Trumpet Concerto in Eb Major, H. VIIe:1

            The Trumpet Concerto is from Haydn’s last period of composition, when he was universally recognized as one of the world’s greatest composers.  The composition and publication of his “London” symphonies had sealed his success, and he returned to Vienna, where he focused primarily upon sacred vocal music for the rest of his life, the Trumpet Concerto (1796) being a decided exception.  The impetus for the composition of the latter was surely the advent of the newly-invented keyed trumpet by Anton Weidinger, a virtuoso trumpeter in service to the Imperial Court in Vienna.  It must be understood that, until the late 1820s, no brass instruments had valves as they do today.  Consequently, with the exception of the trombones, trumpets and horns were very limited in the notes that were available to composers.  If you think about it, you will remember that the trumpet parts in all those Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven symphonies were quite simple—they could play only the notes familiar to us today in bugle calls.  Of course, in the earlier Baroque period of Bach, Handel, and others, the trumpets could play a complete scale, but only in the very top range of the instrument.  The familiar—and quite difficult--trumpet parts in the Bach’s Brandenburg concerti may come to mind.  Well, that high, difficult style of brass playing had decidedly gone out of style by the second half of the eighteenth century, and that accounts for that simplicity of writing for the trumpets.

            The handicap posed by the natural trumpets were frustrating for players and composers, alike, and much technical experimentation was aimed at correcting that deficit to produce a trumpet that could play all of the chromatic notes from the bottom to the top of the instrument’s range.  No one had yet thought of valves, and the interim solution seized upon by many, but best executed by Weidinger, was to put keys, rather like that on, say, a flute or clarinet, on the trumpet.  Well, it worked--kind of.  The tone quality suffered, and was uneven throughout the scale.  But, it was fully chromatic, and it could play a melody in the low register, which no one had ever heard until then.  Weidinger’s creation was hailed a success, at least to the degree that it prompted a few eminent composers to compose some very fine compositions for the instrument.  Two of them are mainstays in the concerto literature for solo trumpet, today:  one by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the other by Haydn.  Whatever the deficiencies of the old, keyed trumpet, these two works are glorious when played today on the modern valved trumpet.

            Haydn’s concerto is cast into the usual three movements of a concerto, the first movement opening with the orchestra playing the main theme right at the beginning.  When the trumpet enters, playing the same theme, it must have caused a sensation at the première.  For it lies relatively low in the trumpet’s tessitura, and is stepwise—none of which the conventional natural trumpet had ever been able to do.   Haydn cleverly shaped this and much of the rest of the themes to bring out just this innovative sound.  Throughout the concerto you’ll hear not only “low and stepwise,” but also an adroit exploration of the keyed trumpet’s ability to play chromatic lines, as well.  Haydn being the masterful composer that he was, didn’t choose just to startle, but integrated the unusual trumpet melodies smoothly into the overall conception of the work.

            The second movement is a short, charming, pastoral affair, but no less innovative.  Owing to the natural trumpet’s inability to more or less perform anything soft and interesting in the slow movements of trumpet concertos in its century-old history, it had often been convention just to leave out the solo trumpet completely.  But, now!—Haydn gives Weidinger’s keyed trumpet a soft modest scale-wise melody that would not have inappropriate for an oboe.   A little later, the soloist punctuates the phrases played by the orchestra by simply playing two modest, soft chromatic notes—almost rubbing the audience’s nose in the new trumpet’s capabilities.

            The last movement is a typical scampering Haydn rondo.  The composer achieves a nice balance between the lyric ability of the instrument and its technical facility, and here and there, tossing in a few little fanfare licks that had been—and still are—the trumpet’s métier.  While the concerto doesn’t last long, Haydn obviously didn’t intend to compose a shallow “demonstration” piece for the new technical wizardry, but rather, composed a work whose musical worth has endured as one of his most popular compositions.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan