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Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

Composed: Date unknown

Instrumentation: 2 solo trumpets, harpsichord, and strings

Duration: 7 ½ minutes

While entertainment might be the most obvious purpose of music, it’s far from the only one. Sports arenas, for example, use music to build excitement for the action on the field. Governments use music to cultivate patriotism and to project power and legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents. Even department stores carefully curate playlists to make people feel more comfortable making a purchase.

Likewise, many of the instruments you see on stage in a modern orchestra originally evolved for purposes that had little or nothing to do with entertainment. Before the horn became part of the orchestra, it was a tool used to communicate over long distances while hunting. Early oboes, on the other hand, played an important role in helping shepherds keep their flocks close by. 

As for the trumpet, it originated as, quite literally, an instrument of war. Military commanders have used trumpets to communicate on the battlefield for thousands of years, with various melodies signaling assaults, retreats, bedtime, and just about anything else you might imagine. Over time, the trumpet also became a symbol of power more generally, as monarchs around the world used trumpets in public ceremonies to create an aura of power around their rulership. 

Early trumpets, also known as natural trumpets, had many differences from what we think of as the trumpet today. Most crucially, they had no valves and keys, the mechanisms on top of a modern trumpet that allow players to quickly move from one pitch to another. Instead, players controlled early trumpets using their lips alone, which imposed a significant limitation on how quickly and how accurately they could play a challenging melody. 

Trumpet valves wouldn’t be invented until the 1800s, but the golden age of the trumpet as an instrument of entertainment has its roots much earlier, in 1600s Italy. Around that time, a handful of trumpeters developed a more nuanced and precise way of playing in the trumpet’s upper register that would enable them to fit into a mixed instrumental ensemble. Soon, composers took advantage of these skilled performers by incorporating the trumpet into opera scores, church music, and even early orchestral music.

Antonio Vivaldi grew up in Venice in the late 1600s, by which time the trumpet was no longer an oddity on the Italian concert stage. Like most of his contemporaries, Vivaldi was by necessity a working musician. His work, from when he was 25 years old, primarily consisted of serving as music director at a home for abandoned and orphaned girls called the Ospedale della Pietà. A virtuosic violinist in his own right, he excelled at training his students in the art of performance and wrote hundreds of concertos for his students to perform. 

In an era where music traveled slowly, Vivaldi’s concertos became so popular that they spread as far as Germany, where J. S. Bach studied and imitated them closely.  But after his death, Vivaldi’s music faded into oblivion. Only in the 1900s did his music resurface, including a true hidden gem: the Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, discovered in the National Library of Turin and published less than 75 years ago. This concerto has proven highly popular ever since, as Vivaldi’s only trumpet concerto and one of the finest examples of trumpet writing from the Baroque era.

Few documents remain to provide details about the Concerto for Two Trumpets’ provenance. The Ospedale della Pietà did not offer education in trumpet performance during Vivaldi’s tenure, although he occasionally hired trumpeters to perform on special occasions. More likely, however, Vivaldi wrote this concerto to be performed elsewhere in Venice to celebrate an as-yet-unknown occasion. 

As instruments like the trumpet became instruments of entertainment, they typically still retained connections to their prior, more practical purposes. To this day, the trumpet symbolizes power, pomp, and circumstance, even in an orchestral context. In his Concerto for Two Trumpets, Vivaldi consistently references the trumpet’s military origins, with fanfares resounding throughout all three movements. Both of the trumpet soloists play an equally important role in the concerto, performing lines so complex that they present a challenge even to performers using modern instruments. For the natural trumpeters of Vivaldi’s day, this concerto must have been a rare delight to master.

 

Concerto No. 3 for Trumpet and Orchestra, “Concerto for Hope” (2016)

James M. Stephenson (b. 1969)

Instrumentation: solo trumpet, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, wood block, temple blocks, egg shaker, slap-sticks, suspended cymbals, splash cymbal, cymbals a2, tambourine, snare drum, cabasa, claves, vibraphone, xylophone, chimes, orchestra bells, crotales, marimba), harp, piano, and strings

Duration: 20 minutes

In 2012, trumpet player Ryan Anthony was 43 years old. He had a thriving career as principal trumpet of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and a happy family with two young children in elementary school. 

That November, Anthony took the stage with his brass quintet, Canadian Brass, in a concert that started out like any other. As the show went on, however, he knew something wasn’t right. By the end, Anthony hurried off stage and told his wife that he felt like his entire body was “jangling.”

The following Monday, Anthony learned the cause of his chronic pain. Before his 45th birthday, he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow so rare among people under 65 that his doctors almost didn’t even test for it. 

Despite major advances in multiple myeloma treatment in recent decades, the disease is still considered incurable and terminal. As Anthony underwent treatment, he received a flood of support from fellow brass players around the world. He began joking with his friends and colleagues that “we’ll all play a concert when I am healthy again and we’ll call it ‘cancer blows.’” This joke soon turned into a reality when Anthony and his wife Niki organized a benefit performance to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. After the success of that first event and positive signs in his treatment, the two turned the event into an ongoing organization, CancerBlows, which works to raise awareness and funds for the treatment of blood cancers and multiple myeloma. 

Among those who reached out to Anthony after his diagnosis was composer and trumpet player James M. Stephenson, who first crossed paths with Anthony in the mid-1980s at a young artists competition. “To be completely honest, I thought I had a good chance at doing well at the competition,” recalls Stephenson. “Not only was I not a winner, I was completely destroyed by a colleague, who, for some reason, I had not yet heard of. (Shame on me!) The winner was none other than Ryan Anthony.” 

Stephenson, who grew up in the Chicago area, spent 17 years playing trumpet in the Naples Philharmonic in Florida, during which time he taught himself to compose in his spare time. Soon, his reputation as a composer began to spread in the orchestral world, and Stephenson established a name for himself as a specialist in composing concertos, many of them written to showcase his colleagues in other orchestras. 

By 2015, having transitioned to composing full time and moved back to Chicago, Stephenson received an unusual request. His old acquaintance Ryan Anthony asked Stephenson to write a trumpet concerto that would tell the story of Anthony’s own journey leading up to and following his diagnosis. Stephenson gladly accepted the opportunity to write music that would, in his words, “evoke the events that had shaped forever [Anthony’s] view on life, the world, relationships.” When Stephenson finished the concerto the following year, he called it the “Concerto for Hope.”

The concerto’s first movement begins before Anthony’s diagnosis, a time Stephenson describes as “full of beauty and fun, with a slight undertone of foreboding.” This leads immediately into the second movement, where the pain of Anthony’s reaction to his diagnosis comes through in full force. “At one point, the soloist almost literally screams ‘why me?’ to the audience…” Stephenson writes. “This is followed by off-stage musicians who carry on seemingly with a joyous life, leaving the soloist temporarily feeling almost indescribably alone.” The off-stage musicians play the violin, cello, and horn, instruments Stephenson selected intentionally because of their emotional connection for Anthony and his family. 

In the third movement, the tone shifts to what Stephenson describes as “a rebirth of the joy of life.” But this joy is tinged with sadness, reflected in the music by a struggle between the keys of G and E-flat major. In the end, as Stephenson beautifully describes, “the piccolo trumpet of the soloist awards the listener with the undeniable belief that life is to be lived to the fullest, and that nothing can stop the human spirit.

To learn more about Ryan Anthony’s story and how you can support CancerBlows, visit cancerblows.com.

 

Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, B. 163 (1889)

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

Duration: 36 minutes

Many nicknames we use to describe specific symphonies – from Mozart’s “Jupiter” to Haydn’s “Miracle” – have little or nothing to do with the composer’s intentions in writing the music. But Antonín Dvořák’s Eighth, until recently known as his “English” Symphony, might just have had the most inaccurate nickname of all.

When Dvořák composed his Eighth Symphony in 1889, national independence movements were reaching fever pitch throughout Europe. This was certainly the case in Dvořák’s homeland of Bohemia, where a nationalist movement struggled tirelessly to free Bohemia from its German-speaking Austrian rulers. Local Czech culture faced centuries of subjugation, while the Germanic culture dominated government, education, and public life. This held true in the musical world as well, where the influence of foreign composers like Beethoven and Brahms shaped the tastes and trends in Prague’s well-developed musical scene.

Dvořák wrote his first seven symphonies mostly following in the footsteps of these German greats. By 1889, however, he had achieved enough success as a composer that something seems to have changed. Between August and November of that year, Dvořák retreated to his summer home in Vysoká, escaping the hustle and bustle of Prague’s streets for the pristine Bohemian countryside. There, he sought to compose something he described as “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.” “Melodies simply pour out of me,” he reported, and soon he returned to the city with his Eighth Symphony.

Although Dvořák had occasionally referenced Bohemian folk melodies in his music before, in this symphony the Bohemian influence became the overall, defining character of his music. Filled with joy and levity, the symphony exudes the pastoral setting of its composition, in stark contrast with the more serious, austere tone of his early symphonies (and the German examples that inspired him). 

So where does the symphony’s “English” nickname come from, if it is clearly Bohemian in character? That story begins when Dvořák sent the finished symphony to his usual music publisher, Fritz Simrock, in Germany. When Dvořák heard back, he learned that Simrock planned to publish the symphony in German, even using the German form of the composer’s name (Anton). Insulted by this unwillingness to represent his heritage in the publication – as well as the paltry fee Simrock offered in comparison with previous publications – Dvořák took his business elsewhere, specifically to a new firm, Novello, in England. Then, when Cambridge University awarded Dvořák an honorary doctorate in 1892, Dvořák chose to submit his Eighth Symphony as an example of his recent work. For those reasons, the symphony was dubbed his “English” Symphony, a nickname that has fortunately now fallen out of fashion. 

It might be more accurate to describe this symphony as Dvořák’s “Pastoral” Symphony, given its countryside inspiration, birdsong-like melodies, and overall easygoing tone. The first movement is filled with melodic brilliance; Dvořák’s fellow Czech composer Leoš Janácek reflected that in this movement “You’ve scarcely got to know one melody before a second one beckons with a friendly nod.” The rustic second movement alternates gently between major and minor keys, climaxing with a jubilant trumpet outburst over a timpani roll. The third movement, a carefree waltz, leads into a dazzling final movement that kicks off with yet another trumpet fanfare. As conductor Rafael Kubelík once exclaimed while rehearsing the finale, “in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!” 

—© Ethan Allred