performed by Ensemble Matheus, conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi

In the early 19th century several instrument manufacturers started to experiment with different designs – using slides, rotary and piston valves – to change tube length and switch between harmonic series, aiming to obtain a fully chromatic trumpet. Successful developers included Heinrich Stölzel and Wilhelm Wieprecht in Berlin, John Shaw in Britain and Adolphe Sax in France. Development quickly led to the expansion of the trumpet repertoire, with important pieces being written for the instrument by Handel (most notably the Trumpet Concerto in D) and J.D.Hummel.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel – Trumpet Concerto (1803)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was an Austrian composer and pianist, pupil of Mozart in his early years, who played with Haydn in his early teens and befriended Beethoven and Schubert in his mature years. Hummel wrote this concerto to trumpet virtuoso of the time Anton Weidinger, who experimented with new constructions of the instrument, including the 5-key trumpet. The concerto is composed in three movements following classical traditions and provides ample opportunity to experiment with the new instrument on the full chromatic palette.

Later, of course, the trumpet have become the emblematic solo instrument of jazz, with a leading role in big bands. Its strong brazing sound naturally emerges from the background, often leading the melody, contrasting well with the sounds of the trombone and clarinet. During and after the swing era the saxophone became its mighty partner and competitor, the two of them dominating the high register. Today I have listened to one of my favorite songs W.C. Handy’s St. Louise Blues in an arrangement containing a magnificent trumpet solo by Louis Armstrong (and witty free style singing by him with Ella Fitzgerald).

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Posted in: Part 3