(Tip no. 40 from “100 Orchestration Tips,” Part 2: The Brass Section)

When scoring for auxiliary trumpets, be aware that considerations of tone are always more important that extensions of range.

The trumpet family is similar to the clarinet family in some respects. Both have two main models that are tuned by one or two half-steps apart – in the case of trumpets, these are the B♭ and C models. Both families have higher models (sometimes called “piccolo” but actually sopranino) in D and E♭. Both have specialty instruments that are true piccolos – the rare A♭ clarinet and the B♭ piccolo trumpet. And both have commonly-used bass models extending an octave down from the main models. There are even contrabass models for both instruments (becoming more common for clarinet but a somewhat pointless exercise for trumpet). Interestingly, one may still find some scores in which trumpet parts are marked “clarino” in a general sense, intimating a relationship between the two families, though this of course is one of perception rather that technique or construction.

“Clarino” also refers to a specific high register, one which trumpet players of the Baroque period made a specialty in the Baroque period. On old-style natural trumpets, tuning was limited to the harmonic series; so in order to play melodic parts, a trumpeter had to train their lip to a tighter embouchure, giving the player complete control from the 8th to the 16th partial. This was the octave from written C5-C6 – usually sounding in a higher key such as F. This repertoire remains, but the technique does not (except with some period music specialists). The modern trumpet is scaled-down in size, so that its clarino register is now manageable using the 8th and possibly 9th partials, taking the player up to a usual upper limit of written D6.

It takes a trained lip to go higher than this. Some jazz players can get any high pitch from their trumpets, pushing them up above C7, but this is hardly a concert music sound. The natural limitations of timbre make themselves felt even as high as a standard high C6. With this in mind, the sopranino and piccolo trumpets were designed, which can scale these heights with clarity.

There’s a self-defeating range of descriptive terminology in many orchestration manuals on the topic of the high trumpets: “piercing,” and “shrill.” It gives the impression of a standard trumpet being pushed past its comfort zone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The D and E♭ trumpets have a wonderful clarity of tone. I would called it “pointed” and “ringing” rather than shrill – at least from a professional player with a great instrument.

In fact, that is the point. It’s not about the high range as much as it is about the tone. The D trumpet really isn’t a whole lot higher than the C trumpet in terms of available partials. The E♭ is only a half-step higher than the D. The B♭ piccolo, pitched a minor 7th higher than the C, peters out for most players at a written A6, sounding G6. If our three instruments only give the composer a ceiling of range that’s a few notes higher, then what’s the point?

Fig. 40a: The realities of upper range limits on high auxiliary trumpets.
Fig. 40a: The realities of upper range limits on high auxiliary trumpets.

The answer is to stop thinking of these high trumpets as extensions of range, and start thinking of them as extensions of register or tone colour. Though they’re not a lot higher in physical range, they take the best timbral qualities of the middle-high range of the standard trumpet and make them much more comfortable to play above G5. The orchestrator should be looking for ways to utilise the unique sound of these instruments, not just in their top octave. Their middle registers have a smaller, more intimate sound that has its own kind of charm, and a wide range of dynamic control.

There’s another misconception in many orchestration manuals that’s worth clearing up. We’re assured by both Piston and Adler that the bass trumpet is essentially a valve trombone, played by trombonists. But this is not quite true. A trombone is a whole-tube instrument, with a bore of wider design to help lower partials speak with more clarity. The trombone slide covers seven positions, of which the top 3-4 can play down to the fundamental.

Excerpt from A Modest Suite by Gordon Carr, with bass trumpeter John Shaddock illustrating the transitional nature of the instrument – reminiscent of trombone in many ways, but still having more of a trumpet-like timbre and delivery. Note the difficulty with which the lowest notes speak, further evidence that the instrument isn’t as much of a valve trombone as it’s made out to be.

But that’s not how bass trumpets are designed. Whether they’re pitched in E♭, D, or even C or B♭, their lowest partial is the second, the same as all other trumpets. What’s m ore, they’re not whole-tube instruments. Builders tend to scale bass trumpets to have a more ringing, less dense sound. A bass trumpet is unforgettably heroic in its middle- to middle-high register. One has only to hear the instrument in the hands of an expert player, such as the leader of Mnozil Brass, to note the differences. It’s all about tone – otherwise, there would be little use in building a bass trumpet to begin with.

Fig. 40b: Wagner, Die Walküre, Act III, bass trumpet in D part bars 12-34.
Fig. 40b: Wagner, Die Walküre, Act III, bass trumpet in D part bars 12-34.
Probably the most famous bass trumpet line in concert repertoire. Sounding down a minor 7th.