Oxford University Bate Collection Lecture for Taverner Consort

The "Un-Natural Trumpet" : 7th April 2013

With the launch of their new recording of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and to celebrate the Taverner Consort's 40th Anniversary, Andrew Parrott organised a day of lectures at the Oxford University Faculty of Music and Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. Andrew asked me to give a lecture about the Natural Trumpet. The lecture was held on the 7th April 2013.

In the schedule for the day, Andrew Parrott had named my lecture The Unnatural Trumpet. Andrew was perhaps not aware that this was the same title as Graham Nicholson's article in 'Early Music' from 2010. I remember reading that article back in 2009, when I first met Graham and before the article was fully completed. There was one particular quote from it that has stayed in my mind. This became a starting point for my lecture:

“Throughout the 18th and 19th century, all instruments underwent alterations, none however altered to the extent that the trumpet did.”  
Nicholson, Graham – The Unnatural Trumpet  - Early Music

During my lecture, I gave demonstrations on some of my own trumpets as well as on an original 17th Century trumpet from the Bate Collection, that I had been given special permission to play during the lecture. I showed and played several different instruments to illustrate the point that no other instrument has changed as much as the trumpet has. I played instruments from the 8 foot natural trumpet, to the 4 foot modern trumpet, right down to the extreme of the 2 foot piccolo trumpet. If the same radical shortening had happened to the oboe, its modern counterpart would be around 16cm in length - and think how that would sound! Over the years, this extreme shortening has removed many of the beautiful overtones from the sound of the trumpet - which essentially give the trumpet its characterful sound. Dauverné, the first professor of trumpet at the Paris Conservatoire referred to this as: [the sound] "which electrifies men and horses on a battlefield".

“One would have an incomplete idea of the trumpet if one did not conceive that it combines sublime-ness and incisive brilliance which essentially belong to the original and fundamental type of the instrument, that which electrifies men and horses on a battlefield, as well as other varied and even entirely opposite qualities. I could cite a number of passages (in music) where the introduction of the Trumpet has produced the most pleasant effects without troubling the calm and without altering the softness that must reign there.” 
F. G. A. Dauverné - Methodé pour la trompette - International Music Diffusion - p. 106

Talking of battlefields and 'entirely opposite qualities' brought me nicely onto the topic of the symbolism of the trumpet. The natural trumpet has a dual symbolism: of representing earth in the low register and heaven in the high register. The earth symbolism has come from its use as a signalling instrument - playing fanfares that are typically in the low 'principal' register to communicate on the battlefield. The high, 'clarino' register is symbolically utilised to represent heaven because of its clear, rich and delicate sound. Referring to the different registers required me to reveal the set of notes that the instrument can obtain, in the hands of a skilled player.

I showed the below musical example of the 'harmonic series' - the set of notes, defined by physics, that players can obtain on the trumpet. I explained why there are certain peculiarities of tuning: as modern listeners perceive. It is all to do with ratios. I gave several examples.

Harmonic Series - Image © Russell Gilmour 2013

N.B: For the purpose of clarity, when I refer to the 'natural trumpet', I am discussing the instrument in it's unaltered form - the instrument without holes. I refer to the instrument that does use finger holes as the 'finger-holed trumpet'.

I demonstrated how the harmonic series sounds: firstly on the natural trumpet and then on the finger-holed trumpet. I played the natural trumpet in such a way that the audience would clearly be able to hear the tuning peculiarities on the 7th, 11th, 13th harmonics. I did not try to alter them at all, as I was illustrating a point.

On the finger-holed trumpet, I played the same series but using the holes to correct the 7th, 11th and 13th partials, and I also used the octave hole to illustrate that this hole effectively halves the length of the instrument (thereby making it sound stronger). I played in such a way to exaggerate the wispy sound of an open hole. Of course, using the holes does adapt the tuning to fit our modern cultural perception of tuning. I explained that this adaptation detrimentally effects the sound quality as it removes much of the purity of sound from the overtones.

I played the natural trumpet again, illustrating that it is possible to adjust the sounds that are naturally 'out of tune' to our ears. I read a quote from Johann Ernst Altenburg's treatise of 1795, entitled: The Trumpeter and Kettle Drummers’ Art. Under the title of “Improving the Sounds Which Are Out of Tune”, Altenburg states:

“He who is endowed with a healthy sense of pitch will soon perceive that the aforementioned four sounds – a#’, f’, a’’, a#’’ – are, to a greater or lesser extent, not perfectly in tune. Therefore, one must necessarily try to correct them by using a skilled embouchure and a proper amount of exertion, if one wishes rightfully to deserve [to be called] artistic and expert”. 
Johann Ernst Altenburg – The Trumpeter and Kettle Drummers’ Art – Halle – 1795. Translated by Edward H. Tarr.

At this point - I played the recording of the Toccata, from the first track of the new L'Orfeo CD by the Taverner Consort, which was the first time it had been heard in public. This featured myself, David Staff, Sue Addison, Abigail Newman and Adam Woolf playing on replicas of 17th Century natural trumpets. This illustrated the point that the notes that are 'naturally out of tune' are usually not on the important beats (except when they are being used as expressive dissonances), and also that they can be corrected - to some degree - by using the airstream to adjust the speed of the vibration (some people refer to this as 'lipping', but I am not a great advocate of that name - as the lips are not where the most significant alteration should occur during the process - I call this frequency adjusting).

I also defended the use of the four finger-holed trumpet. It can sound beautiful, if played with style and skill. It is also relatively quick to learn. At the time of the so-called ‘early music revival', using holes was a practical solution for players. The instrument looked like a natural trumpet, especially because the four-hole system (invented in Wimbledon in 1975) retained the essence of the original basic shape of museum instruments, unlike the coexisting three-hole system trumpet (which often required changing the basic 'wrap' of the instrument radically). The finger holes brought a certain accessibility to the natural trumpet which has allowed players to meet the perfectionist demands of the recording industry and to live up to the expectations of modern audiences.

Finger-holed trumpets were an important stepping-stone for players who were interested in performing the music written by composers from Monteverdi to Berlioz on an 8 foot instrument. Speaking to players at the forefront of this revival, they tend to agree that finger holes were only intended as a temporary measure while they had time to accustom themselves to playing the ventless natural trumpet. However, their ventures in playing the finger-holed trumpet were so successful at gaining them work that their increased demand within the profession effectively rearranged their initial priorities and intentions on their behalf.

Listeners have become accustomed to the precision of the finger-holed trumpet. So much so, that some people do not know that using finger holes on a trumpet is a modern idea. The culture that has developed for playing the finger-holed instrument in general, has become canonised. 

Players that are interested in playing the natural trumpet without holes have a difficult job, because they will almost always be compared to the finger-holed trumpet. It's a quandary, which is the basis of the 'Unnatural Trumpet' issue. It is analogous to cycling clean, while everybody else in the race is doping, or like putting a photograph of a model in a fashion magazine without airbrushing out any so-called imperfections. You'd have to be an incredibly good cyclist to keep up with the dopers or you'd have to keep a stunningly good figure and smooth skin to be chosen in preference the airbrushed models. Even if you did succeed, you would probably desire some form of extra acknowledgement for succeeding without what we might call 'artificial assistance'.

How artificial is artificial? Are holes even anachronous? Well, we do have one extant example of finger-holes being used on a baroque trumpet (it is now housed in the Museum of London) but it is the only example. You have to ask yourself the important musical questions: would the composer recognise their own music? Would Handel have rejoiced at the prospect of having a slightly better in tune F in his trumpet section? Did audiences mind that some notes were slightly out of tune on the trumpet? - or did they just take it as read that these peculiarities were an integral part of the sound of the trumpet? 

Where there is imperfection, there is often beauty. I think back to my Nan's house, where I spent a lot of time as a child. She lived in a Victorian town house that still had the original hand-made glass in most of the windows. I used to enjoy watching people walk past the house while I was looking through the slightly quirky, hall-of-mirrors style glass. They would appear to get slightly closer, then disappear into a vortex and then emerge unscathed on the other side, all without their knowledge! This imperfection in the glass created an illusion that captured my imagination as a child and it is far more artistically interesting - though technically of course, less accurate - than modern glass. Perhaps as performers and listeners, we should not allow ourselves to become obsessed with aesthetic perfection and instead we should embrace imperfection as part of the beauty. 

Instead of looking at the natural trumpet's shortcomings, I then went onto talking about its advantages over the finger-holed trumpet:
  • The natural trumpet has a 'chirruping' and pure sound. The emerging pure sound is not diffused by opening holes along the length of its tubing. 
  • There feels to be a kind of 'direct drive' of vibration between the aperture of your lips and the resulting sound. This does not happen on the finger-holed trumpet. This happens on natural trumpet as there are no moving parts inside the instrument to detract from the interplay of your organs:
“In short, I will say that it is impossible to become a skilful trumpeter, in any style, if one does not begin with a complete study of the natural trumpet. Would it not be, in fact, in opposition to all further progress, to devote oneself at first to an instrument which offers all the mechanical help of cylinders and pistons, instead of practising and conquering all the difficulties of articulation solely by the play of our organs.” 
  Dauverné: p.107
  • It is very difficult to achieve a brash sound, in the 'modern trumpet' sense, on a natural trumpet - and nor is that desired. Instead the natural trumpet achieves an effect of excitement by maintaining the integrity of its overtones and having an incisive stroke (attack). Its sound carries well but does not dominate the musical texture.
  • The natural trumpet has a built-in pure tuning system. It is very easy to play in a section of natural trumpets because the sounds compliment each other. The ratios between the notes of the harmonic series dictate the tuning, which is unequal but desirably characterful. This adds to the harmonic journey of a piece. The further you get away from the tonic and dominant, the more exotic the tuning will sound. This makes the arrival back at the 'harmonic home' all the more triumphant. This is often referred to as the 'tension - release' formula.
  • On the natural trumpet, as you play higher the volume of the notes get weaker. This fits with the way the human ear works and a section of three players will almost naturally give a pyramidical sound within a section. Using finger-holes effectively amplifies the high register as opening a hole halves the sounding length of the instrument, giving it access to the stronger harmonic series sounding one octave lower. This is slightly more secure but it gives the trumpet an unnaturally strong high register. If you analyse works where Bach made revisions of instrumentation, you notice that the trumpet and the flute were often used interchangeably.
  • The natural trumpet has a natural articulation. In a way, it almost articulates itself. It feels like it is dictating how it needs to be played and it naturally fits with the articulation rules of the style.
  • It is fulfilling and challenging for a trumpet player to learn this discipline. Esoteric as this may sound, it takes a great deal of zen-like mindlessness to be able to be accurate. In a way, many of us are guilty of putting in too much effort on the ventless trumpet. Learning to play the natural trumpet is the best practice I ever do. It is more difficult than playing with finger holes, so it physically prepares you and more importantly - playing the trumpet without holes is a good way of informing your finger-holed trumpet playing. Until such times as one feels ready and capable of playing without.

I finished the lecture with a question and answer section and gave further demonstrations to explain the arising issues.

I really enjoyed preparing my lecture, and was honoured to be asked to present a lecture in such esteemed company - with many musicologists I really admire. I enjoyed listening to the other lectures (detailed below) and the lecturers retired for a communal meal after the event. 

I have subsequently received a lot of praise from audience members at this lecture. In particular, I was thanked for my balanced, practical and non-dogmatic stance on the issues I raised. I was thrilled to receive this praise: It is far too easy with this subject (or in fact, I'm sure that this is true with any subject that you study for a long time) to study the sources and to think that you have found THE definitive answer on a given topic. The Historically Informed Performance movement was supposed to be a reaction against canonisation - of instrument choice - but also of thought, so I'm actively trying not to let my ideas become canonised.

Taverner @ 40

Oxford University Bate Collection (AM)

Andrew Parrott - Introduction

Jeremy Montagu - An Introduction to the Bate Collection

Russell Gilmour - Unnatural Trumpets

Christopher Suckling - The Chordal Cellist

Simon Ravens - All Together Now

David Lee - Music for the Oxford Act

Holywell Music Room (PM)

Charles Medlam - Bach's 'Cello' Suites

Malcolm Bruno - The Recording and Music

David Vickers - Reconstructing Contexts for Baroque Music

Derek McCulloch - On Quires and Places Where They Sing

Silas Wollston - The Humphrey Puzzle

Rogers Covey-Crump - The Renaissance of Tuning

Andrew Parrott - Exploring Countertenors