The Holztrompete and Tristan und Isolde

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(c) Rozarii Lynch

In Seattle Opera’s production of Tristan und Isolde, Justin Emerich played a wooden trumpet loaned to Seattle Opera by the Joe and Joella Utley Brass Instrument Collection at the National Music Museum, The University of South Dakota.

Seattle Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde during the summer of 2010 used a rare instrument called the Holztrompete (Wooden Trumpet). Wagner specified this instrument to represent the natural pipe of a peasant that he wanted during Act III of this opera. There are not many Holztrompetes in the United States, but Seattle Opera was able to get one on loan from the Joe and Joella Utley Brass Instrument Collection at the National Music Museum, at the University of South Dakota, in Vermillion, South Dakota. That Holztrompete was played by Justin Emerich, principal trumpeter in Seattle Opera’s production of Tristan und Isolde.

Emerich has played first trumpet for the Canadian Brass and keeps a busy schedule as a freelancer, performing with Seattle Symphony and other ensembles. He also teaches at the Cornish College of the Arts, which is located in Seattle.

I talked with Emerich over the phone about his performing on this unusual instrument.

Is this the first time that you have played a Holztrompete?

Emerich: This is the first time I’ve played, heard of, and seen one of these instruments. I had no knowledge that a Holztrumpete even existed until I was designated as the principal trumpet for Tristan and Isolde and found out that it had a solo for a wooden trumpet. I started calling friends and did a little research to find out what it is like to play a Holztrompete.

To play a real Holztrompete in these performances is extra special. At Julliard, I studied with the former principal trumpeter at the Met, and he said that for thirty years, whenever they did Tristan und Isolde, the Holztrompete solo was always played on the English horn. He never got the chance to play a Holztrompete.

I also talked with one of my trumpet friends, who replaced my teacher at the Met. He said that he got to play it at the Met when Daniel Barenboim directed, because Barenboim brought his own Holztrompete. So, I feel that we have a very rare and wonderful thing at Seattle Opera, because the audience gets to hear this really unique instrument. It gives a little extra spice to the performance.

Does it use a regular mouthpiece?

Emerich: Yes, I’m able to use the regular mouthpiece from my C trumpet, because both trumpets are in the same key. The Holztrompete is like a miniature Alpenhorn. It’s long and has a bell that curves up at one end. If you remember those Ricola commercials with the Alpenhorn, it’s like that only smaller.

It has one valve?

Emerich: Right. It has one valve which allows you to play a whole step down. So you can play through the harmonic cycle like you would on a bugle, and then you can push the valve down, and then you have can play another cycle of notes.

But bugles play a lot more like a trumpet than this does. The Holztrompete has a foreign feeling. It’s like a cross between playing on a flugelhorn and a natural trumpet, which doesn’t have valves. So, playing it can be really squirrely. It’s okay on the lower notes, but when you get to the higher ones, it’s really touchy.

There’s not much time in the opera to fret about how my playing is going to go. I just have to grab it and run upstairs and do it. But it plays pretty well. I had been told that the intonation was going to be quite low – around 423 – that’s about a half step low, but I didn’t have any problem. I just think sharp and try to push the sound up and play it where I hear it.

So you had to leave the orchestra pit to play it during the opera performance?

Emerich: Yep. Before I play it, I have an extended group of measures, which give me time to put it together. It comes in six different pieces – a little like a clarinet – but I’ve got it sort of pre-assembled so that it doesn’t take up too much space in the pit.

So when the time comes, I only have to put two parts together, then run up the stairs to the back stage area where all of the stage hands and computers are. I’ve never been back there before at the opera house, but it’s really cool. Some of the singers are back there waiting for their entrances to go on stage. It’s a little bit like mass chaos back there, which is pretty weird for me. I’m used to the orchestra setup, where everyone has their place and no one is moving around. But backstage a lot of things are happening; so it’s really interesting.

After I’m done playing, I have to hustle downstairs quickly, because I only have a few bars before I have to play again… on my regular trumpet… for a different solo in the opera.

It’s really exciting to go upstairs to play this. I’ve been involved in some ensemble performances that involve a little bit of movement and acting, and I really get into it. But your heart rate really goes up!

So the one valve on the Holztrompete is like a regular trumpet valve?

Emerich: It’s a piston valve; so it’s like a regular American trumpet. The valve is old, and it doesn’t spring up very well. The response is kind of scary. You just have to hope that it doesn’t stick.

One of the unusual features of this instrument is that it doesn’t have a spit valve. But so far I haven’t noticed any condensation from playing it or any gurgling sounds.

So you just ordered the Holztrompete from the museum in South Dakota?

Emerich: Glenn Crytzer, the opera’s librarian found out about this instrument, and Sarah Potter, who is the music administrator, did all of the arrangements. So when I came to the third rehearsal and the Holztrompete was here, in a cloth bag, with sleeves in it for each little part of the instrument. It all folds together and shut with a Velcro piece.

I needed it for that rehearsal, because that was when we did Act III, which has the solo for this instrument. Afterwards, I took it home and did some practicing. After the opera closes its run, I’ll return it to Sarah, who will take care of returning it to the museum in South Dakota.

I think that she looked at other options of getting this instrument for this production, but most of these instruments seem to be in Germany. It’s very expensive to ship a Holztrompete here and get it through customs and pay the rental fees. The National Music Museum has been so good to us.

Are you going to acquire one of these for your own trumpet collection?

Emerich: I’ve thought about it, but it’s so rarely called for. Seattle Opera does Tristan und Isolde every 12 or more years, and there’s not much written for it outside of this opera. It’s nickname is the Tristan Trumpet. I guess I could purchase one and rent it to opera orchestras around the US whenever it’s needed, but that’s just not my thing.