Skip to page content

The trumpet has gone through two major evolutions in the last 200 years: the abandonment of the natural trumpet for the valve trumpet in the mid-19th century, and the rediscovery of the natural trumpet over the last 40 or 50 years. In its heyday the natural trumpet was a simple coiled tube that played the higher notes of the overtone series – essentially the four notes of a bugle (G-C-G-E) in its second and third octaves, and a major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, or higher) in its fourth octave. This meant the trumpet was a melodic instrument in the hands of players who could manage the fiendishly difficult task of playing in its extreme high register. Such clarino players were never plentiful, but Baroque composers exploited their talents with brilliant solos and prominent orchestral parts. A trumpet could be pitched in home keys other than C by changing its length with insertable sections of tubing, but it could neither play chromatic notes outside the major scale nor play complete scales when the music modulated out of the home key. And as the 18th century moved into the 19th, clarino playing became so rare that composers effectively forgot about it. Bach-like trumpet parts were unthinkable for Beethoven or Mendelssohn.

The invention of valves created a trumpet that could play all the notes of the chromatic scale. It overcame considerable resistance (its tone was different, and valves create pitch inaccuracies) to become common in orchestras after 1850, but valves did not bring back the trumpet’s glory days. Composers did not leap to write showpieces for the valve trumpet, and to this day trumpet virtuosos rely heavily on music more than two centuries old. This raised a technical problem, because the orchestral valve trumpet did not lend itself to high-lying Baroque trumpet parts. As early as the 1890s, trumpeters started using smaller “piccolo” trumpets for older music. They remain common, but as Alison Balsom has noted, the piccolo trumpet’s sound, while “sweet and bright,” is “ultimately less interesting” than the valveless one. The early music movement has re-created an insatiable demand for trumpeters skilled enough, and brave enough, to try their lips at the treacherous but rewarding Baroque instrument.

In the first half of this program, Alison Balsom uses a piccolo trumpet for Baroque concertos written for violin and oboe, which include notes the Baroque trumpet can’t play. After intermission, she plays a Baroque trumpet in Baroque music for trumpet or voice. The two instruments represent different worlds of sound: relatives but not siblings.

This program’s first half is a survey of what “concerto” meant in the early 18th century. There were, generally speaking, two models. The Corellian concerto grosso was a dialogue between a trio of soloists (two violins and cello) and a larger body of strings, the soloists and accompanists sharing much of the material in as many as ten movements or sections that could include dances or fugues. In the Vivaldian model a soloist (and less commonly, more than one) took a starring role as soloist in a work consisting of two fast movements sandwiching a slow movement.

Francesco Geminiani was a student of Corelli who became the chief carrier of the Corellian flame. He settled in London in 1715, about the same time Handel did. He is best known for his own concerto grosso sets, and for an influential and informative treatise on the violin. The “concerto” on this program is his reworking of the final solo violin sonata of Corelli’s Opus 5, a set of variations on the popular “La Follia.” Geminiani took Corelli’s violin-and-bass texture and added a viola part and an active second violin part, turning the sonata into a genuine concerto grosso.

Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in B-flat is typical of Albinoni: an elegant but concise excursion in the Vivaldian three-movement solo concerto form. Albinoni’s father had made a fortune as a paper merchant in Venice, and Albinoni styled himself a musical Dilettante Veneto, letting everyone know he did not need to earn a living in music. This did not stop him from producing a large body of work, including about 80 operas. Because most of them are lost, Albinoni is known principally for his instrumental music, which survived because it was published. His Opus 7, printed in 1715, included what were likely the earliest Italian concertos written for oboe, and the first oboe concertos published anywhere.

George Frideric Handel borrowed, or stole, ideas from almost anyone, but he was not one to adopt someone else’s style or forms. The twelve concertos of his Opus 6, all composed in October 1739 for performance between acts of his oratorios in the coming season, fit into no formal or stylistic pigeonhole. He might easily have called the Concerto in B-flat a suite: it calls for no soloist at all. It begins, as Corelli sometimes does, with a largo followed by a fugue, but the fugue’s tongue is firmly in cheek, with a subject that starts with 14 repeated notes, and episodes in which the instruments seem to be arguing with each other. Marked contrasts follow in the form of a tender slow movement in G minor, a march-like andante, and a vigorous hornpipe.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D is from his Opus 3, L’Estro Armonico, which made him an international star on its publication in Amsterdam in 1711, and launched the three-movement solo concerto form on an international career of its own that hasn’t ended yet. The D-major Concerto is one of the tamer works in L’Estro Armonico, but the last movement displays some of the virtuosic flamboyance (more virtuosic-sounding on the trumpet than the violin) that caused Vivaldi to be the most discussed, emulated, and criticized composer of his time.

 

Atalanta, one of Handel’s least-known operas, was an exercise in walking a political tightrope. The opera business (Handel was both composer and impresario) was dangerously expensive, and success required not only having rich and powerful patrons, but also not antagonizing those patrons’ rich and powerful enemies. Handel was a favorite of George II, which caused problems with Frederick, Prince of Wales, because the Hanovers hated each other and Frederick seldom missed a chance to oppose his father politically or socially. “My dear firstborn is the greatest beast in the world,” the king remarked, “and I most heartily wish he were out of it.” (He would get his wish: Frederick predeceased him in 1751.) In 1733 Frederick had helped found the Opera of the Nobility, which competed with Handel’s company for subscribers and poached his star singers. But Frederick continued to attend Handel’s operas, and the composer got a chance to woo the prince, and neutralize a threat, with Frederick’s April 1736 marriage to Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. He composed the anthem Sing Unto God for the wedding ceremony and Atalanta for the following celebrations.

In mythology, Atalanta was a hunter and athlete who avoided marriage by refusing any man unless he could beat her in a footrace. None could, until Hippomenes won the race and Atalanta, by diverting her with three irresistible golden apples given him by Aphrodite. Handel’s librettist avoided the race and apples because it would not do to imply that Augusta was not eager to marry Frederick, and in any event the imported Italian singers did not radiate athleticism; Anna Maria Strada, the Atalanta, was known in London as “the Pig.” Not much actually happens in the opera: hero and heroine cavort among pastoral nymphs and swains and fall in love after some mistaken identity problems.

So why does the Overture amount to a semi-concerto for a solo trumpet that isn’t needed during the opera’s action? Probably because the trumpet is the instrument of kings, or because Frederick just liked the trumpet. (Sing Unto God also opens with a prominent trumpet obbligato.) Handel knew his man. Frederick withdrew from the Opera of the Nobility a month after the wedding, and for the rest of his life remained an ardent Handelian; it might have been the only thing he and his father agreed on.

The first five pieces by Henry Purcell on the program are from peculiarly British stage creations known as “English opera” or “semi-opera:” spoken dramas filled with music. The orchestra played before each act; and minor, often dramatically superfluous, characters sang or danced during the action. 

In The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian (1690) a Roman soldier reneges on a promise to marry the niece of a prophetess who accurately predicts that he will, improbably, become emperor. The angry prophetess conjures the Furies in music that would have struck 17th-century ears as tonally adrift and eerie.

King Arthur (1691) is about a war between the Britons and invading Saxons, involving lots of sorcery and spirits. Camelot, knights, round tables, and Guinevere are conspicuously absent. The plot is also absent by the fifth act, a series of tableaux and songs that are independent of the story in the first four acts. “Fairest Isle,” an ode to England as the seat of love, is sung by Venus, no less. “Shepard, Shepard, leave decoying,” a respite from the martial action going on in Act II, is a duet for two shepherdesses who spoof familiar pastoral conventions by telling their dallying shepherds that “after toying, women have the shot to pay,” so they want written marriage commitments before the toying starts.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between Purcell’s high-profile and well-paid theater work and the two pieces from a manuscript that dates from 1680, when he was 21. The Chacony in G minor takes its inspiration from the chaconnes – sets of variations on a descending bass line – that accompanied elaborate ballets in French operas. But while French composers, including Lully, tended to write simple textures, often composing just the top line and bass, and farming out the interior parts to assistants, the young Purcell’s chaconne is intricate and carefully worked out.

The same manuscript contains 15 fantasias for viol consort, a once-prominent genre that had been out of style for a generation. In the Fantasia on this program, the second-lowest of the five parts holds the same C from beginning to end, while the other voices weave a polyphonic tapestry around it in F major, F minor, and C major.

The suite that ends this program was known in Handel’s day as “Mr. Handel’s Celebrated Water Piece,” a title chosen to capitalize on the popularity of Handel’s Water Music. Handel may have had no hand in its 1733 publication by a firm he did not otherwise deal with, but there is no evidence that he objected to it, or to additional printings by another publisher in the 1740s. It begins with an arrangement of the first movement of the D-major Water Music Suite and ends with a march from his opera Partenope. The three pieces in the middle are of unknown origin, and Handel may or may not have written them. It might be nice to think that there were enough first-rate trumpeters in England to make publication profitable, but it’s far more likely that most buyers were players of other wind instruments.  

Howard Posner plays lute and baroque guitar and practices appellate law in Los Angeles.