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So I'm a pianist looking at one of my favorite concertos ever, the Rachmaninoff 2. I had been listening to some symphonic works prior to it, so for some reason I noticed that in the concerto, there was a distinct lack of trumpet lines. A copy may be viewed here.

My questions are: is it typical to not give trumpets that many lines in concertos or symphonies? If not, why? Is there an artistic reason that Rachmaninoff limited the number of trumpet lines in this concerto? I know trumpets can get really loud, but they can also be soft sometimes, right?

Also question for trumpetists: if you guys don't get that many lines, how can you stand the constant sitting around waiting? Is that something that dampens your enthusiasm for playing in an orchestra?

Part of my question relates to this piano concerto:

at 21:04. There’s a trumpet countermelody there that quite nice, and I was wondering why other composers don’t do it too.

  • my question would be: are they payed by notes/minute they have to play or by hours they are sitting there? In the second case I would be happy to listen to so many classical concerts for free. – Albrecht Hügli Sep 15 at 9:31
  • FYI, the same question could also be asked about trombone and tuba parts, and the answer would be pretty much the same as MattPutnam's answer below. – Michael Seifert Sep 15 at 13:15
  • It's certainly not pure artistic reasons. E.g. Shostakovich's piano concerto is practically a double concerto for piano and trumpet. – Kilian Foth Sep 16 at 6:20
  • "standing around waiting" --- more or less all the non-string players have long periods of silence in various orchestral numbers. And for real fun, Google for stories from the pit orchestra members (those who play the backing music for musicals) – Carl Witthoft Sep 16 at 15:53
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I'm a trumpet player who's played in many orchestras.

The first thing to understand is that historically, the trumpet is a relatively new addition to the orchestra. Before the mid-19th century, metalworking wasn't sophisticated enough to build valves, so trumpets from before this time were more like bugles, unable to play fully chromatically. With a limited set of notes, the instrument was necessarily limited to a supporting role. And especially considering its ability to play loudly, combined with the softer sound of gut strings and early bow design, it just makes sense to use it only to accentuate the loud parts.

Trumpet concertos do go all the way back to the Baroque period (e.g. the famous Brandenburg Concerto no. 2), but these are sort of insanely hard and you wouldn't be able to write lines like that in normal parts.

So by the time valves got invented, the orchestra had already been developing for centuries, and the trumpet had already been designated as a supporting instrument. And if you're looking at music from the Baroque, Classical, or about the first half of the Romantic periods, then those parts were written for valveless trumpets. Mid- to late-Romantic period composers started experimenting with brass (and saxophones, and other loud metal instruments), and modern composers have utilized the trumpet quite a bit more. Consider the fantastic trumpet parts in Mahler, Holst, Copland, and Bernstein just to name a few.

I don't buy this common idea that trumpets are just so loud that they can't balance. Trumpets are very capable of playing at a modest volume. But, in a concerto, you have to be especially careful not to cover up the soloist, so orchestra parts tend to be more conservative.

if you guys don't get that many lines, how can you stand the constant sitting around waiting? Is that something that dampens your enthusiasm for playing in an orchestra?

Part of being a mature musician is understanding that sometimes your instrument is needed, and sometimes it's not. You have to be able to appreciate a sparse part, and be willing to take on a supporting role sometimes. I would rather have a sparse part where every note I have is artistically meaningful, than a busier part where much of my material is filler that the orchestrator gave me out of pity. But, it's not for everyone, and I'll admit that I'm less enthusiastic about playing the insanely sparse parts in Classical period music. It's important for orchestra directors shy of the top professional level to program concerts that involve everyone to some degree.

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The obvious comment is that in an orchestra, everybody can't be a "soloist" all the time.

With no disrespect to trumpeters, the trumpets actually have a fairly limited range of functions in the orchestra. They can play the "Star Wars theme" type of solo passages, or they can blend in with the rest of the brass section to provide a "background layer" in the orchestration. Most of the time, they are doing the second option - or doing nothing at all, since the timbre of the trumpet doesn't blend with other families instruments in the same way as French horns do, for example.

In a piano concerto, a solo trumpet could easily overpower the piano all on its own, but the piece is a piano concerto, not a trumpet concerto.

See here for a large collection of orchestral trumpet solos, including recordings.

  • It's also possible for the trumpet to play the solo in concertos written for another instrument. There's an excellent recording of Miles Davis playing the Rodrigo Guitar Concerto on a trumpet. You could also play concertos written for most other wind instruments, possibly even violin (minus the occasional double-bowing.) – Darrel Hoffman Sep 15 at 17:04
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I believe that Rachmaninoff wrote exactly the amount of trumpet lines he wanted. The composer wrote the music he wanted to hear ( and play ) and orchestrated it that way. If, for some reason, one player would have a lot of rests, that was not the composers problem. He clearly wrote with the valved trumpet it mind, using it as a chromatic instrument. ( In comparison, up to about Beethoven, the trumpets mostly employed only the overtone series ) .

The limitations were and are more of the type of instruments and number of players -- it would be difficult to expect a piece written for 24 oboes, 12 bassons and one contrabasson to performed very often. ( You might check the original setting for Music for the Royal fireworks ). I guess, though, that sometimes parts were added to "union rules" so that all the players on payroll might get paid, I believe it could happen when the composer worked with a specific orchestra.

As a professional musician you play what is on your stand, you are paid to do that. As an amateur, I tend to like listening to the music as well as playing. Long rests do not disturb me. Having long rests in romantic type music is often a lesser problem than playing some of the contemporary art music when I cannot relate to the music and only finds it to be meaningless noise ( it happens, luckily not often ).

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Here's a piano concerto with a good trumpet part: Shostakovich Piano Concerto 1. It is also called Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings which makes the importance of the trumpet fairly obvious.

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