A Short History of the Trombone

By David Guion • October 02, 2004 • • 9 min read

The Alta Band Tradition

A Renaissance dance band, detail from Feast of Herodias
Isreal van Meckenem (1509)

(1.1)Medieval writers typically divided musical instruments into soft instruments, which usually played indoors in intimate settings, and loud instruments, which usually played outdoors or in large banquet halls. Loud instruments included the trumpet, shawm, and eventually trombone. The musicological literature usually refers to ensembles of these instruments as alta bands.

(1.2) In the early middle ages, the trumpet and the shawm were used as signaling instruments, both in warfare and by night watchmen in the various towns. Trumpets had the additional role of playing fanfares to announce the entrance of the king or other ruler. As long as these instruments had only functional or ceremonial uses, their limitations did not matter, but a new role began to develop in the fourteenth century. Writing in about 1350, Konrad of Megenberg sourly noted that, "in modern times the shawms and loud trumpets generally banish the sober fiddles from the feasts, and the young girls dance eagerly to the loud noise" Now that the trumpet was pressed into service for entertainment and playing in an ensemble with a different kind of instrument, the fact that it could only play a few notes at the bottom end of the overtone series began to matter.

(1.3) Two technological innovations were required in order to render the trumpet fit for this new role. First, craftsmen rediscovered the forgotten Roman art of folding a brass tube, then they discovered how to place one tube inside another so that it could slide back and forth. This technology was applied to what we would now consider a slide trumpet perhaps as early as the 1360 and certainly some time before 1400. The modern U-slide may have possibly existed as early as 1420 and almost certainly by 1450. From then on, the "slide trumpet" and the "trombone" forms coexisted at least into the 1720s, by which time opera (4.2) was more than a century old.

(1.4) Throughout most of the middle ages, instrumental musicians had been homeless itinerants living on the fringes of society. At least as early as the thirteenth century, the best of them began to have the opportunity to settle down, either as part of a noble household or as a town functionary. A hierarchy of sorts developed among them. Players of soft instruments, like flutes and fiddles, performed for the private of their noble patrons in their chambers. They therefore had higher prestige than the players of loud instruments, who played mostly for public occasions and had great appeal to the masses of people (whom the nobility came to despise).

(1.5) During the Renaissance, members of the nobility began to consider it part of their social responsibilities to be proficient on at least one musical instrument. Preferred instruments were the lute, viol, and keyboard instruments. The nobility disdained to learn wind instruments. They though thought that playing one looked like more physical effort than they wanted to be seen doing. They also objected that playing a wind instrument made the player's face ugly!

(1.6) The alta band typically played music for dancing and other entertainment (including sacred and secular street dramas), for entrances of a ruler into one of his cities, and for all manner of civic ceremonies. At first, it consisted of two shawms and a trombone. Eventually, the bands grew in size. By the end of the sixteenth century, five piece bands were fairly common. The town band of Bologna, Italy, had eight members: four cornetts (the cornett having displaced the shawm by that time) and four trombones. The earliest band musicians learned music by rote. Instrumental musicians were not expected to be able to read musical notation until the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.

(1.7) Just as the size of the bands grew, so did their roles. Many of them gave regular daily "concerts," which probably consisted of playing one or two short pieces. Here and there, as early as 1389, there are signs of loud instruments being played from time to time in churches. By the 1560s, many churches in Spain, Italy, and Germany hired their own alta bands. (See The Church Music Tradition, 2.3.)

(1.8) Until fairly late in the sixteenth century, there does not seem to be much if any music that was specifically composed for instrumental ensemble, so the bands played vocal ensemble music. In the heyday of the alta band, its repertoire consisted basically of any kind of music that anyone wanted to listen or dance to: basse danses, chansons, madrigals, motets, and occasionally even sections of the mass.

(1.9) Of all the bands in towns, courts, and churches throughout the Renaissance, the one best known in modern times is that of San Marco in Venice. Although it seems not to have made much of an impression on other Italians, Venetian music was enormously influential in German-speaking countries, both Protestant and Catholic. Venetian composers, most notably Giovanni Gabrieli, began to write idiomatically for wind instruments. Venice was also an early center for two new instrumental forms, the sonata and the canzona.

(1.10) It appears that alta bands were broadly popular for nearly 300 years. With some significant exceptions, however, notably The Tradition of Courtly Extravaganzas (3.2), the nobility preferred the music of the soft instruments for its private entertainment. They maintained bands not for themselves, but to entertain the masses. As people became more prosperous and began to climb the social ladder, they adopted the taste of the upper classes. Inevitably, new trends in music made bands of cornetts and trombones seem old fashioned and increasingly irrelevant.

(1.11) One such trend is the development and rising popularity of the violin. It is an odd fact that when a trombonist or other wind player became a composer, he nearly always confined his output to vocal music. Most canzonas and sonatas were composed by organists and violinists! And after about 1630, they practically ceased to include trombone parts. More is said about the rise of the string orchestra in The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions (4.1).

(1.12) At the French court, which had made less use of the alta band than almost any other in Europe, new kind of wind band developed in the seventeenth century, made of oboes and bassoons. It was well established by no later than 1670. By 1700, the English court and nearly every German-speaking court had replaced its cornett/trombone band with a French-style oboe band. Horns and clarinets, both new instruments, were added to this group by the middle of the eighteenth century.

(1.13) In Venice, a hiring freeze at San Marco from 1690-1714 spelled the end of the trombone there. After the freeze was lifted, only string players were hired; the last trombonist at San Marco, hired in 1685, died in 1732. He had probably played other instruments besides the trombone for most of his career.

(1.14) Cornett and trombone bands survived in a few towns, most notably Bologna and Leipzig. Bologna's band owes its survival in part to politics. The town council served only two-month terms. In October 1671, near the end of a term, the council, which already supported the cornett band and a trumpet ensemble, decided to establish a string ensemble. They could have simply voted to abolish the wind band and that would have been the end of it. But cornetts and trombones were still very important in Bolognese church music and several of the members of the town band were members of the prestigious Accademia Filarmonia. Therefore, the council sought to add a new ensemble rather than replace the wind band. They decided to fund it from the salaries and bread allowances already appropriated for the wind band. Needless to say, the band immediately appealed to the next council. The senate, a more permanent body that reserved for itself the right to appropriate money, was offended that they had not been consulted and refused to fund a new ensemble.

(1.15) As time passed, however, it became more and more difficult to find students willing to learn to play the cornett, so in 1779, the council replaced the cornett band with a French-style oboe band. It seems significant that no document complains of trouble training or finding trombonists. By 1779, a worldwide revival of the trombone was well underway, including The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions (4.5) followed shortly by The Wind Band and Popular Orchestra Traditions (5.2). Those who had played trombone in the town band had to switch to bassoon there, but they probably had other opportunities to continue to play trombone elsewhere.

(1.16) Leipzig, along with all of Saxony, suffered greatly during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), but it continued to maintain a town band: four senior members (the Stadtpfeifer) and three (later four) assistants (the Kunstgeiger). Within the band, the brass instruments had the higher prestige, so the Kunstgeiger had to play stringed instruments until they were promoted. Within society as a whole, however, the band's music had long ceased to be culturally relevant. The string orchestra had the same importance and prestige in Germany as it did everywhere else. Johann Pezel, one of two Leipzig bandsmen well known to modern readers, seems to have spent much of his career trying to advance himself out of the ranks of wind players. Somehow, though, the band, and others like it in other German cities, managed to last into the nineteenth century. For generations, the Stadtpfeifer attempted to maintain a legal monopoly on instrumental music. It also appears, that by the late eighteenth century, most of the public found the traditional wind-band music boring and badly played.

(1.17) As the number of musicians who were not members of the ancient guild began to overwhelm its ability to maintain a monopoly, the bandsmen were forced to change with the times. They began to specialize in those instruments, such as the trombone that no one else played. They also began to practice diligently. In the 1820s, one writer in a music magazine wrote of how surprised he was to hear the wind instrument played with such precision, fire, and correctness. Thus when the Stadtpfeifer guilds were finally abolished later in the nineteenth century, their members included numerous skilled trombonists who had no trouble finding work in orchestras. Thus in Germany, and perhaps in Italy, The Alta Band Tradition merged seamlessly into The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions (4.7).

The Alta Band Tradition: Reading List

Bowles, Edmund A. "Were Musical Instruments Used in the Liturgical Service during the Middle Ages?" Galpin Society Journal 10 (1957): 40-56.

Brown, Howard Mayer. Music in the French Secular Theater (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963).

Gambassi, Osvaldo. Il Concertino Palatino della signoria di Bologna: cinque secoli di vita musicale a corte (1250-1797). Florence: Olschki, 1989.

Guion, David M. "On the Trail of the Medieval Slide Trumpet," Brass Bulletin 109 (2000): pp. 90-97; 110 (2000): pp. 46-54.

Hempel, Gunter. "Das Ende der Leipziger Ratsmusik im 19. Jahrhundert," Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 15 (19580; PP. 187-97.

Page, Christopher. "German Musicians and Their Instruments: A 14th-Century Account by Konrad of Megenberg," Early Music 10 (1982): p. 93.

Polk, Keith. German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Age: Players, Patrons, and Performance Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Salmen, Walter. "The Social Status of Professional Musicians in the Middle Ages", in The Social Status of Professional Musicians from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century, ed. Walter Salmen, pp. 3-29 (New York: Pendragon, 1983).

Selfridge-Field, Eleanor. Venetian Instrumental Music from Gabrieli to Vivaldi, 3rd, rev. ed. (New York: Dover, 1994).