By Mikolaj Sluzewski
Oskar Böhme was one of the three German trumpeters – alongside Willy Brandt and Wilhelm Wurm – who at the turn of the 19th and 20th century happened to have a significant influence on Russian trumpet training, thus defining the role of the instrument in the European classical music for decades to follow.
While both the popularity of his works and Böhme himself suffered greatly from Stalinist repressions in 1930s, his compositions, written in the Romantic idiom, are being increasingly rediscovered and performed by orchestras, bands and solo artists all over the world.
Although relatively little is known about his life – with many blank spots in his personal and professional timeline – and the circumstances and actual date of his death remain unclear, Böhme attracted the attention of several historians and musicians who tried to investigate the case throughout the years, gathering a considerable amount of facts. All these little bits and pieces form a very interesting picture of the musician, composer, and educator.
Formative years and early career
Oskar Böhme was born on February 24, 1870, in Potschappel, a small town near Dresden, Germany, to a musical family of Wilhelm and Juliane Henriette Böhme. His father was a local musician, playing trumpet in a miners’ band and working as a music teacher in Dresden. Oskar as well as two out of his three brothers, Max William (called Willi) and Georg, learned to play trumpet from their father, and each of them went on to pursue a successful career in music, while the remaining third brother Benno became a wood sculptor.
From around the age of fifteen, Böhme began touring as a solo artist and probably played in smaller orchestras around Germany, including spa orchestras during summer seasons. Most of his activities in this period remain undocumented, however there are traces of his performances in the form of concert reviews from local newspapers reaching as far as Helsinki in September 1889. Oskar was also reported to have played together with his older brother Willi in Bayreuth in August of 1892.
Some sources suggest that Oskar studied trumpet and composition in the Leipzig Conservatory of Music until graduating in 1888, but it is probably not true. A more likely scenario says that during his traveling period Böhme took lessons from professor Gurlitt in Hamburg and Horovitz in Berlin, and later from professor Hertzfeld in Budapest.
From Budapest to Leipzig
It is said that in 1894 Böhme relocated to Budapest, where he joined his older brother Willi in the Royal Hungarian Opera House orchestra. Willi, who had settled in Budapest in 1889, went on to become the first trumpet professor at the National Hungarian Royal Music Academy (currently known as Franz Liszt Music Academy) in 1897, while Oskar left the city in 1896 to enter the Leipzig Conservatory – the same school another famous trumpeter and Böhme’s equal Eduard Seifert graduated in 1894.
Böhme, who by the time had already been an established trumpet player himself, attended the Conservatory for a year from 2 November 1896 to 1 December 1897 to study music theory, composition and piano – he was assessed “absolute beginner” as a pianist by one of his teachers, who nevertheless noted that Oskar shown great progress, developing proper technique and working command of the instrument to complement his overall impressive music skills.
From Böhme’s Leipzig period come a couple of his first original compositions. It is documented that two lieder and a scherzo for two trumpets and piano written by Böhme were performed during student recitals, on 7 May and 26 November 1897, respectively. Another early work, entitled “Prealudium, Fuge und Choral” for two trumpets, horn, and trombone was performed by Leipzig Conservatory students in 1898, after Böhme had already left the school.
Imperial Russia to Soviet Union
At the time of prosperity of German classical music schooling, the level of musical training in Russia was dramatically falling. It was then decided to attract prominent foreign musicians by offering them academic careers and performing opportunities that Western-European countries were becoming short of. Conservatories in Moscow and St. Petersburg were created in the 1860s by the initiative of Anton Rubenstein, founder of the Russian Music Society.
Oskar Böhme was one of the three notable German trumpet players (the other two being Wilhelm Wurm and Willy Brandt) who decided to take their professional career East in exchange for Russian citizenship – which was required in order to legally work there. Böhme moved to St. Petersburg, where he played cornet in the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra from 1897 (although some sources confirm only 1902) until 1921. During that period, he used his statutory 4-month summer breaks to go on concert tours in Germany and other European countries.
Between 1921-1930 Böhme taught at the Leningrad Military College in St. Petersburg, on Vasilyevsky Island where he lived. Subsequently, he returned to playing with the orchestra, joining the Great Drama Theater (officially known as Gorky Bolshoi Drama Theater, currently named Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater) where he stayed until 1934 – the year marking the beginning of the “Great Terror”.
After the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War I, the political climate inside the country thickened under the rule of Joseph Stalin. His decision to clear the land of all people whose loyalty to the Communist Party could be questioned in any way, coupled with strong anti-German sentiments of the government, led to Böhme being arrested by NKVD (Russian abbreviation for People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) somewhere between 1934 and 1936.
One source states that Oskar Böhme was arrested 13 April, 1935, and on 20 June, 1935 he was charged with Article 58-10 of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Penal Code. The article stood for: “propaganda and agitation that called to overturn or undermining of the Soviet regime” and was punishable with at least 6 months of imprisonment, up to and including the death sentence in periods of war or unrest. The same charge – very open to interpretations and thus used at will by Stalinist functionaries – affected thousands of people during that era, many of which were artists and citizens of foreign origin.
As a result of his punitive relegation, in 1936 Böhme was teaching at a music school in the city of Chkalov (currently Orenburg), near the Ural Mountains, where he remained at least until 1938 – the presumable, yet not officially confirmed date of his death. A report of an eye-witness who claimed to have seen Böhme working at the building of the Main Turkmen Canal in Turkmenistan in 1941 leaves Böhme’s story subject to speculation.
During his life, and despite his later exile, Oskar Böhme was an esteemed musician, well known from his performance in numerous orchestras, and an accomplished composer with great contribution to Russian and European classical music, and brass music in particular. He left a total of 46 works, including a book of 24 etudes that has been an invaluable study material for several generations of trumpet players, and still is.
The most famous and most frequently performed pieces by Böhme are the Trompetensextett in E-flat minor, op. 30 (published in 1907 – here arranged by Brian Bindner for Brass Ensemble) and his Trumpet Concerto, op. 18 – first published in 1899 as a score for trumpet and piano, with orchestral version added in the following years. Originally written in the key of E minor with the solo for the A trumpet, it has been since transposed (by Franz Herbst in 1941) to F minor to be played on the B-flat trumpet.
The Trumpet Concerto, being the first composition of such scale for trumpet and orchestra, was considered groundbreaking at the time, exhibiting the capabilities of trumpet and bringing the perception of this instrument to a new height. Today, it remains one of the favorite trumpet pieces to perform both on admission and graduation exams, and a culminating example of Böhme’s masterful take on merging German tradition with Russian soul.
For more information on Oskar Bohme:
Edward H. Tarr, East Meets West: The Russian Trumpet Tradition from the Time of Peter the Great to the October Revolution
Stewart Carter, Brass Scholarship in Review: Proceedings of the Historic Brass Society Conference, Cité de la Musique, Paris, 1999