OMING late in Handel’s “Messiah,” the glittering instrumental solo in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” is one of the most recognizable trumpet parts in music. This time of year, its rousing opening fanfare and serenely gleaming lyrical passages can be heard in concert halls and churches all over the country, part of a bass aria that becomes one of this beloved oratorio’s emotional highlights, charged with hope, mystery and awe.
Awe is also the overriding emotion that musicians bring to the part — especially when they perform it on the Baroque trumpet. John Thiessen, one of the most consistently outstanding performers on period trumpets, who is currently playing the solo in Trinity Wall Street’s “Messiah” performances, said in an interview that while the writing is not especially virtuosic, the part is extensive and exposed: “You have to be ready and you have to be prepared physically.”
These days, the solo is most commonly played on a modern piccolo trumpet, a small, tightly coiled instrument — with two feet of tubing to the Baroque trumpet’s seven — that produces an incisive, citrusy-bright sound. The more sweetly toned Baroque version, by contrast, is long and straight — and, most important, devoid of the valves that on modern instruments enable players to hit and evenly tune all the notes of a scale.
The resulting instability of intonation was so much of an issue, even in Handel’s time, that a music historian of that era, Charles Burney, complained that certain notes on the trumpet were “too much used for even vulgar ears to bear patiently.”
Like most of today’s period trumpeters, Mr. Thiessen plays on modern copies of Baroque instruments to which holes have been added to improve intonation. But in a brass player’s equivalent of scaling Everest without oxygen, some trumpeters take pride in playing — and meticulously tuning — Handel’s solo on so-called natural trumpets without holes. When the British trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins recorded it that way in the late 1980s, he asked Mr. Thiessen, who was then studying with him, to accompany him to the recording studio as a witness.
In a phone interview, Mr. Steele-Perkins said that one of the reasons performers struggle with the solo on period instruments is that they tend to take a gladiatorial louder-is-better approach that ill suits the music of the time. “The main reason for disasters in performance nowadays is that young players do not understand that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the art of trumpet playing was not how loud you could play but how quietly,” he said. “There are many written commentaries from the time, which express amazement that a militaristic instrument can be sounded with such delicacy.”
In “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” Mr. Thiessen said, the more transparent sound of a Baroque instrument allows the musician to move “more easily from being a soloist to an ensemble player as the situation changes.” His own interpretations of the part stand out for the singing smoothness that he brings to the high scales that wind in and out of the vocal part.
But it is the opening fanfare, a dotted rising arpeggio, that is most identified with the aria’s promise of resurrection. Pulling out a copy of the manuscript score, Mr. Thiessen pointed to a correction Handel made to the number’s tempo. Crossing out “Andante” (literally, in Italian, “walking”) — in the phrase “Andante ma non allegro,” the composer changed the marking to “Pomposo ma non allegro,” indicating a statelier but energetic gait.
Mr. Steele-Perkins discovered just how specific the ceremonial connotations of that trumpet opening would have been to contemporary ears when he bought a pair of trumpets that had been in the possession of the assize court in the English town of Guildford. Inside the case was a piece of music manuscript paper containing the flourish to be played at the arrival of the judge. It turned out to be an exact match of the opening three bars of Handel’s aria.
“This would have been immediately recognized by English and Irish audiences at the time,” Mr. Steele-Perkins said. “The arrival of the judge here becomes the Day of Judgment — an important testament to Handel’s faith and a climactic moment in the oratorio.”
The text of the aria is taken from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” In typical fashion, Handel uses word painting to reinforce the message, sending the vocal part through elaborate undulating runs on the word “changed.”
“The message in the text is about hope,” Mr. Thiessen said. After the oratorio’s first part, devoted to the prophecy of redemption, and the second, dealing with suffering, sacrifice and folly, the third part is about victory over death and war.
“In ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,’ I am the angel,” Mr. Thiessen said, adding that in Handel’s music, the trumpet often represents a different plane of existence from the rest of the orchestra: the regal, the divine or the military. “Every time Handel uses the trumpet, it’s on the side of what’s right,” he said. “If the king is a good king, it’s representing the king. But in the case of ‘Saul,’ the trumpet is never played for Saul, the king — it’s played for David, who’s 8 years old.”
Bach, by contrast, sometimes “sets up the trumpet to fail,” Mr. Thiessen said. “In the arias where he talks about the difficulties and troubles of life, he’ll give the trumpet something really difficult to play, to set him up to fail. It has to sound hard.”
For Baroque trumpeters, the challenge in Handel’s “Messiah” is to radiate confidence even while negotiating the difficulties of the part. As for Burney’s complaint about tuning, Mr. Thiessen points out that the historian had worked as a violist in Handel’s orchestra and that it was very likely that he sat right in front of Valentine Snow, the trumpeter who inspired many of Handel’s solos. Easy on the ears it would not have been.
These days, he said, seasoned period-instrument conductors like Nicholas McGegan will instruct the string players to tweak their own intonation to match that of the trumpet in an aria such as Handel’s. But given that the trumpet represents a power outside of the orchestra community, it may be appropriate to emphasize its difference with its own tuning system, too. After all, as Mr. Thiessen said, “It’s music from a different world.”