The other day (early November 2021), while, as usual, he was supposed to be doing something else (mostly, earning the money for the rent), Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba was at an elementary school, explaining to third graders why Mozart didn’t write a whole lot of music for trumpets.
“Why not? I thought he was a musical genius!”
He was. And if he’d had the tools, he probably could have written better Star Wars music than John Williams did. Trumpets and all. But he didn’t have the tools.
“But I thought trumpets have been around, like, forever! Didn’t they knock down the walls of Jericho or something?”
Yeah, they’ve been breaking eardrums for millennia. But they couldn’t play “Do-re-mi“. Or, for that matter, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star“. Not in Joshua’s time or Mozart’s. And if they can’t do simple tunes like that, they aren’t going to be much use to people trying to figure out which instruments are going to carry the sophisticated melody lines in symphonies. At least, for symphonies that are going to sell any tickets! So, with Mozart, you get violins. Sorry.
“What? No synthesizers?”
Coming to that. Let’s finish dealing with the trumpets first, yeah?
Thanks. [Ahem] To demonstrate to the third graders how come Mozart didn’t write much music for trumpets, YFNA trotted out a conch shell and lengths of garden hose. Especially since he no longer lives on the Pacific coast of North America and no longer has convenient access to kelp horns.
You didn’t know that you could make trumpets out of garden hose? Well, now you do.
The conch shell (in Hawaiian, a pu) has, for many moons, been used as a trumpet by societies living in tropical areas with access to the ocean (where the living animals are to be found). To make a trumpet out of it, you saw the end off (do not leave any jagged edges!) and buzz your lips into the hole. The shells are short (under a foot, or 30 centimeters), and usually sound one clear note. Try to get any others, and you get splutters.
The 18″ (45 cm) hose isn’t much better, maybe two or three clear notes.
With the 6′ (2 m) hose, YFNA can play “Reveille“. But not “Do-re-mi”.
Only with the 20′ (6 m) hose can YFNA play a tune. And, guess what? The natural trumpets available in Mozart’s time were about that long. What was not available in Mozart’s time? People who could play natural trumpets acceptably well. The art had died out, and no one, apparently, was willing to learn it. Too much work.
“They had COVID in Mozart’s time?!?”
Nah. Just plague, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, smallpox. Minor illnesses like that.
“And they didn’t freak out?”
Acts of God. You’re going to argue with God about stuff you can do nothing about? Or just roll with whatever he dishes out?
Not going there.
“So what changed?”
Science. Engineering. If you’re going to play a tune on a brass pipe that’s shorter than 20 feet, you have to figure out some way to change its length on the fly. It’s not like you can stretch or shrink it, and boring holes in the brass like a flute doesn’t work, it makes the sound poofy.
You can slide two lengths together, and get longer and shorter brass tubing that way. Engineers had to figure out how to do that so the gap wasn’t too big to let air leak out, and wasn’t too small, or too irregular, for the slide to stick, usually at the worst possible moment. They managed it, and behold, the trombone.
But for trumpets, that proved to be just as much work as playing the 20 footer. Move the slide a hair too far, or not far enough, and you’re three notes away from where you wanted to be. So, instead, you stick pipes of various lengths on a body and connect them together with valves. Then you can change the length of the tube pretty much any way you wish to, and you can play a tune without having your trumpet take up the whole room, or play guessing games with a slide.
But they didn’t come up with all this until the mid-19th century, 50 years too late for Mozart. He had to be content with the pianoforte instead of the harpsichord, and the clarinet instead of the recorder or chalumeau.
“Wins for technology all around.”
So tired of the negativity.
What’s with this ‘technology’ nonsense? Scientific and engineering advances have made life longer, healthier, easier, correct?
You wish to try playing scales on a 20-foot valveless trumpet?
So it’s ‘techyeslogy’, amirite?
“O .. my ..”
Not even warmed up yet. Since YFNA was digging around the 19th century anyway, he looked up an old buddy, Ambrose Bierce, and found this:
DUCK-BILL, n. Your account at your restaurant during the canvas-back season.
Not even the heavily footnoted ‘unabridged’ edition of the Devil’s Dictionary would clarify what “Duck-bill” referred to. Since, according to notes in the ‘unabridged’ Devil’s Dictionary, the definition first appeared in the satirical magazine The Wasp in 1882, and the name “duckbill” was then among the common names in English of the platypus, YFNA guesses that Bierce was using the Australian monotreme mammal as the basis for his pun.
Much easier to track down was the canvasback, a species of duck much prized for food in the USA of the late 19th century, but much less so today because of (a) overhunting, (b) prohibitions against hunting, following from (a), (c) a change in diet of the bird, driven by habitat change, from a plant-eater (delectable) to a clam-eater (detestable).
However, the word that grabbed YFNA’s attention was not “duck-bill”, nor was it “canvasback”.
It was “season.” As in, when was the last time, dear reader, that availability of any significant food item of interest to you was restricted to a particular season? Hell, asparagus, famous for a harvesting season, in any particular planting, of, like, two weeks annually, is available in YFNA’s local supermarkets every day of the year.
Every day of the year, that is, when there is anything in the supermarkets …
In 1882, when Bierce wrote of duck-bills and canvasback seasons, the Standard Oil Trust was first formed, and Thomas Edison founded the first commercial electricity generating plant. Transportation was by horse, by locomotives burning coal, and by ships still largely under sail. Communication was on paper sent through the mail, or by telegraph; the first telephone exchange had started operations in Connecticut four years prior, and had not yet expanded much beyond New England. Refrigeration, essential for making asparagus available to tropical islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean year-round, was by ice harvested from natural sources during winter, or by cumbersome, stationary, and dangerous machines using coolants that were toxic, inflammable, or both. In 1782, hell in 1832, most of these techyeslogies existed only in the minds of science fiction writers … or would have if science fiction had yet been invented.
“And people survived without them.”
Some of them. About 1.5 billion, about 5-fold fewer than today. Not counting the 1 in 100 women who died in childbirth. Not counting the something like 50% of children who died before their 10th birthday. Speaking of which, apparently one of the last definitions Bierce wrote, too late for inclusion in the published Devil’s Dictionary, according to the ‘unabridged’ version:
HEAVEN, n. Copulation without culmination.
“This is English?”
Gah. ‘Getting laid without getting the girl pregnant.’
“How binary of y …”
Shut up. By this definition, humans have been living in a world of bliss since the early 1960s. Except maybe in Texas and Ohio. And Afghanistan. Can’t forget Afghanistan. Where, before 2003, 1 in 100 women still died in childbirth. And where they will probably return to that statistic in 2022. That’s technology for you. Must be what We the Oh So Noble and Righteous People of these Untied States of America want for them. We walked away from the alternative. Too much work, too much trouble. We’ll take our privileges, but won’t do anything to ensure that ‘not us’ get any. Can’t be bothered with the Taliban in Kabul. Or Austin.
No, Mozart did not have synthesizers. At the rate we’re going, soon, neither will any of us. We’ve taken techyeslogy for granted, can’t be bothered with the investments needed to support techyeslogical advancements, can’t even be bothered to get vaccinated against a disease because freedom!!
“Gulf War Illness, anthrax vaccine fans.”
Shut. Up. Because the alternative to techyeslogy, in a world with 9 billion people in it and an infrastructure that will either collapse outright or will smother us in carbon dioxide, is indeed technology. A world in which trumpet players have to figure out how to play 20-foot-long valveless trumpets well enough so they don’t get stoned for their pains.
If any of us survive long enough to see it.