Vincent Bach and the Modern Trumpet

I’m thrilled by the opportunity to present my research on Vincent Bach at the 2014 Undergraduate Research Presentations at Kennesaw State University. Please find my full paper below, followed by a copy of my Powerpoint presentation that I will present.

 Vincent Bach and the Modern Trumpet

Vincent Bach finds his place in music history as a figure who advanced his multi-faceted career with the profound drive of entrepreneurship, first studying to become one of Europe’s great cornet virtuosos before refining his technical craft as an engineer.  Bach served as Principal Trumpet in the Boston Symphony in 1914 and later performed in Diaghilev’s ballet orchestra at the Ballet Russes only two seasons after The Rite of Spring premiere (Tarr).  New York City, perhaps as a result of Broadway and the Philharmonic, offered prime musical ground for new ideas in American music.  1920s New York brass players relied on European equipment, for such equipment had developed steadily out of the German symphonic tradition and the English brass band scene (Smith).  Vincent Bach saw this as an opportunity, and opened his own shop on East 85th Street in New York (Tarr).  Assimilating and combining highly detailed musical intuition and technical expertise, brass enthusiast and engineer Vincent Bach created an entirely new standard for the manufacturing and reliability of the trumpet, and in doing so synthesized a dependable sound concept and technique that would become the basis for the twentieth century American brass sound.

At a time when the symphonic tradition was largely maintained in Europe, many American trumpet players preferred German Schmidt mouthpieces, for they were grounded in high quality manufacturing unlike younger companies in the U.S. (Smith).  Furthermore, there was no standard system of measurement for players to evaluate which mouthpiece would be most ideal for them.  Noting these difficult inconsistencies, Bach created a standardized system for mouthpiece prototypes, becoming the first to do so (Tarr).

But as the U.S. entered WWII, discretionary spending was scarce and raw materials were directed towards war efforts.  Compromises in instrument design were being made by manufacturing companies because resources were strained; superior ores of brass often found their way into battleships instead of trumpets.  Bach looked toward standardizing the brass alloy of his trumpets, but the economy forced the company to scale back manufacturing efforts and focus more on repairing all types of wind instruments in the New York shop (Smith).

Despite financial vulnerability, Bach and his machinists successfully designed over a dozen modifications to the trumpet, each with the intent of providing the highest quality trumpet available at the time.  Amongst these changes was the mouthpiece receiver, which was standardized to fit the modern Bach mouthpiece to provide optimal intonation on the trumpet; because the preferred instrument of the cornet soloist in Europe was cornet pitched in A, one semitone lower than the modern B-flat fundamental of the 1920s, the adjustment to modern pitch without reexamining the mouthpiece receiver design and balance caused inherent intonation problems for the player.  Trumpeter Edward Tarr notes that “unlike Benge [who had founded a California-based trumpet shop] . . . Bach strove to give his instruments a secure ‘feel’ for each note in the scale.”  Another very technical refinement was the adjusting of the “gap,” which is the space between the end of the mouthpiece shank and the beginning of the leadpipe.  Even on modern brass instruments, poor measurement of this aspect of the instrument can result in inconsistencies between registers in the sound.  Vincent Bach personally took pride in the “tightness” of the valves.  He frequently demonstrated this to customers by hooking a trumpet to a bathtub water faucet and showing how the air would flow.  (Smith)

Continually working on improving the individual characteristics of each trumpet, the expansion and rise in popularity of the Bach company provided professionals with another advantage.  A trumpet section (i.e. in the “Pershing’s Own” Army Band in Washington, D.C.) could now all play on like model trumpets and expect that they respond in essentially the same way.  A new level of blend and balance could now be achieved.  This development of consistency of intonation improved immensely due to Bach’s attention to the taper and venturi of the leadpipe and accuracy of the valves. (Smith)

By 1950, Bach’s new system for categorizing mouthpieces was far from reaching the status it holds today.  Due to the invention and gradual use of x-rays, teachers in Europe began studying the formation of the embrasure, and resultantly the concept of mouthpiece “buzzing” took hold in Europe before making its way to the U.S. (Smith).  Bach recognized that this buzzing practice exposed that all embrasure formations were different.  Furthermore, he proposed the idea that different mouthpieces were needed for different shapes of embrasures; this led to diversifying of the mouthpiece types available– a trend that continues today.  Many professional brass players play a specific mouthpiece to achieve appropriate sounds for different settings.  Modern manufactures like Gary Radkie produce highly specified mouthpieces, even offering players “fitting” sessions where a trained consultant will actually guide the player through testing dozens of mouthpieces (Yates).

Bach’s respect as a cornet virtuoso and status with the Boston Symphony gained him contacts with the finest bands and orchestras throughout the United States.  He built instruments for the U.S. Army Band in Washington (c. WWII) and worked with trumpet players of the Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago Symphonies (Smith).  In the 1950s, Vincent Bach sold four trumpets to the Chicago Symphony, an event that was perhaps the most important sale he ever made.  Adolph “Bud” Herseth had just taken the helm as the great orchestra’s Principal Trumpet, a position he maintained 1948-2001.  Herseth’s Bach C trumpet can be heard on nearly every recording the Chicago Symphony made over his 53-year tenure, including legendary Solti and Reiner discs that find a place on almost every brass player’s shelf.  The author of this essay regrets to include that Mr. Herseth passed away just recently on April 13th, 2013 (Bliznik).

The heritage of Bach trumpets has continued through today by way of his company, now a division of Conn-Selmer, owned by Steinway.  Bach designs have been incorporated by dozens of trumpet manufacturers.  Bob Malone, who worked designing trumpets at the Bach factory early in his career, presently leads Yamaha’s Artist Custom Shop in Los Angeles, where he has refined trumpets for countless leading trumpet players around the world, including Christopher Martin of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bud Herseth’s successor.

While great teachers and performers have played a major role in the change and refinement of trumpet and brass playing, often little emphasis is placed on the instrument maker.  In many ways, the level of detail Vincent Bach strove for echos the level of consistency and quality to which great performers aspire.  A catalyst for change in the overall design of the trumpet, his legacy has allowed for constant improvement upon every instrument.  The level of quality found in instruments has allotted a new sense of freedom to the musician, thus eliminating many of the technical limitations found in previous generations.

Bach trumpets are occasionally found in Europe, but generally this is not the case: the Berlin Philharmonic trumpet section still performs on German instruments.  The United States’ own genre of jazz has solidified the trumpet’s role in American music history, and the influence of its sound has stemmed greatly from Vincent Bach.  As Aaron Copland was developing a sound that was distinctively American, Bach busily worked at his shop in New York, crafting a quality instrument that would literally set the tone for decades to come.

Works Cited:

Bliznik, Karin. “Trumpet Lesson.” Personal interview. 16 Apr. 2013.

Smith, Andre M. “The Life and Work of Vincent Bach.” International Trumpet Guild Journal 19.3 (1995): 5-30. Print.

Smith, Andre M. “The Life and Work of Vincent Bach: The Early Years to WWII.” International Trumpet Guild Journal 19.2 (1994): 4-33. Print.

Tarr, Edward H. “Bach, Vincent.” N.p.: n.p., n.d. Grove Music Online. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.   Webster, Gerald B. “Specific Brass Information.” Improving Intonation. Vancouver, WA: Best, 2006. 27. Print.

Yates, Alexa. “GR Mouthpiece Consultation.” Personal interview. Oct. 2012.

Google Docs Slideshow:

Vincent Bach PowerPoint

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