The Baroque Trumpet and Trombone
By John Tamilio III, Ph.D.
There is a moment during H+H’s performance of Handel’s Messiah when two trumpet players emerge from opposite wings of the Symphony Hall balcony and play a fanfare. It is one of my favorite parts of the oratorio. My heart skips a beat at the sound of this majestic flourish, imagining that this is how the piece would have sounded in 1741 when George Frideric Handel composed it. After all, as with the rest of the H+H Orchestra, the trumpet players perform on period instruments (or preeminent replicas).
In this edition of Feeling HIP?, we’ll explore the difference between a few of the Baroque brass instruments and their modern counterparts.
The immediate difference you’ll notice when looking at a Baroque or “natural” trumpet alongside a modern trumpet, aside from tassel ornamentation and length, is that it does not have valves. Valves are vertical pistons that enable the trumpeter to change pitch with the first three fingers of the hand, allowing the other hand to hold the instrument steady. These valves change the flow of air through the instrument to produce the desired notes. However, they were not invented until 1820, so Baroque composers did not write with them in mind.
Baroque trumpeters, like H+H’s own Chris Belluscio, have to change pitch by controlling the air flow with their lips instead. Because they can only play in one pitch center at a time, they sometimes have to change the notes available to them by adding tubular-shaped extensions onto the trumpet. These extensions resemble smaller versions of the pipe fittings plumbers use. Belluscio says that “the actual fundamental pitch of our [Baroque] instrument, say from C to D pitch center, is achieved by changes in the overall length of tubing — shorter to go higher, and longer to go lower.” One can imagine how much skill is involved in creating, sustaining, and changing notes with one’s mouth and breath alone! (An interesting aside: French horn players used their hands to change the sound within the bell of the instrument, as many modern players still do.)
H+H trumpet players Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti play Handel’s Messiah. Photo by Lara Silberklang.
Maybe the demands of playing the natural trumpet melodically are part of the reason why, prior to the 1600s, trumpets were mostly used by the military for field trumpeting, meaning they were used to send signals to troops. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that they made their first foray into what Belluscio terms “art music.”
Listening to those early trumpet parts in Baroque music, you will notice that they are typically higher than modern trumpet scores. Think, for example, of the first movement of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. (This legendary collection of Baroque pieces will be the finale to this year’s season at H+H.) However, by the end of the 18th century, such high-range (or clarino) playing technique was no longer popular due to changing musical tastes and associations with royal opulence, which was going out of style.
The differences between a Baroque trombone and its modern counterpart are not as obvious at first glance, because the instrument has not changed that much in the past 500 years. As H+H trombone Greg Ingles puts it, “The differences are more subtle, but make for a vastly different playing experience.” However slight, these differences are critical for historically informed performance. Ingles explains, “The shape of the Baroque trombone bell is much smaller with a much less curved flare. The bell size tends to make the instrument play a bit softer, which was perfect for the trombone repertoire in the Baroque era.”
H+H trombone Greg Ingles gives audience members a close-up look (and listen!) at his instrument before a concert. Photo by Lara Silberklang.
During the Baroque period, the trombone served a dual purpose. First, its lower range balanced the other two instruments which it accompanied for chamber ensembles: violins and cornetti. Its other function was to double the vocal melody, particularly in larger works, such as Monteverdi’s Vespers, Biber’s Requiem, and Handel’s Israel in Egypt. (H+H opened the 2023-2024 Season with the latter.) The Baroque-style bell is ideal for this use, because, as Ingles notes, it helps the instrument support the voice “without overpowering it.”
If you look closely at a Baroque trombone—if you literally put your lips to it—you will discover another critical difference: The mouthpiece is flat, whereas modern mouthpieces are rounded with a bowl-shaped cup. The flat “v” or funnel-shaped mouthpiece enables players to grip it better with their lips, which produces a fuller tone with “exceedingly soft dynamics,” according to Ingles.
Another trombonist with H+H, Erik Schmalz, has a wide selection of trombones from various periods and places and adds that, upon careful inspection, one will see more nuanced differences between Baroque and modern trombones. “Every aspect of construction is different,” he says. “Baroque trombones are high quality instruments with intricate details built for a specific purpose.” Although some see the Baroque model as a more “primitive” trombone, Schmalz disagrees, claiming that these instruments are better for their intended purposes than modern versions.
But even seasoned modern players will have trouble playing a Baroque trombone for the first time. “My experience has been that even the best modern trombonists will sound like a fifth grader when they first try to make a sound on a Baroque instrument,” Schmalz quips. Though it may look similar to the instruments found in most orchestras today, one must approach the Baroque trombone as if it is a completely different instrument.
If you went to an elementary school similar to mine and were lucky enough to have access to music education, then you may remember when a teacher from the high school came and introduced students to the types of musical instruments they could play in the junior high and high school orchestras. Unfortunately for my parents, I went straight for the drums. (Once my brother surpassed me, I picked up the guitar and haven’t put it down since.) Some of my closest friends, however, played the trumpet and trombone.
Today, as I sit in the audience and listen to the H+H brass section, I imagine these aficionados starting out the same way—as adolescents pushing the valves of burnished gold trumpets or extending their arms to lob notes from slide trombones. (Of course, the slide was also a way to hit the violinists in the back of their heads.) As we listen to these artists perform on period instruments today, all these years later, we can all exclaim “Wow!” just as nine-year-old Ronan Mattin did four years ago.
John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salem State University, Pastor at the Congregational Church of Canton, and Board Member of the Handel and Haydn Society. He holds degrees in Theology, Literature, Philosophy, and English from Boston University, Andover Newton Theological School, Northeastern University, and Salem State University, and conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard University.