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

Act III: The build

For the production of Tristan and Isode by Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in 2023 trumpeter Serge Rigaumont was interested in Wagner’s search for the right sonority of the signal that announces the arrival of Isolde’s ship. He convinced musical director Alejo Perez to have an instrument built for the occasion. Gunther Cogen, a builder of natural trumpets, was commissioned to make the instrument. Together with Daniël Vernooij, they have built three Tristan trumpets.

Gunther Cogen, as a maker of natural trumpets, felt strongly the instrument should be an 8 ft C natural trumpet. His familiarity with Baroque natural trumpets afforded him a good intuition on what kind of instrument would work in this context. We went to Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels where we studied Alphorns, 19th century wooden trumpets manufactured by Mahillon and natural trumpets from Wolf Magnus Ehe.




















Exploring instruments at MIM Brussels

The choice to built a 8 ft C rather than a 4 ft C was motivated by the following reasons:

- Wagner specifically asks for an instrument like the Alphorn
- Wagner specifically asks for an instrument that only plays the natural scale
- A feature of Wagners orchestration is the exploitation of the contrasting pair of natural brass instruments and valved brass instruments, a contrast that would be lost if the Holztrompete was a      valved instrument
- The instrument should evoke a mythic past, and so it seems more appropriate to base ourselves on one the most ancient of musical instruments, the natural trumpet
- Wagner asks for a powerful, raw, natural and naive sound. In our view this is best achieved through a natural trumpet.

The instrument was constructed using as much wood as possible in the acoustical 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. 

Initial tests of the prototype were promising, revealing a tone that was generally described as warm, dark and rounded, as opposed to the sharp and brighter tone of trumpets constructed entirely in brass. During one of the sessions in my workshop various trumpeters from OBV played the prototype. We got the feedback that the 11th harmonic was too difficult to play in tune. The practice to the lip down the 11th harmonic proved not feasible in this context. However, there was positive feedback on the timbre of the instrument, so if we could work out the tuning issue with 11th harmonic we could develop the prototype in a final version to be used in the music-drama.

The tuning issue with the 11th harmonic had been anticipated, and by drilling a vent hole for F5 the issue was resolved. However, we had hoped this vent hole would not have been necessary, as the compromise effectively stopped the instrument form being a full natural trumpet. Ventholes have been commonly employed in period instruments; they greatly facilitate playing these instruments, but remain a compromise that some argue against.

We went through a second prototype before constructing the final version of the instrument, which was used in the production of Tristan & Isolde in the spring of 2023. The second prototype will be part of the collection of Museum Vleeshuis, a Museum dedicated to music and musical instruments in Antwerp, Belgium, while the final instrument remain with OBV.



Sander Kintaert testing the first prototype trumpet at Daniël Vernooij's workshop in Ghent.

Sound qualities, sonority, position of the harmonics but also the ergonomics of the new developed trumpet became invested.


Every production that stages Tristan & Isolde has to make a decision about the instrument that should be used to announce Isolde’s arrival in the Final Act. A common solution, especially in Germany and the United States, is to have a 4-ft C Holztrompete play this part. This practice fits into a tradition of performance that stretches more than a hundred years back, and a good case can be made for it, especially if one takes into account more pragmatic aspects of performance such as size, weight and intonation. A big advantage is that instruments survive which were built only a few decades after Tristan’s premiere, on which we can model our current versions.

On the other side an 8 ft C seems to correspond more accurately with with fragmentary evidence that remains in the score and in Wagners writings. As no instrument of this kind survives more depends on the makers’ intuition. The tension between the contrasting poles of valved brass and natural brass instruments seem a consistent feature of Wagners orchestration, a tension that is lost in the 4 ft C. Moreover, in this article I developed the argument that the instrument invokes a ‘mythic past’, a role best suited to the 8 ft C.

Scholars have not settled on a definitive reading of Tristan and, as is common with great art, probably never will. What instrument to use hinges on the reading that the company staging the music-drama endorses. In our reading, the 8 ft C seems the most appropriate trumpet to use. While congruent with some interpretations of the music-drama, others might develop arguments that favour the tárogató or the synthesiser instead. As the history of this brief moment in the music-drama shows, each time has found its own solutions. It is unlikely that the arguments surrounding the Tristan trumpet will be definitively settled; and with each successive production of Tristan, new opportunities arise to articulate new solutions, as OBV has done in their 2023 production.


Daniël Vernooij