The Trumpet—From Battlefield to Concert Hall
IN THE time of King Abijah, the warriors of Judah were caught in an ambush. Surrounded by 800,000 enemy soldiers, they were outnumbered 2 to 1. Escape seemed impossible. Suddenly, the sound of trumpets pierced the air! As the adrenaline surged through their veins, the men of Judah shouted a resounding war cry and rushed into battle. Despite the odds against them, the Judeans defeated the enemy.—2 Chronicles 13:1-20.
How stirring it must have been to hear those trumpets! It undoubtedly reminded the Judeans of Jehovah’s promise: “In case you should enter into war in your land against the oppressor who is harassing you, you must also sound a war call on the trumpets, and you will certainly be remembered before Jehovah your God and be saved from your enemies.” (Numbers 10:9) The sounding of the trumpets demonstrated Judah’s trust in Jehovah, and that trust was rewarded.
The history of the trumpet goes back much further than this Biblical incident. The metal trumpet can be traced back to Egypt about 2,000 years before Christ. These ancient trumpets were quite different from the ones we know today. Consider the development of this fascinating instrument.
The Early Stages
The English word “trumpet” is derived from an Old French word, trompe, that refers to an elephant’s trunk. Evidently, primitive trumpets looked like the proboscis of an elephant. Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.E.) called the sound of the trumpet “shattering.” Its use was restricted to war signals, funeral or festal occasions, athletic contests, and other public events.
While the trumpets of Israel were used for military signals, they also provided music in the temple. Skilled craftsmen were employed to manufacture high-quality instruments out of silver. In the temple, trumpeters played in such unison that they were described “as one in causing one sound to be heard [in perfect harmony, Today’s English Version].”—2 Chronicles 5:13.
So Israel’s trumpets were by no means crude, either to the eyes or to the ears. However, like the trumpets of surrounding nations, they could produce only a limited number of tones. Centuries would pass before the trumpet’s capabilities were enhanced.
Development of the Modern Trumpet
To increase the trumpet’s tonal range, its design had to be modified. First the length was extended. A longer instrument, it was reasoned, would have a larger repertoire of notes. A medieval trumpet (called the buisine) was actually six feet [1.8 m] long! As can be imagined, it was awkward to play. Thus, in the 14th century, the trumpet was bent into an S-shape for manageability. A century later, it had acquired an oblong loop with three parallel branches.
The new trumpet could sound more tones but only in a higher register. These notes were difficult to reach. Nonetheless, some began to write music for clarino, suitable for higher range parts. One famous composer of that era was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
Eventually, extra coils of tubing called crooks were added to the trumpet. The idea was simple: Additional tubing increased the length of the main column of air, thereby producing a wider pitch range. The crooks lowered the common key of the trumpet from F down to as low as B flat.
Thus, by the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), high-pitched clarino playing had disappeared. The clarinet came to handle the higher register with relative ease, while the trumpet now occupied the middle range.
This new trumpet was versatile. But it was still awkward to play, for adjusting the crooks demanded the use of both hands. Hence, further changes were in order.
A Trumpet With Keys
About 1760 a Russian musician named Kolbel made a breakthrough discovery. He placed a hole near the bell of the trumpet and covered it with a padded key that served as a stopper. Opening this key raised the tone of the trumpet one half-step at any note. In 1801, a trumpeter from Vienna named Anton Weidinger improved Kolbel’s design by producing a trumpet with five keys. Finally there existed a trumpet that could produce all the notes of the scale without being cumbersome to play.
Even Weidinger’s trumpet, however, had a grave limitation. The opening of the keys interfered with the instrument’s resonance, compromising the trumpet’s distinguishable sound. The keyed trumpet, therefore, did not last. It was soon abandoned in favor of a totally new approach to trumpet design.
The First Valve Trumpet
In 1815, Heinrich Stölzel of Silesia bought the patent for an invention that applied pistons, or valves, to the trumpet. By means of their strategically placed holes, each valve would divert the column of air from the main tube to an attached crook. Thus, several crooks of differing lengths could be employed simultaneously in any combination. Furthermore, because the valves were spring-loaded, instant reaction was possible.
At first this trumpet had problems with accurate intonation. As the years passed, however, these imperfections were corrected, and the valve trumpet has persisted to this day.
Renowned for Versatility
The trumpet has a place in virtually all types of music. It blends well with voice and with other instruments. Its heroic, martial tone makes it effective for fanfares and marches. At the same time, it has a brilliant, vibrant resonance that is well suited for concerti, operas, and modern jazz. Moreover, because of its rich, lyrical qualities, the trumpet admirably lends itself to ballads and is often featured in solo pieces.
Yes, the trumpet has traveled a long road. No longer is it simply a signal instrument in the hands of a soldier. Now it can produce genuine musical art—at least in the hands of a virtuoso. Undoubtedly it has brought you listening pleasure, regardless of your preference in music. How thankful we can be to our Creator for granting humans the ability to invent such musical instruments as the trumpet!
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Keyed Trumpet and Slide Trumpet: Encyclopædia Britannica/11th Edition (1911)