As with woodwind and strings, the instruments of the brass family have ancient origins. The ritual use of the horns of oxen is documented from the Bronze Age, though what kind of musical expression was obtained from them can only be surmised. The Greeks evolved a long straight trumpet called the salpinx , of which the sole surviving example (5 th century BC) can be seen in a museum in Boston. The more warlike Romans seem to have had a predilection for brass instruments, among them the cornu , a large coiled trumpet similar to the later hunting horn, and the lituus , which was small and straight but with an upturned bell. Other ancient civilisations offer similar prototypes.
Primitive horns have been found all over Europe. Made easier to sound by the addition of mouthpieces , such instruments -- whether adapted from animal horns or recreated in metal -- could be employed to call animals, or by watchmen on the alert, or by the military for signalling. Composers would recall all of these archetypal uses as evocative devices in more recent times.
To make a greater number of notes possible on these early horns (or tubas ), holes were added for the first time, apparently, in the eleventh century. In one type of instrument, two hollowed pieces of wood were joined together and encased in leather to form what was known as a cornet (or small horn). Most prestigious of all Medieval 'brass' instruments (though it was often made of ivory) was the oliphant , in essence if not reality derived from an elephant's tusk. The modern trumpet is a later version of the Medieval buisine , whose fundamental design -- a long, straight tube with a bell -- was borrowed from the Saracens who had themselves obtained the idea even further east.
Though these instruments might have impressive functional or ritual uses, their potential for music was strictly limited for the simple reason that so few notes could be obtained from them, and even those with some difficulty. From expert players of the Renaissance period, however, fanfares were certainly possible, and with the addition around this time of a slide mechanism to the basic trumpet to form the slide trumpet the possibilities increased. Whether or not the creation of the more manageable circular horn was an English invention, its earliest representation occurs in a 14 th -century choir stall in Worcester Cathedral, and between 1375 and 1385 the Duke of Burgundy sent repeatedly to England for his horns. The ostentatious oliphant disappeared during this period, though the cornet thrived, as did a larger, bass form of the instrument shaped like a double S and known as the serpent .
For eminently practical reasons the tube of the trumpet began to be folded around itself during the Renaissance, and by the time of early seventeenth-century theorist Michael Praetorius both the number of available notes and the likelihood of them being sounded accurately had increased considerably. The trombone appeared around this time, initially as a large form of trumpet (which is precisely what the word 'trombone' in Italian means); its nearest Medieval predecessor had been known in English as the sackbut . The use of a slide to add length to the pipe to give extra notes represented a significant development.
The Baroque period's fondness for contrast and vivid colours made increased use of members of the brass family obligatory, and technical skills improved accordingly. By exploiting natural harmonics (and powerful muscles) contemporary trumpeters could obtain very high notes -- a technique Johann Sebastian Bach relied on in his celebratory cantatas and orchestral suites. Though trumpets could still play in relatively few keys, their appearance in operas was deemed necessary whenever scenes of splendour or conflict were evoked. Virtuoso trumpeters might even challenge a singer to a duel in an aria in an opera or oratorio (such as 'The trumpet shall sound' in George Frideric Handel 's Messiah ).
Even so, the Baroque orchestra had room for brass players not as regular players but only as guests. It was the horns -- whose underpinning of the harmony was immensely helpful in solidifying textures -- that first made the breakthrough as permanent fixtures during the Classical era, soon to be followed by the trumpets. Initially, these instruments always appeared in single pairs, then two pairs of horns quickly became standard, allowing composers access to a wider variety of keys. As many orchestras were attached to courts at this time, when not required for symphonies or cantatas these additional brass players were presumably otherwise engaged sounding fanfares or following hunts.
Though trombones were sometimes used during the Classical period (usually in groups of three) for religious or ritual scenes in opera -- for which their solemnity was particularly well suited -- their introduction into the concert hall came slightly later: Ludwig van Beethoven invited them in for his Fifth Symphony in 1808. Thereafter they were frequently employed. Of the now standard brass, only one instrument remained to be added -- the tuba (or more correctly bass tuba ) -- the largest and most imposing of the lower brass, which was invented only in 1835 and quickly entered concert and opera orchestras. Richard Wagner himself invented a new instrument -- inevitably called the Wagner Tuba -- to enrich further the saturated textures of his Ring Cycle, though relatively few composers have taken his pet creation up (Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss are two who did.)
The major change in brass instruments during the nineteenth century, however, concerned the invention of the valve , which meant that notes outside the harmonic series could now be obtained merely by pressing keys rather than by the much slower method of attaching additional pieces of piping. At a stroke, difficult passages became easy and impossible passages practical, and composers seized the opportunity to exploit the instruments as never before. Some, however, regret the loss of the distinctive tone colour of natural horns, and period-instrument performances today have reintroduced it with success. In other respects, however, the introduction of the valve emancipated both players and instruments, leading to the brilliant deployment of the brass family in the works of twentieth-century composers.
Guide to Classical Music
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Essential Guide to Classical Music
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Guide to the Orchestra
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