4.3 De-mystifying Brass Instruments in the Modern Orchestra

John Miller. Principal Trumpet, Philharmonia Orchestra 1977-1994
Former Head of Wind, Brass and Percussion, Royal Northern College of Music 

Modern Horns

There is very little that is “French” about the modern orchestral horn. In 1951, Dennis Brain, who formerly played on a French piston-valved model, transferred to a German model in 9-ft Bb, made by the manufacturer Gebr. Alexander, and this remained the model of choice of many players in subsequent decades. The majority of orchestral players used ‘double horns’ built in F / B♭, with a fourth valve that switches between two sets of tubing, combining the quality of sound of the F horn (with richer overtones) with the security of the B♭.

Whereas hornists used to specialise in high or low playing, current players are usually expected to have all-round abilities, and many orchestras (such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne Opera) expect a working ability on hand-horn as a job requirement. Nonetheless, the roles of “section players” can be defined: the fourth horn stabilising intonation and sonority; the third horn as being a flexible musician; the second horn supporting the solo role.

In modern playing, the effect of “full stopping (cuivré)” can be facilitated with special mutes and a bespoke “stopping valve” that will lower the pitch by a semitone; this effect, and sophisticated designs of mute, all aim for consistency and security, and are normally matters left to the discretion of the players.

Special attention is needed to decipher “old notation” and “new notation” of passages in the bass clef. The “old notation” in the bass clef is a convention whereby the lowest harmonics of the instrument are written in a lower octave (therefore sounding a fourth higher than written rather than a fifth lower). You can see a perfect example of this in the famous horn motif at the beginning of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. Look also at Mahler Symphony No. 1 (1906 revised version) movement 3, figure 13, horns 2,4,7. This “old notation” phased out in the 1920s, but passages in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky’s Petrushka need careful consideration.

Wagner Tuba

The “Wagner tuba” is one of Wagner’s conceptional inventions, and early models of these in the mid-nineteenth-century were essentially saxhorns. Liszt and Wagner made a visit to Sax’s atelier in October 1853, where a range of saxophones, saxhorns and saxtubas were on show for eminent guests. The instruments that later became known as ‘Wagner Tubas’ were fundamentally saxhorns manufactured in an oval configuration. They were traditionally manufactured in tenor B♭ and bass F, but modern models are made in a B♭/F double configuration that can play all parts.

There are a number of notational conventions in frequent use, even within Wagner’s Ring. It can be explained that the tenor instrument resembles the British brass band “baritone horn”, but played with a conical horn mouthpiece, with left-hand valves, and without vibrato.

Modern Trumpets

The standard trumpet in the modern orchestra (and the big-band and many other configurations) is the trumpet in 4½-ft B♭, or the slightly smaller trumpet in C, almost ubiquitous in American orchestras.

Most Austro-German players prefer instruments with rotary valves; these have a slightly different internal geometry, and (in my opinion) blend more easily with the horns and lower brass in the music of Bruckner, Mahler and other late-Romantic composers. 

Notation for these instruments can be at pitch, or else trumpet in B♭. Competent players will be able to transpose these parts as a basic skill.

A number of orchestral first trumpeters frequently use a soprano trumpet in 3¼-ft E♭, with an additional fourth valve to play the lower notes. This model of trumpet was “invented” in the 1970s by a leading London orchestral player with a tough job, and is a multi-purpose instrument. Players of this specialist instrument will be able to read conventional notations.

The late-Romantic F trumpet as designated by Bruckner, Elgar, Mahler and early Tchaikovsky requires more explanation. Following the development of the valve in the early nineteenth century, valves were added to trumpets that had long tube lengths – the most pertinent of these was the trumpet in 6-ft F. This type of instrument was obsolete by the early twentieth century. This also applies to the two trumpet parts in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (written for trumpets in 6½-ft E♭). These late-Romantic parts are almost invariably played on modern B-flat or C instruments: to read the music, B♭ players are trained to transpose what they see up a fifth. The 3½-ft (soprano) D trumpet, as used in Ravel’s Bolero and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is a true virtuoso instrument that emerged in France in the late nineteenth century. In a number of the scores of Benjamin Britten, this is scored as the third trumpet in a section of three players. This is because working practice in the orchestra is often the first two players playing conventional parts, and third (and fourth) having more flexible roles. See Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes as an example. Normal notation is Trumpet in D, sounding one tone higher than the printed notes. Parts for soprano trumpet in D are sometimes executed on the piccolo trumpet in 2¼-ft B♭ (or with slides and/or a tuning shank in high A). This instrument has a history from the mid-nineteenth century, but became popular in the late twentieth century. There are a number of notations for this instrument, but notation at concert pitch is clear and reliable.


The cornet-à-pistons emerged in France in the second decade of the nineteenth century, and has no connection with the cornett used in music of the High Renaissance. The cornet was taken up by Berlioz early in its history, and a common French orchestration, that prevailed through the century, including Cesar Franck, early Tchaikovsky, early Elgar, is two trumpets (often in [long] F) plus two cornets. This combined the grandeur of the trumpets with the agility and chromaticism of the cornet. By the second decade of the twentieth century this configuration was obsolete – see the subsequent editions of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, for example.

The modern [mezzo-soprano] cornet (usually in 4½-ft B♭, but also in a 3¼-ft E♭ soprano version) is similar to the modern trumpet in its design and execution, so many players double the instruments successfully. The modern trumpet and cornet have converged significantly, but the differences are that:

1. the cornet is double-wrapped, and shorter in appearance 

2. the cornet mouthpiece receiver bore profile is longer and more conical, leading to enhanced flexibility 

3. traditional cornet mouthpieces are deep and conical, producing a rich and deep sound.


The flugelhorn has German origins and is essentially a valved bugle in 4½-ft B♭. It is single wrapped, and has a wide and conical bore profile, much more so than the cornet. Besides its use in jazz, it makes welcome solo appearances in the symphony in various guises. It is often used to play the part for “posthorn” in Mahler’s Third Symphony, for example. Because of its deep mouthpiece there are limitations in the high register. The flugelhorn has access to a range of (trombone or baritone) mutes that will fit its bell profile.

Trombone Family

The trombone section in the classical orchestra comprises a family of alto – tenor – bass parts. This model can be seen in late Beethoven, Brahms, and this German model can be traced to Russia, for example Rimsky-Korsakov. This explains why the solo parts for tenor trombone (Tuba Mirum in Mozart’s Requiem, passages in Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade) are scored for the modern orchestra’s second trombone player.

The French configuration (Berlioz onwards) was for three or four tenor instruments, but using a variety of sizes of mouthpieces to suit the tessituras of the parts. Note that in the nineteenth century the valved-trombone was predominant – see the trombone writing of Verdi, Janacek and others. Despite this historical context, the slide trombone is ubiquitous in modern playing, due to its pure sonority and easy “blow”.

Until the mid-twentieth century the trombones used throughout Britain were narrow-bore models of French descent. Conversely, German-style trombones were larger in bore profile, and were played widely in the United States; modern American models of trombones, based on earlier German models, became the prevailing model in Britain (and globally) from the mid-1960s.

The standard bass trombone in Britain until the mid-1960s was an instrument in 11-ft G, that had a short handle to extend the slide to the seventh position. This produced a very characteristic sound, less homogenous than larger-bored modern instruments in Bb/F. Modern bass trombones have one, and commonly more than one extra “valves” (called ‘plugs’ by players) that are operated by the thumb of the left hand, that enable alternative slide positions for reasons of agility, intonation, and low register.

Tuba Family

The tuba comes in numerous configurations, with varied basic pitches, numbers of valves, and wraps.

Bass tuba: The most common type of tuba in Britain is a four-valved bass tuba in 13-ft E♭. This type of tuba has a wide-bore, a very conical profile, and a fourth valve (descending a fourth in pitch). This is essentially a bass valved-bugle.

Contrabass tubas in 16-ft C (for example made by Alexander, Mainz) or 18-ft BB♭ (called a double-B-flat bass in the brass band world) are instruments suited for Wagner, Bruckner and the late-Romantic composers. These instruments are made in various sizes, for example 2/4 size (Brahms), 4/4 size (The Ring).

Particularly in contrabass tubas, valve “compensating systems” that add small increments of tubing to correct intonation, are counter-productive to the ease of ‘blow’ of the instrument. Therefore such instruments often have tuning slides accessible so that the player can adjust individual notes with the left hand. Best ask a player to demonstrate this.

Ravel’s tuba, as in ‘Bydlo’ in his orchestration of Pictures from an Exhibition, is a descendent of the ophicleide, a tuba in 8-ft C with six valves. This type, shorter in length than the euphonium, has a wide bore profile, and extra valves to facilitate the low notes. This instrument prevailed in France until it became obsolete in the 1960s, when American instruments became predominant.

Euphonium, tenor tuba, baritone. These are almost synonymous terms. Euphonium in 9-ft B♭ is of German mid-nineteenth-century origin, and is almost always equipped with a fourth valve (operated by the left hand) that lowers the pitch by a fourth, and has a compensating system for intonation. The euphonium has a wide bore and a very conical profile. Clifford Bevan, an authority on low brass, wrote that the euphonium is played with vibrato, the tenor tuba is played without …

The term ‘baritone’ has two meanings: in the British brass band world the baritone is a tenor instrument in 9-ft B♭ that has a narrower bore and smaller bell than the euphonium. In America, ‘baritone’ is synonymous with ‘euphonium’.

Mahler’s ‘tenorhorn’ in Symphony 7. The ‘tenorhorn’ is a nineteenth century term for an instrument in 9-ft B♭. Mahler’s model had rotary valves and an oval design (like the Wagner tuba). Its nearest modern equivalent is the British brass band ‘baritone’.

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