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Other articles by Mike Diprose

More about instruments

A gentle revolution is slowly occurring in sections of the baroque music community which are keen to investigate what could become another excuse to re-record a considerable amount of repertoire (the fragile state of the record industry notwithstanding). Along with the emer-gence of the holeless natural trumpet come, in sympathy, other subtle but significant (and not wholly welcome) developments in historically informed performance practice.

Some of you may have missed Partial Success in February’s edition of EMR. I reported on the rediscovery, by JF Madeuf and others, of the ’lost art’ of playing the trumpet in clarino (high) register in the original way - without latter-day alterations such as vent holes to assist tuning. This instrument was referred to as the ’holeless nat’. Aside from the perilous task of playing it, the issue of temperament (and a current dearth of skilled players) was identified as being the main obstacle to the assimilation of the holeless nat into modern early-music performance. Although, especially in England, audiences seldom hear holeless nats, the revolution is nevertheless seeping into our consciousness through the bells of a few forward-thinking baroque (not hand-horn) horn players. Names supplied on request!

It would appear that a difference of opinion similar to the English 4-hole/German 3-hole trumpet systems exists in the horn world. British players mainly use holes, though accept their inauthenticity, and are at odds with players on the continent, who tend to use hand technique in their bells, for which there is also, during the baroque era, no supporting evidence. No pictures of horn players from these times depict them hand stopping and there is no mention of it in contemporary literature. So holeless playing could be a way of finally uniting Europe! I’m off to the EU for a grant...

’Like playing golf on stilts, or violin music, at pitch, on a cello’ would is an accurate comparison for the challenges faced by whoever dares to learn the holeless nat. Needless to say, the odd note can get a bit surrounded (in the words of Crispan Steele-Perkins). A French verb for mistake is se tromper and children in Poland, after erring in some way still say ’Jestem Tromba&38217; or ’I’m a big trumpet’ (diminutive Trabka). You do the math! It’s called character! I’d challenge anyone to find a musician after a performance who would honestly admit that he or she hadn’t made some slight error. For me, this is part of the appeal of playing such a difficult instrument in public - to imagine part of an informed audience’s anticipation as a cultured, but morbid fascination, similar to how a boy feels at his first dog fight (or fox hunt, depending on his breeding). Needless to say, part of the skill of playing this instrument in ensemble (used to this day by orchestral modern-horn players) is what you might call discrete selection.


During my studies at the Schola Cantorum in Basel in the last year, in an environment keen to investigate change, we have rehearsed and performed frequently with oboists who, using original fingering patterns and sympathetic ears, blend and tune effortlessly with holeless nats. Expanding on the work of Bruce Haynes in his book The Eloquent Oboe, oboist Johanne Maitre, a student at the Schola, has compiled fingering charts from 12 contemporary sources 1689-1770. It would appear that, to cede to the widespread use of the Valotti temperament (publ. 1779), baroque oboists and other wind players are currently using patterns and some hole positions from the 19th century.

Amongst string players, there is also a shift towards the use of unwound gut strings. Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber (Oliver also makes them) are two violinists in Britain playing almost exclusively on unwound gut. It transpires that, contrary to what one might think, a violin strung with thick, Italian-style strings (at greater tension) made from this material, is louder than a modern violin strung with whatever it is that they use nowadays. So no balance problems there! Although a violin strung with French-style thinner gut strings will be a bit quieter, the repertoire usually requires many players on each part.

The challenge for next semester is to investigate the application of different temperaments by willing violinists and violists. An interesting trumpet-related subject, since their open strings (tuned in pure fifths) are in accordance with a D trumpet’s notes - a coincidence? Except the bottom G that is, but violins are never required to play this note with a trumpet. One of the violinists at the Schola has also played a great deal of Renaissance music and is familiar with the quarter-comma-mean-tone temperament used for such repertoire. She was quick to adjust her ears and fingers to our current favourite - Silbermann (sixth-comma mean tone).

When asked how he composed his music, Stravinsky famously said: ’with an eraser’. There are many subtle alterations musicians can make to accommodate the character of the holeless nat. For instance, continuo players, when modulating to the dominant (e.g. an E or E7 chord in the key of D), if the trumpet has a G#, which is naturally flat, simply omit this note from the voicing on the keyboard, avoiding a clash. The third (B) can also be left out of a sub-dominant G chord, when necessary. These and many other little gems can be found by studying orchestral scores, particularly the works of Bach which include trumpets. Harmony is, after all, mainly about creating tension and release. The greater the tension...