Poster The trumpet is one of the most recognizable and versatile instruments.
The trumpet is one of the most recognizable and versatile instruments.
Bruno Justo/Unsplash
Classical Basics

Is the trumpet the best instrument ever?

Is the trumpet the best instrument ever? With its clear and bracing tone, it is perhaps the most recognizable of instruments, able to issue a clarion call or herald a monarch (or an Olympic champion) with ceremonial fanfare. As the soprano voice of the brass section, it often carries the melody.

It is also one of the world’s oldest instruments. Early versions were used as signaling devices for hunting or battle, and often were created from shells, bones or horns (such as the shofar, used in religious ceremonies). Primitive silver and bronze examples from ancient Egypt (circa 1500 BCE) were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In the Middle Ages, improvements in metal-making and design led to the instrument’s use for musical purposes. The Baroque era (about 1600-1750) became known as a golden age of the natural, or valveless, trumpet, with many works written to highlight the instrument.

But it was the development in the 1800s of keys and valves, spearheaded by Austrian trumpeter Anton Weidinger, that unlocked the trumpet’s full range of notes, revolutionizing its capability to play melodic parts and leading to the prominence it enjoys in both classical and popular compositions.

Here are some notable works showcasing the versatile trumpet.

Classical legacy

Trumpet Voluntary (Jeremiah Clarke): This sprightly-yet-regal piece became No. 1 for nuptials after it was famously used at the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Composed in about 1700, it indeed has a royal pedigree; it is alternately called The Prince of Denmark’s March. For years, it was misattributed to Clarke’s contemporary Henry Purcell, whose similar Trumpet Tune also is a bridal staple.

Trumpet Concerto in D (Georg Philipp Telemann): The trumpet isn’t all fanfare; this piece displays its aptitude for subtlety. The high register of the “Adagio” movement was typical of the Baroque era and requires great stamina on the part of the trumpeter.

“Finale,” William Tell Overture (Gioachino Rossini): If your heart isn’t pounding and your hair isn’t standing on end when the trumpets gallop in with this iconic fanfare, check your pulse. The thrilling finale to Rossini’s opera is officially titled “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” but you might call it The Lone Ranger theme.

“Promenade,” Pictures at an Exhibition (Modest Mussorgsky): During Minnesota-born trumpeter Adolph (Bud) Herseth’s tenure as principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble recorded seven versions of Mussorgsky’s majestic work. Here is a compilation of those opening “Promenades,” spanning from 1951 to ‘90, highlighting Herseth on the glorious opening solo. Note the differences in tone and tempo.

“The Girl With the Flaxen Hair” (Claude Debussy): Listen to trumpeter extraordinaire Mary Elizabeth Bowden’s almost ethereal rendition on the piccolo version of the instrument, which is much smaller in size and pitched an octave higher than the standard trumpet. It might be the closest thing to a trumpet lullaby.

Bugler’s Dream (Leo Arnaud): It’s an Olympic year, so naturally we’ve got to include the stately trumpet flourish that ABC first played as a backdrop to the Winter Games in 1964, cementing its medal-winning status. Arnaud composed it in 1958 as part of The Charge Suite, commissioned by Felix Slatkin, who conducts it here.


Beyond classical

“Caravan” (Duke Ellington): Jazz trumpet is a genre all its own, with its distinctive rhythms and use of the mute: Think Louis Armstrong. If Armstrong was the king of the jazz trumpet, Valaida Snow was the queen. Sometimes called “Little Louis,” Snow blazed her own trail as a vocalist and trumpet player, showcasing both talents on this Ellington tune recorded in 1939.

Venus de Milo (Miles Davis): This track, composed in the late 1940s and included on the seminal 1957 compilation album Birth of the Cool, is testament to Davis’ ability to straddle big band and jazz — perhaps the birth of fusion, as well as cool.

Spanish Flea (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass): Transport yourself back to the swinging ‘60s with this peppy tune written by Julian Wechter but popularized by magnetic trumpeter/bandleader Alpert. Its heavy use on the TV show The Dating Game lent credence to the notion that the trumpet can be mighty seductive.

“Penny Lane” (The Beatles): Paul McCartney enlisted English orchestral trumpeter David Mason to perform the brassy flourish on this 1967 classic after hearing him play on J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Mason’s work on the piccolo trumpet (so high that some listeners assumed the audio was sped up) lends the tune the distinctive music-hall sound that McCartney loved.

“Questions 67 & 68” (Chicago): The 1970s saw the rise of the horn-driven band, and there was none greater than Chicago. Here’s a deeper track from 1969 that features a lushly cascading trumpet intro and pulsating accents throughout, punctuated with an up-tempo bridge.

MacArthur Park (Maynard Ferguson): The trumpet icon’s extended version (10 minutes!) of Jimmy Webb’s 1968 classic pop song is a glorious rendition that will have you forgetting those dopey lyrics. The high notes defy gravity!

The trumpet is responsible for some of the most iconic passages in music. It can be authoritative, stately or playful. And that’s why it is the best instrument ever!

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