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Composed: 1796
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo trumpet

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 3, 1968, Zubin Mehta conducting, with soloist Robert Di Vall

Haydn’s trumpet concerto is the only significant monument to half a century of experiments in trumpet technology. It was written for an instrument that never really caught on (and today is largely unknown even among period-instrument specialists), and for that reason lay neglected for more than century.

To the 18th century, a trumpet was a coiled tube of brass about eight feet long (about twice as long as the standard modern instrument), starting with a mouthpiece at one end and flaring into a bell at the other, with none of the valve machinery in the middle that characterizes the modern instrument. It was capable of playing “natural” notes of the overtone series, which has large intervals at the low end and progressively smaller ones as pitch gets higher, so that the trumpeter could play scales, instead of just bugle-call notes, only by cultivating high notes. The player could produce its notes in different keys by detaching one section, or “crook,” of tubing and substituting another of different length, but since the player had to stop playing to do this, the standard practice was to “crook” the instrument in one key for an entire movement (the modern trumpet is, in effect, an instrument with three permanent crooks and valves that direct the airflow into one or more of them, giving the player an instant choice of seven different lengths and overtone series).

Playing so high on an instrument as long as a trombone was tremendously difficult, but a good number of players mastered the art. In the early 18th century, composers wrote fabulous, florid trumpet parts in the extreme high register of the instrument (indeed, Bach’s trumpet parts remain a tremendous challenge even on the modern trumpet), but by Haydn’s day this art of “clarino” playing was largely confined to royal courts and monasteries. The orchestral trumpeter of the Classical period cultivated about ten notes — the notes of a major chord at the bottom and half of a major scale at the top. The parts they played were simple, if not dull, consisting of fanfare figures and notes thrown in for added emphasis and volume.

It is remarkable, in retrospect, how little dissatisfaction there was with this state of affairs, not only in the 18th century, but in the 19th, when many composers (Brahms among them) continued to write parts tailored to the natural trumpet long after the natural trumpet had disappeared. It was accepted that the trumpet had only ten notes, just as it was accepted that the timpani had only two, and no one expected either instrument to be melodic, just as no one expected flutes to be loud.

Still, there were attempts to make the trumpet a true chromatic instrument in the later 18th century. Some innovators took a page from the woodwind book and put holes in the instrument to change the pitch, opening and closing them with keys. The best-known advocate of the keyed trumpet was Anton Weidinger, trumpeter of the Imperial Court Orchestra in Vienna, who commissioned Haydn’s Concerto (and a few others, including one by Hummel) in 1796, and played it for the first time in public in 1800, having evidently spent the intervening years refining his keyed-trumpet technique.

Haydn responded to the capability of the instrument like a gleeful child with a new toy. At the outset he indulges in a little teasing, letting the trumpet join the orchestra in the opening tutti for a few notes, all of them playable on the natural trumpet. Only with the first solo entrance does he break new ground, with the trumpet running up the scale from its written middle C, playing notes not possible on the natural trumpet. From then on the trumpet sings, slides around chromatically, skips and jumps, and every now and then plays a fanfare figure, as if Haydn wants to remind us that this new-fangled thing really is a trumpet.

Only the middle movement, a song that would be at home in any of Haydn’s operas, is entirely free of trumpet clichés. Haydn occasionally gives the solo trumpet what seems a minor accompaniment part, but they are parts that involve notes that could not previously have been played on a trumpet, and would therefore have had a very different meaning in 1800, jumping out at listeners who knew they were hearing the impossible. The sheer wonder of it is lost on modern listeners who have heard “Flight of the Bumblebee” on a trumpet.

For a number of reasons, the keyed trumpet never became an orchestral instrument, though a similar instrument was, for a short time, a mainstay of military bands, and a bass key-bugle, the ophicleide, was introduced into the orchestra in the 1820s and lasted until mid-century. Instruments with valves were invented a few years after Haydn’s death in 1809, but did not start to make headway into orchestras for nearly a generation, by which time they had already replaced key-bugles in bands. Valve trumpets did not become standard in orchestras until about 1840. Thus there was a gap of decades between the composition of Haydn’s Concerto and a time when someone other than Weidinger could play it, and in that interval the whole idea of a trumpet concerto, so common in the Baroque era, was now beyond the pale. The Haydn Concerto lay forgotten until the 20th century, gaining a place in the concert repertory only in the 1930s.