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The Development and Role of the Trumpet in the Western World

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The trumpet is one of the most important instruments throughout history. Not only is it one of the oldest instrument concepts, but the entire brass family grew out of the primitive trumpet. The trumpet is prevalent in the Bible and scattered across many other historical documents. This instrument’s impact on history and music could not be overemphasized. The goal of this article is to provide you with a few supporting reasons why this is true. The trumpet is not a recent invention. The primitive ancestors to the trumpet were used by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. The instrument has changed dramatically over the course of history as new inventions such as valves and pistons made their way onto the scene. The role that the trumpet has served in music has evolved as well. I will be exploring the development and role of the trumpet in music; particularly up till the year of 1900. I plan to talk about how the trumpet itself has changed over the course of history. I will also cover how the role of the trumpet has changed and how its prominence in music has progressed. 

The ancient ancestors of trumpets were used for one primary purpose; noise. Keep in mind that in this article, when I say “primitive trumpet,” that term is applied broadly and includes more than your typical Bb trumpet. Primitive trumpets refer to any type of resonator that was used to distort the natural human voice. The earliest record of the making of a horn comes out of Mesopotamia. Also, the oldest metal cylindrical horn was pulled at of Egypt. The main function of this “distorted voice” would be for military communication and/or intimidation purposes. In reality, they would have functioned similar to today’s megaphone. There was no lip-energized sound or vibration at this point in history.[1] Secondary uses for the Hebrews included devotional and also festive roles. 2 Chronicles 5 mentions one hundred and twenty priests sounding trumpets while the Levites were singing. 1 Chronicles 23 tells us that people rejoiced and sounded trumpets at the coronation of Joash.

The Greeks also had their version of the trumpet. In B.C. 396, two trumpeters named Timeous and Crates are named as the winners of the Olympic musical contests.[2] Although the trumpet was not as popular in Greece as it was in Rome, the Greeks did still have their own version. The Salpinx was a Greek straight instrument resembling much of earlier Hebrew and Jewish primitive trumpets. The Salpinx is said to have been in operation in the siege of Troy.[1]

In Rome, there was plenty of evidence left to determine that there were at least four main types of brass instruments, all of which were used for the military. Those brasses were called the Tuba, Lituus, Cornu, and Buccina.[1]

The Tuba, used for infantry purposes, was not even close to the gargantuan size of the modern instrument we call the tuba. The Roman Tuba was trumpet-like and was the Roman version of the Greek Salpinx.[1]

The next bronze instrument was the Lituus which had a straight, cylindrical tube and curved, making it similar to the letter J. “One of these [Lituus] was discovered in a tomb at Ceveteri in the year 1827, since preserved in the Vatican, its pitch being a third below our E flat cavalry trumpet’.[2] This Lituus was the Roman brass for their cavalry.

The third Roman bronze instrument that I mentioned was the Cornu. The Cornu was a much larger instrument totaling eleven feet long. Therefore, it produced a lower pitch than the Tuba and the Lituus. The Cornu was speculated to have been reserved for high-ranking military activities and ceremony. On occasions such as Gladiatorial games, several of these would have been needed. Ironically, all these instruments from Greece and Rome are still early enough to be considered as noise more than music. “In Roman literature, there is much evidence on the latter point [unable to control tone quality]. The Tuba has been termed ‘horribilis’, ‘raucus’, and ‘rudis’; the sound of the Lituus called ‘stridor’ – a shriek; and even the note of the long Cornu was described by Horace as ‘mimax murmur’ – a threatening rumble”.[1]

The last military brass out of Rome was the Buccina. When it comes to the Buccina, we are much less certain. The Buccina is either just a different name for the long Cornu, or possibly a different bugle-type trumpet used to sound reveille during the night. If it is in fact a different instrument, scholars even argue about where it may have even come from. Some scholars claim that a similar instrument was used previously in certain barbarian cultures, while others say the Buccina functioned as a shepherd’s horn.[1] These military tools were extremely important to the culture because they were used to intimidate and strike fear into the heart of their enemy. Basically, for the cultures of this time, whoever’s army could make the most ruckus would gain the upper hand in each individual soldier’s confidence. “The tumult of the army of the Celts terrified the Romans, for there was amongst them an infinite number of horns and trumpets which… made a clamor so terrible and loud that every surrounding echo was awakened…”.[1] I believe it is important to mention that both the Greeks and the Romans attribute the revolutionary achievements to the bronze workers of the Etruscans.

Another instrument that is important to history is the Cornetto. The Cornetto, being largely popular from 1550-1650, was a major part of the Renaissance and Early Baroque. “The cornetto actually represents a combination of the cup-shaped mouthpiece of the brasses and the basic construction and fingering of recorders”.[4] The cornetto marks an important step in history toward making the trumpet what it is today by the greater interest towards the mouthpiece and using instruments like that for both solos and accompaniment. The later version of the cornetto is the cornet which is still widely used in orchestras and bands today; even in America. Of course, the cornetto met its demise to a more advanced, more sophisticated instrument; the natural trumpet.

The natural trumpet is similar to the modern trumpet except that it had no valves. Holes were not even added until the late 18th century. The time of the natural trumpet is exciting because that is when musicians begin to experiment with virtuosic playing and the upper range begins to open up with possibilities, paving the way for genres of music far down the road such as the jazz age and contemporary trumpet solo music. The natural trumpet is the beginning of the science of the embouchure as well as the start of the Trumpet Age.[4] Today, the natural trumpet is still occasionally used. Usually, in royal fanfares (real or in a musical work) a natural trumpet will occasionally be used to portray authentic and/or royal passages.    

The next innovation of the trumpet is the keyed trumpet. “The keyed trumpet was developed because of a need for chromaticism that was not attainable on the natural trumpet”.[4] At first, trumpets would have four, five, or even six keys.[4] The only brass instrument that really ended up continuing the use of keys is the French horn. However, the keyed trumpet was more like short transition into one of the most prominent inventions for the world of music; the piston valve.

“A complete valve consists of two essential parts, an outer casing to which the various tubes of the instrument are attached, and a close-fitting inner body, pierced by alternative windways, which, according to its position, connect the external tubes in different ways”.[1] There were many men that helped contribute to this great invention. The man credited with the first idea of implementing chromatic capabilities with anything other than a slide was Charles Clagget as early as 1788. Later, Saxon Heinrich Stolzel and Friedrich Bluhmel created a patent for their square valves in 1818, the official beginning of the valve era.[1] Then, John Shaw of Glossop, Derbyshire patented spring slides in 1824. By the 1830’s, horn-makers everywhere were concerned with one thing; improving and inventing techniques for brass making and valve mechanism.[1] The overall development and improvement of the valve systems is really what is responsible for forming the current role that the trumpet fills in regards to its current usage in today’s music. Chromatic functions, cadenzas, and especially any form of jazz would have been limited to string instruments and vocalists if the valve system was never perfected. The valve system today has opened a whole new world to virtuoso players not only on the trumpet but on any valve brass instrument.

Considering how the trumpet was still in certain stages of development in the 17th century, it is no surprise that the role of the trumpet in oratorios was limited to the opening tutti, and certain fanfare sections. Typically, fanfare sections were improvisatory in nature, most of the fanfare being left to interpretation by the trumpeter himself. Although, when it came to Monteverdi’s Orfeo overture, Monteverdi felt the need to create his own fanfare in five parts with nothing less than eight foot trumpets. “This was the first example we know of a composer imposing his will on the trumpet body in this way, and it was a landmark in the path of early Opera”.[1]

The chromatic trumpet continued to gain popularity with composers such as Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner. These composers continued to implement semitone passages and exploring with the versatility of this brass instrument that was now just as chromatically matured as a flute or clarinet.[2] The Bb trumpet soon took over and largely replaced the F trumpet and began to take its place as a prominent melodic tool for composers for ages to come.

Just before the Bach revival in the 19th century, high-pitched chromatic trumpets were already being used for military purposes. These smaller, higher-pitched trumpets became known as Bach trumpets. They were important to this time period because composers of this era would need a trumpet that could play very high notes in a very controlled, flexible manner. This move toward higher sounding trumpets in music will eventually lead to the stratosphere players in the modern jazz age of trumpet and big band music.[3]

The trumpet has one of the most interesting paths of development. Starting in the very beginning as a military communication tool, transforming from a noise-maker to a musical fanfare instrument and then on to becoming the focal point of melodic instrumental music. The trombone and tuba both come straight from a variation of the early trumpet as well as most of the brass family. The contributions to music that the trumpet had provided are substantial as well as the tremendous freedom and tools that the modern trumpet and the virtuoso players that have developed their skills now provide for modern composers. 



Sep 1, 2014 7:30pm
I liked your article. Very informative. I am going to link it to one of my articles. I hope you don't mind. If you do let me know.
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  1. Bate, Phillip The Trumpet and Trombone: An Outline of Their History, Development, and Construction.. London: Ernest Been Limited, 1966.
  2. Daubeny, Ulric Orchestral Wind Instruments, Ancient and Modern; Being an Account of the Origin and Evolution of Wind Instruments from the Earliest to the Most Recent times. Freeport, NY: Books For Libraries Press, 1970.
  3. Baines, Anthony Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.
  4. Sherman, Roger The Trumpeter's Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Playing and Teaching the Trumpet. Athens, OH: Accura Music, 1979.

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