The Trumpet’s History in Western Classical Music

(This article is a companion to my in-class lecture on the trumpet’s usage in the Western classical tradition, but it can be enjoyed on its own just fine!)

The trumpet is a very old instrument, with a fascinating history in the Western classical tradition. The oldest surviving trumpets are currently held in the Cairo Museum in Egypt, one made of bronze and one of silver, and are over 3000 years old. However, for much of the trumpet’s lifespan, the trumpet was treated as less of an instrument to make pleasurable music, and more of a military tool to send a message. That message might be “Wake up, everyone!” or “Here comes the King” or “Danger, invasion coming!” or even “Give up, we’re coming to invade.” As we’ll see looking through the trumpet’s continued use in classical music, these military traditions guide the instrument’s development and usage throughout the progression of the art form.

First off, what does the phrase “classical Music” actually mean? Usually when people say it, they mean one of three things:
> Specifically the Classical period, which lasted roughly from 1750 until 1820.
> More generally the Common Practice Period, from 1600 to about 1900.
> Most broadly, all music artistically written in the Western classical tradition.
I generally use the third definition, which covers music from medieval times until now. And of course, I use the specification Western classical music to refer to the traditions in western Europe and its imported influence into North America, in contrast with other styles around the world, such as Indian classical music, Iranian classical music, and hundreds of other styles of classical music.

Early Music (Medieval times – c. 1600)

For most of the trumpet’s lifespan, the instrument actually had no valves or way of changing pitch, and was simply a straight or wrapped tube with a mouthpiece at one end and a bell at the other. Though it had no valves, it could still play different notes, just like modern trumpets can play multiple notes on the same valve combination! And because they were on average twice as long as modern trumpets when unwrapped, with very shallow mouthpieces, their harmonic series was actually an octave lower than ours:

You might notice that this lets old trumpets play almost a whole major scale up high, though many notes were quite out of tune by today’s standards. This means those trumpets were only ever really used for triumphant and military-sounding things:

Often times when we brass players want to perform early music, we simply adapt music from other instruments, sometimes even instruments that no longer see any use. A common example is the cornetto, an instrument with a woodwind-like body and a brass mouthpiece. Brass players love the music of Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, which may have originally sounded something like this:

But when we play it these days, many brass players make it unapologetically our own, and it ends up sounding a little more like this:

The Baroque Period (c. 1600 – c. 1750)

The Baroque period is the first part of what we call the Common Practice Period, and this is where many of the “rules” for writing “classical” music were first established. The Baroque is home to some of the most exciting music of the Common Practice Period, and is defined by its use of counterpoint, or multiple melodies playing simultaneously; its use of melodic flourishes and embellishments; its reliance on dance forms; and its use of melodic sequences.

One thing that most other instrumentalists may not know is that the Baroque was also a golden age of trumpet playing. The average ability of professional trumpet players hit a local high point that wouldn’t be seen again for over one hundred years, and this resulted in some absolutely fantastic music being written for our instrument, even considering the limitations in available notes.

Trumpets could be used effectively in choral settings and large ensembles, as shown by composers like Bach and Handel:

And speaking of J.S. Bach, he wrote the piece that would live on as the Mount Everest of Western classical trumpet playing:

The Classical Period (c. 1750 – c. 1820)

The Classical period proper is defined by its focus on form and structure. Multiple simultaneous melodies were less common (though not gone!), and there was a more clear distinction between foreground and background layers when composing. This was also a local low point for trumpet playing, and very little of our repertoire comes from this time period. Even in the biggest and loudest ensemble moments, trumpets are typically relegated to a supporting role:

However, two pieces in particular come from this time period that are very important: concertos written by Joseph Haydn and Johann Hummel. Both of these pieces were written for trumpet player Anton Weidinger, who invented the keyed trumpet in the 1790s: this was the first successful attempt at a chromatic trumpet before the (much more successful) piston valve was invented in 1818.

The Romantic Period (c. 1820 – c. 1900)

Unlike the more cleaned and refined Classical period, the Romantic period was all about two things: raw emotion, and getting bigger. Chords get more complex and less formulaic, harmony is more lush, and pieces of music get much, MUCH longer. The trumpet is now capable of playing the full chromatic scale, but interestingly, many composers stick close to the natural trumpet writing of the previous generation, whether due to their own preferences, instrument availability, or simply it being the way they were taught. That being said, many of our favourite orchestral moments come from this time period.

Solo music for the trumpet and cornet is also being pushed to new heights through two main institutions: the Paris Conservatoire, and American military bands. Though the brass quintet has not yet asserted itself as the dominant force it is now, brass chamber music is also being experimented with in fashion. The cornet in particular solidifies itself as a technically powerful, showy solo instrument.

Early Modern Music (c. 1900 – c. 1960)

As we turn to the twentieth century, composers are experimenting more and more with complex sounds, chaotic counterpoint, and thicker, less traditionally functional chords. The trumpet is an excellent instrument to take advantage of this, due to its wide palate of colours and dynamics available.

Perhaps due to these reasons, or perhaps due to a willingness for trumpet music to push boundaries in a compositional sense as opposed to cornet music, which pushes its boundaries in a more technical sense, solo trumpet music begins to re-overtake the popular cornet.

Due to the world wars, many European composers from Germany, the Soviet Union, and other areas emigrate to the United States, and their contributions to trumpet repertoire come with a very distinctive sound.

Speaking of which, though Russia contributed significant amounts of music to the Romantic canon, that music was threatened with the rise of the Iron Curtain. Luckily for us, copies of many of those works were smuggled out of the country into the Western world, giving us some stellar repertoire even in times of war.

Modern Period (c. 1960 – Present Day)

Yes, believe it or not, classical music is still being written! There’s a wide variety of styles and composers out there to choose from, from the most lush and beautiful chords you’ve ever heard, to the spiciest new complexity not meant for beginners. Whatever your style, there’s classical music out there that will suit your fancy.

And of course, we can’t forget the influence that common practice music has had on the film industry, with composers like John Williams using brass and the orchestra to their fullest extent.

So remember, no matter what your spice tolerance, what size of ensemble you prefer, or what you’re currently familiar or unfamiliar with, there’s trumpet music out there for you!

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