The trumpet goes back a long, long way. Trumpeters are depicted in art from ancient Egypt, dated in the 14th century BCE.
For most of its centuries of existence, the trumpet was an instrument of royalty, used for playing fanfares. Frankly, that’s about all it was good for. These early trumpets couldn’t play all the notes of the scale. They played only the first few notes from the harmonic series, which is already a subset of the scale’s notes.
By the 16th century, instrument makers had figured out how to make trumpets play more of the notes from the harmonic series. Now, the further up you go in the harmonic series, the closer together the notes get. If you could push your trumpet far enough, and fudge the pitch of some notes a bit, you could play all the notes of the scale. By the 17th century, trumpets could actually be used to more or less play melodies.
I say "more or less" because they still didn’t do a very good job of it. It took a really talented (and fit!) player to get all the notes in tune. (Many of today’s period instrument specialists use trumpets with tiny, inconspicuous, and inauthentic "cheater holes" that help them with this challenge.) Even then, the timbre (tone quality) of the notes varied radically.
In the 15th century, a few instrument makers had experimented with adding slides (like a trombone’s) to trumpets. We have pictures! But given the design – they were straight trumpets – it’s hard to see how a player could’ve flung that slide around fast enough to play any but the slowest music. He might well have knocked his own front teeth out trying. For centuries more, trumpet players had to pretty much depend only on skill and lungs to coax a real tune from their instruments.
In the 17th century, Vienna became something of a Mecca for trumpet players. The very earliest trumpet players had been little more than vagrants, but Viennese trumpeters were given a place of honor. On high feast days the court’s string orchestra was augmented by a choir of trumpets, playing sonatas composed by the likes of Schmelzer and Biber.
But by the late 18th century the trumpet was going out of style, giving way to more agile and tonally consistent instruments. A few trumpeters, determined to salvage their careers, scrambled to develop a trumpet that could compete with the violin, flute, and oboe. Some of them achieved a measure of success by adding keys to the trumpet, so it could play all the notes of the scale, even in its lowest register.
Enter Anton Weidinger (1767 – 1852). Weidinger was a Viennese court trumpeter. Around 1793, he began experimenting with some of these keyed trumpets, refining them and practicing with them. By 1796 he was making enough progress that he convinced Haydn to write a concerto for his Klappentrompette (keyed trumpet). He took that concerto on the road in 1803, playing it in France, Germany, and England. Weidinger caught the interest of composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who composed yet another concerto for him and his curious keyed trumpet.
The critics had good things to say about Weidinger’s trumpet and his playing. But it was too late. By 1820 the valved trumpet had appeared in Vienna and was rapidly taking over. Weidinger’s keyed trumpet hung on for a little longer; some musicians and composers preferred its tone to the valved trumpet’s. But by 1840 the Klappentrompette was forgotten – obsolete.
Although the Baroque natural trumpet has no shortage of proponents (and makers and players), not many musicians have shown much interest in reviving the Klappentrompette. Who can blame them? After all, what’s the point of reviving an instrument for which only two major concertos were ever written? (See also the arpeggione.) Adolf Egger has built modern reproductions, as has Christopher Monk, but they don’t seem to have had many customers. The few recordings that have been made with their instruments have quickly gone out of print, presumably for lack of interest.
But if you’d like to see and hear the keyed trumpet, here’s a rare opportunity: David Guerrier playing the first movement of the Haydn in the Festival de l’Epau last May (2009). He’s accompanied by the chamber orchestra "Les Siècles."
The story of the keyed trumpet, by Norwegian trumpeter Ole J Utnes
The natural trumpet in Wikipedia
Trumpeter David Guerrier from Trumpet World
This article was first published in WKSU Classical on 28 December 2009.