20 Apr 2011

King Tutankhamun’s Trumpets

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The Pharoah Tutankhamen ruled Egypt for nine years, from approximately 1355 to 1346 BC. He ascended the throne at age nine, and he remained in power until his sudden death at age 18.

His tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt on November 22, 1922, by Howard Carter, who described the discovery thusly:

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flames to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.

For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”‘

Among the wonderful things found in Tutankhamun’s tomb were two trumpets, one silver and one bronze.

The shorter silver trumpet is in the key of B natural. The bronze trumpet from the tomb is about 3cm longer, and is in the key of A flat.

In 2001 the BBC broadcast a series of programmes about Verdi’s operas to mark the centenary of the composer’s death; in the programme about Aïda, the conductor Edward Downes explained how two groups play on very long trumpets during the Grand March, one in A flat and the other in B natural, which is very unusual.

He commented on the amazing coincidence that Verdi chose these extraordinary keys for his trumpets, 50 years before the tomb was discovered and about 3,200 years after the two very long trumpets were buried with Tutankhamun.

When rioting broke out recently in Cairo, the silver trumpet was away on display at a touring exhibition, but the bronze trumpet was one of the objects looted from the Cairo Museum. It was, however, recovered, a little later, found discarded in a bag with some other items stolen from the museum in a Cairo metro station.

The trumpets have only been rarely played since the time of their discovery, but a recording of the kind of sounds which once must have signaled the advance to battle of the infantrymen and chariots of the pharoahs in Antiquity was made in 1939 for the BBC.

The trumpets were played by Bandsman James Tappern of the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own).

3:15 audio

The BBC story (characteristically and traditionally for journalistic pieces of this kind) ends with a bit of superstition.

Bandsman Tappern… played the trumpet shortly before World War II broke out. Cairo Museum’s Tutankhamun curator claims the trumpet retains “magical powers” and was blown before the first Gulf War, and by a member of staff the week before the Egyptian uprising.

But, which one?

One is inclined to guess the more opulent silver trumpet, but the bronze trumpet is longer, and reputedly more difficult to blow.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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One Feedback on "King Tutankhamun’s Trumpets"

christine finn

The silver trumpet is on tour as I mention in the related BBC radio programme which the news story promotes. The museum claim refer to the bronze/copper one.



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