Eric Aubier

The Trumpet Story

The trumpet is one of the oldest and widely used instruments in the world. Like most other brass instruments, the trumpet is a decendent of wind instruments made from bored out animal horns or sea shells. Since ancient times the trumpet has held an important place in the cultures of Egypt, China, India, Greece and Italy. Made from metal, it was the Hossa of the Jews, the Buccina of the Romans and the Greek Salpinx. The Babylonians illustrated short trumpets in stone relief. In ancient Greece (1st century B.C.), the art of sounding the trumpet (Salpinx) was one of the olympic disciplines. The instrument was conique with a very narrow bore. Homer mentions the Salpinx in the Illiad as did Aeschyles in The Persians (when he describes the battle of Salamis).

Xenephon taught us that the Athenians did their excercises to the sound of the Salpinx. Homer described the sound to be as terrible as the cry of Achilles. The Greeks used the Salpinx in parades and in pompous liturgical ceremonies. In Egypt, two trumpets were found in Tutankammen’s tomb, each about 50cm long (20 inches), made of a narrow tube with a finely engraved bell. According to greek authors, the sound of this instrument was like the bray of a furious donkey. The Irish made a trumpet in the Bronze Age with an ornate bell that had sharp points. It could be used as a weapon and produced menacing music. Diverse representations of the trumpet can be found from the Iron Age, including a remarkable relief on a silver vase (2nd or 1st century B.C.) showing Celtic warriors sounding the charge to combat using large vertical horns with a bell in the form of a serpent. In the Old Testament, God commanded Moses to make two silver trumpets in case he faced a military campaign.

We see a representation of this hebrew trumpet on the Triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome (about 100A.D.). Diodore of Sicily mentions that the Etruscans used a war trumpet called a Tyrrhenian trumpet. On a fresco of a tomb in Chiusi (Italy), we can see a musician playing a curved instrument with an opening on the curvature to empty the saliva. The form of this trumpet is similar to another Roman trumpet, the Lituus, that was discovered in the archelogical site in Caere and is conserved today in the Roman museum Museo Etrusco Gregoriano. It measures 1.6 meters (5’4″) and is pitched in G. During the Middle Ages, the trumpet was used in war to transmit orders.

The slide trumpet was the preferred instrument of the watch keepers who sounded the hours, warned of fires and attacks. A new evolution for brass instruments happened with the discovery of the technic of soldering pipes and the usage of the slide. It is however an ancient slide trumpet, the sackbut, that was the origin of the idea of the slide trombone. We see this sackbut on a triptych of Hans Hemling (1433-1494); the player is holding the instrument with one hand just above the mouthpiece and using the other to move the slide. Anton Weidinger, trumpeter for the opera of the court of Vienna, perfected the keyed trumpet in Eb in the 18th century.

This keyed instrument was a precursor of what would become the modern trumpet. Weidinger improved it in 1801 by giving it more keys that covered the openings on the side. He thus transplanted the principle of woodwind instruments to a conical brass instrument. The work of Weidinger, taken with others of the same type (Kobel in St. Petersburg, Woeggel in Augsburg), had the goal of giving the trumpet a wider range. But these advances were short lived because in 1813, Bluehmel invented the valved trumpet, thus offering to the instrument the complete chromatic scale.