Musical Focus: Early Music in Lancaster

A natural trumpet as it would have been made from the 1600’s through the 1700’s. This trumpet was crafted based on a late 1700’s instrument

More or less everyone enjoys music. Whether it’s classical, hip-hop, R&B, pop, jazz, traditional, indigenous, or any other genre… there really is at least one style of music out there for everyone. It’s no secret that music has been a major component of my life. I’ve been playing music for more of my life than I haven’t been playing. Over the years, I’ve had many different instruments- but I’ve always had a deep love for early music. Works from the classical era, the baroque era, and even those in the years predating them have always been an absolute fascination for me.

What makes it different, you ask?

Does your trumpet do this? This is a modern adaptation of natural trumpets that allow the player to perform in both modern and baroque pitches (440hz and 415hz respectively) while avoiding the natural inconsistencies of a fully natural instrument.

Aside from the novelty and rarity of listening to and being able to attend concerts with these early music styles, there are many other things to be mindful of when considering early music. The articulations are different, the styling changes, the instruments themselves were drastically different… well, quite frankly, everything about these early music performances and their stylings are completely different from their successive era. For ease of comparison, let’s take a look at my instrument of choice- the trumpet. [Believe it or not, this is an incredibly truncated list and even passes over many variants of the trumpet; but for the sake of time, here goes nothing.]

What’s in a name?

Various trumpets (and their descendants) throughout history

The trumpet, an instrument known to most adults for one reason or another across the world, is an instrument with a rather decorated past. However, it wasn’t always an instrument that played the melody or even intricate parts of the music as it is today. 

The origin of the trumpet (and all brass instruments, really) goes all the way back to shells from the ocean… conch shells, to be exact. Someone decided to try to blow into a broken shell and managed to get a sound from it. The shells were used as signaling instruments- and the instrument was destined for such purposes for many years to come from that time. Animal horns were also used in many parts of the world to great success as well. The Romans had trumpets of their own as well that they crafted from metal and had a mouthpiece crafted for it as well. They used them to sound meetings/assemblies in town and for the military purposes as well. Despite only being curved pieces of tubular metal with a flared bell, they had their purpose and played a mere few tones.

A circa 1900 alto bugle
A coiled trumpet from the 1700’s. At some point its bell was replaced and the instrument was lacquered to maintain its longevity.

As time grew on, trumpets were made to have a moveable pipe to allow for different tones to be created in different positions (just like the trombone). The instruments still had little melodic value, unlike their cousin the trombone (or sackbut, at the time). During the renaissance era the trumpet was more like a clarinet or a recorder with a mouthpiece than the trumpet we know today. It featured a small acorn-like mouthpiece and holes along the length of the instrument to produce more melodic tones and was called a cornetto, a cornett, a zink, or a few other names. 

The Glory Days of the Musical Era for Trumpets

Top: Baroque trumpet in D and C (440hz and 415hz)
Middle: Baroque trumpet in D, C, and Bb (440hz and 415hz)
Bottom: 2 natural trumpets in Eb (440hz)

The trumpet eventually got longer to produce more tones in the upper registers of the instrument- so the trumpets began to become ‘looped’ or ‘folded’. Adaptations of this sort eventually lead to the baroque era where the trumpet was created from around 8 feet of tubing.  Due to their length, their lowest notes were lower, but their melodic notes were closer together and in the upper register they could perform full works of music (take for instance THIS recording of Handel’s Water Music played ON A BARGE [as it was during its time] with historical performance tendencies). The 8ish foot folded trumpet style lasted until the valve came into play around 1814-1818, and were still used until the 1840’s when Wagner wrote his opera The Flying Dutchman. 

Today, the trumpet has made some adaptations changes in order to become a quicker, louder, and more versatile instrument- but in large, it met its current state by the early 1900’s when the cylindrical bored trumpet took over for its conical bored relative, the cornet (or cornopean), which most trumpets were called at that time. Today, we use the term trumpet to describe all of its history- but we cannot disguise the SOUNDS that came from the earlier instruments and their massive differences from their modern counterparts.

Modern Bach C trumpet

This is the reason why I have dedicated such a large portion of my collegiate (and post-graduate) life toward studying early music so that it can be made more relevant and apparent to young musicians as to what the differences are so that we can perform more accurately the works from earlier days.

Enough History- What do we do now?

Aside from listening to these early recordings with their “historically informed” or “historically accurate” instrumental groups online or from a CD/digital download, it is rare that we find groups that not only can, but DO perform these works LIVE in the United States. However, one Lancaster resident has seen to it that she places a great importance in these early works and their correct instrumentation- and I believe she deserves the attention of the entire musical community in Lancaster; especially those bound for (or currently in) collegiate level music programs.

Early Music at St. James

Kathleen Spencer and her Viola da Gamba

Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Spencer, there are opportunities for Lancaster residents (and those willing to travel) to see and hear live performances by some of the greatest performers of these rare instruments at the St. James Episcopal Church on Duke Street in Lancaster. The tickets are inexpensive, costing only $5 for students and $20 for adults. Aside from ample parking outside and nearby garages if the streets are fully packed, the church space is large enough to host many an eager public eye and ear for the spectacle that unfolds at every concert. Where better to be than a church for long-lasting acoustical brilliance and the opportunity to hear ringing overtones when the music sounds just right…

The beautiful interior of St. James Episcopal Church (and the home of early music performance in Lancaster)

For classical music, baroque music, renaissance, and even medieval music lovers, these concerts are an absolute treat. The quality of the music, the expertise of the musicians, the fair cost of attendance, and the absolutely different experience you encounter listening to songs you already know is simply mystifying. The ambiance of the performance will leave you wanting more- which is good. Especially since many of the groups have been recorded in the past and have CDs or other wares to sell so that you may enjoy it again and again. Some of these artists must be booked YEARS in advance in order to have the opportunity to have them perform, and Kathleen has made sure to only bring the very best to our local venue.

While Kathleen has been involved in many areas of early music across the US including: The Viola Da Gamba Society, Early Music America, and as a musicologist in general, she has decided to focus her efforts in the creation of sustainable opportunities for early music in her back yard of Lancaster, PA. Despite difficulties over the years, she has strived to (and has succeeded to) bring early music into the hearts and minds of Pennsylvania’s citizens. The talent she gathers comes from abroad and from within the US alike- never letting a chance at musical excellence pass by the budding early music scene in Lancaster.

I have been intending to visit Kathleen for some time now in hopes of recording an interview with her about her incredible musical story and her foray into the world of historical music and historically informed performance. Perhaps with luck, I may be able to cover her and the music at St. James at a much more in-depth level. Until then, try to find a time to see a concert at St. James- I know there is going to be a fantastic performance featuring the viol quartet Parthenia featuring music of the French Renaissance on May 5thfrom 4:00-6:00PM. Don’t miss it!

Are you interested in early music? Have you played historical instruments or have you seen a spectacular performance in the past? Want to talk more in depth about historic performance? Let us know in the comments below!

Baroque trumpet crooks- each changes the fundamental key that the instrument is in. The longer the crook, the lower the fundamental pitch.

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