Top Brass – The Trumpet and its Legacy: Author article by John Wallace
Trumpeter John Wallace is Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. His book The Trumpet, co-authored with Alexander ‘Sandy’ McGrattan, is published today and explores the instrument from prehistory to the twenty-first century. Here Wallace discusses the influential figures of the trumpet world, and why the instrument holds such musical sway over him.
Author article by John Wallace
I learnt my first music from my grandfather’s ballad singing, my father’s tenor horn playing and my mother’s fiddle. It told me a story. It was part of the grand narrative of the human saga. Despite the introduction of the printing press some five centuries before my birth, music for me was still an aurally transmitted form. And so it remains. What distinguishes a performance that moves me from one that leaves me cold is the ability to transcend the ink and paper and make a space live with sound. The Trumpet is about trumpet players and the societies and spaces they enlivened with their music.
My own personal starting point for this book was Louis Armstrong. For me he was pivotal. He seemed to me to mark a re-balancing of the relationship between the composer and performer. Along with his contemporaries in jazz, his genius at improvising showed to a largely literate Western population that musical compositions did not have to be fully written down to sound organised.
Louis Armstrong was born in the same year as my grandfather and much of what I have absorbed of music and its history has been through experiencing the live performance of his and subsequent generations. I lived my professional life in the thick of live music on the sharp end of a trumpet. The anecdotes of musicians both professional and amateur – the universal truths, the universal myths, the exaggerations and the irony – these all boil down to the remarkable story of a remarkable musical instrument.
Sandy McGrattan, my partner for the past 6 years in writing this book, comes from a very similar background to me in the same town In Scotland. We grew up immersed in the brass band world, and as teenagers we were blown into the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Like many post-war British trumpet players, there we came under the spell of Ernest Hall who, to us, seemed to speak in tablets of stone. We learnt about Sir Edward and the first performance of his Second Symphony; we learnt about the LSO missing the maiden voyage of the Titanic; we heard eyewitness tales through from the Edwardian Age, the Roaring Twenties, The Depression and World War II.
Though he became famous as a trumpet player, Ernest Hall, like Louis Armstrong, had begun life as a cornet player. The cornet emerged as an important transmitter of vernacular music in the nineteenth century and had a profound effect on the trumpet and its idiom from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. Industrial revolution technology changed the trumpet radically. Prior to the nineteenth century, and for several centuries prior, the trumpet in general use in the West, had been a straight tube normally at least two metres in length folded in different ways where the notes of the harmonic series available on that tube were produced by the players’ ability to manipulate mouth, lip and body musculature. Generally the skill required to play the trumpet music of Bach and his contemporaries on a natural trumpet, was thought to be a lost art until the last third of the twentieth century. At that time a sequence of exponents, using methodology which came gradually closer to that of the original period, came forward to show that seven-league boots did not have to be donned to play baroque music on a natural trumpet.
The trumpet possesses a rich iconography going back to ancient times from all civilisations of the world and Sandy and I had a problem leaving pictures out. At one point I was wishing that it was all pictures rather than words, and there was a time early in the twenty-first century when I was spending every holiday I could grab, dementedly snapping pictures of trumpets whether classical mosaics in Libya, Romanesque tympanum in the Languedoc or Etruscan treasures in the Vatican. The net result is that I now have a beautiful but unsorted collection of trumpet pictures littering my house in Glasgow, and the book has benefited from a generous sprinkling of illustrations.
The best photograph in the book is undoubtedly Norman Parkinson’s portrait of George Eskdale. It was brought to my attention by Howard Snell, Chairman of the LSO, when I was a member of that orchestra. I have enjoyed many an advice session from Howard over the past few years in his home in the Lot as we raked over the still glowing coals of the trumpet’s past and he told me about Eskdale’s use of the studies of Ernst Sachse, and how Sachse’s virtuosity had been praised by Berlioz, and it wasn’t long till our conversation extrapolated Hummel into the story through his Kapellmeister-ship of the Weimar Orchestra when Sachse had actually first joined it.
So were the threads of the story unravelled backwards through the lineage of players and aural history. Using Sachse as a fulcrum the thread also travels forwards through his pupil Ferdinand Weinschenk to Oskar Bőhme and subsequent St Petersburg trumpeters and Stravinsky. This is such a rich tapestry for me it almost constitutes a new tartan.
Other friends have contributed more than they know to this book. John Webb, through introducing me to his fabulous collection of brass instruments in Royal Wootton Bassett, has given me the opportunity to envelope myself in the sound of nineteenth century brass. This deepened my understanding of the range of colours possible on trumpets and cornets, natural, keyed and with various types of valve. Trevor Herbert kept a watchful eye on my love of colour over substance and read chapters with devastating clarity to one with a penchant for the opaque. All very necessary to this member of a book writing duo more used to painting colours with sound than logically setting out a coherent argument in print.
But hopefully Sandy and I will have left enough room for the readers to improvise – to raise the narrative out of the paper and ink – and to create their own performances from the basic materials and ideas we have laid out in front of them.
In January 2002 John Wallace became Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Long acclaimed as a virtuoso trumpet player, his performances as soloist with leading orchestras and conductors and at major festivals and venues throughout the world have established him as a musician of enormous distinction. In 1995 he was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in recognition of his distinguished services to music. In addition to orchestral appearances, Wallace has been greatly in demand as a recitalist and teacher. In 1986 he founded the Wallace Collection, an ensemble devoted to the development of brass music and education, which fast became one of the world’s pioneering brass groups.
The Trumpet is out now from Yale University Press.
View the full list of books in the Yale Musical Instrument series.