Pictured above: Paul Perfetti performs on the natural trumpet in Handel Messiah.
From its beginnings as an instrument for military maneuvers and the celebrations of nobility, the natural trumpet, a loop-shaped brass instrument with no valves, developed into an essential part of the 18th century orchestra. Leipzig and London, with long-standing traditions of trumpet playing, were two important centers for trumpeters and trumpet music at this time.
Three works this season feature the natural trumpet. In the Magnificat, Bach uses a trio of natural trumpets playing the same music in the first and last movements. In the last movement, this creates a lovely bit of text painting as the chorus sings “as it was in the beginning.” In the chorus, “Fecit potentiam,” Bach again uses the trumpets to punctuate and emphasize the text “he hath shown might in his arm,” a reference to the instrument’s military associations. In the Christmas Oratorio, Part I, Bach calls for three trumpets, playing an opening fanfare. Later however, Bach writes for a single trumpet, plus flute and strings, in the bass aria “Grosser Herr, O starker König” (movement 8). Combining the trumpet with these instruments in a smaller ensemble requires a gentler and more delicate sound to complement, rather than overpower, the rest of the group. Handel, too, requires trumpets in the Messiah, including the demanding and ever popular aria “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from the last part of the oratorio.
The versatility of the natural trumpet complemented both large and small ensembles. Even as the instrument continued to be used in its traditional military and ceremonial role, the natural trumpet’s flexibility made it an essential part of the Baroque sound.