New Roles for an Ancient Instrument: the Trombone Since Mozart

The trombone, which early in its history had a limited if common role, can now be found in symphony orchestras, opera, wind band, brass band, jazz, and more.

To review earlier Factoidz, (The early history of the trombone and its development from the trumpet, Why the trombone almost disappeared during the seventeenth century, and How the trombone survived Its near-death experience), the trombone as we know originated some time in the fifteenth century. It became a part of an ensemble that could be found in courts, towns, and churches all over Europe throughout the sixteenth century. That ensemble (which eventually consisted of cornetts and trombones) lost favor in the seventeenth century. It persisted only in some Italian and German towns.

The trombone had few other roles, and may have disappeared entirely if the Austrian emperors had not embraced it with such enthusiasm. In Italy, those few other roles included the orchestra for a new kind of mass and for oratorios. Italian masses and oratorios found a welcome in Austria, where composers started florid trombone solos. Gluck reintroduced the trombone to opera, first in Vienna and later in Paris. Handel transformed the oratorio in England and used the trombone masterfully.

Early in the nineteenth century, the trombone was not yet a permanent member of the orchestra. If a piece required trombones, they had to be hired as extras. These pieces included such popular favorites as Beethoven's Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies, Haydn's Creation and Seasons, Mozart's Requiem, and his orchestration of Handel's Messiah, among others. When younger composers like Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and others began to use trombones in their music, permanent trombone sections became a necessity every concert orchestra anywhere.

From the end of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth century, trombone parts became more technically difficult, more important thematically, and more prominent. Composers even started writing trombone solos. The one in Mahler's Third Symphony is especially long and dramatic.

In operatic orchestras, Rossini eventually began to use three trombones in all of his operas. Critics were often outraged. One divided all musicians into classicists and Rossinists, but other opera composers soon followed his example. The public loved his orchestration as much as the critics hated it. After than, an operatic orchestra without trombones became unthinkable.

Italian (operatic) music has a lower reputation for musical "seriousness" than German (symphonic) even to this day. Wagner, however, incorporated symphonic rigor and seriousness into the conception of his operas. He demanded a greater discipline and virtuosity from his orchestra than any previous composer in any style. The lighter, more popular side of theatrical music manifested itself in the operettas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and eventually in film music.

The first popular dance orchestras originated in the nineteenth century. In Vienna, Johann Strauss, Sr. and Joseph Lanner started as partners, but eventually became rivals. When they started, local dance orchestras were small and had no trombones, but expanding the orchestra was one easy way for one leader to distinguish himself from others. At first they had one trombone. By the end of the century Johann Strauss, Jr., and probably any rivals he had, routinely used three.

Philippe Musard founded a similar orchestra in Paris. He is reputed to be the first composer to give the melody to the trombones. He also invented a way for dance orchestras to keep working in the off-season when he presented informal concerts called promenade concerts, where the audience could walk around and socialize. Before long, similar orchestras in Vienna, London, New York, and other places presented promenade concerts. Solos by members of the orchestra soon became popular attractions. Although tastes have changed, and large orchestras are no longer features of popular music, promenade concerts (so called in England, called pops concerts in the United States) persist to this day.

The modern military band was born during the French Revolution. Napoleon had no interest in it and allowed it to languish, but found the cavalry bands very important for his purposes. His bandmaster assembled an ensemble of sixteen trumpets, six horns, and three trombones. Napoleon took war all over Europe, and wherever he went, the brassy sound of the cavalry band stayed behind long after he left.

Wilhelm Wieprecht standardized the military bands (infantry, light infantry, and cavalry) in Prussia beginning in the late 1830s. The infantry bands used both woodwind and brass instruments, including four trombones; the other two were all-brass ensembles with three trombones each. The cavalry bands was a little larger than the light infantry bands and included timpani. Just over ten years later, Andreas Leonhardt similarly reorganized Austrian bands. Adolph Sax, after years of legal wrangling, did the same for French bands somewhat later, and Alessandro Vessella for Italy in 1901. Three trombones became standard everywhere, although for a while, they were more likely to be valve trombones than slide trombones in many places.

No one person standardized British military bands, but several publishers issued band journals and used the same instrumentation in each issue. That forced subscribers to adopt the same instrumentation as the journal's. Britain also developed a unique brass band tradition. Where most European bands were military or quasi-military organizations, British brass bands were amateur bands, many of whose members came from the ranks of the laboring class. A tradition of contesting began to develop in the mid-nineteenth century and continues to this day. The best British brass bands play with a precision and polish that rivals many of the world's best orchestras, even though they are nominally amateur ensembles.

In the beginning, the United States did not maintain a strong military, and therefore the military was not the primary influence on the development of bands. Until after the American Civil War, bands were a fairly random assembly of whatever instruments happened to be available locally. Many were all brass, but that did not necessarily mean they all had trombones. Adolph Sax had invented a family of valved brass instruments called saxhorns, and in many American bands, at least, these excluded trumpets, French horns, and trombones from brass bands!

In 1859, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore agreed to become leader of the Boston Brigade Band on condition that it become known as Gilmore's band and that he be given complete control of the finances and bookings. The Civil War interrupted his plans, but after the war, he took the band on nationwide tours. Gilmore's band, which included three slide trombones, became the model for nearly all other large wind bands for almost a century.

Gilmore (and surely his most important European counterparts) gave solo numbers an especially prominent part in his concerts. His trombone soloist, Frederick Neil Innes, became nationally famous. Just as John Philip Sousa eventually eclipsed Gilmore's fame, his trombone soloist, Arthur Pryor, became even more famous than Innes.

A new kind of music, jazz, grew up in the American south. Most of its earliest practitioners were African Americans. The first jazz bands consisted of trumpet or cornet, clarinet, trombone, some kind of bass instrument (often sousaphone), some kind of chordal instrument (such as banjo or piano) and drums. They did not play from written arrangements, but improvised counterpoint around familiar tunes. Kid Ory was among the most influential trombonists of this generation.

Later, larger jazz ensembles began to take over the work of popular orchestras for dance music. These so-called swing bands often had three trombones and played from written arrangements. Tommy Dorsey led one, and revolutionized the solo role of the trombone. Duke Ellington's trombone section of "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Juan Tizol, and Lawrence Brown was the most cohesive and influential complete trombone section in the business. Their solo styles were very different and very influential as well.

In the 1940s, a new style jazz called bebop returned to smaller ensembles and group improvisation, but with much greater technical difficulty. For a while it seemed like the lightning fast tempos of bebop would exclude the slide trombone until J.J. Johnson demonstrated his success at playing it. Many bebop ensembles have no trombone at all. Most consist of a solo instrument and rhythm section, but there are probably more trombonists who have become well known as bebop artists than there were in the earlier styles.

This article has only touched on some of the great number of roles for the trombone over the last two hundred years. As long as it is, there is much more that could be told. My book on the subject will be published some time in Spring 2010 by Scarecrow Press. Follow my blog Musicology for Everyone for the announcement.

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Posted on Sep 8, 2010