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Touting an Old Horn : Professor Makes His Pitch for Return of 'Last True Trumpet'

May 12, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

The sound is dark.

Compared to that of a modern B-flat trumpet, musicians say, it is richer, fuller, warmer, deeper and "more complex."

According to music historians, the lower-pitched F trumpet that produces the sound is what virtually every major 19th-Century composer had in mind when writing many of the orchestral trumpet parts that are still being played today. Yet the instrument, except on rare occasions, has not been heard from in nearly a century.

Richard Birkemeier wants to change that.

"This is the last true trumpet," said Birkemeier, 36, a professional trumpeter and music professor at Cal State Long Beach. He believes that his own 1885-built F trumpet--called that because it is pitched lower on the musical scale than the more common B-flat trumpet--may be the only one in the western United States. "What we play nowadays," he said, "is really a cornet."

Crusade to Turn Back the Clock

So he is spearheading a one-man crusade to turn back the clock. By resurrecting use of the F trumpet, Birkemeier believes, he can make the world right for such Romantic composers as Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, none of whose works, he maintains, have ever been heard by modern audiences as they were truly meant to be heard.

The young professor is staging his would-be musical revolution by traveling the country with his F trumpet to offer recitals for educators and musicians in the hope of stimulating their interest. Next week he is scheduled to demonstrate the instrument at the national convention of the International Trumpet Guild in Denton, Tex. As evidence of his success, he points to an East Coast instrument distributor who two years ago began importing F trumpets from a German manufacturer for the first time in 100 years.

"Most trumpet players today don't even know that this instrument ever existed," Birkemeier said. "I would like to see it become standard equipment in orchestras."

In fact, that was the state of affairs beginning around 1820 when the F trumpet was invented. One of the first brass instruments to employ movable valves to vary pitch, the horn enjoyed widespread popularity throughout Europe and America as a principal orchestral instrument for which most composers of that age wrote.

Musicians Turned to B-Flat Trumpet

Then along came its modern nemesis: the B-flat trumpet. By shortening the F trumpet's tubing by about 20% and gradually widening it from cylindrical to conical, musicians found, they could make it much easier to play, especially in the upper registers of the musical scale. Never mind that it sounded higher and tinnier. Never mind that its brighter tone duplicated almost exactly the emanations of the smaller cornet. Musicians were so taken by the ease with which they could handle the new instrument that by the turn of the century they had abandoned the F trumpet almost entirely, despite the protestations of composers who preferred the older instrument's mellow sound--sort of a cross between a modern-day trumpet and French horn.

Today, according to Birkemeier, there are about a dozen antique F trumpets left in the country. And since 1986, about the same number of newer models have been sold by the importer based in Brookline, Mass.

"The demand is very small," said David Green, president of Antique Sound Workshop Ltd., which imports the instruments from a West German manufacturer called Boehm & Meinel. Although Green has long been aware of Birkemeier's work in California, he said, his decision to begin marketing F trumpets--priced at about $1,500 apiece--was inspired by his own research into the instruments. A professional level B-flat trumpet generally costs $800 to $1,000.

"This is one step toward a more integrated brass section sound," said Green, explaining that other brass instruments have strayed less from the original tonal qualities embodied by the F trumpet.

Getting modern musicians to accept the new/old trumpet, however, is an uphill battle. Despite his belief that the new instruments have been improved to the extent that today's musicians can play them well, Green said, he is encountering some resistance to their use. "Orchestral players are innately conservative about trying new instruments," he said, "particularly if they feel it will compromise their job security.

'Career on the Line'

Andrew Ulyate, principal trumpeter of the Long Beach Symphony, agrees. "Most players, once they've gotten used to a certain instrument, would just as soon not experiment," said Ulyate, who has never played or heard an F trumpet. "You're sort of putting your career on the line."

And even Birkemeier's own trumpet students, some of whom recently sat through a dress rehearsal for his upcoming appearance in Texas, remain less than convinced of the utility of their professor's instrument of choice.

"It's sort of like playing a euphonium," observed Steve Magana, 22, referring to a rare brass instrument resembling a tuba. "There's not a lot of call for them."

Jay Long, 27, said playing an F trumpet "is like pounding a nail in with a screwdriver" because it is more difficult to blow than a B-flat model. "They came out with a hammer for that."

But the professor remains undaunted in his missionary zeal. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Birkemeier believes, the world will begin to view the F trumpet for what he knows it to be: an integral musical link that must not be allowed to fade. "I'm just now starting to get the word out," he said. "If I'm going to leave a mark, this will be it."

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