Although the trombone was the first of all modern wind instruments to come into existence, it was the last to join the ranks of the concert orchestra. It seems curious that while throughout history the trombone could be so favoured in tower music, in the church and for royalty, it did not become an established fixture in most orchestras until the 1820s.2 it was not until the sixteenth century that the concept of a trombone 'section' began to develop, with the alto trombone as the uppermost voice followed by the gemeine rechte (tenor) trombone, the quart or quint (bass) trombone and the octav (contrabass) trombone, as described by Praetorius.4 of the trombone group, rather than as the soloist of the section. Therefore much of the alto's history is inseparable from that of the section as a whole, and I will review it in this context. According to Kunitz, during the sixteenth century the trombone section was consistently employed by Palestrina, Lasso, Giovanni Gabrieli and Monteverdi 'als selbständiger, homogener Klangfaktor'.5 Being fully chromatic, trombones were able to participate in many forms of music of the time, but their soft, sombre sounds were considered to be particularly suited to the accompaniment of voices. Perhaps most important was their use in liturgical music, stemming from Biblical associations as well as the playing of Abblasen by members of the German Stadtpfeiffer as part of their civic duties. In Monteverdi's Orfeo, which employs a section of five trombones (two altos, two tenors and a bass), another significant function of the trombones can be observed: that is, their usefulness to composers of dramatic music in depicting infernal and supernatural elements.
The first half of the seventeenth century witnessed a growing popularity of the alto-tenor-bass trombone trio with composers, and curiously the only exception to the instrument's otherwise widespread use appears to be its almost total absence from the opera orchestra. A high point in trombone writing was reached in the works of Heinrich Schütz: he exploited the trombone's tone colour to bring out the emotions behind the texts of his religious compositions, such as Fili mi Absalom and Meine Seele erhebt, through techniques learned from Giovanni Gabrieli and Monteverdi. But around the middle of the century a drastic change in the trombone's fortunes was brought about by a shift in musical taste throughout Europe, which now preferred the Italian violin ensemble and the tremendously popular French bassoon-oboe consort: this soon made the shawm obsolete and the Zink passé, and left the trombone bereft of its traditional music partners. Most likely the trombone survived this period of musical upheaval because of its proven usefulness as a support for voices, and its ongoing association with sacred music. Apparently only the Stadtpfeiffer played the instrument by now; they became the sole source of trombonists, albeit often of lacklustre ability. While Bach used trombones sparingly and unimaginatively, in part due to the dearth of skilled players,6 Fux and others in Vienna, influenced by immigrant Italian composers who favoured the instrument, and encouraged by a succession of musical monarchs, used the trombones not only colla voce7 with the voices but featured the alto trombone as a solo obbligato instrument in a new, creative and exciting manner. Ironically, a century that began full of promise for the trombone ended with its use dramatically reduced to the area known today as Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and Southern Germany.
The near-obsolescence of its traditional partner, the Zink, was just one contributing factor to the trombone's continuing decline. Its image as a symbol of Christian divinity that should not be profaned by use in secular music – an opinion held at the time by a number of influential music critics and composers – probably helped keep it out of the concert orchestra. Some viewed the trombone as an instrument of limited technical capability, suitable solely for the doubling of voices; the bassoon and horn, both capable of playing in the tenor-alto register, were seen as preferable in the orchestra. The decline of the German Stadtpfeiffer paralleled the decline of the trombone in that country. In the Austrian Empire, however, the standard of trombone playing continued to rise and leading composers such as Leopold Mozart, Michael Haydn, Georg Christoph Wagenseil and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger8 had a choice of virtuoso alto trombonists for whom they wrote concertos and serenades, as well as solo obbligato parts in liturgical works.
That composers of the stature of Handel and Gluck scored for the ATB trombone section in a number of important dramatic works, while significant, did not in itself bring about the revival of the trombone. Very likely it was military band music, the popularity of which soared during the French Revolution and spread throughout Europe in the wake of Napoleon's conquering armies, that paved the way for the 'resurrection' of the trombone section. Bandmasters, searching for more colour and carrying-power for outdoor performances 'discovered' the trombone just as they had previously unearthed the serpent. The key to this revivification was the construction by trombone makers of flared bells and wider bores in response to the insistence of bandmasters for yet louder and more robust sound. Thanks to military music the trombone developed a new, second personality – although the diminutive alto struggled to keep pace with the tenor and bass – that soon had repercussions in civic music. Opera composers, with the French in the vanguard, sought instruments of varied colour to underscore action on stage, and latched onto the trombone as a dramatic resource. In French opera9 the trombone section was no longer restricted to scenes of death and the supernatural, although in Vienna Mozart still employed the ATB trio in the tradition of Monteverdi, Cesti and Gluck with great success. By the end of the eighteenth century the trombone section had become established in military and civic music in France, Italy, Germany and England. The demand from composers for the instrument grew, and the stage was set for the introduction of the alto-tenor-bass trombone trio into the concert orchestra.
Although Beethoven is generally credited with the introduction of the ATB trombone trio to the concert orchestra in 1808 in his Fifth Symphony, he was not the first orchestral composer to score for it, nor even the first to include the section in a symphony. According to Robin Gregory, Franz Beck (1723-1809), born and trained in Mannheim, was the first composer to include the trio of alto, tenor and bass trombone in a symphony:
Trombones had been used earlier [than Beethoven] in some of the 'battle' symphonies popular at the time; their earliest symphonic appearance was in Franz Beck's Symphony in E flat, circa 1760.10
In 1990 Sarah Gordon, writing in The Trombonist, described a Beck symphony 'in the key of E flat, written in 1760, for two oboes, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and a full string section'.11 The Sinfonie in Es Dur, composed between the years 1760 and 1762, consists of three relatively short movements: Allegro con brio/Andante/ Funèbre - Menuett 1 and 2 - Funèbre. Beck does not use the trumpets until the beginning of the final Funèbre section, and the trombones do not appear until the ninth bar from the end (see Ex. I.1). It seems more than likely that these players would have doubled on other instruments until the last movement.
Another composer who appears to have used trombones in a symphony prior to Beethoven was the Salzburger Joseph Krottendorfer. According to T. Donley Thomas, a 1768 work scored for two oboes, eight trumpets, two trombones and strings is 'akin... to Beethoven's Finale [of the Fifth Symphony]'.12 Neither the Beck nor the Krottendorfer symphonies is part of today's standard repertoire and, according to Guion, it is doubtful whether either was 'ever widely performed even during the lifetime of the composers'.13
According to Carse and Schreiber, a few concert orchestras engaged a trombone section prior to 1800: the Kaiserliche Hofmusik Kapelle, Wien in 1782,18 In orchestras that employed a section of trombones either permanently or from time to time, much music with trombone parts must have consisted either of overtures and extracts from operas and oratorios, as these were popular concert items at this time,20 Thus the importance of theatre music to the development of the orchestral trombone section can be seen as a crucial link in the chain which led to its eventual inclusion in symphonies and other types of purely orchestral music.
Thought to have been written in 1791, three symphonies with trombone parts were composed by Ignace Pleyel for London's Professional Concerts.21 However, these works were all scored for a single trombone. This raises the question of what was considered the optimum number of players of which a trombone section should consist.
Whereas the French composer and music critic François Henri Joseph Blaze (1784-1857) felt that one (the bass trombone) was sufficient, and that three (alto, tenor, bass) were needed only when the string section was unusually large,22 Berlioz contended that:
... un seul trombone dans un orchestre semble toujours plus ou moins déplacé. Cet instrument a besoin de l'harmonie, ou tout au moins, de l'unison des autres membres de la famille, pour que ses aptitudes diverses puissent se manifester complètement. Beethoven l'a employé quelque fois par paires, comme les Trompettes; mais l'usage consacré de les écrire à trois parties me pârait préférable.23
Hermann Zopff (1826-83), a German music critic, teacher and composer, agreed that a trombone section ideally consisted of three players; as far as a fourth trombone was concerned, more was definitely not better:
Die Gewalt des Posaunensatzes liegt zum Theil gerade in seiner Dreistimmigkeit, in der Macht des einfachen Drei-Klanges. Eine vierte Posaune bedeckt das ehrern Durchbringende des Tons schon durch überfüllung.24
According to Adolph Marx:
Gewöhnlich werden zu vierstimmigem Posaunensatze zwei Bassposaunen genommen, das scheint uns der überwältigenden Macht und Schwere diesen Instruments nicht angemessen. Gegen zwei Bassposaunen sind eine Tenor – und eine Altposaune zu schwach, wohl aber ist eine Bassposaune gegen zwei Tenorposaunen und eine Altposaune stark genug. Auch ist eine Bassposaune als Mittelstimme zu schwer und ausser Verhältniss mit der vom Tenor besetzten andern Mittelstimme.25
Although somewhat difficult to read, the autograph score of the 1807 Symphony in E flat Major (Ex. I.2) by the Swedish composer Joachim Eggert (1779-1813) reveals a section of alto, tenor and bass trombones that pre-dates Beethoven's use of the section in the Fifth Symphony. While for much of the time Eggert's trombones functioned as harmonic filler, he did employ the section in ways that were quite novel for the time. For example, in the 'Fugue' (Ex. I.3), the alto, tenor and bass have been given separate entries and the parts are rhythmically independent of each other. Additionally, at times the individual members of the section are assigned different articulations.
While there is much doubling of the trombones by the woodwinds, Eggert does give the section independent, thematic material, albeit of no great length. The alto's range is a comfortable f to c''.
The 1800s may have ushered in an age of trombones,26 but not without a chorus of critics who decried the craze. 'Posaunen, Posaunen – diese sind für unsere neusten Komponisten das Herrlichste, gerade wie Trommeln für die Kinder',27 lamented a Paris correspondent in 1802. These critics, performers and composers among them, found the new, boisterous sound of the trombone objectionable. Joseph Fröhlich, who felt the trombone's most important role to be vocal accompaniment,28 argued, like Mersenne nearly two centuries earlier, that:
Der Charakter des Instrumentes, besonders geeignet zum Ausdruck des Erhabnen, Feyerlichen, welchem auf der andern Seite das Sanfte Ruhige entspricht, so wie die gewöhnliche Bestimung desselben, jene der Begleitung von Singstimmen erfordert es, dass der Vortrag auf demselben gehalten, gesangvoll, und ja nicht zu grell seyn dörfe, um so die möglichste Annäherung an diejenige Stimme zu bewirken, welche jede dieser Posaunen im Satze begleitet, oder vorstellt, der Alt-Posaune an die Alt, der Tenor an die Tenor, und der Bass-Posaune an die Bass-Stimme. Soviele Wirkung eine schöne Harmonien folge auf diesen Instrumenten mit Seele und einem verhältnissmässig modificirten Ansatze vorgetragen immer hat, und haben muss, so wiederlich, und allen guten Eindruck verderbend ist es, wenn Posaunen mit einem wilden schmetterden Tone geblasen werden.29
Fröhlich, who as a respected trombonist and educator had intended his remarks for students and performers, might have been influential in putting the brakes on the development of the powerful new trombone sound; or perhaps he was influential in curbing its excesses. Echoing the words of Schubart in the previous century, the correspondent of the Morgenblatt lamented the sorry state of the trombone in 1819:
'Der Berichterstatter aus Paris im Morgenblatte Nr. 150, v.J. führt bey der Beschreibung der ländlichen Vergnügungen der Pariser an, dass dort bey den meisten Tanz-Orchestern die Posaune gebraucht werde, deren ernsthafter Basston, wie sehr treffend bemerkt wird, das übrige Geräusch durchdringe, und damit sonderbar contrastire.' Alle in dieser Gebrauch, oder richtiger Missbrauch eines ernsten, feyerlichen Instruments, das nach der biblischen Sage die letzten Dinge zu verkündigen bestimmt ist, und dazu unter allen Instrumenten am besten gewählt zu seyn scheint, ist nicht bloss in der Nähe der Glanz- und Prachtstadt des französischen Königreiches Sitte, sondern durch die französische Kriegsmusik, und die nach ihr gemodelte kriegerische Musik der heutigen deutschen, seit den Jahren der französischen Herrschaft, durch ganz Deutschland verbreitet worden, so dass z.B. in der Nähe von Leipzig fast überall kein Tanz ohne Posaunen-Bass gespielt und gehüpft werden kann.30
John Marsh, a violinist, organist, composer and conductor, cautioned composers to follow Handel's example and use the trombones 'sparingly'.31 According to Marsh, trombones and percussion 'degenerate into continued noise and clatter, with which the audience frequently becomes fatigued before the performance is over'.32 Especially offensive to some critics was the seemingly ubiquitous presence of the trombones. Around 1805 Burney complained that:
Tromboni and double-drums are now so frequently used at the opera, oratorios and in symphonies that they are become a nuisance to lovers of pure harmony and refined tones; for, in fact, the vibrations of these instruments produce noise, not musical sounds.33
Albrechtsberger, who would live to hear the momentous entrance of the trombone section in the Fifth Symphony (as well as the Sixth) of his former pupil, Beethoven, lamented the abuse of the trombones at the hands of most composers at the turn of the century:
Gluck und Mozart haben sie auch mit wunderbar herrlichem Erfolge in das musicalische Drama verpflanzt; die Nachkommen haben ihrer Nature sie entwürdigt; sie müssen gegenwärtig zu Allem herhalten, und fortwährend verstärken, gleich den übrigen Blechmassen, in ernsten und Komischen Opern, bey Regiments-Banden und Tanzmusiken, woselbst ein obligates Posaunen-Solo in einem Walzer oder Galopp so recht wie sarcastische Ironie sich ausnimmt.34
The sight of a trombonist experiencing 'the horrors of apoplexy [with] swollen veins and starting eyes',36 – something comically novel about the instrument thoroughly captured the public's imagination.
Indeed, 'the demand for trombones had reached such a degree in some places that no work could be performed without them, even if it did not provide for them in the original instrumentation'.37 Protesting the addition of the trombones to a performance of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony at Halle, the correspondent of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote:
Doch gar manche schöne Stellen durch den gewaltigen Posaunenton fast erdrückt... Wir leben freylich im Posaunenzeitalten. Aber, fragen muss doch: kann denn gar kein Tonwerk mehr ohne Posaunen Wirkung haben?38