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Friends and Relations: The Bass Trumpet

Bass Trumpet in C

I have in front of me an insurance renewal notice which lists among the "specified articles of value" a Base Trumpet. Whether this is simply another slip of the word-processor or an intentional appraisal of the instrument's true status, I cannot say; in either case it could be (and feelingly has been, on occasion) called a bastard instrument since it has no genuine pedigree. It was simply dreamt up by Richard Wagner, with inspiration from the Marquis de Sade, to satisfy his craving for yet more sounds from his already vast orchestra.

Bass Trumpet in BbFor his epic cycle of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, he called for a trumpet of Brobdingnagian lengths (as Forsyth calls it in his book on orchestration). This grotesque weapon was to have a tube length of 23 feet, equipped with three crooks in C, D and Eb (all very much basso, of course), and be capable of playing in a range extending from the lowest trombone notes up to the highest horn notes. It was soon discovered that it would need an Olympic-standard weight lifter to hold it for the time Wagner takes to tell his tale; preferably one with at least three embouchures. In due course, common sense prevailed and a more sensible bass trumpet pitched in C, with three valves, was provided (one tone higher than the Bb tenor trombone). The printed part is still written in three keys and the same wide range is expected, if not always achieved!

Before Sir Georg Solti introduced me to the thrills of bass trumpet playing in 1962, the part had been played at Covent Garden on a long Besson instrument in C, originally made for a German-style band involved in one of Beecham's projects in the 1920s. This instrument was really more akin to a valve trombone, having a comparatively large bore and long, straight tubing, but it had nevertheless been played by Frank Stead for the Bruno Walter performances during the thirties, and since then by Evan Watkin, George Maxted and John Cobb.

In an effort to find an instrument capable of producing the distinctive sound I believe that Wagner wanted for the numerous solo statements of his beloved motifs, and yet capable of blending with the rest of the brass, I experimented with, and eventually bought, an Alexander four-valve rotary trumpet in C; the fourth valve being used more as an intonation-adjuster than a subterranean exploratory device.

The search for a perfect mouthpiece continues, and for those interested in seeking the impossible, perhaps a few suggested guidelines would be helpful: the rim should be able to receive, comfortably, a trombone embouchure, but at the same time be able to contain the lips in a trumpet-like articulation. It must also allow enough support to cover a range from a sounding bottom G (bottom line bass clef) up to Gb three octaves higher, and yet be flexible within those dire straits. The shank must obviously be small enough to fit the proportionately very narrow bore of the instrument, yet wide enough to accommodate a bore large enough to dominate a titanic orchestra and yet control a terrifying pianissimo solo.

Bass Trumpet in Eb by TheinIn fairness to our great tormentor, Herr Wagner, we should be grateful to him for giving us in Der Ring des Nibelungen a new, and hopefully unique, brass sound which no other composer seems able to use.

Richard Strauss uses a bass trumpet in his opera Elektra, as well as in the tone poems Macbeth and Guntram, but with little imagination. There are little solos, but they are those of a low "ordinary" trumpet. Of the more modern composers, Schoenberg scores for bass trumpet in Gurrelieder, but again only as a member of the trumpet section. As for Stravinsky's risible little solo echoing the cor anglais in the Rite of Spring, it is meant to be tackled by a "normal" fourth trumpet since it is printed on his part, and is scored for an E flat instrument anyway. Janácek, on the other hand, proves his generosity by providing work for two players in his Sinfonietta when he could have managed with just one bruiser. The parts are completely in unison and always lead to trouble in deciding who is Principal!

I'm afraid it is an inescapable fact that if we are talking bass trumpet, we are talking Der Ring and nothing else. The Master uses it uniquely and imaginatively: as a solo instrument stating his beloved motifs, at the bottom of the trumpet section, above the trombone section (like an alto trombone almost) and leading the family of tubas.

Unfortunately, the poor chap trying to fulfil all these aspirations is usually just a trombone player doing a bit of moonlighting on an instrument he plays only rarely, and which is incapable of producing the precise intonation he's used to on his proper instrument, the trombone. As a result, a lot of time and effort is spent shunting tuning slides and working out alternative fingerings featuring the fourth valve. It is only when the vital moment arrives that he discovers that the vital rotary cylinder has jammed again!

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