In the Footsteps of Bach
The 18th century German composer, Johann Melchior Molter came from a musical family. His Dad, Valentin Molter was a village music teacher and Cantor and it was from him that the young Johann Molter likely learned the basics of music. before heading to the Gymnasium in Eisenach—the same school where J.S. Bach had a few years earlier also been a pupil.
When Molter moved on from Eisenach he got a job in the fall of 1717 working for the Margrave Carl Wilhelm of Baden-Durlach. The Margrave subsequently financed a two-year trip abroad with a full salary for Molter to live in Venice and Rome and study the musical stylings of composers like Vivaldi, Albinoni, Marcello, Tartini, and Scarlatti. When Molter returned to Germany in 1722, he composed prolifically for about a decade until, in the midst of the War of Polish Succession, Molter lost his job when the Margrave fled to Basel.
In 1737, Molter took a second trip to Italy, this time exploring the galant style of Sammartini and others. On his return he held several positions including one at Karlsruhe in 1742 where, given an inadequate quorum of players, Molter by necessity composed much chamber music for smaller forces.
A New Margrave
Things started to look up though in the late 1740s when Margrave Carl Friedrich came to power and set about rebuilding his music program. The new Margrave paid Molter well, and hired a core group of instrumentalists and singers that Molter could have at his disposal. It was the full complement: eight violins, six violas, a bass viol, only one cello, but, two double basses and three bassoons, in addition to two horns, several trumpets, oboes, flutes, chalumeaux, and timpani.
With this impressive orchestra roster, Molter was able to indulge his compositional imagination working will all sorts of instrumental combinations and sonorities. Molter’s Sonata Grosso in D major features oboes, 3 natural trumpets, and drums, in addition strings.
The ensemble Musica Fiorita plays Molter’s music in their newly released recording on the Accent label . The recording is titled “Concertos for Trumpets & Horns” and horns feature in a piece Molter composed for two horns with bassoon and a pair of chalumeaux. Chalumeaux are predecessors of the clarinet—they look a lot like a recorder with the addition of a single reed mouthpiece like the clarinet. The horns used on this recording are copies of valve-less Viennese originals built by Johannes Leichnamschneider in the early 18th century.
The featured performer on this particular Musica Fiorita release is Jean-François Madeuf who, very much in the vein of historical practice, is a doubler. Madeuf plays one of the horn parts in the track we just heard, and he also plays trumpet.
Valve-less, Vent-less Trumpets and Horns
There is some out of tune-ness on this recording. Like the horns, the trumpets here are true natural trumpets that play only notes from the harmonic series, some of which are by nature, out of tune. Not only are these trumpets not modern piccolo trumpets with valves, but they go a step further. They are baroque trumpets played without the aid of vent holes, a modification made to baroque trumpets during the 20th century early music revival in order to improve intonation. Indiana University instrument builder and professor, Richard Seraphinoff has pointed out on his website that to this date, “there is no evidence of the vent hole having been applied to any brass instrument of the Baroque period, either through existing instruments or documentation, and that written sources would in fact seem to confirm that such methods were not used.” 18th century trumpet players, thus would have been limited to playing notes from the harmonic series and bending pitches to get them in tune with the embouchure alone.
This recording is unapologetic in its enthusiastic no-holds-barred, take-it-or-leave-it approach to historical performance. It’s worth hearing and despite a few sour notes, worth re-imagining how this music may have actually sounded when it was first played.