Sound the Trumpet

Tine Thing Helseth, trumpet
David Danzmayr, conductor


We open tonight’s program with two trumpet concertos, the first, that of Haydn, perhaps the most famous of them all, followed by a more recent work that places the “modern” trumpet within a contemporary setting. The second half of the program is given over to Beethoven’s beloved Pastoral Symphony, a work that captures the essence of the Vienna woods and reveals an intimate portrait of arguably the composer’s greatest love: nature.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Trumpet Concerto in E-flat
Instrumentation: pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings
Composed: 1796
Premiere: Vienna Burgtheater, March 1800
Duration: about 15 minutes
We have as much Anton Weidinger, as his trumpet, to thank for Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. Looking for an appropriate means of bringing his new instrument before the public, the Austrian trumpet virtuoso and friend of the composer asked if Haydn might write something for the occasion. What Haydn delivered would ultimately become one of the best-known works for the instrument (other notables who wrote for Weidinger include Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Haydn’s successor as Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family, and Joseph Weigl). As an advertisement for the concert established, Weidinger intended to “present to the world for the first time, so that it may be judged, an organized trumpet which he has invented and brought—after seven years of hard and expensive labor—to what he believes may be described as perfection.” His newly invented instrument contained several keys, a novelty in a day when trumpets’ pitches were largely limited to the natural harmonic series—think of reveille as played on a bugle—for the key in which a given instrument was pitched. Thus, by varying lip and breath pressure, a player blowing into an E-flat trumpet could dispatch the majority of pitches associated with an E-flat scale, at least in its upper register, but lower registers presented problems. Consequently, composers were limited to a given set of pitches within each key, while the players had to own a different instrument for nearly every key in which they played. The addition of valves—which allowed the player’s fingers to effectively alter the length of tubing, and hence the pitch produced—would ultimately dispense with this problem, but that solution had to wait until 1813. In the meantime, Weidinger’s concept, which involved drilling holes into the instrument and covering them with keys, opened up an entire world to the players and composers, as is evident in the chromatic passages and changing keys of Haydn’s concerto. (A performance of Haydn’s concerto, as accompanied by fortepiano, is available on YouTube, for those interested in seeing a keyed trumpet in action).

True to form, Haydn opens with an orchestral presentation of the Allegro’s basic material, in this case a gentle melody constructed from basic scale patterns that Haydn quickly plays off against a marshal motive accentuated by trumpets and drums. The soloist’s entry begins regularly enough, with a restatement of the gentle opening theme, but with the brief repetition of the second phrase Haydn slips in a seemingly innocuous chromatic passage that must have shocked some listeners at the premiere, since notes like these could not have been played on any other trumpet in Vienna or anywhere else for that matter. Yet, despite having an entirely new vocabulary at his disposal, Haydn keeps matters in check. Indeed, among the most striking characteristics of the movement is the lyrical nature of the writing. In an era that associated brass instruments with the entrances of kings, military calls and the hunt, one might expect a concerto for trumpet to shower us with fanfares, and to be sure, Haydn delivers his share of these over the course of the concerto. But it is the unexpected warmth of Haydn’s melodic lines that may leave the longest lasting impression.

In his lilting Andante, Haydn extends the tonal resources now available by casting the movement in A-flat. He then takes matters a step further—a step and a half, actually—when he modulates to the remote key of C-flat major, a key in which, as Jonathan Kramer rightly suggests, “no trumpet could previously have performed.” While virtuosity reigns supreme in the concerto’s brio finale, it is also here where Haydn’s individuality is most strongly pronounced. The form, a combination of sonata and rondo, is of the composer’s own making and something he returned to time and again. The spirited opening rondo theme is easy enough to identify upon each return, even if the sonata form elements prove more difficult to keep track of. A few clues might prove organizationally helpful: listen for the brief development section, a model of invention, signaled by the dramatic orchestral cadence. Here, Haydn takes his opening material through a variety of keys, made possible by Weidinger’s trumpet, including a darker, contrapuntal minor-key version. The development concludes when the violins stall on a fragment of the opening theme, and when the trumpet seizes the opening theme, the recapitulation is underway. This final section is vintage Haydn, as the composer reinvents his orchestration and laces his score with dramatic tremolos. The conclusion, with its harmonic twists and brilliant coda, must have electrified Weidinger’s listeners and continues to thrill audiences today.


James MacMillan (b. 1959): Seraph, for Trumpet and String Orchestra
Composed: 2010
Premiere: Wigmore Hall, London, 2011
Duration: 15 minutes 
Sixty-year-old James MacMillan is the reigning Scottish composer of his generation. Following composition studies at the University of Edinburgh and Durham University (Northeast England), MacMillan then returned to his native Scotland, where he became involved composing for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He came to national attention as a consequence of a BBC Proms premiere of his symphonic score, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a work inspired by one of the many women executed for witchcraft in 17th century Scotland. Whether spiritual, intensely rhythmic, or emotionally powerful, MacMillan’s work has repeatedly garnered praise and has led to over 500 performances, including those of the London Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra. MacMillan was knighted in 2015.

About Seraph, which was dedicated to trumpet player Alison Balsom, the composer has written the following:

Seraph is a concertino for trumpet and strings, containing three short movements. The first movement is fast and based on two main ideas. Firstly, we hear brusque, angular chords accompanying a jaunty trumpet melody which contains dotted rhythms, running semiquavers and fast repeated notes. The second idea is more lyrical, incorporating rising 4ths and falling 3rds.

The second movement, an Adagio, has its leading cantabile melodic material on solo violin or tutti strings, while the solo trumpet seems to ruminate introspectively with oppositional and contrary lines. The movement subsides in a quasi-improvisatory duet between solo trumpet and violin.

The last movement, marcato e ritmico, is based on a closely worked canonic idea, which first appears on low strings, giving a somewhat ‘ungainly’ sensation at the outset, and a more fulsome arching melody marked cantabile e sonore. The trumpet part is peppered with little military fanfares. Eventually the music settles down to a cadenza-like passage, where the soloist is accompanied by tremolando strings, before the principal canonic theme is recapitulated on the violins and violas.

A seraph is a celestial being or angel, usually and traditionally associated with trumpets.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68
Instrumentation: pairs of winds (including piccolo), trumpets, horns, trombones, timpani and strings
Composed: 1808
Premiere: Theater an der Wien, Vienna, December 1808
Duration: 39 minutes 

“I love a tree more than a man.” –Ludwig van Beethoven

One would be hard pressed to find a greater nature lover than Ludwig van Beethoven. As an artist who struggled with human relationships, the countryside offered much needed solace and was where his persistent loneliness and deafness found release. As he confessed in a letter to Teresa Malfatti, “How fortunate you are to be able to go into the country so soon…I look forward to it with childish excitement. How delighted I shall be to ramble for a while through bushes, woods, under trees, over grass and rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks give back the echo which man desires to hear.”

By 1810, the year this letter was composed, Beethoven’s hearing had been severely compromised and within a year, performing as a pianist in public was no longer truly possible (by 1814 he was almost certainly profoundly deaf). In addition to the burden his loss of hearing placed on his livelihood, it served to increase Beethoven’s sense of isolation and no doubt played into his insecurities and inability to find love or a suitable wife (Malfatti, the recipient of the above letter, was among those women unavailable to the composer). Just how much Beethoven could still hear in 1808, the year of his Sixth Symphony, remains open to debate, though certainly the subtle sounds of nature were by now lost to him. But as with many of his greatest scores, by now Beethoven did most of his “hearing” internally, no longer really needing his ears for the act of creation (it has often been suggested that Beethoven pushed musical boundaries to the extent he did on account of being forced to internalize his music making, although his personal relationships certainly suffered on account of his deafness). Beethoven’s Sixth was composed during the spring and summer months of 1808 and received its premiere just a few months later, on December 22, during a four-hour concert at the Theater an der Wien.

Beethoven’s intentions for the F major Symphony are to be found on the title page of the autograph: “more the expression of feelings than tone painting.” The stirring Sixth comes on the heels of the groundbreaking Fifth Symphony, an emotional juggernaut that blew the doors off what the symphony was understood to be: a four-movement work designed to entertain, with little or no extra-musical associations. There were, of course, examples by Haydn and others that explored quasi-programmatic ideas, but these were more the exception than the rule. Thus, if the Fifth suggested in musical tones the movement from darkness to light or the triumph of good, the Sixth is the composer’s homage to nature and is imbued through and through with the sounds of the countryside—its bird calls, streams, storms and dancing peasant folk. Set in an overall key of F major, it is constructed of five movements—it was among the first symphony to stray from the four-movement mold—yet might be considered in three large divisions: a first movement (Cheerful Impressions Upon Arriving in the Country), second movement (Scene by the Brook), and a final section that moves attacca through the last three movements—Scherzo, Storm and Finale (The Joyous Gathering of Country Folk, The Storm, and The Shepherd’s Song).

Even the opening of the “Pastoral” is about as far removed from the drama of the Fifth Symphony as is possible. No explosive motives, no shocking fortes, neither a grand, aristocratic introduction, nor even a sense of expectation. Rather, we immediately find ourselves in the countryside where all is quiet, unhurried, gentle, where harmonies and phrases unfold slowly and simply, as if played by country folk. Listen for the opening drone in the bass line—the pitch F (the key in which the symphony as a whole is cast) is intended to create the sound of peasant music, such as the sustained drone of a bagpipe. Though sophisticated in form and worked out to the smallest detail, Beethoven’s intent was to convey as simply as possible the essence of the out of doors, especially the tranquility and joy he experienced personally when surrounded by his beloved countryside.

The bucolic slow movement relies on two ideas: the lazy triplet motive at the outset, invoking the flowing brook (lower strings) and the bird calls, dispatched by the violins (trills) and winds, which become ever more distinct as the movement unfolds (rest assured that scholars and ornithologists alike have spilled a great deal of ink debating the accuracy of Beethoven’s bird calls). At the point of the coda, Beethoven names the birds specifically—the nightingale (flute), the quail (oboe) and cuckoos (clarinets)—and insisted that his copyists include the names in the score so as to be no mistake. As with the first movement, sonata form provided the composer with a logical, time-tested musical framework, but we need only be swept away by the tranquil impressions Beethoven sought to convey.

The third movement relies on two distinct ideas, a triple meter (3/4) peasant dance (the Scherzo), and a duple (2/4) dance, (the Trio, or middle section). The country folk veritably come alive, with all the foot stomping, beer toasting, fun and flirting one would imagine in such a setting. With the onset of The Storm, however, the villagers scatter and we are hurled into one of Beethoven’s most stunning musical descriptions. Among the great maelstroms in the repertoire, we hear the storm approaching, its fury fully unleashed, and its subsequent dissipation, as the thunder clouds recede in the distance, brilliantly captured by the timpani.

Beethoven closes with an idyll, which opens with a shepherd’s call intoned by the clarinet and horns. As Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood suggests, “Beethoven must have known about [Alp-horns] even if he never ventured to such heights himself.” This gentle rocking idea becomes the source of the movement as a whole, which is manipulated in its various reprises, again mimicking the simple beauty of the music of the countryside. The conclusion is among the most ebullient of Beethoven’s codas—first thrilling, then reflective, a joyous homecoming capped off by a distant horn call that brings the movement full circle. Again, the words of Lockwood sum up this sublime composition most succinctly: “The ending seems to confirm the peace of nature and the peace of the soul that the work had promised from the beginning, the feeling for which the composer had been longing all his life.”

© Marc Moskovitz