The Brandenburgs

This past weekend, Pittsburgh was treated to a rare musicological event – a performance of all 6 Brandenburgs.

Of course, being a trumpet geek, I primarily went to see George Vosburgh, the PSO’s principle trumpeter, play the 2nd Brandenburg.  He did a great job by the way – very tasteful on a part that could have been, in lesser hands, brash and overwhelming.

Let me explain why.

In The Baroque (roughly 1600-1750) a trumpet would have been something like a long tube made of brass folded into a narrow oval with a mouthpiece on one end and the flare of a bell on the other – and no valves in between as on a modern counterpart.  So without the valves, how did my baroque-age brethren hit all those notes?  The answer is found in what the player’s lips do in the mouthpiece. By buzzing at different “speeds” the trumpeter excites the air inside the tube and that produces the different pitches. There’s a compositional problem, however. At the low end of the range the notes aren’t at all next to each other (there’s a perfect fifth between the first two, then the next note’s a fourth above that, then a major triad and so on). It’s not until you get to the instrument’s mid to high range do you get anything resembling a scale.

When you listen to the trumpet parts in, say, a Beethoven or Mozart symphony, they’re written further down in the range of the instrument.  That’s the reason there’s not that much tunefulness going on then.

Bach to Bach.  The instrument he wrote for was probably much had a much longer tube than does our modern trumpet.  With the proper mouthpiece and a good player behind it, the scale part of this natural (i.e. valveless) trumpet is much easier to play than the valveless scale part of the modern horn.  The sound is mellower compared to a modern horn.

With the advent of valves for trumpets sometime in the 19th century, the trumpet was also able to play a chromatic scale throughout its range, however its upper range was made much more difficult to play.  Trumpet manufacturers came up with a solution – a really tiny trumpet (called a “piccolo trumpet”) to play those really high parts.   These teeny tiny trumpets take a lot of air to play.  A lot of air.  In lesser hands, like mine, just getting out the notes is an accomplishment – and the (musical) danger being that in order to play the horn at all you have to, as I said, push a lot of air through it.  But pushing a lot of air through it can make this teeny tiny instrument VERY VERY LOUD!  And VERY VERY PIERCING!

Combine that with the more or less standard practice of having a reduced ensemble for a performance and you can see the musical danger involved.

But as I said, Vosburgh on a modern piccolo trumpet played great.  Piano when the part was soft and a not so overpowering forte when it was loud.

It was a privilege to listen to.

As was the rest of the concert.  The Jeannette Sorrell’s cadenza in the 5th Brandenburg was simply amazing.  And her conducting was fluid and controlled.

The rest of the ensemble and soloists were just top notch.  It was a privilege to see the performance.

One of the interesting things you can learn from the PSO’s program notes is the date the Symphony itself premiered a work.  And one of the interesting things about the internet is (sometimes) being able to find a reference to one of those premiers online.  And for that we turn to the 3rd Brandenburg.  From the program notes we learn that its first performance with The Pittsburgh Orchestra (as the symphony was called then) took place on December 4, 1904.

According to this review in the Pittsburgh Gazette, it was also the debut performance of the Orchestra’s third conductor, Emil Paur (1855-1932).  The reviewer, however, seemed more impressed with the other portions of the program:

The symphony for last night was Schumann’s no. 4 in D minor, played without pause between the five movements,  The other orchestral numbers were Bach’s concerto for string orchestra No. 3 “Brandenburg,” and Smetana’s symphonic poem “Vltana,” both played for the first time in Pittsburgh, with dear old Rossini’s “William Tell” overture as the final selection.  As has already been stated, the orchestra was at its best and in the rendition of the entire program left nothing to be desired.  Smetana’s “Vltana” is the work of a genius, a lovely, dainty composition abounding in delicious passages which appeal strongly and swiftly as the rushing waters of the Bohemian river, whose winding course the music tells of.  Bach’s concerto was another charming novelty – the entire program was on the novelty order, including even the “William Tell,” for it served to demonstrate what treasures the orchestra has in the new first flute and oboe players.

If the description of “Vltana” sounds familiar, you probably know the piece as “Die Moldau.”  And as much as I like Smetana as a composer and “Die Moldau” as a piece, it’s jarring to see a reviewer heap loads of praise onto it (it’s “the work of a genius”) while in the same breath calling a Brandenburg (any Brandenburg) a “charming novelty.”


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