On the Bass Trumpet

This essay was part of a presentation for the brass repertoire course at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  The course reviewed Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung".  I was asked to present and perform the bass trumpet.
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I’m here because this instrument is a problem.

It is not standardized as to key, transposition, notation or timbre.  And it is young, like the tuba, and as such struggles to define itself and standardize (just look at the variety of tubas at this school).  But seeing only an infinitesimal amount of use, fabrication and experimentation, the bass trumpet is only finding loose footing at best, struggling to match huge demands placed upon it by some of the 19th and 20th century’s greatest composers.  The greatest challenger – and the reason to talk about this instrument today – is Richard Wagner.

All of you will be asked to double.  There are cousins to all of your instruments.  Most trumpet players do develop a unique playing approach to the flugelhorn and some for cornet.  Trombones regularly run into the alto or contrabass trombones, and the odd Euphonium/Tenor Tuba engagement.  Tubists are more and more often coming face to face with the cimbasso, as well as doubling the various keys of instrument expected by a modern player.  But it’s the horn players and trombonists (rarely trumpeters) who face instruments of Wagner’s imagination.  One is the Wagner Tuba, one is the contrabass trombone and of course, the bass trumpet.

Here’s the Bass Trumpet problem in a nutshell:

  • The bass trumpet is not the original instrument considered for the job in THE RING.
  • The original instrument, the Saxotromba, was in a fashion very similar to period trumpets and large trombones, confounding the problem of use in a modern orchestra.
  • Wagner changed his mind as to how to write for it.
  • Wagner changes the transposition of the part for only 3 of the four operas (the main trilogy).  When he does, he sometimes has the same passage in two different transpositions, but in the same key, such as in C on a C trumpet, then in Bb on a D trumpet.  Bizarre!
  • Wagner conceives an instrument which was to be employed as one of the most soloistic, flexible, and important wind instruments in the opera.  Yet the instrument he describes is not significantly different from the German orchestral trumpet in F of his day.
  • It has no clear musician designated to perform on it.
  • There is not yet a consensus as to what to use for the part.

American varieties often share parts with valve trombones including the bell, leadpipe design, the valves and valve bore.  Some exceptions have a noticeably different timbre but impossible intonation.  In a nutshell, the American instruments have been in Bb with a timbre closely approximating a small peashooter trombone, often with a similar bore of around .485 and a 6-7 inch bell.  A trumpet-like timbre is largely left for the player to create.

European instruments are more varied, built in Eb, C, and Bb, with 3 or 4 valves.  Most have rotary valves, but often the rare English and French instruments have pistons.  The timbre is considerably brighter most of the time, but there is a variant with a larger bore and bell used by Italian and amateur bands; these instruments closely resemble the American model bore profile, but with rotary valves.

I've made several instruments based on the American model.  All had 7 inch bells.  Two had a smaller bore, two were larger to allow for more air.  Another worked on a revised tone concept with a very narrow bell.  All owners are happy, and these have seen a lot of use; none for Wagner, however.

Trombones already are named as large trumpets (trombone=big trumpet), but the bass trumpet tries to take the sound of the “normal” trumpet (back then in F) and bring it into the lower ranges without substantially changing the timbre – at least in theory – as if it was the same instrument descending.  Only the horn family faces this problem, and that’s largely been solved with the descant, double and triple horns, all with a similar –if shortened-profile.  There are bass horns (I have one) only a little different from normal instruments in F, save for two fairly well-known instruments which can be more properly dubbed tubas in horn shape.  We make no such requests of the members of the tuba family; we expect a bass flugelhorn to be a marching Euphonium, and the “Contrabass” Euphoniums and Flugelhorns to be tubas in whatever shape.  This is inherent in their family design.

In researching and examining this instrument, I can tell you that this instrument and Wagner’s use of it could provide useful thesis material for several of you.  It may be that is it a separate character of the RING, one in the pit representing Wotan’s will or fate, or a sort of “Siegfried’s Herald” (not his motif, of course).  It could be an expression of the socialist allegory of the work.  It’s ripe for historical research as to why C. W. Moritz – its eventual inventor – chose a 4-valve instrument in C with 3 crooks (which in practice couldn’t be used); who played it, (Wagner had a specific tubist and a specific helicon in mind for the tuba, was the same true for the bass trumpet?); and why was he mad enough at Adolph Sax to alter the parts?

As for performing well on the bass trumpet; it’s a problem.  Even a noteworthy recording of the bass trumpet, while sounding absolutely magnificent, contains dozens of obvious splices and cuts to create the beautiful end result.

In finally coming to grips with beginning to practice THE RING, I changed instruments, designs, tried several factory pieces, and eventually made two conclusions; one, these instruments in general – including mine – are barely adequate to the task; “cool” when purchased, more “cool” when tweaked, but have now reached a point of being largely unimprovable and the more I've improved my playing, the less adequate they seem.

Secondly, I think the best instrument for this part could be a modern, stout alto trombone with a Bb trigger.  That sound may provide a better balance to allow it to fit into its roles as soloist, horn section member, top trombonist, bottom trumpet, and as integral part of the opera, all while maintaining good intonation with musicians who will more likely have a background in its use.

Regardless, trombonists, this is almost exclusively your problem.  You have to cover low G up to double high Gb above the treble clef staff!  In a word, absurd.  You have to read treble clef transpositions in E, Eb, D, C, and Bb.  There’s even a passage in D Bass Clef!  The only tricks are Brains and Air.  You have to hold a stratospherically high E at piano.  You have to blow your limbs off in the staff, then hit and still nail the low notes.  Plus, you have to read your well-practiced "Ride"... in D!  In transposition:

  • Read Eb as bass clef, add three (3) flats, and read up an octave;
  • D, read it as Alto clef and add two (2) sharps.  Bass clef is up one tone;
  • Bb is tenor clef, add two flats;
    • If you can’t read treble clef in C, it’s time to look for another career;
  • For E, read as bass clef and add 4 sharps, up one octave.

Finally, when your brain melts, write the whole thing out in concert pitch or consider alcohol therapy!

Right now the best instrument value “off the shelf” I’ve found is a Lidl rotary instrument.  They can be easily cut to C if you desire, can be set up with tuning triggers at a reasonable cost, and even its Chinese copy is actually viable with a few hours of cleanup.  Still, you’ll struggle to make these pay for themselves unless you conceive of other uses for it, such as in quintet, jazz, outdoor gigs, etc.  However, there are superb instruments available by Alexander, Yamaha (limited), Thein, Voigt, and Schagerl among others if you have a position justifying the expense.

My instrument is a .458 valve section with a miniscule 19th century French Besson bell.  Compared to my earlier instruments, it’s much smaller and brighter, but more stuffy and somewhat horn-like in the top-most range.  It has a main slide throw, a first slide throw, and a Bach 22D mouthpiece; Bach knew what he was doing with this mouthpiece design!   This mouthpiece is very good at helping to shift the effective range of the instrument up a 4th for a trombonist without crippling his/her lip.  The other instrument I've brought is an Eb trumpet based on Getzen parts.  My next instrument will be some sort of hybrid of the two.

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How lucky you are to be exploring THE RING.  It is the quintessential Gesamtkunstwerk (those of you in Music History-101, if you haven’t been met with this term, you will shortly).  Have you seen THE RING?  It is my strong opinion that every professional musician should experience this work at least once, but bring No-Doze to Siegfried – the last act might kill you with its length!  Seattle Opera will be running it in a few years; while expensive, it is a lavish production worth the lavish expense.  Also, I highly recommend acquiring or listening to “Exploring the Ring, with Perry Lorenzo” – it is a dynamic, fascinating introduction to the work.

In the end, we will all be faced with unique problems if we pursue performance seriously.  We need to be mentally and physically flexible to meet all the challenges we face in performance to stand out as a player people wish to hire.  Doubling, while often facing us with new problems, can be an exciting experience, and a true test of a musician vs. a mere player.

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For pictures of various bass trumpets, click on the .pdf below.

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J.c. Sherman,
Apr 27, 2011, 7:07 AM
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