The Hundred Years War

Oh yes, there was a hundred year or so war, but it was a cultural war and this one concerned the trombone in symphonic music. We had on the one hand the Teutonic Knights of Germany/Austria, also sometimes known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who favored the alto, tenor, bass configuration in the orchestra, and the French tradition of the 3 tenors (no, not those 3 tenors!) The real bass was a long drawn out affair in F, with a handle for the outer positions. Across the English Channel (why isn’t it called the French Channel?) we had a slightly different version of the French school, 2 tenors and a bass in G. Somewhere in the mid-19th century a fellow by the name of Richard Wagner got it into his head that the old alto, tenor, bass thing didn’t put out enough sound for the music he wanted to write, and specified 2 tenors and a bass in his opera “Tannhauser.” The new style tenor trombone had been developed by C.F. Sattler, and featured a larger sized bell and bore for a more massive sound. From there on composers and players alike started to write/play for this combination, except for Brahms and company who stubbornly refused to change, out of tradition. We know that Wagner spent some time in Paris, and went to the shop of Adolf Sax to see what newfangled instruments he was coming up with. Wagner was looking for a new breed of brass instruments to bridge the gap between the horn section and the trombones and tuba for the Ring Cycle. There are sketches that exist for Das Rhinegold in which the parts that eventually wound up written for Wagner Tuba, were indicated for the trombones. Actually it was Hans Richter, a horn player, who decided that the newly invented Wagner Tuba’s would be played by horn players. Wagner had seen what we now call the baritone/euphonium in Sax’s shop and envisioned something on that order for the Ring Cycle. Interestingly, there are only 2 examples I know, of Berlioz writing for alto trombone; Symphonie Fantastique, and the overture, “Judges of the Secret Court.” All his later works are obviously written with a tenor trombone in mind. There is some evidence that the French preferred an alto trombone pitched in the key of F rather than the standard central European alto trombone in Eb.

Which brings us to the pertinent question; which combination gives the greater musical satisfaction, 3 identical instruments of the same size and bore, or 3 completely different types, such as alto, tenor and bass, for a larger spectrum of colors? Mozart even writes for a soprano trombone in one of the masses. On the one hand you get a near perfect blend when the 3 instruments are of the same type, however the resulting sound tends to be somewhat bland in character. Today’s modern bass trombone is nothing but an exceptionally large tenor with valves usually in F and D, much larger in bore than any bass in F from the past. The old custom of alto, tenor and bass probably originated from a need to reinforce choral music, since trombones were almost exclusively used in church music up to Beethoven’s time, although there are examples of lesser known composers before that time using trombones in symphonic music. As the different voices of a mixed chorus produced a large spectrum of musical sounds, so the same voicing of the trombone family does the same. The difference in the two schools of thought can be visualized as such; the 3 tenor idea would correspond to the sound of a male choir, as an example, singing Gregorian Chant. The older alto, tenor, bass tradition would correspond to a mixed choir of alto, tenor and bass voices. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Each probably fit a certain type of music. Wouldn’t it be educational to do a comprehensive test of both concepts, with it’s variations to find out which produces the best overall results? How ’bout it ITF?

How about a compromise that takes the advantages of both and combines them into one idea? A slightly smaller sized instrument, and/or mouthpiece on the top voice, and increasingly larger sizes on the second, third and even 4th trombone, when called for. We should remember that the modern trombone concept is based on the tenor trombone, which includes the so-called bass trombone, which as I said before, is a large-bore tenor. I said, a large bore tenor. Therefore as the equipment gets larger, IT DOESN’T GET DULLER. Even the contrabass trombone should relate to the trombone sound rather than the tuba family. When you go from the high register to the low register, do you purposely try to get a duller sound? No, the sound should have the same clarity and focus all over the horn. The same should apply to the timbre of the trombone section. From top to bottom, the sound is alive and energetic, especially at the softer dynamics. When I work with bass trombone players, I try to get them to produce a big version of a tenor trombone sound. No matter how good they get at this, it will always be a bass-type sound because of the size of the equipment.

Which brings me to the subject of the second trombone position. It is the most important chair in the section when it comes to the overall type of sound a trombone section produces, and incidentally, not to toot my own horn, but I feel I am a good second player even though I’ve played 1st for almost all of my career. The trick is; to be able to play with a full sound without calling attention to your line. I even prefer the second part to be a little stronger than the 1st and bass. By this I mean, not louder, but fuller, so the 1st player can “float” the top line on a big, resonant cushion of sound. As I said, it’s a neat trick to be able to fill in the middle with a big, full sound without calling attention specifically to your line. You need a big, full, clear sound that can reach down to the bass sound and at the same time bridge the gap to the top line. I like to think of a sound that has less center, but is even, and clear across the bell. In other words, the core is larger, but is still definitely core, such as the difference between the classic old German-style trombones as opposed to the modern American-style trombone, with it’s compact-type core and center. This can be accomplished mainly with the air stream and embouchure. Of course all those passing notes which seem to occur in the second part would hopefully be as smooth as silk, like a ship passing in the night, so as not to cause undue attention to them. Get my drift?