Thomas Stevens

The Haydn Trumpet Concerto

  • For Trumpeters Only

"Who wrote it?"-Carlo Maria Giulini

This post hopefully represents something more than one more boring anecdotal music business tale from an old guy. It is an abridged version of a story I have repeated to students for many years, one which is related to music performance preparation. It includes all of the the basic information regarding the experience; however, some of the relevant details have been omitted for the sake of brevity.

In 1982, I played several performances of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with my home orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, at concerts in Los Angeles and New York City. When I met with the conductor for the standard pre-rehearsal talk-through, he asked me if I had ever previously played the concerto. My response was, in so many words: “Yes, many times.” He then asked me, and I quote here verbatim: “ Who wrote it?”

Was CMG questioning the provenance of THE Haydn Trumpet Concerto, the piece many regard as the flagship of the repertoire for solo trumpet and orchestra? Was he referring to the work presumed to be (1796) the last purely instrumental piece of orchestral music written by the great master-a piece that has generated considerable discussion and debate among musicologists and trumpet players related to composition and/or technical trumpet issues? (The best example of which being the solo trumpet low register chromaticism in the second movement; was it a music composition-based development or simply a direct, possibly witty or cynical technical challenge to Anton Weidinger, for whom the work was written, and his claims that his venerated clarino (keyed trumpet), a predecessor of the modern-day trumpet, was fully chromatic in the instrument’s first octave, pitches the trumpet was previously incapable of producing? The first octave diatonic pitch spellings in the principal theme of the opening movement would also appear to suggest Haydn was most likely challenging the clarino’s low register, especially if one places them in context following the almost mocking solo-trumpet-as-orchestral-tutti-brass-instrument interjections in the orchestra exposition section of the first movement.)

If memory serves, our conductor of record cited, among other things, certain string voicings in the coda of the 3rd movement as being contrary to some of Haydn’s writing and (composition) teaching principles. According to the maestro, Haydn would have not tolerated the commission of such types of technical orchestration “errors” from his pupils. (He did not mention how he could have possibly known this.)

Following the performances, I told a friend of mine, a trumpet-playing European academic, about the Giulini-Haydn experience. He seemed truly fascinated with the subject, and since he had the requisite credentials to access the library archives in Vienna, offered to take a look at the composer’s original score of the Concerto the next time he visited that city. He did so and found that Haydn had indeed composed the work, but that Giulini was also correct in his assertions because Haydn’s original orchestration, as it exists in the archives, is not 100% complete and some material in the orchestra parts would need to have been added to produce a completed performance/published version. (We are not dealing with official government secrets here. The original orchestration exists in the public domain.)

One afternoon nearly a year later, I was working privately with Giulini on the editing of the brass parts, at the request of the composer, of a work CMG had commissioned from his friend, the distinguished Italian composer, Gottfredo Petrassi. This gave me the rather unique opportunity to discuss, one-on-one with the maestro, some of the specifics of what my colleague had discovered with respect to the origins of the Concerto. He commented that my friend’s conclusions made sense and were certainly plausible because it is commonly accepted as historical fact that during the Classical Period (and before) composers were often writing to meet performance deadlines, and it was not all that uncommon for them to depend on their assistants, editors, and publishers to assist them in completing the details* of their works for performances and publication. He further commented there are many works from that era with missing original parts or pages. (These points have been uttered repeatedly by musicians ever since that period of history.) He then concluded with some final words, offered here as a Quotable: “If you have a question about the music, it never hurts to ask, and always pay attention to question everything.”

The manner with which Giulini approached the performances of a work he previously did not know existed and was not entirely convinced was authentic at the time of the performances is indicative of one of many aspects of committed and dedicated musicianship that one often, but not always, may experience at the highest levels in the world of music performance. His professional demeanor was exemplary, especially when considering it was not exactly a particularly significant or musically profound assignment for a conductor of his stature. He began his task by seriously studying the score, as he would with any other composition, and he saw some musical material that, in his opinion, did not pass the “smell” test, despite the fact the piece had routinely been performed and recorded worldwide for decades. So, he asked the question, and, ultimately, of course, he was proven to have been correct, at least with respect to his original points of inquiry.

In today’s world, many musicians prefer to learn written music by listening to recordings. We have all done this, and recordings can indeed serve as great time saving devices in the learning process, but what has always struck me as being a trifle peculiar is that the work of others, which is what recordings basically are, would have such a profound influence on musicians at a time in our history when individual expression and personal interpretations are ostensibly the prevailing artistic components of the performer ethic. On the other hand, the practice of beginning at the beginning, as CMG did in this case, ultimately can result in more truly individual interpretations, ones that are free from at least some of the musical ideas and prejudices of those who have preceded us. Maestro Giulini did some things, especially with tempi control in the piece (specifically with transitional and cadential material), which originally felt to me to be musically counter-intuitive, but in the final analysis gave the piece the kind of rhythmic momentum that keeps the music alive as one often hears in fine performances of Haydn symphonies or chamber music but rarely in performances of the trumpet Concerto, and it is this writer's opinion this was because he approached the music as a sort of a premier performance of a piece by Franz Josef Haydn, which it was, at least for him.

Tutti Attenzione!

Do your homework. Or, as Erich Leinsdorf loved say to musicians, with a wink and a nod, quoting an old German master conductor friend of his, as a Quotable: “Take your music home and overlook it!”

* Many art historians have claimed that many of the world's great artists, as far back as Leonardo and Michelangelo, had "assistants" in their studios who would often help them finish their works in much the same manner.