In the expansive acoustic of Hereford Cathedral, these three musicians draw the listener into a late-Romantic world of outstanding and strikingly idiomatic ensemble music. Yet none of these pieces are, in fact, original trumpet and organ works. The transformation from a violin, cello and organ piece—in the case of the Rheinberger Suite—reveals an extraordinary new 19th-century sound world of dazzling dialogues, wide dynamic range and beguiling lyricism. As composers could not imagine the potential of the medium in the decades either side of 1900, The trumpets that time forgot deliberately makes up for ‘lost time’ and re-establishes the trumpet as a solo protagonist in what is supposed to be barren land for all but the cornet showpiece.
The results bring not merely classical respectability but a stunning aural feast of Gothic splendour and surprising intimacy. The Strauss movements provide a trio of light vignettes between the significant four-movement Rheinberger Suite (a Concerto in all but name) and Elgar’s Sonata. In the case of the latter, this version provides a new dimension to a work which Elgar composed originally as the Severn Suite for brass band and reworked as his 2nd Organ Sonata. Here, the two worlds meet in the middle.
Composers of ‘art music’ – those who in their time made a lasting contribution to the canonic repertoire (like Rheinberger’s contemporary, Brahms) – reserved their solo thoughts for writing concertos for instruments which had established a place in standard musical circles. Since Mozart’s time, the violin and piano were in the ascendant, not least because they could be conveniently housed in the salons of the aspirational middle-classes. What if, however, one of the great players of ‘minority’ instruments, such as the trumpet, had managed to get close enough to a figure of Brahms’s stature for long enough to impress him sufficiently? The organ certainly did not suffer the same anonymity. We clutch at the odd straw (are Twelve, probably spurious, Etudes for trumpet – written purportedly to improve the inadequate technique of an acquaintance – possibly by Brahms?). Nineteenth century notions of the trumpet and its place in the art-music hierarchy persisted until the second half of the twentieth century.
Yet, in placing a revisionist spin on the creative spirit of the century before last, we can attempt to put matters right. We must recognise the aesthetics of the cornet, as it developed into a chamber music instrument of easy-listening solos and within small groups (such as the Victor Ewald Brass Quintets). To this, we add the motivic emblem of the trumpet’s glistening triads and the developing orchestral palette in which the trumpet – most famously through Wagner – began presenting itself as a multi-faceted member of the orchestra with an expanding brief for lyricism as well as ostentation. How perfect it would have been if the young Joseph Rheinberger had seen beyond the organ as primarily a solo instrument (his twenty Organ Sonatas were once compared favourably alongside Beethoven’s ‘thirty two’ in terms of idiomatic importance to keyboard writing) and elevated the trumpet to reflect its new and expanded horizons. As a coach at the court opera in Munich, Rheinberger witnessed the modernist shenanigans of the 1865 première of ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and yet gravitated towards the conservative pedagogical traditions of a post-Mendelssohn musical world. Historical circumstance denied the compositional imagination from thrusting the ambitious new chromatic trumpet within the nineteenth-century organ’s kaleidoscopic dynamic and tonal world. Instead, Rheinberger’s instincts told him to stick with the ‘status quo’; he may even have known that Brahms deliberately kept his trumpets within the gamut of the natural ‘harmonic series’ of notes (ie no pistons) as a kind of authentic zeitgeist.
So, the twenty-first century musician imagines what Rheinberger and his time couldn’t. In the Suite, Opus 149, we have a sitting duck. Originally conceived as a trio for organ, violin and cello, the acoustical and figurative benefits of an unabashed transfer from strings to brass are not lost on those who know this unusual gem from 1877. If ever the trumpet – and indeed its fortunate timbral partner, the organ – could stake a claim for ‘what might have been’ and reveal its capacity to sustain a creation of nearly forty minutes, this is a work to encourage such advocacy. That Rheinberger was flexible is revealed in his own version for string orchestra accompaniment (as we were able to discover from Henry Wood’s personal copy in the Royal Academy of Music). Glowing brightly in the shadows of classicism, the first movement allegro expounds all the expressive gestures which the modern trumpet relishes, whilst the organ provides the perfect registral foil and contrapuntal partner. The violin part fits a piccolo trumpet like a glove: even portamenti enter subliminally into the armoury of the player. The large modern B flat trumpet soars, cello-like, within the deftly-measured classical textures. This is real ‘mainstream’ chamber music, richly coherent and cultivated, as trumpets and organ ‘in tandem’ have never before enjoyed.
The second movement is a fascinating exposé of irreproachable compositional technique and smart cultural referencing. No explanation is required to suggest why the Theme and Variations should fall effortlessly within the trumpet and cornet playing fraternity. Against a purple Gothic backdrop, the vocalised theme (since when has the trumpet ever tired of imitating the voice? In Handel’s arias, it was the ‘alter ego’) maintains its dignity and gently postures for the integrity of its art until, that is, it can no longer resist the duple lilt of the suggestive vernacular: a variation in 6/8 which seems to be straight out of a mid-century cornet manual. Cultural referencing? There are the haloed cadences of Bruckner (nb. Rheinberger’s Catholic roots and sacred music), and the sentimental brushes with Mendelssohn but largely he distinguishes himself through a personal distillation of the virtues of traditional classical harmony, a composer (like Schumann but without the radicalism) whose ear for Bachian tension and resolution was never far away. The Sarabande underpins Rheinberger’s historical consciousness (as a teacher he influenced decades of musicians from Humperdinck to Furtwängler), building a soulful conceit of resignation around a baroque dance form and yet there is never a whiff of pastiche. Once you know Rheinberger, it couldn’t be by anyone else. The trio section imparts, in its rustic Ländler, a sanguine Schubertian touch. The Finale is a tour de force of organ gymnastics against which the solo trumpets dart in and out of a feverish contrapuntal web of genuine distinction. Only a reference to the lyrical 2nd subject of the first movement provides the necessary respite. The final flourishes are pure trumpetings, double and triple tongues and heroic finality. One wonders whether he had us in mind all along?
Of the other composers on the disc, Richard Strauss was famously acquainted with the horn, through his father Franz who was a professional horn player. Strauss wrote two concertos for the instrument, unquestionably driven by familial and genetic predisposition! Although Strauss was in contact with superb trumpet players all his life and wrote in supremely virtuosic fashion for the trumpet, the closest he ever got to composing a concerto was in the demanding solo part of the Festmusik der Stadt Wien in 1924. The three ‘vignettes’ here are taken from the movements 5, 6 and 7 of the orchestral suite, Le bourgeois gentilhomme and recall, with an inimitable Viennese claim on all that is civilised from the past, a nostalgic sepia-like world of seventeenth and eighteenth-century pantomime characterisation, with Lully recalled as a special guiding light. These are not the muscular power-games of Also sprach Zarathustra or the Alpine Symphony with the trumpet acting as a Darwinian force for survival but the instrument that ‘never was’, engaged in peppery glances in the Minuet, or sophisticated plié in the nonchalant ‘Courante’ whose canonic (and therefore ‘academic’) dialogues with the organ place the trumpet on the high table of art-music. ‘Auftritt des Cléonte’ is more idiomatic since Strauss incorporates a trumpet in the original and yet the B section switches effortlessly into a sixteenth-century hemiolic dance where the antiquated registrations and muted trumpets recall an age of trumpet guilds and royal favours.
Edward Elgar had became fond of the young Ernest Hall, later to become doyen of British trumpet players, and ‘Ernie’ loved to relate stories of his times with Sir Edward to generations of young hopefuls at the Royal College of Music and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. One of these concerned Ernie’s mortification at blacking out on the high C sharp at the first performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony and holding on for a bar too long. By the time he went backstage to apologise, Elgar had already added it to the score. Elgar came from humble origins, and the Twenties and Thirties in Great Britain was both an Indian Summer and Golden Age for the Brass Band movement when, at last, it came to the attention of the country’s most important composers. The Severn Suite was Elgar’s singular essay in the genre; as an accomplished trombonist in his youth, Elgar had a wonderful feel for brass.
This version represents a hybrid between the Severn Suite and the Organ Sonata No 2 (Sir Ivor Atkins’s later reworking), the former as a source of inspiration for Elgar to summon that essential nobility which his brass writing encapsulates so tellingly. Both pieces share much of the same material. Excessive tampering by other hands has rendered the Severn Suite less admired than it deserves, through diluting Elgar’s original and tarnishing the brilliance of his original conception. The purpose of this new transcription is to restore the freshness of Elgar’s original invention in an idiom he might have enjoyed as a ‘half-way house’ between the world of the organ and the world of brass – a version which juxtaposes the integral orchestral majesty of the Organ Sonata with the ebb and flow of pithy declamations (Toccata) which ‘living’ articulated trumpets can provide. The heartbreaking and passionate Fugue – which Elgar momentarily subtitled ‘Cathedral’ – is a place where brass and organ find yet another expressive dimension. It also serves as a kind of homage to Elgar’s relationship with the young Ernest Hall.
John Wallace & Jonathan Freeman-Attwood © 2004