What is a brass instrument?
Before getting into the history of how brass instruments and brass music originated and developed it is necessary to be clear on what a brass instrument actually is. A brass instrument is defined as an “aerophone,” which means it is an instrument where the musician must blow air into the instrument. The musician produces the tone by buzzing the lips into what is generally a cup-shaped mouthpiece. It doesn’t mean that the instrument is necessarily made of brass, since instruments that are made of other metals, wood, horn, or even animal bone are included in the family of brass instruments. Likewise, other instruments that are made of brass or metals, such as the flute or saxophone, do not constitute members of the brass family of instruments.
Brass instruments, like all other pitched musical instruments, are dependent on the overtone series, famously studied and analyzed by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. It basically states that a string, or the vibrating air column in the case of a brass instrument, will tend to vibrate at certain frequencies based on the length of the string or tube. The fundamental pitch is the lowest natural note. Other possible notes are then follow Pathagorus’ formula, one octave above the fundamental, followed by a perfect fifth above that, followed by a perfect fourth, and on up.
Because the overtone series leaves a lot of gaps between pitches, musicians and instrument manufacturers eventually developed ways of playing the notes in between. Modern brass instruments usually alter the length of the tubing through valves. The slide, still used by trombonists today, was one of the earliest methods of changing the length of tubing. Other methods of producing additional pitches included replacing different lengthened crooks in the instrument and placing the hand deep into the bell, in the case of early horns, to alter the pitch.
Brass Instruments and Music in Antiquity and the Renaissance
Brass instruments have been around for a long time. Some of the earliest examples of brass instruments were straight trumpets made of wood, bronze, and silver, such as the salpinx found in Greece, and the Roman tuba, lituus, and buccina. Other early brass instruments were horns made of bronze or animal horns. The Scandinavian lur was one such instrument, as was the Roman, cornu. The shofar is an ancient Hebrew brass instrument made of a ram’s horn, which is still used in Jewish ceremonies today.
During the Renaissance brass instruments began to develop that resemble the modern instruments in use today. Around 1400-1413 the earliest known S-shaped trumpet was developed, which was later followed by the folded trumpet and slide trumpet. It was out of the slide trumpet that the trombone developed around 1450. This new instrument, commonly referred to as a sackbut, was a vast improvement over the awkward to play slide trumpet. Instrument designers developed a system of connected double tubes which reduced the distance the slide needed to move between notes and therefore improved the musician’s performance technique. Improved slide design also allowed a practical tenor range instrument, which has become the most common instrument of the trombone family today.
Also during this time, around 1500, large European courts would maintain corps of trumpeters used mainly for heralding. This early trumpet ensembles eventually progressed to include five part music, but there was little harmonic variety. Players tended to specialize in either the high range or low range.
The horn had yet to develop into an instrument for strictly musical purposes yet, although curved and helical horns were commonly used for hunting.
Developments of the 17th Century
The 17th Century began to see some major innovations in the design of brass instruments. Around 1600 some instrument makers in Nuremberg improved the design of the natural valveless trumpet to function better in the upper overtones. The pitch of the instrument was changed by inserting crooks for lower keys and tuning was accomplished by inserting small lengths of tubing to extend the mouthpiece. Music composed for these instruments was written in the upper register where the overtone series are closer together and capable of playing more scale-like passages. This is generally referred to as the clarino register.
This clarino style of playing reached its peak near the end of the 1600s with solo concertos composed by Guiseppe Torelli, Domenico Gabrielli, and Giacomo Perti. Many of these pieces, along with music by Maurizio Cazzati and other composers associated with the basilica of San Petronio in Balogna, are still performed today.
Trombones continued to be widely used during the 17th Century. Sackbuts were regularly employed in a variety of ensembles, such as court and municipal bands, where it was common to combine them with shawms. The sackbut was also used frequently in ensembles where they were to blend with softer instruments. One of most influential situations for the trombones to be called for were in the churches, where they were frequently used to double the voices. A vocal-like style of playing developed for the trombones that was in contrast to the period’s trumpet style. It can be in part attributed to the sacred associations of the trombone from this time for the lack of secular compositions written for the trombone for centuries after.
The horn was still not frequently heard as a purely musical instrument during this time, although hunting horns were used on stage in some operas to help depict a hunting scene. The hoop-shaped cor de chasse became a common feature in the French hunting tradition.
Developments of the 18th Century
In the 18th Century the horn began to develop as an instrument capable of high musical expression, rather than as a mere novelty. Around 1700-1710 a Viennese instrument maker named Michael Leichnambschneider may have been the first person to put terminal crooks on horns in order to play them in different keys. During this time horns were performed mostly in the upper portion of the overtone series and were played without the hand in the bell. Around 1750 a hornist from Dresden, Germany developed the technique of adding pitches to the overtone series of the horn through various degrees of hand stopping, which soon became standard practice for horn players.
Composers soon began taking advantage of the new technical facility developed by horn players and instrument manufacturers. Reinhard Keiser may have been the first composer to call for the horn with the orchestra in his 1705 opera Octavia. George Frederick Handel called for two horns on his 1717 composition Water Music. Franz Joseph Haydn composed his first Horn Concerto in 1762.
Composers also began writing solo works for the trombone during this time. Christoph Wagenseil, Johann Albrechtsberger, Michael Haydn, and Leopold Mozart all wrote solo pieces for alto trombone, the preferred solo trombone instrument of the time. With the sacred associations of the trombone from the previous century it was natural from composers to utilize trombones to help portray religious or supernatural effects in operas of the late 18th Century. Two of the most easily recognizable examples of this were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.
In the first half of the 18th Century Baroque trumpet works reach its peak through the compositions of J.S. Bach, who wrote for trumpet virtuoso Gottgried Reiche. By 1760 the clarino style of trumpet playing began to decline in part due to changes of musical tastes and compositional styles. Ernst Altenburg wrote a treatise on natural and clarino trumpet playing called Trumpeter’s and Kettledrummer’s Art in 1795. The trumpet concerto by Haydn was composed in 1796 for the Viennese trumpet player Anton Weidinger.
In 1788 instrument maker Charles Clagget achieved a patent for a chromatic trumpet, which consisted of two instruments with different fundamentals and a switching mechanism to direct the single mouthpiece to one side or another. This instrument did not achieve much acceptance, however.
Developments of the 19th Century
The 19th Century saw the greatest amount of literature and design developments for brass instruments up to this time. Although there is some controversy over exactly who developed valved brass instruments, it was around 1826 when a German valve trumpet was brought to Paris where it was copied and began to gain wide acceptance. Hector Berlioz was the first known composer to use this instrument in his overture to Les frans-juges in 1826. In 1835 Halevy’s La Juive was the first score to call for valve horns. The custom of the period began to be to score for two valved horns and two hand horns. The cornet was developed around 1828 by Jean-Louis Antoine. This new instrument quickly gained popularity for its chromatic agility. The valve trombone was developed around 1828 and gained wide use in bands, but little use in orchestras. In 1835 the first tuba, a five-valved instrument pitched in F, was invented by Berlin instrument makers Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Moritz. A tenor tuba was produced by Moritz in 1838 and the euphonium was invented by Sommer of Weimar in 1843.
By around 1890 the modern form of the orchestral trumpet became common. In France, England, and the United States piston valves were generally used, but rotary valves were more common in Germany, Austria, and Italy. It was also around this time that the trumpet pitched in B flat became the most common.
With better designed brass instruments and improved technical abilities of brass musicians many composers began writing works that included more brass or solo works for brass instruments. Ludwig von Beethoven was the first major composer to include trombones in his symphonic works, scoring for three trombones in his 5th and 9th symphonies. This influenced other composers to add trombones to the brass section in their symphonic works. Beethoven also wrote his Horn Sonata, Op. 17 for Giovanni Punto in 1800. Carl Maria von Weber wrote his Concertino for Horn in 1806. The Concertino for Trombone was composed in 1837 by Ferdinand David. Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz both began to champion the use of the tuba in their works.
In 1864 one of the most influential methods of brass playing was published, J.B. Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method. Although initially written for trumpet and cornet students, this method book has been transcribed, published, and used for almost all members of the modern brass family today.
The 20th Century and Beyond
Brass music and instruments continued to develop into the 20th century. The Belgian firm of Mahillon produced a piccolo B flat trumpet around 1905, developed to assist trumpet players with Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto and other works intended for clarino trumpet playing. Around 1950 American bass trombonists began experimenting with adding a second rotor valve to eventually produce the standard double trigger bass trombone.
Major composers also continued to write solo works from brass instruments. Richard Strauss composed his Second Concerto for Horn in 1942. In 1954 Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Bass Tuba Concerto.
Brass musicians began to establish their instruments as major solo instruments as well in the 20th Century. From around 1950 to 1957 English horn virtuoso Dennis Brain brought the horn to the forefront before a fatal auto accident cut his career short. French trumpeter Maurice André began to popularize solo trumpet music and Swedish trombonist Christian Lindberg has developed a career as a trombone soloist.
Beginning around 1920 the jazz styles of trumpet and trombone playing became popular and began to influence how European art influenced composers began writing for brass instruments. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong and trombonist Tommy Dorsey are only two of the jazz brass players who’s technical abilities astounded classical musicians and helped to raise the standard of technical ability for brass musicians.
Performers, composers, and instrument designers continue to innovate brass music today. New instrument designs come out each year, new works are written for brass instruments, and many performers continue to stretch the boundaries of what is considered playable on the brass instruments.