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The natural trumpet for Tristan und Isolde

What Wagner intended

Tue, Mar 7, 2023

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It will be a first that will last only a few minutes. Opera Ballet Vlaanderen commissioned a natural trumpet built to Richard Wagner's instructions to be used in his opera Tristan und Isolde. This is the first time an opera house has built this trumpet.

A first

In the third act of German composer Richard Wagner's 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde , the arrival of Isolde's ship is announced by a cheerful trumpet melody sounding from the side stage. The tune is played in the story by a shepherd. It is a short melody but Wagner wanted it to have a particular sound. In his original score, he wrote some instructions. The trumpet had to sound "like an alpine horn" with "a wooden cup" and "within the natural scale".

This trumpet did not exist when the opera was premiered in Munich. No indication is known to us that it ever existed. Usually, opera houses use a hunting horn or other wind instrument with valves for this short melody. Until today. OBV had the instrument Wagner had in mind built especially for the upcoming production of Tristan und Isolde that will premiere on 22 March.

According to our information, it is a first in music history and will allow us to hear for the first time what Wagner intended. The initiator of the adventure is Serge Rigaumont, trumpeter in the Symphonic Orchestra Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. He immersed himself in the Wagner trumpet and convinced music director Alejo Pérez to have it built.

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A preliminary study for the new trumpet (Image: OBV)

'This is an incredibly exciting project. Although the passage seems just a detail, nothing is a detail with Wagner'

- Artistic director Jan Vandenhouwe

To build the instrument, last year, OBV knocked on the door of Gunther Cogen, an instrument builder specialising in historical trumpets. He took on the challenge of researching exactly what Wagner wanted based on the sparse information the composer left us. For this project, Gunther Cogen collaborated with Daniël Vernooij, builder of historical clarinets, with great expertise in making wooden sound cups. Ultimately, and based on research that follows the latest views on historical practice, the choice was made to build a natural trumpet. A natural trumpet is a wind instrument without valves or keys and where the tones are determined by the lip tension of the trumpeter. Think like a clarion, for example.

For the experts, the trumpet was built in an eight-foot configuration as it was common in the eighteenth century, but with an all-wood bell made of flamed maple wood. The sizing was slightly adjusted so that the wooden cup could be as long as possible, contributing to the typical sound. A cord binding holds the cup and brass together.

While there are orchestras that have built trumpets for this deliberate musical passage in the past, in each case they built a valve instrument or a variation of it. Never was a trumpet built within the natural scale, which, according to our research, is the most plausible and responsible choice.
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Instrument builder Gunther Cogen with the new trumpet (Image: OBV)

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