Brass chamber music: the early trumpet ensemble

So far in this brass chamber music series, I have explored the quartet, trio, sextet and septet, which are all groups of mixed brass instruments. Of course, there can be trombone choirs, horn quartets, and tuba-euphonium quartets (two different instruments, but basically homogenous). For us trumpeters, there is the trumpet ensemble. You might think this is a group with pretty limited repertoire, but you would be wrong.

The trumpet ensemble has been around seemingly forever, because of the military nature of trumpets. Armies have, up until the time of modern communication, have needed trumpeters to convey signals. And these military trumpeters have always seemed to get together to play duets, trios, quartets, quintets and more. Starting with the first method books for trumpet, such as those by Magnus Thomsen and Hendrick Lübeck, Cesare Bendinelli and Girolamo Fantini, we see trumpeters writing down trumpet ensemble pieces that were part of their tradition. To my mind, the baroque trumpet ensemble has a unique and wonderful sound. In this post, I’ll explore some trumpet ensemble pieces written for the natural baroque trumpet (without valves).

Perhaps one of the earliest written-down trumpet ensemble pieces was by Claudio Monteverdi in his “Toccata” from his opera Orpheo. Here is the University of Kentucky baroque trumpet ensemble, led by Jason Dovel, playing an extended version of this piece:

Here is a wonderful recording of an 18th-c. anonymous piece from Weyarn led by Julian Zimmermann:

There were hundreds of pieces written down for baroque trumpet ensembles. Here is an ensemble led by Iginio Conforzi playing the Second Entrata Imperiale by Fantini. Notice the intricate form and possibilities for using different spaces and different contrasting instruments for making this performance interesting:


Here is a piece by the famous 19th-c. composer Anton Diabelli:

Here is a split-screen video recording of Heinrich Biber’s Sonata a 7. This trumpet ensemble piece requires “basso continuo” (organ and bassoon in this case).

On my next post, I’ll explore some of the wonderful trumpet ensemble pieces for modern trumpets.

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Brass chamber music: the septet

As we have seen over the past few posts, the tradition of brass chamber music developed strongly in German and Scandinavian countries in the 19th Century. Germany embraced the quartet, German-Russian composers and players developed the quintet (I haven’t gotten to the quintet, yet, in this series of chamber music blogs), and in Sweden the sextet flourished. Finland was the place for the septet, starting around 1870. Before that time, there were brass quartets, quintets and sextets. The Swedish brass sextet was a model for the Finnish septet. The Swedish funnel-bell cornets were often used.

I first heard about the Finnish septet from my friend Michael Holmes, who had studied this in detail as a student living in Finland. He presented this as a lecture that I attended many years ago.

The traditional Finnish brass septet has one cornet in E-flat, two cornets in B-flat, one alto horn in E-flat, one tenor horn in B-flat, one baritone horn (euphonium) in B-flat, and one tuba in E-flat or B-flat. They often represented municipalities, fire brigades or factories. Literature for the groups came from military band repertoire and folk music at first, but later there began to be new compositions inspired by competitions and a growing interest in the distinctive sound of this genre.

Here is a recording of a typical Finnish-style septet:

Even Jean Sibelius wrote some compositions for the brass septet. Here are some examples that are truly extraordinary:

Here’s a split-screen performance of Sibelius’ “Tiera” by students of the Curtis Institute:

Here’s the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble playing the Prelude from Sibelius’ Petite Suite:

Sibelius wrote an Allegro, and an Overture in F-minor for septet. I owe a debt of gratitude to Kauko Karjalainen’s 1997 article, “The Brass Band Tradition” in the Historic Brass Society Journal for much of the information in this post. I think we can all agree that this repertoire is wonderful. Now let’s play and listen to these septets more often!

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