The trumpet, as we know it today, is a development of the folded natural trumpet developed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Devoid of valves or any other mechanism to change the length of the pipe, this brass instrument, known as the natural trumpet, was only able to produce overtones from the series the instrument was tuned in.
Far from being limited by that, virtuosi during the Baroque period (the Golden Era of the natural trumpet) got astonishing results by controlling the highest overtones of the instrument. Due to the subsequent arrival of a more homophonic style on top of the inherent limitations of the natural trumpet, unfortunately, trumpet literature suffered. By then, the trumpet was relegated to mostly either hold notes in chords, sustain the tonic or dominant, perform rhythmic patterns, or double on tuttis.
It is true that a keyed version of the instrument was developed in the late 18th century, thanks to which we have the Haydn and Hummel concertos, but –since this version didn’t make its way into the orchestra– it would not be until the general adoption of valves in the second half of the 19th century that the writing for this instrument really changed. As with the horn this mechanism enabled playing all the notes of the chromatic scale with a much improved tuning for the first time.
The trumpet is divided into seven different parts: the mouthpiece, the leadpipe, the valves, the finger buttons, the tuning slides, the spit valve, and the bell.
On both the C and Bb versions the trumpet is known for being a very agile and fast instrument, and definitely the most virtuoso in the family. It is written in treble clef, and both transpositions have a very alike register: the trumpet in Bb goes from (sounding) F#2 to C5 and the C version from (sounding) E2 to C5. Fortes are easy to play throughout all their range, although in the lower (written F#2 to B) are harder to control. Pianos, even though they are not the strength of the trumpet by any means, are easy in the middle register (written C3 to Bb4), difficult to control but possible in the lowest (written F#2 to B2), and very hard to get in the highest notes of the range. In the end, the best register of the trumpet in terms of playability and sound quality, is from written C3 to Bb4, where it can play all the dynamics and articulation with the most ease.
The trumpets that are used nowadays in most cases are the Bb and C trumpets. Bb trumpets transpose to the 2nd below and are most common in jazz ensembles, bands, most recording sessions in Hollywood, and often in symphonic orchestras for concert pieces, especially in the US. To the contrary trumpets in C don’t transpose and are used mostly by symphonic orchestras –specially in most countries in Europe–, but also sometimes in recording sessions. Regarding the quality of the sound, the trumpet in C has a slightly more brilliant sound whereas the Bb trumpet has a little more body to it. In any case these are very subtle differences since the size between them is pretty similar.
Like French horns, since the Baroque period and up to the Romantic period, trumpets are found in pairs, reaching 4 to 6 in some pieces of the 20th century like the “The Planets” by G. Holst or the “Symphony No. 2” by G. Mahler.
Nowadays, the trumpet still has the function of holding notes or chords, or playing rhythm patterns, but it is also used for solos by either an individual trumpet or with the entire section in unison. It also is a great doubler of other individual instruments –especially in combination of mutes– or of particular sections of the orchestra, as well as a good fit for taking over counterpoint lines.
Example of a trumpet solo passage in G. Mahler's Symphony No. 5: I movement
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