Thomas Stevens

Trumpet Traditions I (About Those Octaves)

  • For Trumpeters Only

Octaves or Unisons?

During the classical period, as most trumpeters are well aware, the trumpet was not fully developed as a chromatic (even diatonic) instrument. Our first "working" octave, gave us only I-V-I, the actual pitches (“do-sol-do,” “re-la-re,“ etc.) being determined by the pitch of the instrument.

The tradition of second trumpet players in symphony orchestras and other classical venues during the twentieth century has been to play (fill-in) the lower octaves, in some instances even filling in other “missing” parts in music from that period even though the actual printed notation complies with the restrictions of the non-existent pitches in the first octave. In the so-called "battery" (quasi-tympani, rhythmic accompaniment) parts of the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, for example, such restrictions can result in a great deal of octave jumping on the part of the second trumpet players. (sort of "applied" Schlossberg drills)

During the 1970s, as a challenge to this international orchestra tradition, some members of the then "new generation" of American trumpeters started playing the parts as written based on the proposition such great composers were also great orchestrators who had known at the time they wrote the music that the trumpets would be unison in their second octave at certain points in the music. Consequently as per this line of reasoning, they would most assuredly have assigned other instrumental voices (i.e. horns) to cover the (missing) lower octave pitches. As a consequence, when modern day trumpet players have arbitrarily inserted the second trumpet back into that ‘lower” octave, the net effect has been to overload the lower voice.

In the L.A. Philharmonic, we continued this practice for a number of years with nary a word from conductors, great and small. In fact, no one seemed to notice until finally our old pal, Erich Leinsdorf, called me aside during a rehearsal of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony and inquired as to what was going on with the second trumpet parts. I responded by reciting the standard speech about Beethoven being an orchestration genius, blah, blah, blah. (comme paragraph 4, above) He said OK, and that was the end of that.

Or so I thought.

About two years (!) later, Leinsdorf summoned me to his backstage dressing room. He had placed carefully seven photocopies of pages from original manuscripts of Beethoven symphony scores on the top of a dressing table. On every one of those pages, which were quite obviously carefully chosen to make a point, the battery parts were completely written-out in only one instrumental line. I don’t recall all of the specifics, but on one score it was the first oboe part, on another it was the tympani, and so on.

Leinsdorf’s remarks, in summary: Beethoven may indeed have been an orchestration genius, but he was not all that involved with the battery or other incidental parts. In all of the examples, the composer had included them in only one part, and had then drawn slashes across the score to identify those instruments/groups of instruments to be included, leaving it up to copyists, editors, and publishers to fill in the specific parts.

Professor Leinsdorf then made clear his preference for the tradition of inserting the lower octaves in the second trumpet parts because he was of the opinion* it was musically and sonically less intrusive, in terms of orchestral balances, than when two trumpeters were in unison on the upper octave.

The fact this man took the time to research such a minor issue, simply as a matter of artistic and intellectual curiosity and integrity, in the middle of an already imposing personal schedule, exemplifies the type of attitude and work ethic that separates the big kids from the little ones. It also reminds this writer of one of Leinsdorf's most memorable verbatim Quotables, one he would usually offer in the context of advising symphony musicians to commit more personal practice hours to the preparation of their individual orchestral parts (rather than working on their favorite concertos): “Your psychologist will tell you such behavior would suggest obsessive-compulsive disorder; I think of it as commitment and dedication.”

* There is no right and wrong here, it's a matter of individual preferences. This is a perfect example of Bernstein's admonition that there are only questions, never answers, in music.