How the Trombone Almost Disappeared During the Seventeenth Century

During the Renaissance the trombone participated principally in one kind of ensemble.

During the 1500's, small groups of wind instruments made up of shawms (reed instruments) or cornetts (instruments sort of like a recorder, but with a trumpet-like mouthpiece) and trombones were everywhere. Nearly every city and nearly every town of any size maintained a band. Every king, prince, duke, etc. and many other noble households maintained their own bands, as did all the popes and many music-loving cardinals and bishops. Most of the largest and most important churches had bands, as did many of the confraternities attached to churches. If a town or noble household or church did not have a permanent band on the payroll, chances are it hired freelance musicians for special occasions when they needed a band.

Kings and other rulers who wanted to demonstrate their power (or mask their weakness) mounted expensive shows when they visited cities in their realm, for dynastic marriages, for baptisms of heirs, and other politically important occasions. In Italy, anyway, they began to experiment with new combinations of instruments and new kinds of dramatic structures that eventually grew into opera.

In retrospect, the trombone seems ubiquitous by about 1590, but shortly thereafter, it started to disappear. The few operas that called for trombones were merely leftovers of the older tradition. The first commercial opera theater opened in 1637. With the exception of a few leftover courtly extravaganzas, the first opera that called for trombone (Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice) was first performed in 1762. By the end of the 1600's, trombone was absent from every noble court and household in Europe except, perhaps, that of the Holy Roman Emperor. It was no longer used in England at all, and perhaps not in France either. Some German and Italian cities still maintained bands of cornets and trombones, but in the mid-1700's, several German writers noted that it was rare. What happened?

Simple questions often have complicated answers. In this case, signs that all was not well are apparent early in the 1500's. The nobility of that time, under the influence of Greek writers, were expected to indulge in activities suitable for a man of leisure. Such activities would demonstrate his competence, his taste, his self-sufficiency, and his serenity--not only to others of his class, but to his subjects as well.

The ideal nobleman not only liked music, but performed it at a high level of proficiency. Only some instruments were considered fit for a nobleman, high among them keyboard instruments and the lute. On these instruments, it was possible to play an entire composition without collaborating with other people. If he could sing, he could accompany himself. Wind instruments could play only one line of a polyphonic piece. It required an entire band of wind instruments to play all the parts.

More serious, wind players of the time puffed out their cheeks, thus making their face ugly. Trombonists had to move the slide back and forth, which was even more work. Just as the inability of wind instruments to play more than one note at a time did not allow the player to appear self-sufficient, the laborious appearance of playing them did not allow the player to appear serene. They were therefore doubly unsuitable for noblemen to learn to play.

The noblemen all had their professional bands of cornets and trombones as means of projecting the appearance of splendor, but these were displayed on public occasions, and mostly outdoors. The nobility had nothing but contempt for common people. For their private entertainment, they performed their keyboard instruments and lutes for each other or called for their professional ensembles of soft instruments, such as viols and recorders--and singers, too, performed with soft instruments.

Members of a band of loud wind instruments would learn all the most popular tunes and embellish them profusely. At the time, the nobility and commoners liked the same tunes, but the best music teachers disapproved of the improvised embellishments.The common people loved the sound of a band and the virtuosity it displayed, which was one more reason for the nobility to despise wind instruments.

When composers in Florence and other Italian city-states began to break up the old traditional ensembles and combine loud and soft instruments for the large politically-motivated theatrical productions, it was a bold new step. No one but invited guests ever heard any of the music, but not all of them liked it. One highly influential Italian nobleman wrote an entire treatise on why the new combinations could not play in tune together. The earliest operas depended on a new style of singing, plots and characters that were more natural and emotionally authentic, and an even more radical combination of instruments: an orchestra comprised entirely of members of the violin family, accompanied by a harpsichord or archlute.

The seventeenth-century saw multiple upheavals that disrupted musical life, among other things, all over Europe. The Thirty Years War, fought mostly on German soil between 1618 and 1648, made maintenance of a large musical establishment impossible at German courts. A devastating outbreak of plague killed between 25% and 60% of the population of cities all across northern Italy in the early 1630s. England suffered civil war in the 1640s, culminating in the execution of the king and the abolition of the royal court and all of its musical institutuions.

France and the Holy Roman Empire emerged as dominant powers. In France, where the king's band of loud wind instruments had never been entrusted with artistically important music, the shawm was refined into the oboe, and the bassoon replaced the trombone as the bass instrument in the band by the 1670s. By the end of the century, every court in Europe, except those that were part of the Empire, had abandoned their shawm or cornet and trombone bands in favor of the new French-style oboe and bassoon bands. By the time the other economies recovered from their upheavals, there was no interest in restoring old-fashioned practices. The one ensemble that had consistently included trombone was obsolete.

The trombone almost disappeared, but it continued to be used throughout the 1700s in a few Italian cities (notably Bologna, Naples, and Rome), in several German cities (including Leipzig and Stuttgart), and in many of the major cultural centers of the Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs (especially the imperial court in Vienna, where several of the emperors were gifted composers who used trombones in some of their pieces). Somehow, beneath the attention of most musicologists, a trickle of new uses were found for the trombone as early as the 1680s. By the 1780s it became a flood.

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Posted on Sep 23, 2009