A Short History of the Trombone

By David Guion • October 02, 2004 • • 6 min read

The Church Music Traditions

King David in the Temple
Pieter Lastmann (1618)

(2.1) Trombones have been used in worship, both in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, for centuries, although certainly less nowadays than in previous centuries. But for more than half of church history, the thought of trombones and other wind instruments met with great disapproval. For one thing, instrumental musicians were homeless vagrants throughout antiquity and most of the Middle Ages, and generally considered immoral people by everyone else. As mentioned in The Alta Band Tradition (1.4), musicians began to settle into respectability in the late Middle Ages. Among other things, they began to take part in religious dramas and religious processions.

(2.2) There is a part of the mass, the Elevation of the Host, that became especially important in the late Middle Ages, but being of more recent origin than most of the liturgy, there was no text associated with it. Organs became acceptable church instruments in the thirteenth century and played during the Elevation. Perhaps because of their association with mystery plays, trumpets occasionally played during the Elevation at some important churches where royalty worshiped. This practice is attested as early as 1389. Little by little, other instruments found their way into church services, and at other times besides the Elevation, usually for special feasts. There may have even been some instances of slide trumpet solos in the liturgy, although that is controversial. See Flashes in the Pan (8.2).

(2.3) By the beginning of the sixteenth century, churches all over Europe occasionally hired the town band or the local court band for special occasions. In 1526, leaders of the cathedral in Seville were using instruments so often that they decided it would be better for them to hire their own permanent band: three shawms and two trombones. By the middle of the century, church bands were commonplace. Early in the century, the bands alternated with the singers, just as the organ had long done. Eventually the organ and the bands began to accompany (that is, double) the singers.

(2.4) The early Baroque saw the beginning of independent instrumental parts. In other words, instead of playing the same music as the choir either in alternation or doubling them, the band (which by then included violins) had its own separate accompaniment. Two important centers of this new concerted mass were San Marco in Venice and San Petronio in Bologna. The music of Giovanni Gabrieli and other Venitians seems to have made little impact on the rest of Italy, but it made a profound impression on German musicians. Bolognese composers and their music are not well known today, but they include Camillo Cortellini, a trombonist who also served as leader of Bologna's town band. Trombones were a very important part of the music in both churches well into the eighteenth century, but were no longer used at either one after about 1730. San Petronio began to use the trombone again in 1761, and continuously had one trombonist on its payroll from then until 1893.

(2.5) Early in the seventeenth century, a new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, reorganized the imperial chapel. Venice and Bologna were two of his models. Trombones continued to play a conspicuous part in Austrian church music long after they had been abandoned nearly everywhere else. There is an unbroken tradition of trombone playing in the Mass that runs from the early concerted masses of Cortellini through the masses of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and beyond. And throughout much of the eighteenth century, the trombone was frequently used as a solo instrument in sacred music. (See Flashes in the Pan 8.7.)

(2.6) At the time of the Protestant reformation, the acceptance of musical instruments in church services was fairly recent and, in Germany anyway, still somewhat controversial. Most Protestant groups, including those led by Calvin and Zwingli, eliminated instruments entirely. The Lutherans did not, however. As far as musical practice is concerned, there was little difference between Catholic and Lutheran churches during the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, however, German composers working under the influence of Venitian polychoral music, began to develop the first truly great Protestant music. These include Michael Praetorius, Johann Hermann Schein, and Heinrich Schütz, all of whom used trombone extensively.

(2.7) The later stages of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) wrecked the German economy and made it impossible to continue to perform such large-scale works. It did not eliminate the town bands of The Alta Band Tradition (1.16), whose duties included playing in church. Trombones continued to accompany congregational singing until the economy once again permitted more elaborate church music. Except for J.S. Bach, composers of this new church music are not well known today, and by Bach's time, the competence of Leipzig's town band had deteriorated. Bach used trombone in only 15 of his extant cantatas, and usually only to double the choir. Nevertheless, his contemporaries and successors continued to use the trombone in their church music until the towns began to abolish their bands some time in the nineteenth century.

(2.8) Most of the music associated with these church traditions is nowadays heard more often in the concert hall than in church services. Much of the large-scale sacred music composed over the past two hundred years has been intended for the concert hall, and thus for practical purposes can be considered part of "The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions."

(2.9) Today, churches rely mostly on volunteer musicians. Only the musical directors, organists, and maybe a few singers are paid. Usually the more traditional services will have a choir, an organist, and no other instruments. So-called contemporary worship services depend on guitars and electric keyboards; it is not uncommon for one or a few wind instruments to be added to this core group. For special occasions, such as Christmas and Easter, many churches hire instrumentalists, including trombonists, to accompany the choir in some special music. Thus, the practice of modern churches has something in common with those of the early Renaissance. Only the Salvation Army and Moravian churches appear regularly to use any kind of a wind band for ordinary services.

The Church Music Traditions: Reading List

Bonta, Stephen. "The Use of Instruments in Sacred Music in Italy, 1560-1700," Early Music 18 (1990): 519-35.

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

Gambassi, Osvaldo. La cappella musicale di S. Petronio: maestri, organisti, cantori e strumentisti dal 1436 al 1920. Florence: Olschki, 1987.

Guion, David M. The Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697-1811. New York and London: Gordon and Breach, 1988.

Leonard, Charlotte A. "The Role of the Trombone and Its Affekt in the Lutheran Church Music of Saxony and Thuringia. Historic Brass Society Journal 10 (1998): 57-91; 12 (2000): 161-209.

Stevenson, Robert. Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961.