How the Trombone Survived Its Near-death Experience.

In its history, the trombone disappeared from many places, but never became extinct. History of the trombone

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, courts, towns, churches, and individual members of the nobility in most, if not all, countries of Western Europe, sponsored musical organizations that included trombones, and trombones took part in a wide variety of music making, from dance music to public concerts to participation in Christian worship. (For earlier history, see The early history of the trombone and its development from the trumpet and Why the trombone almost disappeared during the seventeenth century.)

By the end of the seventeenth century, it had disappeared from all courts except those in lands ruled by the Hapsburg family, the papal court, and from most churches and towns except for some in Germany, Italy, and Austria. By the middle of the eighteenth century, several German authors noted that it was rare and confined to two or three districts. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was once more found all over Europe, but in entirely new roles.

It is only recently that information on the scope of the trombone's role in seventeenth-century Italy has been published. (For details see my article "The Missing Link: the Trombone in Italy in the 17th and 18th Centuries." Early Music 34 (2006): pp. 225-32.) The popes still maintained musical establishments that included the standard loud band of cornets and trombones until the Napoleonic invasion of Italy destroyed their financial ability to do so.

In 1665, 21-year-old Roman composer Alessandro Stradello introduced a trombone to double the bass line in his Accademia d'Amore , a semi-dramatic secular vocal work for eight voices and instrumental ensemble. He included special performance instructions for the trombone. Whoever played the part probably belonged to the pope's band.

It is so far impossible to say that Stradella's piece was the first use of the trombone in Rome apart from its traditional role in the pope's band or to identify any other comparable pieces from about the same time, but by the 1690's, composers were beginning to use a trombone on the bass line in oratorios and in two brand new types of composition: the sinfonia  and the concerto. George Frideric Handel used a trombone in La Resurrezione, one of the oratorios he wrote while living in Italy. Later, he used trombones to great effect in Israel in Egypt and Saul , two of his great English oratorios. Viennese composer Christoph Willibald Gluck visited England and met Handel during his own student days. He introduced Handel's approach to writing trombone parts into some of his later dramatic works.

The persistence of the papal wind band may be one reason why Bologna, a city in the Papal States, kept its wind band throughout the century. Bologna's principal church, San Petronio, likewise had trombones in its orchestra. San Petronio was a major center for the composition of the concerted mass, that is, a mass for chorus, solo voices, and orchestra. One of the earliest composers of concerted masses, Camillo Cortellini, was a trombonist in both the town band and church orchestra. Later composers continued to use trombones in their concerted masses.

Early in the seventeenth century, the future Emperor Ferdinand II toured northern Italy and became enchanted with the large-scale ceremonial music (with lots of trombones and cornets) that he heard in Bologna and Venice, among other places. He filled his own court with musicians who could play it and compose the same kinds of music for him. He also appreciated the Bolognese concerted mass, but it was Leopold I later in the century who ordered a collection of masses from San Petronio. He received forty-four volumes of them.

The next phase of the revival of the trombone, then, took place in and around Vienna. The imperial court and the courts of Austrian nobles--especially the prince-archbishops--were the only courts in Europe that explored new roles for the trombone. By the eighteenth century, most composers in Vienna routinely used two trombones to double the choruses in their masses and oratorios. Most composers in Salzburg (including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) used three. Composers Johann Joachim Fux and Antonio Caldara began to write florid trombone solos.

The succession war following the death of Emperor Charles VI ended performance of the kinds of pieces that used solo trombone. Mozart had a good solo trombonist in Salzburg, but none in Vienna. Still, the standard of trombone performance remained higher in the Empire than anywhere else in Europe.

In 1762, Gluck introduced a trombone into his ballet Don Juan. Shortly thereafter, he used three in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, modeling the scene where the trombones are most prominent after the funeral scene from Saul, which includes the Dead March, with three trombones in the orchestra. From then on, only Mozart continued to write church music with trombone parts in the traditional Austrian manner. Haydn and many now-unknown composers wrote trombone parts in sacred works that more nearly resemble Handel's.

Gluck spent some time in Paris during the 1770's and used trombones in several of the operas he produced there. Several of his Italian rivals in Paris had come from Naples, another Italian city where the trombone persisted throughout the seventeen and eighteenth centuries. Many of them used trombones in their operas, too. These foreigners inspired French composers to start writing trombone parts in their operas. During the French Revolution, the government invented a new wind band that more nearly resembles our modern military bands than it does any earlier wind ensemble. It included three trombones and was very popular. Some composers active in Paris at this time introduced the trombone into their symphonies and other orchestral music.

And so in 1700, the trombone could be found only in some German cities, the papal court and some Italian cities, and several important centers in the Empire. Italian composers found new uses for the trombone, which had tremendous influence in England and Austria. Austrian and Italian operatic composers excited interest in the trombone among French composers. All of these major centers eventually influenced each other, as well as capitals of less influential countries and non-capital cities all over Europe. The trombone had come back to life and by the end of the eighteenth century had more varied roles than ever before.


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lucia anna
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Chris Aye
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