About Historical Trumpets and Mr. Würsch, Weidinger, Hummel und Haydn

Historical instruments

Trumpets originally “only” played the notes of the harmonic series (some 16 notes in all), which was sufficient for many of the magnificent works of music history that needed the instrument; it was also enough for trumpeters who were employed at court. But today, we are used to having trumpets with valves.

The period from 1750 to 1850 is regarded as a time of transition from the natural to the valve trumpet. Different solutions were found and tried out in order to get the trumpet to play more notes than the harmonic series. Stopping the bell of the instrument with the hand was one possibility, while keys were tried such as were used on woodwind instruments. Movable slides were used, like on trombones, and valves of all sorts were constructed. Historical performance practice is today interested in these transitional instruments again. It can be inspiring for musicians to play the music of the time on replicas of the instruments for which it was written.

Keyed trumpets

This functions astonishingly well: A hole at the right point on the body of the trumpet will raise all the notes of its harmonic series; using three such holes means you can play whole scales. But these holes have to be situated quite far apart from each other to function properly, so in order to be able to open and close them, keys were employed just as on woodwind instruments.

Several trumpeters of the late 18th century carried out experiments with keys and holes. One who was highly successful was the Viennese court trumpeter Anton Weidinger (1766–1852). He managed to convince almost all the Viennese composers of the day to write works for his “invented trumpet”. Two of them today belong to the best-known works of the Classical period: the trumpet concertos by Joseph Haydn (composed in 1796) and by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1803).

A team from the Bern University of the Arts HKB, led by Markus Würsch and the instrument builders Konrad Burri from Zimmerwald and Rainer Egger in Basel, conducted research into the history, construction and playing methods of the keyed trumpet. (more...)

Concert poster for Anton Weidinger’s “Academy with a performance of his invented trumpet” of 28 March 1800. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto was the second work on this long programme.
Concert poster for Anton Weidinger’s “Academy with a performance of his invented trumpet” of 28 March 1800. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto was the second work on this long programme.

Video: Interview with Markus Würsch about the keyed trumpet

Replica of the Courtois trumpets

Antoine Courtois (1814–1880) was “Facteur du Conservatoire de Paris” and one of the most important instrument makers of his time. Trumpets from his workshop on display at the Klingendes Museum Bern include a slide trumpet from ca 1845 and a case with a natural trumpet and a valve trumpet from ca 1855 (cfr. image). This was the standard equipment of a French orchestral trumpeter of the time. All three instruments have been copied by the instrument maker Egger in Basel.

In making these replicas, Egger did not just measure the geometry of the original instruments and “copy” it, but also the material of which they were made – a brass alloy containing a small amount of lead. The replicas were also manufactured using methods of the time. Egger wants to work as “historically” as the musicians for whom he makes these instruments, see the following video.
(link to the research project...)

Case with a natural trumpet and a valve trumpet by Courtois, ca 1855. With shank in G and crooks in F, E, Eb, D and C.
Case with a natural trumpet and a valve trumpet by Courtois, ca 1855. With shank in G and crooks in F, E, Eb, D and C.
Annealing the bell
Annealing the bell

Video: The trumpet maker

Dilemma of conservation: May we play historical instruments again today?

Yes? Then we risk ruining them, like most instruments of their time.
No? But then they’re lost to us as music instruments anyway.

Historical musical instruments are a dilemma. If we still play them (or start playing them again), their parts will suffer wear and tear and will have to be replaced. At some point, nothing of it will be “original” any more, or the instrument will become unplayable. But if we stop playing the original instruments, they simply become historical objects that offer proof of their history, but have lost their sound – which was their reason for existing in the first place.

This dilemma – to play or to conserve – applies to all museum objects with moving parts. Fundamentally, the dilemma can’t be solved. Wind instruments are especially endangered because of the moist breath of the player. The metal corrodes from the inside, and the wood can crack.

A research project of the HKB, conducted in collaboration with ETH Zurich and the Swiss National Museum, has now studied corrosion inside brass instruments. It was able to demonstrate that an instrument does not dry for weeks after being played (see the video below). The moisture activates the corrosion process primarily during the time when it’s not being played. A small fan can help to alleviate this.
(to the research project ...)

Inside a brass instrument: cleaned (left), after having played it every day without drying it for seven months (centre), and after 14 months of playing it every day without drying it (right)
Inside a brass instrument: cleaned (left), after having played it every day without drying it for seven months (centre), and after 14 months of playing it every day without drying it (right)

Video: A small ventilator has a great effect

Interview with Adrian v. Steiger about conservation of historical wind instruments, including those of ancient Egypt. 

Trumpets for historical performance practice

The HKB and the Klingendes Museum Bern own several trumpets that can be loaned out for historical performance projects. For more information, please contact mail@fresh-wind.ch.

Examples:

  • Valve trumpet, invention trumpet and slide trumpet, all in G / F / E / Eb / D / C / Bb by Rainer Egger, Basel, replicas after Antoine Courtois, Paris ca 1845 / 1855 (image)
  • Keyed trumpet in E/Eb by Rainer Egger, Basel, 5 keys, replica after Eduard Bauer, Prague, mid-19th century
  • Keyed bugle in Bb by Muller à Lyon, mid-19th century, 6 keys
  • Trumpet in F / E / Eb by Besson, London ca 1890, French piston valves
  • Trumpet in C by Couesnon, Paris 1920, suitable for playing French orchestral music of the time
Valve, slide and invention trumpets by Antoine Courtois; these originals in the Klingendes Museum Bern, whose replicas by Egger can be hired out.
Valve, slide and invention trumpets by Antoine Courtois; these originals in the Klingendes Museum Bern, whose replicas by Egger can be hired out.