History of the Trumpet and Cornet

The H.N. White Co., 1924


The origin of the trumpet lies somewhere in the dim prehistoric ages and probably never will be determined. Hollow tubes, bamboo rods and shells, from which trumpets and cornets have been developed, have been found in ancient ruins.

The first authentic mention of a trumpet is in Chinese history in the period of 2000 B.C. One kind was shaped like a giant cigar, another like a present-day fish horn and another with odd bulbous enlargements and a flaring bell.

The Hindoos had a variety of trumpets and used them to frighten “evil spirits”. The Bible frequently mentions the use of trumpets by ancient Hebrews.

In 393 B.C. the Greeks devoted part of the Olympic Program to a trumpet contest in which Temocus and Crates are recorded as winners. The Grecian trumpets or horns were made in six styles –- one, known as the “Salpirix” that urged the warriors on at the siege of Troy.

The Romans had a small-bore trumpet known as the “Lituus” – a straight cylindrical tube with a bell flaring at right angles. This is the direct ancestor of our present-day instruments and set up the standard of the true trumpet tone due to its cylindrical bore. One of these is still in existence at the Vatican. From one style – the “Buzine”, a straight cylindrical tube with flaring bell, was later evolved the trombone. One of the other models, the “Clarion” – a shorter smaller-bore instrument than the “Buzine” – evolved into our present-day cavalry trumpet.

The cornet is an entirely different instrument, radically different from the trumpet in proportions, which came into being during the middle ages and is a cross between the trumpet and horn. In its first form it was conical throughout with holes opened or closed by the fingers to change the pitch. By gradual evolution it assumed a form partly cylindrical and partly conical; giving it the broad full tone without the brilliancy of the trumpet. The modern cornet has essentially the same proportion of straight and conical tubing as the early models, keeping its tone quality distinctive and separate from the trumpet.

One of the first cornets was known as the German “Zinke” and used mostly by peasants. This instrument did not have the prestige of the trumpet and was chiefly used by the populace in general. During the 19th century it became quite popular for orchestras, military bands and church use.

Very little is known of the development of the trumpet in the medieval ages except as we find brief references to it in writings of that time. English literature contains many references to trumpets – for example; in Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” and in the accounts of the Battle of Hastings.

The trumpet has always been associated with royalty, and in the Middle Ages the rank of a nobleman was often determined by the number of trumpeters attached to his cortege.

In England the position of “Sergeant Trumpeter” to the King was a high rank carrying permission to wear the feather of nobility and the privilege of licensing all trumpet playing outside the royal household.

In 1619, all trumpets were built in D with extra crooks to lower them to C. Later when they were used in orchestras they were built in F with extra crooks for E, Ed, D, C, Bb and A. These were the first wind instruments used in the orchestra and were given much attention until the time of Handel. The instrument then became almost extinct for orchestra use until Mozart rearranged Handel’s compositions and gave the clarion parts to the “Clarinet” whose tone was similar to the clarion and whose name was derived from clarion (Clarion-et).

Due to the increasing complexity and development of musical composition the limited compass of the trumpet made its use almost impossible.

 It must be recalled that all the trumpets and cornets so far described were not chromatic having only the open tones of our present bugle. The necessity for a chromatic instrument brought about in 1760 the invention of the keyed bugles and trumpets by Kolbel, a Bohemian musician. He placed a single key on the bell of a trumpet. In 1801, Weidinger of Vienna, increased the keys to five thus making the instrument practically chromatic. The later addition of one more key brought complete chromaticism. But keyed trumpets and cornets proved unsatisfactory. Tone qualities were destroyed and values were lost. Because of this, attention was turned toward eliminating the key.

The first valve was invented by Charles Clogget in 1788. He constructed two horns side by side, differing in pitch by a semitone and brought to one mouthpiece, and used a rotary valve to divert the air column through either horn. In 1813, Frederick Blumel, an oboist, invented the piston valve, and later sold his invention to Stolzel, a German, who afterward claimed credit for the invention. Stolzel added a second valve in 1815 and from then on followed rapid improvements in valve construction. In 1827, Blumel brought out the rotary valve system still in use in Europe.

In 1845 Adolph Sax patented his Sax Horns embodying great improvements in valve mechanism.

The ingenuity and skill of American manufacturers brought the piston valve mechanism to its present high state of perfection. Improvements in proportions, bore, weight, and intonation are responsible for the widespread popularity of the trumpet at the present time. As late as 1870 music students were warned against the use of valved instruments in orchestras but today no orchestra is complete without its “brass” section.

Trumpets and cornets are equally popular, both being used in the home and school, and in bands and orchestras.

The preceding appeared in the 1924 “King” instrument catalog, written by an undisclosed member of the H.N. White staff. Unusual spelling, punctuation and word choices have been left as in the original.

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