The Bass Trumpet, sometimes called a Tenor Trumpet, is pitched one octave below the standard B-flat or C Trumpet, and can be pitched in either key (B-flat or C). Unlike the other members of the trumpet family, the Bass Trumpet is almost never played by a true trumpeter, but rather is usually played by a trombonist or a Euphoniumist. Because of this, we should rethink some of the ways we have traditionally thought of writing for the Bass Trumpet.
We have two Bass Trumpets extant today, the instrument in C and the instrument in B-flat. A player may show up with either instrument, so it will be a good idea to know the ranges of both. The B-flat instrument usually only has three valves and therefore will always descend to a low E below the bass clef. The C instrument will usually possess four valves, and therefore will be able to descend to a low D below the bass clef. In order to accommodate both instruments, it will be best to never write below the low E, unless you know specifically which instrument will be available.
At the upper end, Wagner pushed his Bass Trumpet up to a sounding G-flat, which is extremely high for the instrument and better served by the Alto Trumpet (and is even high for that instrument). However, players are expected to be able to produce this note. That said I would not push the instrument above a written C in the treble clef.
In virtually every score that calls for the instrument, it is written as a transposing instrument in the treble clef, but as it is played by low brass players, it is high time that we just start writing for the Bass Trumpet as a non-transposing instrument in the bass and tenor clefs just as we would a trombone or a Euphonium.
If we are to look at the orchestral literature for the Bass Trumpet, there is really only a single work we can use as a reference; Wagner’s Ring. It is for this massive work that the Bass Trumpet came into being. Before Wagner’s tetralogy, the Bass Trumpet existed, but only as a little-known military band instrument. Much ink has been wasted over the true history of the Bass Trumpet. I will spare the historical details, and instead focus only on the instruments that exist today.
In theory, a Bass Trumpet and a Tenor Trombone should possess the exact same sound with the exception of the sound of valves versus a slide. However, manufactures have striven to create two distinct instruments. The Bass Trumpet will always have a smaller bore and significantly smaller bell than the Tenor Trombone. This overall smaller size means a brighter and more pointed sound than the Tenor Trombone. This is in line with our modern thinking of the trumpets being a strident and forward instrument whereas the trombones are mellower.
If we listen to excerpts from Wagner, we find that the Bass Trumpet is expected to be noble and heroic. I find its voice to be the most heroic of all the brass instrument along with the Horn. When Wagner writes for the instrument, he treats it either as a solo instrument presenting several of his leitmotifs or as the top voice in his low brass section, and not as the lowest voice in the trumpet choir.
Like many other rarer brass instruments, I know of no case where the Bass Trumpet has ever been used in the band. And again I say, why not? We have a huge number of Euphonium players out there, and not enough Euphonium music to go around, can we not put some of them of a Bass Trumpet?
I can just imagine a swirling texture of the woodwinds, building to a tornadic climax, when all of a sudden, a lone Bass Trumpet call out in a heroic fanfare to quell the storm.
Excerpts from the Lord of the Rings films (B-flat Bass Trumpet, piston valves)
Excerpts from Wagner’s Sigfried (C Bass Trumpet, 4 rotary valves)
Excerpt from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Note: this passage goes extremely high – above the standard range of the instrument. (C Bass Trumpet, 4 rotary valves)