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Valved Brass: The History of an Invention.

Valved Brass: The History of an Invention. By Christian Ahrens, Translated by Steven Plank. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008. (Bucina, the Historic Brass Society Series, no. 7.) [xiii, 135 p. ISBN-13: 9781576471371. $42.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliography, index.

The history of valved brass instruments up to now has been told as a history of an invention, with a focus on design and manufacture. Christian Ahrens has provided a reception history in the present work, which was originally published as Eine Erfindung und ihre Folgen: Blechbiasinstrumente mit Ventilen (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1986. Once a satisfactory valve system had been designed, it met with strong disapproval. After briefly tracing a century of attempts to fill in gaps in the overtone series, culminating in the invention of valves by Friedrich Blumel and Heinrich Stolzel, the book consists of a general chapter of critical comments followed by chapters on valved instruments in art music, military music, and Volksmusik; social aspects of valved instruments; economic implications of the new brass instruments; and the reception of improvements to other instruments. It is a valuable but disappointing new step in understanding the history of brass instruments.

The second chapter, titled "Valved Instruments as Judged by the Musicians," shows some of the pervasive difficulties with this book. By "musicians," Ahrens means the musical press. The chapter consists mostly of fifteen quotations spanning the years 1832 to 1898. All but the one from 1898 provide negative assessments of how valves contributed to the sound and technique of the trumpet and horn.

Ahrens writes that this "broad and engaging" discussion climaxed in 1850 and began to lose intensity approximately a decade later, but his selection of documents is anything but broad. Six are from the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (AmZ), seven from the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (NZfM), one from a book by Hermann Eichborn, and one form the Allegemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. All but the last were published in Leipzig. Journals worth quoting appeared in Berlin and other German cities besides Leipzig, but Ahrens does not acknowledge them. Valves appear to have been accepted in Austria more readily than in Germany, yet an Austrian viewpoint appears in only one of fifteen quotations. He does not mention French. Italian, or English perspectives at all.

The third chapter, on art music, is divided into sections for the horn, the trumpet, and bass instruments. Critics complained about turning the horn into a virtuoso instrument and the loss of the difference between stopped and open notes, the latter despite the fact that players of the natural horn had long been expected to minimize that difference. If the valved horn was to be used at all, the critics differed over whether it was more suitable for soloists or orchestral players.

Again, the overwhelming majority of Ahrens' citations of primary source material comes from either AmZ or NZfM. From about 1830 to about 1850, precisely the time that Ahrens says that disapproval of the valved horn reached its peak, there was a strong war of words between partisans of "classical" music, with its interest in enduring artistic values, and partisans of "popular" music, the music of traveling virtuosos among other things, with its interest in novelty. (See William Weber, Music and the Middle Class: The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna [New York: Holmes and Meier. 1975.])

Robert Schumann's NZfM was firmly in the "classical" music camp and disapproved of the empty antics of the virtuosos. He also despised the AmZ because its editor refused to take sides. That does not mean that others who wrote for AmZ did not have strong opinions. Both the comments that Ahrens quotes and others I have read in my own research show a strong if not unanimous bias against brass virtuosity in AmZ. This attitude is by no means limited to Leipzig, or even Germany, but on the other hand, Weber reports a vigorous debate between lovers of "popular" and "classical" music. Somewhere there are bound to be laudatory comments about valved horn virtuosos, and they belong in a reception history.

Ahrens mentions, in a single paragraph, that the valved horn was more readily accepted in the Austrian empire (which included Prague as well as Vienna) than in Germany. His only slightly more extended comments about the very interesting situation in France do not cite a single French-language source.

He found less information about the trumpet than the horn, which he explains by pointing out that it was not used as a solo or chamber instrument. That turns out to be an advantage in a way because it forced him to look beyond Leipzig for sources. All of his comments about Prague still come from AmZ, but multiple citations from Revue musicale show that he did examine other source material.

I am surprised that he does not mention the valve trombone in the chapter on art music. It completely supplanted the slide trombone in the Austrian empire, and also in those parts of Italy not ruled by Austria. It was, in other words, used there in art music as well as military music. It also found some acceptance in art music in France and England.

The bass instruments include the valved tenor horn (also a virtuoso solo instrument), the bombardon, the ophicleide, the serpent, the bass tuba (which only became successful when built with a much wider bore than the earliest models), and the Wagner tuba. Generally, these did not meet the same opposition as the valved horn, largely because they were new instruments and did not supplant any earlier tradition. But even among the bass instruments, many of the writers Ahrens cites preferred the slightly earlier keyed instruments.

There was less resistance to valved instruments in military music, but even so, keyed trumpets and bugles persisted in German bands until the 1870s, and a writer for NZfM lamented their loss as late as 1896. The chapter contains an extended discussion of the political significance of military band concerts, reaching back to the birth of the modern wind band during the French Revolution, and concludes with an examination of the valve trombone in, again, mostly German bands. I notice one translation error in this chapter: Jagermusik refers not to "hunting music" but to light infantry bands. (I have not seen the original German text, and my German is not good enough for me to comment on the translation. There are some very puzzling sentences here and there, but I have no idea if the fault lies more with translator Steven Plank or with Ahrens.)

The chapter on Volksmusik opens with a very negative assessment of dance music in Paris from the AmZ. It looks to me like a jab at popular orchestras such as Musard's, which were otherwise very highly regarded. Its author declared that nothing of the kind was known in Germany, apparently unaware that Strauss and Lanner provided similar entertainment in Austria. Unfortunately, no French sources are cited. Ahrens is on firmer ground describing developments in Bavaria and Austria. Around 1800, bagpipes were common folk instruments. Even the hurdy-gurdy was more common than any brass instrument. The invention of keyed and valved brasses changed that situation almost immediately. There was already an all-brass band in Bavaria as early as 1819.

The chapter on social aspects of the use of valved instruments is mostly about the collapse of the ancient privileges of the trumpet guilds. The decline started long before the invention of the valve, but valves made it possible for mediocre trumpeters whose technique limited them to the middle register to play melodies as effectively as the highly trained clarino players. In this chapter, Ahrens does describe French developments using French sources. Even though the craft guilds had been abolished during the Revolution, something of the old guild mentality of attempting to exclude outsiders formed part of the early opposition to Adolphe Sax when he moved to Paris from Belgium.

Economic aspects of brass instruments include the unprecedented increase in the number of amateur instrumentalists and the size and number of military bands. Because the invention of valves made brass instruments easier to play than before and mass production techniques made them inexpensive, many of these musicians became brass players. The increase in demand forced manufacturers to develop new workflows and business models. The vogue for brass bands spread well beyond the major European nations. Large modern factories served not only local demand, but also exported valved instruments all over the world. This chapter is the first to do real justice to developments in France. Manufacturers in England, Italy, and the United States would have also been worth mentioning.

The chapter on improvements to other instruments examines the resistance to such innovations as the Boehm flute. This chapter may have more usefully come earlier in the book to show the context of a general protest against innovation on the part of some authors. Here, as in earlier chapters, Ahrens quotes only negative assessments. Surely, since valved brass instruments, Boehm flutes, and other innovations eventually supplanted earlier designs, they must have had some partisans in the press, who would have been worth quoting.

Ahrens has broken new ground here. Most other extended treatments of the development of brass instruments have concentrated attention on technology and design. The question of how this new technology was received is just as important. Even a few years ago, it might have been possible to write about the acceptance of valved instruments into the orchestra and let it go at that; Ahrens also turns his attention to military bands, dance orchestras, and various aspects of amateur music making. My disappointment is with what the book lacks, not with the wealth of information it contains.

Despite its narrow documentation, spotty geographical coverage, and overemphasis on negative assessments of valved instruments, this is an important book. Scholars interested in the history of brass instruments and in the sociology of music will find it useful, probably even long after someone else writes a better book.


University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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Author:Guion, David M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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