Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major

Concerto in E-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra

Franz Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, almost certainly on March 31, 1732—he was baptized on April 1—and died on May 31, 1809, in Vienna. He composed his Trumpet Concerto in 1796, and it was premiered March 28, 1800, at the Royal Imperial Theatre (Burgtheater) in Vienna, with Anton Weidinger as soloist. The first and only San Francisco Symphony subscription performances, in April 1975, were conducted by Niklaus Wyss, and featured Maurice André on trumpet.  In addition to the solo trumpet, it calls for two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two orchestral trumpets, timpani, and strings. Mark Inouye performs his own cadenza in the first movement. Performance time: about thirteen minutes.

Franz Joseph Haydn was sixty-four years old and semi-retired when he wrote his Trumpet Concerto. He had spent nearly three decades, beginning in 1761, laboring assiduously in the service of the exorbitantly wealthy Esterházy court and, in the process, becoming the most revered composer in all of Europe. For almost all of Haydn’s tenure, the reigning monarch was Prince Nicholas Esterházy, known as Nicholas the Magnificent thanks to the lavish festivities he underwrote for occasions of special political or social significance. He could well afford it; by some reckonings he was richer than even the Emperor of Austria. Prince Nicholas died on September 28, 1790, and he was succeeded by his son, Anton. The new prince did not much care for music, and a mere two days after his father’s death he fired the entire court orchestra and opera company, retaining only a small wind-band for ceremonial occasions. Haydn’s services would prove largely unnecessary to his court. The new prince therefore granted Europe’s most admired composer a pension of a thousand florins a year; and although he kept him on staff as his music director, he made it clear that no particular duties—or even attendance—would be required. For the first time in decades, Haydn was free to explore.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Musical innovator though he was, Haydn was essentially conservative in professional matters, preferring the stability of a long-term appointment to the risk entailed in scurrying from one patron to another in quest of incremental improvements of fortune. Anton’s accession forced Haydn to effect a change in his career. He ended up taking two extended trips to England in 1791-92 and again in 1794-95—more about that shortly—and then returned to his home in Vienna, where he devoted himself to the two genres that by then lay closest to his heart, string quartets and sacred music. The only notable exceptions are his final piano trio (in E-flat major) and his Trumpet Concerto, both of which he penned in 1796.

He wrote the concerto for the trumpeter Anton Weidinger (1766-1852), who had joined the orchestra of Vienna’s Royal Imperial Theatre in 1792. The instrument Weidinger had learned to play was a so-called “natural trumpet” that, boiled down to essentials, was simply a meticulously crafted metal pipe with a mouthpiece on one end and a flared bell on the other. When a performer’s lips vibrated against the mouthpiece, a column of air was set into motion through the length of the pipe, producing a relatively low fundamental tone. Musicians playing such instruments learned to harness the overtones that lay in the octaves above that fundamental tone, and the best of the players achieved astonishing virtuosity in negotiating the essentially complete diatonic scales that could be sounded in the instrument’s top register, called the “clarino,” four octaves above the fundamental.

Even the finest virtuosos had their limits. Those natural trumpets could play neither a complete diatonic scale in their low or medium registers nor a complete chromatic scale in any register. These became serious deficiencies as the Classical style superseded the sort of writing for which Baroque trumpets had been well suited, and toward the end of the eighteenth century trumpet builders started devising various systems that would adapt the instrument to the exigencies of modern music. One of these was the keyed trumpet, an instrument with four to six keys (usually five, operated by the left hand) that covered sound-holes, rather like the keys of modern woodwind instruments. Opening a key would effectively shorten the column of air resonating within the trumpet and accordingly raise the pitch of the note being sounded. The first instruments built according to this method were manufactured in Germany in the 1770s, but further experiments and improvements were required to make them truly practical.

One of the trumpeters who sought these improvements was Weidinger, who was so much a friend of Haydn’s that in 1797 the composer served as a witness at the wedding of the trumpeter’s daughter. In 1798, Weidinger showed off his new instrument, which he called his “organisierte Trompete,” in a performance of Leopold Kozeluch’s Symphonie Concertante for Mandolin, Trumpet, Double Bass, Piano, and Orchestra. (There’s a combination you don’t stumble across every day!) A couple of years later Weidinger announced that his work on the instrument, which by then had occupied him for seven years, had reached its conclusion and that he would unveil the ultimate refinement of his new trumpet at a “Grand Public Concert” in Vienna on March 28, 1800. It was at that concert that he premiered the new concerto Haydn had written for his novel instrument, along with an obbligato aria by Mozart’s acolyte Franz Xaver Süssmayr that spotlighted the instrument. The tone of Weidinger’s keyed trumpet was far less penetrating than the brilliant sound of the Baroque trumpet, and its timbre was sometimes compared to that of a clarinet or oboe. It blended nicely within the orchestra, and it gained a devoted following among trumpeters for several decades, especially in Austria and Italy. Two of the standard concertos in the trumpet repertory—those by Haydn and by Johann Nepomuk Hummel—were written with this instrument (and this trumpeter) in mind. Nonetheless, competing trumpet designs were put forward in ensuing years, including instruments that used tuning slides (rather like trombones), instruments that required the player to alter pitches by stopping the bell with his hands (as horn players were known to do), and instruments that used valves instead of keys to alter the length of the metal pipe. This last mechanism would prove the most enduring, and it would become the basis for the engineering of trumpets today.

Haydn cleverly wrote the opening of his concerto to generate pent-up curiosity about Weidinger’s instrument. After seven measures, in which the strings announce the principal theme (and the woodwinds comment with a little echo in the middle), the trumpet intones its first note—a low tonic E-flat, fortissimo, which would have been in no way revolutionary. Then the orchestra answers its theme with some fanfare-like material, and after sitting out these few measures the trumpet adds its voice to this, too. What it plays is again very much the sort of thing trumpets had done in earlier times. Only at its third entrance does the new trumpet really show its colors, with a theme that strolls through an entire major scale and beyond, softly and in a relatively low register, before injecting a little descent of six notes. The effect must have been extraordinary: such a combination of pitches, dynamics, and timbre could not have been heard ever before in history. A compact, firmly constructed sonata-form movement is in the process of unfolding, during which the trumpet is put through its paces in a way that resembles the behavior of other instruments. With this concerto the trumpet enters the modern world.

Haydn’s orchestral sound is also notable in this movement. This is absolutely symphonic writing, conveying a flavor similar to his late symphonies, although the concerto is less expansive in its development and contrast of material. It is interesting that Haydn chose to include a pair of trumpets in his orchestra. To heighten sonic contrast, composers sometimes avoid including in the back-up ensemble instruments corresponding to the one being featured as soloist. In this case, of course, the orchestral trumpeters would not have been playing new-fangled keyed trumpets—Weidinger, after all, had taken seven years to refine and master his personal instrument—so there would have been considerable difference between the trumpet tone of the soloist and that of the pair of instruments that add to the festive brilliance of the orchestra. The middle movement is a song-like affair in lilting meter, and Haydn is again sure to include plenty of chromatic writing to show off the soloist’s capabilities. For his delightful Finale, the composer turns to one of his trademark achievements, the sonata-rondo, which conflates the three-part structure of the former with the recurring refrain of the latter. There are opportunities for cadenzas at several points in the first and third movements, which soloists are free to take advantage of depending on their taste and inclination.

—James M. Keller

Some material in this essay appeared previously in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and is used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Alison Balsom with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (EMI)  |  Håkan Hardenberger with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner conducting (Philips or Decca)  |  Crispian Steele-Perkins (playing on a trumpet modeled on Weidinger’s instrument) with Robert King conducting the King’s Consort (Hyperion)

Reading: Haydn: Chronicle and Works, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Indiana University Press; the third of its five volumes covers Haydn’s residencies in England)  |  Haydn: His Life and Works, by Robbins Landon and David Wyn Jones (Indiana University Press)  |  Haydn, edited by Wyn Jones, from the Oxford Composers Companion series (Oxford University Press)  |  The Keyed Trumpet and Its Greatest Virtuoso, Anton Weidinger, by Reine Dahlqvist (Brass Press)  |  Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn, by Simon McVeigh (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn, edited by Mr. Robbins Landon (Barrie and Rockliff)

(March 2015)