Friday, 8 August 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 6 Ha! ha! among the trumpets (2)


For many years after school and after this Viennese pilgrimage Thursday afternoons were clouded and uneasy, suffused with a lingering sense of bleak tedium and frustration. Not until much later was the ghost of the school CCF, the Combined Cadet Force, and its asinine posturings laid to rest. Attendance was compulsory, although I believe one child, Porpen, was excused on the grounds of being a Quaker; he appeared to spend Thursday afternoons in Mr Golling's tuck-shop while the rest of us, some 400 undeodorised adolescent lads, scurried about tweaking military uniform, brassoed cap-badge to toe-caps so polished you could see your face reflected in them - if you really wanted an extra, gratuitous sight of your adolescent spots - before inspection and parade.
Shortly after being swept up, at the age of thirteen, into this ghastly pantomime I looked for ways to make Thursday afternoons a little more tolerable, to distance myself as far as possible from being shrieked at by jumped-up boy lance-jacks whose sole accomplishment lay in their ability to stamp their impeccable boots very loud on tarmac when coming to attention, and who seemed emasculated when any drill movement had to be carried out on unresounding grass. (Becoming a Quaker was too sophisticated for me at thirteen, and if I'd gone down that road the cathedral authorities would surely have felt justified in withdrawing the scholarship I had from them.)
The escape I chose was to transfer from the army section into the more sophisticated and civilised RAF section, at that time officered by Mr Blee, the music teacher with whom I got on very well, who had at one time been in the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve and who wore a naval sub-lieutenant's uniform on Thursday afternoons. I used to wonder what this man, who led me into the mysteries of sonata form, guided me through the tenor lines of Haydn's The Seasons and shepherded me through O Level music, made of this travesty. However, he supported my application to change my uniform from army khaki to RAF blue, and the following interview with Major Hawke the Corps Commander, ordinarily a maths teacher, took place with Mr Blee present:

Cpl Harmer (whom I sat next to in Latin and sometimes allowed to copy my work): Detail, halt. Salute the officer.
Major Hawke: At ease, soldier. What do you want, Willie Wormy?
Me: I'd like to join the RAF Section, Sir.
Major Hawke: Oh yes? Nancy boy, are you?
Me (not really knowing at thirteen what a nancy boy was, but having my suspicions): I don't think so, Sir. But my uncle was a distinguished RAF officer. And I'm interested, Sir.
Sub-Lieutenant Blee: What better reason?
Major Hawke: Take him away, Lieutenant Blee. We want men in the army, not your bloody pint-sized musicians. Request granted. Dismiss.
Cpl Harmer: Detail, 'shun. Salute the officer. About turn. Quick march, left, right, left, right.

So on Thursday afternoons henceforth I struggled with blue shirt and black tie, tunic and trousers made of a viciously scratchy material, belt and gaiters clarted with a kind of proprietary blue mud called, confusingly, blanco, and RAF blue beret with brass cap-badge. On very cold days we paraded in greatcoats. At the end of my schooldays I handed in all my uniform in except the beret and the greatcoat, a massive cocoon of blanketing, which I claimed to have lost. In the course of various RAF section activities I'd managed to come by two gas-capes, dun-coloured waterproofed capes dating from World War 1 supposedly providing some protection from poison gas. You could button them together to make a rudimentary tent. They served well as groundsheets on our Viennese expedition. The beret I was wearing on the road to Cologne.
The other escape would have been to turn myself into a bloody musician and join the band. This consisted of a drum major who gave commands with a decorated staff, half a dozen drummers, a bass drum resting on a tiger-skin apron played by a fat lad called, onomatopoeically, Coomber, and eight buglers, an establishment dictated by its formation into four ranks, the first two of four buglers each, the third of Coomber, who took up the space of two files, flanked by two drummers, and the four remaining drummers brought up the rear. Alas, the band only took army cadets, and I'd disqualified myself by joining the RAF section. Had I joined the band first I would have learnt at first hand the mysteries of brass instruments and the harmonic series.



Beethoven's trumpets, in essence a longer version of the CCF bugles, had no valves. Known as natural trumpets, they could only play the harmonic series, a range of notes of which Pythagoras had worked out the existence mathematically without ever hearing it. [The two musicians above are playing natural trumpets.] All natural brass instruments have the same characteristic, widely spaced low notes, and a closely-clustered range of high notes that form almost a chromatic scale. This is the clarino register, which Baroque specialist trumpeters exploited through subtle changes of lip-pressure, as subtle as the movements of the tongue in the mouth when you change notes while whistling. The middle notes of the harmonic series, the easiest to play, are predominantly those of major chords, which is why military trumpet calls like Last Post and Reveille sound as they do, clear and direct and with no 'foreign' notes. In the history of the trumpet various expedients were developed to widen the range of available notes, but the full range of the modern trumpet wasn't achieved until valves were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, just too late for Beethoven to take advantage of them. His trumpeters played basically in the key of C, although trumpets pitched in F became standard towards the end of his life. If they were required to play in another key, they needed to insert an extra length of tubing, a crook, to lower the range of notes - the longer the crook, the lower the notes - to the key required. Even this was restrictive: key changes in the course of a movement were virtually impossible.
Beethoven's - and Mozart's and Haydn's - trumpeters were likely to have had military backgrounds, in ethos and practice if not in actual employment. They would not have been full-time orchestral musicians, but ad hoc players brought in for special, one-off performances. Very few complete professional orchestras existed. Those that did were opera orchestras or those maintained by great princes, of which there were fewer and fewer as the effects of the French Revolution spread through Europe. The Baroque style was dead, and with it the art of clarino playing. The much simpler art of the military trumpet took its place not only at a time of universal conflict culminating in the Napoleonic Wars but in the wake of what I call the Great Gluckian Revolution.
Aha.