Horn Of Plenty

The trumpet has been heralding big news and good times for centuries

Cover Story

July 09, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun music critic

Of all musical instruments, none has inspired more awe than the trumpet.

Its sound has been celebrated for centuries. Trumpets heralded the arrival of kings and emperors and have urged armies on to victory since the time of Tutankhamen. According to the Bible, Joshua used trumpet blasts to bring down the walls of Jericho, while the Book of Revelation promises the angel Gabriel will announce the end of time with a trumpet solo guaranteed to raise the dead.

There's something brash and reckless -- macho, even -- about the instrument. Although its sound can be sweet and soothing, it's capable of piercing brilliance and screeching dramatics. Moreover, its tone is almost infinitely malleable, to the point that some players can virtually make the instrument talk (it was just such a trumpeter who gave voice to the unseen adults in the animated "Peanuts" shows on TV).

Still, it took centuries before the trumpet was able to reach its current state of sophistication. Some of that evolution is owed to the work of great virtuosos, but an even greater share of the credit belongs with the engineering genius of instrument makers.

Early trumpets

The earliest trumpets were nothing like the shiny brass or silver-plated horns we associate with the likes of Wynton Marsalis or "Doc" Severinsen. Primitive trumpets were often little more than a ram's horn or conch shell, with an opening carved in the small end for the player to blow through. By the time of the ancient Egyptians, people were making trumpets out of metal -- trumpets made of bronze and silver were found in King Tut's tomb -- that stretched like long pipes from the players' mouths.

Roman legions went to war with a trumpet-like instrument they called the tuba (though it was little like today's tuba), but after the fall of the Roman Empire, the instrument fell out of use in Europe. It was the Crusades that brought the trumpet back -- quite literally. Saracen trumpets, taken as trophies of war, prompted Europeans to make their own instruments, and eventually the sound of the trumpet was heard across the continent, played by both tower watchmen and wandering musicians.

These early instruments were simply a long piece of cylindrical tubing that flared into a bell shape at the end, much like the instruments used to herald the arrival of royalty in the old "Robin Hood" movies. By the early 1400s, instrument-makers had learned to bend the instrument's tubing into an "S" shape; later, it was doubled back into a loop, making the instrument much more compact.

Baroque and classical

Because of its piercing tone and military associations, the medieval trumpet was generally considered an outdoor instrument, most often used with timpani to accompany equestrian tournaments. But as the cadre of trumpet players grew, distinctions began to arise between martial trumpeting (Feldstuck or "field style") and chamber playing (Clarinblasen or "clarion blowing").

Trumpets began to be included in high culture ensembles by the early 1600s, and by the following century there were trumpet virtuosos of sufficient ability to inspire the likes of J.S. Bach (who showcased the trumpet in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2) and G.F. Handel (as in the air "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from "The Messiah").

Even so, the trumpet used by Baroque virtuosos was an extremely limited instrument. Unlike the oboe, flute, violin or harpsichord, all of which could play chromatically (that is, using all the sharps and flats of scale) across their entire range, only a handful of notes were available to the trumpeter.

To start, the trumpeter creates a vibrating column of air within the instrument by buzzing his or her lips into the mouthpiece. This generates a trumpet note. Changing that note is a matter of lip muscle tension, or "embouchure." Tighten the pressure of the muscles (think of a forced smile), and the tone gets higher; decrease the tension, and the notes get lower. However, those notes don't move up and down in even increments; the gap between notes gets smaller as the notes get higher. That's why the trumpet part in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 doesn't get truly melodic until the player climbs into the upper reaches of the instrument's range.

Unfortunately, the higher the notes are, the more strain they put on the lips and cardiovascular system. As a result, some Baroque trumpeters actually suffered aneurysms and keeled over in mid-performance.

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