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What Is a Trumpet Voluntary?

A Trumpet Voluntary is a stately musical piece, often featuring a solo trumpet, that exudes regal elegance. Originating in the Baroque era, it's commonly played at weddings and ceremonial events, showcasing the trumpet's clear, bright tones. Imagine the majestic sound heralding a grand entrance. How might such a tune enhance your special occasion? Let's explore its timeless allure.
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

A trumpet voluntary is a classical, English-based musical composition that was especially popular during the Baroque period. Although the term "trumpet voluntary" conjures the idea that a trumpet performs the works, these compositions technically are for a solo keyboard instrument. The name comes from the fact that originally, the works generally were performed by organists utilizing the organ's trumpet stop.

By definition, it is not a religious piece of music, but organists used the pieces with high frequency before, during and after religious services. The works essentially were "filler" music that were not part of the regular service. The use of the voluntary in this function did not mean the work was of insignificant quality. Many are masterpieces in their own right and were selected for use specifically because the organist felt the musicality of the compositions made them deserving of performance.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

There is no set form for these compositions because it was how the works were performed — with the trumpet stop before, during or after a service — that truly designated whether they fit the voluntary definition, not the form of the work. It is fairly standard, however, for a trumpet voluntary to start with a slower tempo. Once the performer has played this slower introduction, the tempo usually changes to a faster speed. The left hand usually plays an accompanying chord pattern or theme, with the right hand providing a fanfare.

Another reason why no set form for a trumpet voluntary exists is that organists usually improvised the works. Good organists did not find this especially difficult to do, because they had been trained in theory and counterpoint. This is an important fact, because it draws a clear line between "true practice" voluntaries and the ones that have become famous because they were written down and now are performed according to what is present on the music page.

When musicians had a written version of a voluntary they liked, they quickly made arrangements of it to suit their own instruments. This allowed the voluntary to move out of the church setting and into homes as entertainment music. Eventually, trumpet voluntaries made their way into concert halls and onto professional studio recordings.

Out of all the compositions labeled as a trumpet voluntary, perhaps the most famous is the "Prince of Denmark March." Contemporary musicians also know this work loosely as the "Trumpet Voluntary in D," although it is certainly not the only voluntary in that key. This work, composed by Jeremiah Clarke and misattributed for years to Henry Purcell, is used with regularity for weddings worldwide. It was a selection in the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer of England.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Trumpet Voluntary and where did it originate?

A Trumpet Voluntary is a musical composition, typically for the trumpet and organ, that originated in England during the 17th century. It is characterized by a solo trumpet line, often accompanied by an organ or harpsichord, and is commonly used in ceremonial occasions such as weddings. The term "voluntary" refers to the piece being played at the musician's discretion during service interludes or before or after church services.

Who are some famous composers of Trumpet Voluntaries?

Jeremiah Clarke is one of the most notable composers associated with the Trumpet Voluntary, with his "Prince of Denmark's March," often mistakenly attributed to Henry Purcell, being one of the most famous examples. Other composers include John Stanley and William Boyce, who contributed significantly to the repertoire of English voluntaries during the Baroque period.

How is a Trumpet Voluntary typically structured?

A Trumpet Voluntary generally features a stately, processional rhythm suitable for ceremonial occasions. It often includes a slow introduction followed by a faster section. The composition may alternate between sections that showcase the trumpet's bright, clear sound and the organ's rich harmonies, creating a dialogue between the two instruments.

Can a Trumpet Voluntary be played on instruments other than the trumpet?

Yes, while originally written for the trumpet, Trumpet Voluntaries can be transcribed and performed on other lead instruments such as the cornet, flugelhorn, or even a violin. The accompaniment, typically provided by an organ, can also be adapted for piano or a full orchestra, allowing for a wide range of performance contexts.

Where is a Trumpet Voluntary commonly performed today?

Today, Trumpet Voluntaries are frequently performed at formal events such as weddings, state ceremonies, and church services. They are particularly popular during the bridal procession and recessional due to their majestic and celebratory qualities. Additionally, these pieces are often played at military and civic events, as well as in concert settings by brass ensembles and soloists.

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Discussion Comments


I used the "Trumpet Voluntary in D" by Clarke for my wedding processional. I did *not* want the Bridal Chorus (Here Comes the Bride) by Wagner -- no way, no how. I don't like that piece to start with, and it's so overused. The "Trumpet Voluntary," however, is a beautiful piece and while recognizable, is not overdone.

My recessional was the hymn "Crown Him with Many Crowns." The tune is "Diademata" by George J. Elvey, and was composed for the words it accompanies. That’s not always the case, but was with this hymn.

Clarke's "Trumpet Voluntary" is such a great piece and I always enjoy hearing it.

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