This month I wax poetic about our debt as trombone players, and all brass players as well, to Richard Wagner for realizing the potential that brass instruments and trombones in particular could carry a major portion of thematic material in orchestral music. Not only could trombones bellow with tremendous power, as previous composers most often featured them, but Wagner was the first major composer who realized that trombones could add beauty to the orchestral palette in pianissimo, and most importantly it’s ability to play softly and legato. Previously composers wrote for the trombone in a mostly declamatory style. Slurred passages were the exception rather than the rule. Of course the famous legato passage in Schumann’s Rhenish symphony looks far into the future as to what the trombone is capable of. Beethoven’s concept of trombone writing is basically as a reinforcer of the orchestral tutti, with little or no confidence in the legato capability of the instrument, or the pianissimo, except for a few brief moments in the Missa Solemnis. Even the Equale for trombone quartet is in a non-legato style. Mozart seems to have had a little more confidence that the trombone could be played in a soft, vocal style. The scene in Don Giovanni when Don Juan is confronted by the Commendatore shows he had a good ear for using the trombone. Why he didn’t write more for us is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the players of that day were technically deficient.
We know that Wagner learned to write music partially by copying out scores of Rossini operas. Looking at Rossini’s trombone writing gives us no clue as to how Wagner came to write so well for the instrument. Rossini always thought of the trombone as a bass clef instrument, and used the trombone in the same way as previous composers had. Incidentally, the William Tell overture seems to have been written with slide trombones in mind, as there were no valve trombones used in the Paris opera at the time of the premiere.
Wagner was interested in the development of brass instruments in the modern orchestra, and supposedly had something to do with the change from trombones with small bells to the large bells and bore sizes we have today. In the overture to Tannhauser he specifies that the trombone section consist of 2 tenors and a bass, other than the standard alto, tenor, bass configuration that even he wrote for in Rienzi, and which was the standard in Germany for generations before. In Tristan and Isolde the 1st part is written in alto clef, but Wagner makes a note in the score that the alto trombone is not to be used. The Tannhauser overture is notable for the fact that the big tune in the first tutti is written for the trombone section alone, something that is rare except for Schubert’s use of the trombones in the Great C Major Symphony.
In the Ring cycle Wagner fully realizes his ambition to liberate the trombones from accompaniment-type instruments to melodic and thematic carrying. The curse motive is almost always entrusted to the trombones, as well as the treaty and fate motives, the most prevalent themes in the operas. His writing for pianissimo trombones accompanying voices is truly inspiring; the Magic Fire music in Die Walkure being the shining example. Even in Tannhauser, the trombones in the Song to the Evening Star provide a gorgeous blanket of sound behind the vocal line.
The legato writing for trombones in the Ring is truly visionary. Wagner’s confidence that the trombone can produce a beautiful vocal-type legato even in pianissimo is at once striking and liberating for an instrument that for too long had been bound by the chains of conformity.
One striking feature of Wagner’s trombone writing and for that matter all of his orchestral writing, is the careful marking of articulation and legato. However there is a world-wide practice of disregarding these carefully marked articulations in favor of a blurry semi-legato style that is neither articulated nor legato, that has the disadvantages of both and advantages of netiher.
Take the 2 bar Valhalla motive in Rheingold and the 1st Act of Walkure; Taah-daaa-da Taaah-da-da-da-taah. It always comes out sounding; Taah-daa-da Faah-da-da-da-faah. To the audience in the hall it comes out sounding like mush, which is what it is. The only clear note was the 1st one, the rest were demoted to second class citizens just because they were in the middle of the phrase. Since we are musical storytellers, that’s like starting a speech by only pronouncing the first word and mumbling the rest. The fatal mistake is thinking evenness in articulation is desirable. The only facet of playing where evenness is desirable is beauty of sound. Everything else should have as wide a spectrum as possible. It is perfectly possible to articulate every non-slurred note in a phrase, without a space, with the same clarity of the 1st note of that phrase. It takes practice and thought, and the realization that clarity is not intrinsically unmusical.