History of Brass

Brief History

Brass instruments have existed for thousands of years. In ancient times, humans used conch shells, hollowed-out branches and bamboo-style plant shoots, and animal horns as brass instruments. In the Roman Empire era, brass instruments such as the LUR and the BUCCINA were made of metal tubes and used cup-shaped metal mouthpieces similar to those used on modern instruments. Examples of these two instruments have survived from this era.

The BUCCINA was used in the armies of the Roman Empire. It was roughly circular, and had a wooden crossbar for support, which assisted the player in holding the instrument. Players used the instrument  to signal commands and sound watches.

The LUR was made of a curved bronze tube which terminated in a flat metal disc. Over 50 LURS have survived from ancient times, and specimens have been discovered in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Greece. These were used by armies to gather troops and to frighten members of the opposing forces.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the art of creating and bending metal tubes declined and all but disappeared until the early renaissance period. There are few surviving sources which mention brass instruments/trumpets from the ninth — eleventh centuries.

Renaissance History

Iconographical sources depicting brass instruments greatly increase after the year 1100, and are plentiful beginning in the 1300s. Carrying a long, straight metal tube is inconvenient, makes for difficulty in holding the instrument during performance, and invites physical damage. To address these issues, brass instrument makers (likely in France or Italy) began folding trumpets into both double-wrapped and S-shaped designs. It was also around this time (c.1400) that trumpet makers and players began experimenting with the “slide” trumpet, in order to obtain more pitches. “Natural” brass instruments — those with no valves, keys, or slides — are only able to produce a limited number of notes called a harmonic series. The addition of a slide to the trumpet made more pitches available to composers and players. The slide used on the trumpet was a single  slide, i.e., the player grasped the mouthpiece and the entire instrument, including the bell, was moved back and forth. (See pictures at right – the musician on the left is playing a single slide trumpet. Below is a historical reproduction by Egger of Switzerland.)

The trumpet was rarely incorporated into “art” music during this time period. The role of the trumpet was to be a signaling, fanfare, and ceremonial instrument. Some cities and kingdoms restricted the use of trumpets, reserving them for royalty only. Trumpets often played in ensembles with other trumpets, playing elaborate fanfare arrangements with four, six, or even  eight parts.

Because they could play a complete scale, trombones were considered very useful in all types of ensembles. They played both in wind-band groups with shawms (an ancestor of the oboe), with singers in both sacred and secular settings, and in what would become “the” quintessential renaissance brass ensemble — the pairing of trombones with cornetti.

The CORNETTO bears no relation to our modern-day cornet. This is a wooden (straight or curved), hollow, recorder-like tube which is covered with a leather wrapping. It has a cupped brass mouthpiece at one end,  and has tone-holes drilled for the player’s fingers (similar to a modern recorder.) The CORNETTO existed in several sizes, but its function was a soprano brass instrument, and its range coincides roughly with our modern trumpet. Dazzling displays of virtuosity were possible on this instrument, and many surviving musical sources show extremely technical demands were expected of players by the mid-1500s. The mouthpiece of the cornetto is tiny by our modern brass standards.

The pairing of cornetti with trombones created the standard brass ensemble of the 1500s and early 1600s. Typically, two – four cornetti and two four trombone parts were arranged in either single or double choir fashion, and representative compositions by Heinrich Schütz, Andrea Gabrieli, and Giovanni Gabrieli are still considered masterworks today. (Here’s a cornetto fingering chart from Aurelio Virgiliano’s Il Dolcimelo, a valuable original source from the late 1500s.)

The development of the slide and its application to the trumpet set the stage for the genesis of the trombone. The early trombone was called the “sackbutt,” which has its etymological roots in words meaning literally “push-pull.” By 1450, the trombone emerged as a distinct and separate instrument from the natural and slide trumpets. Early trombones had a much smaller  diameter tubing size (bore) and a much smaller bell as compared to modern instruments. The top picture is a modern copy by Egger of Switzerland of an early 1600s tenor sackbutt. Michael Praetorius in his 1609 Syntagma Musicum shows illustrations of bass (quart), tenor (regular), and alto (descant) trombones. He uses the german word “Posaun” for trombone. (See illustration to the right – 1/2 are bass trombones, 3 is a tenor trombone, and 4 is an alto trombone.) Specimens from several makers have survived, so modern players and makers have been able to study the sackbutts/trombones available to performers in the 1500s and 1600s, and several brass builders have reconstructed accurate copies.

ABC Merchandise

Baroque Era

The baroque era was an exciting time of change and evolution for brass instruments. The Cornetto — that curved, wooden, recorder-like soprano “brass” instrument — entered the baroque period (c.1600) as one of the most important melodic/solo instruments. By the end of the baroque period (c.1750), it was virtually extinct. What happened?

Two important trends contributed to the downfall of the Cornetto, and led to a change in musical style in the baroque. The first was the violin’s refinement and rapid rise in popularity. Since the violin and cornetto fulfilled the same function as the primary melodic voice in ensembles, it was only natural that they should come into conflict. It is common to see “for violin or cornetto” written on surviving music parts from the early 1600s. However, as the century progressed, composers began to write parts specifically idiomatic to the violin.

The second threat to the cornetto came from the trumpet itself. We mentioned above that trumpets commonly played in ensembles during the renaissance period; this practice continued into the baroque. As a result of playing in the these trumpet ensembles, the players began to specialize in the range where their parts were written. This had important ramifications, as players of the top part began to push the boundaries of range ever higher. The result was direct competition with the cornetto, as trumpets played in the highest register could now play a full melodic scale. (See inset below for an explanation.)

The baroque was a golden age for trumpets: If they were playing, they usually had the melody! There are hundreds of concerti, sonatas, and chamber works incorporating the trumpet dating from the baroque period. Trumpets utilized in this extremely high register were known as “clarini” (singular “clarino.”) With reference to the graphic above, clarino players specialized in  playing from the eighth harmonic upwards. Players who specialized in the lower fanfare register — harmonics three to eight in the graphic above — were known as “principale.” The baroque trumpet was a strictly “natural” instrument; valves had yet to be invented. A baroque trumpet is pictured to the right. It is important to know that the trumpets of the renaissance, baroque, and classical periods are twice as long as their modern equivalents, e.g., a renaissance/baroque/classical trumpet in D is c. seven feet in length, compared to the modern D trumpet’s three-and-a-half foot length.

The baroque period saw the rise of the horn’s use in “art” music. Although small curved horns existed in the 1400s and 1500s, they were strictly used as signalling instruments, especially in the hunt. There are sporadic instances of composers using onstage and offstage horns to play hunting fanfares in operas in the 1600s, but horns were never incorporated into the orchestra during this time.

In 1680, Count Franz Anton Sporck, a Bohemian prince, was on a tour of France when he encountered the “French” horn, known at this time as the cor de chasse (literally, “hunting horn.”) Sporck was immediately fascinated with the horn, and he had two of his servants trained to play the horns, which they took back to Bohemia. From these two servants one can trace virtually the entire modern lineage of horn playing! Austro-Bohemian brass builders such as the Leichnambschneider brothers made subtle but noticeable alterations to the cor de chasse which enriched and slightly mellowed its sound, making it more suitable for concert  use. By the 1700 – 1710 decade, composers were including the horn in serious art music, and employment records of the court orchestras list many paid horn players. The inclusion of a pair of horns rapidly became a feature of court orchestras in the German-speaking areas, and soon spread to other countries.

The horn of the baroque period is valveless, and is thus a “natural” instrument like the baroque trumpet. At the right is pictured a historical reproduction (by Hampson/O’Malley) after Buchschwinder, a horn-builder active in the early 1700s and whose horns are known to have been heard by J.S. Bach. Natural brass instruments have “crooks,” which are extra loops and pieces of tubing to place their harmonic series in different keys. The process is not instant, however, as it takes the perfomer a moment to change the crooks.

The trombones began to be used by composers as a strictly “sacred” instrument. In music written for the church, they frequently played in chorale textures, doubling the voices in mass settings. Through the period 1700 – 1800, the trombone was limited by this “burden of association” with the sacred, and this trend would continue until the start of the romantic period.

Classical History

Musical style went through a drastic evolution from 1740 — 1760. In the baroque, brass instruments were scored as “primary colors”; instruments were valued for bright, noticable sounds. In this new period, composers came to create a style of music based on homogeneity (a smooth blending) rather than upon great contrasts, as was done in the baroque. This new period is known today as the classical period, and its ideal of blended and uniform sound had drastic implications for the brass family.

The trumpet lost its role as a primary melodic voice, and composers started pairing it with the timpani for rhythmic punctuation. As part of this evolution (or de-evolution from the trumpet player’s viewpoint) the clarino technique of the highest register was almost totally neglected. The principale or fanfare register which took its place required a somewhat heavier style than the light, bright clarino register, and this informed the playing approach of trumpet players in the later-1700s. The trumpet of the classical period required crooks to change its harmonic series to another key, and there was still no way to obtain notes outside the series.

Horns and horn players both experienced a radical paradigm shift in the classical period. Anton Josef Hampel, a horn player at the Dresden court orchestra from 1737 until the 1760s, codified and began teaching a system whereby performers used the right hand within the instrument’s bell to obtain notes outside the harmonic series in the middle and lower registers. This provided the horn player with nearly two chromatic octaves. Furthermore, the required lowering of the horn’s bell (in the baroque, horns were frequently if not always played with the bells held up in the air) greatly darkened and mellowed the sound quality. This right-hand technique inside the bell became known as “handstopping,” and it’s the reason why horn players in modern times still place their right hands inside the instrument’s bell. Composers including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven responded by writing a large solo and chamber music repertoire using this technique.

Horn makers responded by increasing the size of the instrument’s bell. This allowed more room for the player to make adjustments to pitch, but the increased bell size had the additional effect of darkening and smoothing the timbre. All these trends allowed the horn to transition from the bright, high clarino technique and sound of the baroque to a darker, blending, middle-range sound in the classical period. Horn builders also increased the number of crooks available and added tuning slides to the instruments. To the right is pictured an orchestral classical natural horn by Engelbert Schmid. Note the large number of crooks (coiled extra lengths of tubing used to change the key of the horn.)

Trombones in the classical period continued to be used in sacred music, where they frequently doubled choral voices; the instrument was also used in opera orchestras. Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven often scored for the trombones in a three-part alto/tenor/bass format. Arguably, the modern brass orchestral section as we know it begins with Beethoven’s iconic fifth symphony. This is the first symphony to use trombones, although Beethoven holds them in reserve until magnificently revealing them to open the final movement with a combined statement in trumpets, horns, and trombones. Beethoven also included the trombones in his famous ninth “choral” symphony. This helped set a precedent for early romantic composers such as Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Berlioz to incorporate the trombone fully into secular art music, freeing the trombone from the purely sacred/church associations to which it had been chained for the prior century.

Classical-era trombones by Egger of Switzerland:

• Eb alto (below)
• Bb tenor (top left)
• F bass (bottom left) Note the handle on the slide of the bass trombone. This allowed the player to reach the furthest positions.

F bass

Note the handle on the slide of the bass trombone. This allowed the player to reach the furthest positions.

Bb tenor

Eb alto

Invite ABC to your event

Keyed-Brass Instruments

Keyed-brass instruments serve as a curious side-bar in the history of the family. At the very end of the 1700s, a trumpet soloist by the name of Anton Weidinger (1766 – 1852) was responsible for the two great classical era trumpet concerti, namely, those by Joseph Haydn (1796) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1803.) These concerti were written specifically for the five-keyed trumpet used by Weidinger. Keyed brass would continue as a parallel branch of development until about 1850, but ultimately, the valved brass evenness of sound and greater dynamic power proved their superiority.

An original 19-century keyed trumpet, expertly restored by Robb Stewart. Note the keys, crooks, and tuning bits.

A keyed bugle by Graves of Boston (made before 1850) and restored by Robb Stewart. Keyed bugles were widely manufactured and used, and in the time period 1815 – 1835 were the primary soprano brass instruments in bands. From 1835 — 1845 the cornet begins to prove its superiority, and after 1850 the keyed bugle is rarely seen. It is important to note the bugle is half the length of the keyed trumpet.

A bass ophicleide from the mid-1800s. Bass ophicleides were pitched in either C or Bb and saw wide use in both bands and orchestras. In the early 1800s, composers were eager to find a true bass voice to the brass family (remember, the tubas and euphoniums have yet to be invented), and this helps to explain the popularity of these instruments.

An alto ophicleide/quinticlave in Eb, by Halari of Paris (1836), restored by Robb Stewart. These relatively rare instruments were an alto keyed brass voice. The ophicleide family of instruments was developed between 1815 – 1820 in Paris by the Halari firm.

Romantic-Modern Era

In 1814, Heinrich Stoelzel, a German court hornist, designed the first valve system. It was soon applied to all existing brass instruments and resulted in the invention of many other new specimens, such as the cornet, flugelhorn, euphonium, and tuba. One builder, Adolph Sax, created a whole family of matched instruments called the saxhorns, which (like his most well-known invention, the saxophone) featured multiple sizes of similar-sounding brass ranging from contrabass to soprano.

With the application of the valve to the brass family, the instruments became accessible to the general public, who rapidly and enthusiastically began adopting the instruments. Earlier brass playing techniques such as the trumpet’s clarino technique and the horn’s handstopping technique usually required years of dedicated, daily study and apprenticeship with a master player and teacher. However, valved brass such as the cornet and the saxhorns could be learned comparatively easily and in somewhat shorter lengths of time.

By the time period 1850 – 1860, a large number of towns and villages in Europe and America boasted a “town brass band.” Orchestras, too, proliferated in the nineteenth century, and most of the symphony orchestras familiar to us today were formed during this time. Brass instruments in bands (cornets, flugelhorns, euphoniums, and tubas) were experiencing a new way of writing unique to the new medium, and this helped influence orchestral composers in their brass scoring for trumpets, horns, and trombones. Composers such as Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss greatly expanded the number and role of orchestral brass.

A modern reproduction of a mid-nineteeth century orchestral valve trumpet in F. The standard romantic era valve trumpet was pitched in low F, as compared to modern instruments in Bb or C. (Egger, Switzerland.)

A modern reproduction of a mid-nineteenth century natural trumpet by Courtois. (Egger, Switzerland.)

A German three-valve euphonium c. 1900.

A modern Bb cornet by John Packer. Cornets have the same tubing length as a similarly-pitched trumpet, but are both wrapped more tightly and have a more conical bore. This yields a mellower timbre when compared to the trumpet. Cornets are often found in the higher key of Eb, and in mid-nineteenth century American brass bands, the Eb cornet was the dominant soprano brass instrument.

A modern Bb flugelhorn by Yamaha. Flugelhorns also have the same length as a Bb trumpet or Bb cornet, but are even more conical in shape, leading to a very widely-flared bell section. This causes a very warm, rounded, dark sound that offers a large contrast to the brighter sound of the trumpet.

A valve horn by Eschenbach (mid-1800s) in the collection of James Hampson. Although valves were added to the horn as far back as 1815, many hornists and composers valued the handstopping technique so much that they continued to use it in place of or in conjunction with the newer valve technique. Many players preferred to continue using crooks as well, and horn parts frequently call for them. Note the crook set accompanying this horn. In some countries, especially France, it took until the twentieth century for hornists to move entirely away from the older playing methods!