Searching the forgotten sonority of the shipstune in Richard Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' Act III.

Act II: The instruments

The concerns raised above about how to render the frohe Weise have inspired musicians, instrument makers and opera houses to a multitude of solutions. The first Holztrompete appears to have been an 8 ft C. All other versions of the instruments, as far as I have been able to trace them, are 4 ft instruments in C, except for the instrument produced for the 2023 production of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. In some productions, especially those in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the Tristan trumpet was replaced wholesale with other special instruments. This part of the article is not an exhaustive history of the instrument in all its incarnations, but rather a preliminary exploration.


Stefan Koch - 8ft C Holztrompete

The first interpretation of the instrument is lost, and much about it remains unclear. Tremmel
(1993) cites documents that speak of an instrument made by Stefan Koch jr (1809-1878), a straight wooden trumpet in 8 ft C. It was built for the Viennese production of Tristan & Isolde for which rehearsals started in 1861. This production failed to result in a premiere of the Opera; after 77 rehearsals it was deemed un-performable. Only when Wagner secured patronage by Ludwig the IInd of Bavaria another attempt was made to stage the Opera, this time resulting in a premiere. The instrument was bought by the Bavarian State Opera for the production, where it sounded on the 10th of June 1865 in the official world premiere of Tristan & Isolde.10

4ft C Holztrompete and Heckel-clarina

Kathleen Schlesinger mentions the Holztrompete in a curious entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica from 1911, ostensibly straight from personal communications with a ‘Madame Wagner’ on December 28th in 1897. Rather than a 8 ft C instrument, she speaks of a 4 ft in C, with a valve. According to the article, the instrument was used at the premiere of Tristan & Isolde and again in 1886, 1889 and 1897. This information contradicts earlier contemporary sources cited by Tremmel. Most probably she confused the Holztrompete used in her time, 4 ft C instruments, with the 8 ft C made by Stefan Koch. 

She mentions that the clarina (developed and built by Wilhelm Heckel) was used in 1891.
The Heckel-clarina is a single reed expanding bore instrument made of metal, somewhat similar to the soprano saxophone. According to Schlesinger it was more practical and more effective in producing the required tone-colour than the Holztrompete. In the same edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in another article by Kathleen Schlesinger about the Heckel clarina, she mentions that other German orchestras have followed the practice to replace the Holztrompete with the Heckel clarina, initiated in 1891 at Bayreuth.

The ‘Tristan’ Tárogató

The term tárogató had been applied to two quite distinct instruments: first a raucous martial double reed instrument derived from the Turkish Zurna 11. and second the late nineteenth century recreation of the first in the spirit Hungarian Nationalism. The recreation by Vencel Joszéf Schunda, which might more accurately be described as invention, featured a wooden single reed expanding bore and keywork comparable to the Albert clarinet.

In an article in Zenevilag from 1901, ‘a tárogató Wagner operaíban’ we learn that Schunda presented the instrument to professor Viktor Herzfeld, who suggested to use it instead of the Holztrompete in Tristan & Isolde. Conductor Hans Richter supported the idea, and so it was used in March 1902 in Bayreuth. Reviews were favourable, and in addition to Hans Richter, Gustav Mahler spoke approvingly of its use in Tristan & Isolde. He promptly ordered two Tárogató for the Viennese Opera. In subsequent years the Paris and Brussels opera’s ordered tárogató’s for their productions of Tristan & Isolde too. It is unclear why, after this initial success, its use in Tristan & Isolde was not continued. (Falvy, 1997).

In the first part I presented the idea that the Tristan trumpet should render an imagined past. In this light, the tárogató and the Tristan trumpet are quite alike; they are both recreations of an imagined past, mythological creatures that, while they bear some resemblance to historical instruments, remain retrospective fabrications deeply rooted in the culture of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Keller & Lehner - 4ft C Holztrompete

Next trace of the Holztrompete can be found in 1913, when a trumpet player from Dresden, E Siefert asks in a letter addressed to the Munich Opera, if he can use their Holztrompete. The Munich opera writes back that they need the instrument themselves, and anyhow it is undergoing repair. They suggest instead that Siefert has an instrument made at the the firm Keller & Lehner, and send a photograph of their instrument along to Dresden. It concerns a 4-foot C instrument with a Berliner Pumpe style valve.

The Dresden Opera had this instrument made, and both the photograph sent by the Munich Opera and this instrument are preserved as part of the Joe and Joella Utley collection, a collection now incorporated with the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota. The instrument is on permanent loan to the Trumpet Museum in Bad Säckingen. The Munich instrument from Keller and Lehner survives as well and is still owned by the Munich Opera.12

Gebrüder Alexander - 4ft C Holztrompete

Around 1925 another Holztrompere was built in Mainz, by the Gebrüder Alexander for the Prague Opera. It concerns again a 4-foot instrument in C, with one Périnet valve. It is preserved in its original case. It is stamped MAJETEK ZEMSKÝ (state owned) / Majetek Národní divadla / v Praze R - 012 (property National Theater in Prague). After the Second World War, when Wagner fell out of favour in much of the world, the instrument was given to a staff member. After forty years, he sold instrument to a German collector, and subsequently it ended up in the Joe and Joella Utley Collection.13 

Thein Brothers - Trompete in C ‘Bayreuth’

One of the Holztrompete currently on the market is a trumpet produced by Thein Brass in Bremen. Their version was developed for the Hamburg Opera, and has been used in New York, Amsterdam, Dresden and Berlin. It is constructed as a 4-foot in C, with one Périnet valve to play the D and F. The Thein brothers mention on their website they consider the instrument an expansion of the sound of the English Horn. It is made in brass and covered in a wooden mantle. The Thein brother write on their website that they experimented with making the bell completely in wood, and this ‘far better represents the sound that Wagner expected.’ 14

Schöni and Egger - ‘Nachbau Holztrompete’

The above mentioned instrument by Keller & Lehner from 1913, built for the Dresden opera, formed the basis of another Holztrompete. Joe Utley, a cardiac surgeon and good amateur trumpet player, commissioned Rainer Egger and Andreas Schöni to make a copy of the 1913 instrument in 2001. Rainer Egger, a maker of brass instruments based in Basel, made the valve and the brass parts, while Andreas Schöni, a maker of historical woodwind instruments based in Bern, made the wooden parts.

They measured the original instrument, but found that copying the instrument would result in a poor instrument, based on the measurements of the bore: “Sollten wir nun dieses Instrument mit seinen Fehlern kopieren oder ein sauber spielbares Instrument anfertigen?” (Schöni, 2004, p2) 

Joe Utley chose the last option, and so the instrument was adapted with the help of Wilfried Kausel from the Institut für Wiener Klangstil, using bore optimisation software (BIAS). They kept the 4 foot C with Berliner Pumpe as a model. The instrument was produced with Grenadille wood, except for the knee and beaker, which are made from stained maple.

The production of this instrument resulted in a publication by Andreas Schöni about the process, and an acoustical study of the instrument in comparison with English Horn and Trumpet by Robert Pyle. Currently the instrument resides in Joe and Joella Utley collection in Vermillion. It was used in a performance of Tristan & Isolde in the 2010 by the Seattle Opera.

Poole & Armstrong - Holz Trumpet

The Canadian Opera company staged Tristan & Isolde in early 2013. Conductor Johannes Debus asked resident trombonist and instrument maker Herb Poole to build an instrument after Wagner’s specifications for the opera. Herb Poole settled for a 4 ft C, with one périnet valve. From mouthpiece to valve, it is made in brass, and after that it is all wood. First a straight section in African Blackwood, and then the bell in apple wood from Nova Scotia. Gary Armstrong turned the wooden parts. Poole and Armstrong finalised the instrument together. Trumpeter Andre Dubelsten played the instrument during the production.15

COGEN & VERNOOIJ - 8 ft C  'Tristan' Holztrompete - 2023

Facilitated and commissioned by Opera Ballet Vlaanderen for the performance of ‘Tristan und Isolde’ during the saison 2023. The project started on the initial idea of the opera’s first trumpeter Serge Rigaumont. Instrument makers Gunther Cogen (natural trumpets) and Daniël Vernooij (historical woodwind) developed, produced and presented their Tristan Holztrompete, which sounded during the entire performance cyclus. First trumpeters ever on this new built trumpet were: Sander Kintaert and Steven Bossuyt.

The trumpet uses the full range of natural harmonics with an F-tempering venthole. The trumpet is constructed using as much wood as possible, especially in the accoustical field without it becoming unwieldy in size or weight. Stained maple wood harvested in the Alps was chosen, its dark colour contrasting with the brass of the ferrules and tubing of the instrument. Brass tubing is double looped folded with an integrated tuning slide. 


   9 For more in depth analysis of the myth of Tristan & Isolde see: de Rougemont (1963), Eisner (1969), Schoepperle and Loomis (1960)

   10 Sabine Klaus (2019

   11 The other term used to refer the same instrument töröksip (Turkish Pipe) supports this lineage

   12 I owe this information to Robert Pyle

   13 14