Nov 8, 2003

The German Trombone

I just returned with the Chicago Symphony from a two-week tour in Japan. A friend of mine there had several nice modern and old style German trombones. Back in the 1940s and 50s, some of the first international teachers to influence Japanese brass players were from the old school in Germany. That association is still in evidence today. Regrettably, the world is getting smaller every day, and that means styles are becoming more indistinguishable from each other. I hope the brass world, and trombones in particular, can keep the best part of their own traditions intact while incorporating the best of the emerging international style.

The German brass sound is one I have been enamored with since I was a student. I used to try to play like I thought the great European brass players did. Of course, I didn't have a clue what they actually sounded like, because in those days (the late 50s) there weren't that many recordings, and few brass or trombone records. I bought my first German-made trombone in 1959. It was a "Schopper." My first alto trombone, which I bought in 1966, was a Latzsch, and I still play it today. In 1967, I bought a Latzsch tenor trombone because I was so satisfied with the alto. For the last thirty some years, I have been looking for a Kruspe, which I consider to epitomize the classic German sound. Recently, I've come into possession of an old one. It has a large bore and takes exactly the size of the modern large shank mouthpiece. It is in extremely delicate shape, and it has been repaired many times. The bell is paper thin and extremely soft. The overtone series is almost perfectly in tune; the sound and response are beautiful. Max and Heinrich Thein are in the process of making a modern copy of this instrument, even down to the type of metal used in the old horn. I have great hope for this experiment.

The German trombone sound is quite different from the American sound. The modern American type trombone has a tremendous ability to focus the sound in louder dynamics. There is a core in the middle of the sound that can become a laser beam if not carefully controlled. At softer dynamics, the sound tends to spread and lose resonance. The bells on these horns are much thicker and harder than the classic German style trombones. The classic German style trombones, on the other hand, seem to have an even sound spectrum across the bell with much less core and more resonance in softer dynamics. It is difficult to produce the kind of fortissimos needed for today's big orchestral sound with these instruments because of the thinness and softness of the metal. However, the soft dynamics produce a dense, saturated sound.

The old style German trombones had no leadpipe in the slide, but had a type of venturi in the neckpipe. They also had no water-key or tuning slide. Pitch adjustment was accomplished by putting springs in first position. In effect, it was just one long tube from beginning to end. No wonder so many of these old horns had such good response and sound. The "Kranz" or metal crown was added in varying degrees to the rim of the bell, apparently to increase playing ease in louder dynamics.

Interestingly, Vincent Bach used a facet of the older style by putting a venturi in the neck-pipe in his trombones. One has to surmise that as the leadpipe gets closer to the embouchure, the sound becomes more focused, and the louder dynamics become easier to play. Of course, conversely, the softer dynamics seem to suffer in sound quality using this formula. I am having Bach make up some trombones with thinner bells to try and recapture some of this resonance. I will report later on the results.

Incidentally, when I came into the orchestra, I was told by the trombone section (Mr. Crisafulli and Mr. Kleinhammer) that they used to play Schmidt trombones. These were large bore horns with ten-inch bells. The tenors and basses all had the large bell. The CSO trombone section had played them for thirty or forty years, and then changed to Conn in the late 1940s. I remember Renold Schilke saying that when they switched to Conn, "all the life went out of the sound." He loved the sound of the German horns, and the American-made instruments did not satisfy him.

I have played on a couple of Schmidt trombones, and they made it very difficult to get the kind of sound we take for granted today. The slides were unplated brass, and they were very inefficient at producing sound in fortissimo. It took a tremendous amount of air to play even a simple forte. The modern German makers have moved away from the old classic style sound and construction because modern European players demand the ease and efficiency of American style instruments. Very few modern players use the old style instruments, which to me is a shame. When I hear a great European orchestra, I prefer to hear a very individual type of sound and style, unique to that tradition. Orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic have kept these traditions alive, and I wish more orchestras would do the same. If someone wants to play classic instruments, he or she usually has to find an antique instrument, and this can be a daunting task.

One of these days, I just might get myself an old German-style horn (or a modern replica) and play it the rest of my life.

P.S.

I just got ahold of a recording of the Horst Rasch trombone quartet from a series of radio broadcasts from a German radio station in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The recording features some of the older German style of playing, and I assume they are performing on German instruments. The music is the old fashioned peasant type, played with great style and very good quality of sound. If anyone has more information about this group, its instruments, or its history, I would be very interested in knowing more.


This article has been translated into Italian by Alberto Tortella.

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