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Other articles by Mike Diprose

More about instruments

Hello again. So much has happened since the last instalment (2007) that it’s difficult to know where to start. To catch up: I renounced the strainer in 2007, my studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis finished two years ago, and I’ve been lucky enough to live almost solely from playing the realtrumpet. Almost solely, because the other duty has been directing Barokensemble de Swaen (Amsterdam) for the last two seasons. This has been an eye-opener in many respects. For me, the main reason to play the real trumpet is simple: honesty - to do what you say you do (how else?) and not what, after the End of Early Music, might be referred to as "HIPocrisy". De Swaen’s approach shares the same attitude of honesty with their carefully-researched choice of instruments, set-ups, tuning aesthetics, rhetorical delivery and so on. To play with them is a natural pleasure.

Moving on, the term I previously used, "holeless nat", will be replaced by "real trumpet". This article does not include the tromba/corno da tirarsi. Historically Informed/Inspired Performance is referred to as "HIP". A sobriquet coined by Jeremy Montagu will be applied to the Knabenopheclide, or mid-20th century "Baroque trumpet" with nodal vent holes: the "strainer". 1)

To compare the real trumpet to the strainer is to confuse wool with nylon or a hobby horse with a motorcycle. It’s not as simple as drilling three or four holes into a real trumpet. Acoustically, the introduction of nodal vent holes, which need to be positioned relative to the total length of tubing, necessitates tuning slides (usually made from machine-drawn tubing), separate back bows, "yards" and mouth-pipes for different keys; meaning thicker walls, bows and variations in bore and conicity in the wrong places; needing compensation with a conical lead-pipe, which changes bell acoustics, and so on - in short, a spiral of compromise, in an attempt to make it "blow" more like a modern instrument less than a third of its length.

The temptation to use it under pressure aside, such compromises remove the option of playing with the holes all closed, negating the possibility of playing many of the articulations indicated by composers or using a wooden transposing mute. A "closed" posture, with the chest restricted by using two hands, means that, rather than being held up in a symbolically-triumphant manner (and above the heads of our long-suffering colleagues), the strainer must to be "pointed down in defeat", collecting water, partially closing the player’s throat and disturbing the musicians in front. However, the "short" three-hole system does allow both elbows to be stuck out. Pre-20th century composers tended to write what was possible to play on the available equipment. Rather then adapt or invent instruments, isn’t our collective mission to make the music work in the same way?


To play the real trumpet simply needs a reassessment of technique, from which one’s playing on modern instruments benefits. This boils down to re-focussing awareness of balance points and resonance. It’s also an advantage, throughout those long winter months in cold churches, that one can perform wearing thick, warm gloves - a luxury normally only enjoyed by singers, trombonists and, it would seem, some organists.

Because all things are interconnected, the context of HIP in general could take a look inwards too. With De Swaen, we have taken the time to explore "just" intonation with great success - it is natural to singers, simple to apply for players of "those instruments that can play in tune" and enhances resonance, definition and rhetorical Affekts. Although "pure" tuning is detailed and cited as an ideal in most sources (even by its "arch enemy", Sorge) it is, to my knowledge, not yet part of the general curriculum in any conservatoire that specialises in Early Music. There are other aesthetics of historical playing that could generally be better understood and applied; such as spontaneous ornamentation.

The modern trumpet (and strainer, to an extent) is designed as an acoustic "funnel" (small, pear-shaped mouthpiece cup, long conical sections), so that each note is played "in the centre" and tuning adjusted with slides. This reduces the chances of "cracking" a note, as does the use of ever-shorter tubing lengths, which move the partials further apart within the required range. The greater distance between partials means that those cracks that do happen are quite dramatic. Progress has made the now-standard orchestral trumpet in Germany, the Schagerl rotary, conical throughout - therefore technically no longer a trumpet (defined as at least partly-cylindrical) but a cornet (small horn).

On the real trumpet (larger, apple-shaped mouthpiece cup, 2/3rds cylindrical), with some repertoire ascending to the 24th partial and the need to place some notes off-centre, occasional spontaneous ornamentation is almost inevit-able but, when tastefully executed, would explain contemporary reports of "chirruping". This effect remains today in the unbroken tradition of the hunting horn: tayauté, as quoted in the finale of Mozart’s Horn Concerto no 2. Similar effects are written in the trumpet parts of Telemann, Bach and others. It could be argued - since trumpeters were revered as "part-musician, part-magician", and that these effects, namely acciaccaturas, mordents, trills etc. draw the ear so strongly - that other players imitated what happens naturally on the trumpet. It is puzzling that nowadays, when such ornaments are played by a musician, they are "expressive" and "artistic" but a trumpeter doing the same can be frowned at.

1) A history of the "unnatural trumpet" by Graham Nicholson, was published in Early Music, May 2010.