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The Keyed Trumpet

Just when you thought you had heard about everything that Leonardo DaVinci had thought about – you now will hear he thought about musical instruments, and among them, circa 1500, a keyed trumpet. (Like DaVinci’s flying machine and giant bronze horse though, centuries would have to pass before his sketched concepts would become realities.)

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Credit Wikimedia Commons
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Design for a flying machine by Leonardo da Vinci.

DaVinci, realized, like others, that you’d get more notes out of a trumpet if you could open and close holes in it. But there aren’t enough fingers on the hand or hands large enough to span the distances you’d have to make between the holes on the trumpet’s long tubing. DaVinci speculated that lever-like mechanisms – “tasti” (keys or buttons) could extend the fingers’ reach to close the holes.

Fast forward to the late 1700’s: Weimar court trumpeters are onto something – covering up holes with leather sliders and gaining a couple of notes -- while meantime, in London, one William Shaw closes a lever over one hole and expands the harmonic range a bit more with his trumpet made for King George III in 1787.

By 1817, metalwork always improving, a fellow named “I. Bauer” makes a two-hand-operated, long-model trumpet with four keys, and yet more notes are achieved.

Things were really beginning to look good for keys with the work and PR of Viennese Imperial Court Trumpeter Anton Weidinger (also the first internationally known player of the keyed trumpet), who in 1800 wowed the critics. A German music newspaper raved: “The crescendo and decrescendo, the clear high register that penetrates to the very marrow, especially in those places where Mr. W. remained within the natural key of the instrument, are truly incomparable and in the literal sense of the word, unheard of.”

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Anton Weidinger, for whom Haydn composed the Trumpet Concerto

  Famed composer Joseph Haydn even wrote Weidinger a Trumpet Concerto, which Weidinger premiered and took on tour.

Within the first few decades of the nineteenth century, the original three keys on trumpets increased to five. And for a short time (in long history) people were very impressed.

At the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra’s “Night at the Museum,” concertgoers will see a keyed trumpet on display from the Utley Collection of the National Music Museum. This Keyed Trumpet in G was made in 1832 is by Antonio Apparuti of Modena, Italy. The trumpet’s brass body has five keys for the right hand.

In Austrian design, by contrast, the keys on a trumpet were designed to be operated with the left hand, because the right hand was needed to control the reins of the horse one was also riding.

Despite some popularity with soloists and Austrian and Italian military bands, keyed trumpets never really caught on.  By 1820, valves came along – the ‘disruptive technology’ of the day -- making keys basically obsolete before they had a fighting chance. Stölzel and Blühmel were now the cool piston “brands.”

And it didn’t help that Weidinger, the keyed trumpet’s best player/promoter, had lost his front teeth by 1838 and was pretty much muted as a performer.

The keyed trumpet is now rarely heard in performance. “The keyed trumpet requires an exceptional musician — a true specialist,” says Ryan Haskins, musical director of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra. “Only a handful of musicians throughout the world can play it, and well.”

So it will be a treat to hear the instrument played by celebrated baroque-trumpeter Barry Bauguess, who will though be playing an Austrian keyed trumpet modified for a right-hander. Bauguess will perform Haydn’s previously mentioned Trumpet Concerto, a work you don’t often get to hear as it was meant to be played – on a keyed, rather than valved trumpet.

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