A Short History of the Trombone

By David Guion • October 02, 2004 • • 7 min read

Operatic and Symphonic Traditions

Chicago Symphony Low Brass Section

(4.1) Where in the sixteenth century, The Tradition of Courtly Extravaganzas (3.4) saw the birth of the large mixed instrumental ensemble, the seventeenth century saw the birth of the orchestra. What's the difference? The older ensembles were a miscellaneous assemblage of mostly wind instruments with some added strings. The music was conceived polyphonically. An orchestra, on the other hand, is made up mostly of members of the violin family, with or, in the beginning, usually without wind instruments. There is a fairly standard instrumentation (with the standard changing slowly over time) and usually more than one player per at least some of the parts, neither of which was the case with the miscellaneous ensembles. Its earliest music was conceived as melody with chordal accompaniment, so an orchestra requires an unequal doubling of parts. There need to be more top violins, a strong bass, and less in the middle. Wind instruments, if any, are usually not doubled. Along with fairly standardized instrumentation, an orchestra has more or less fixed membership and requires strong leadership to provide discipline, which eventually led to unison bowing.

(4.2) The orchestra's history began in Italy, especially in the opera houses, and spread from there throughout Europe. It is important to remember that the beginning of the operatic tradition overlapped with the end of The Alta Band Tradition (1.3). Even the old medieval slide trumpet could still be found in Italian villages as late as 1722! In the late 1680s, when the band at San Marco was still at full strength, the pope still had his own personal wind band in Rome, and The Church Music Tradition (2.5) was making significant use of trombones as well.

(4.3) Between 1687 and 1708, Arcangelo Corelli, one of the foremost orchestra leaders in the world, conducted at least five oratorios that added a trombone to the orchestra. The last of these, La Resurrezione, was composed by a young music student from Germany, George Friederic Handel.

(4.4) Significantly, these are oratorios, not operas, and the appearance of trombones in Italian oratorio orchestras does not seem to have made a strong impact on Italian music in general. It is probably no coincidence that trombones had been introduced into a few oratorios at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor not long before, and the Austrian repertoire of oratorios with trombone parts is significant both for the number of pieces and the prominence of the trombone as a solo instrument. But perhaps in the long run, they just amount to a Flash in the Pan (8.7).

(4.5) The most obvious significance of the Italian oratorios for the introduction of the trombone into the orchestra is that Handel eventually used trombones in two of his English oratorios: Israel in Egypt and Saul. Perhaps it was these oratorios that inspired Christoph Willibald Gluck to introduce the trombone into his ballet Don Juan and, beginning with Orfeo ed Euridice, into several operas. Gluck's example, in turn, encouraged Mozart to use trombones in some of his operas. After initial success in Vienna, Gluck produced his best and most characteristic operas in Paris. The trombone parts in these operas opened the floodgates. French composers, and Italians writing for the Parisian stage, began using trombones with some regularity. Before the end of the eighteenth century, Italian composers were beginning to use trombones even for operas not written for performance in Paris. Since then, the trombone has occupied a permanent place in the operatic orchestra.

(4.6) The symphonic tradition grew out of the operatic tradition. After all, besides the traditional concertos in the manner or Corelli or Vivaldi, much of the earliest concert music was operatic overtures without the opera, which eventually became symphonies. The earliest symphony with trombones in the orchestra was apparently one by Joseph Krottendorfer in 1768. There were a very few other eighteenth-century symphonies with trombone parts, notably three symphonies in the French style that Ignaz Pleyel composed for his visit to London as Haydn's rival in 1792. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (1809) is the earliest use of the trombone in any symphonic work that is ever performed anymore, although the Third Symphony of the little-known Swedish composer Joachim Eggert (1807) appears to be worth reviving. Just as trombones have been permanent members of the operatic orchestra since Gluck, they have fixtures in the symphonic orchestra since Beethoven.

(4.7) German orchestras benefited from the fact that The Alta Band Tradition (1.17), while on its last legs, had not yet collapsed. The Stadtpfeifer benefited, too; they could find work playing trombone (and other instruments that no one else knew how to play) in local orchestras. Although much less research has been conducted on Italian town bands, it appears that there too, whatever trombonists were in the last of the town bands found work in the theater orchestras without much difficulty. The earliest trombonists in French and English orchestras were nearly all either German or Italian.

(4.8) National distinctions came with the expansion of the number of orchestras that included trombones. The nominal trio of alto, tenor, and bass trombone was in fact usually played on what we would call straight tenor trombones in Bb. The three differed only in the size of the mouthpiece. The French avoided the bass trombone entirely and made the others with a narrower bore than was usual elsewhere. But then the Germans began to build bass trombones with a larger bore than the tenor and alto. When the valve was invented, the Germans added one valve to the largest of the Bb trombones, a trigger that lowered the pitch a fourth and thus duplicated the old-fashioned bass trombone in F. This trombone was known as the tenor-bass trombone. Wagner, wanting something even bigger larger, had a contrabass trombone designed for his operas. The English, on the other hand, used French style instruments, except that they began to use a long bass trombone in G. The Italians and eastern Europeans abandoned the slide trombone entirely for most of the nineteenth century in favor of the valve trombone.

(4.9) The late twentieth century saw a new homogenization of the trombone. Even the French abandoned their narrow-bore trombones and accepted the de facto international standard of tenor trombones with a trigger and .547 bore, and bass trombones with one or two triggers and .562 bores. The alto trombone in Eb has made a remarkable comeback, but with a .500 bore, it is a larger instrument than most American tenor trombones of even 60 years ago. Some players and conductors have begun to conclude that such large trombones are not suitable for everything in the repertoire. Smaller bore trombones are beginning to find favor again for some literature.

(4.10) Whether in the opera house or the concert hall, the music of this tradition requires highly trained musicians. Beginning with the Paris Conservatory (founded in 1795 to train musicians for the new Wind Band Tradition 5.3), this training has largely taken place in schools. European conservatories have often required some kind of contest to mark the end of various phases of a student's education. American colleges and universities require juries and recitals. The bulk of trombone music The Solo and Chamber Traditions (6.7) has been written to provide suitable repertoire for these purposes. Perhaps the utilitarian nature of this repertoire explains why the same composers who write the masterpieces played in our opera houses and concert halls have rarely written trombone solos or brass ensembles. Trombonists and trombone music still have the same low-to-middle-brow reputation they have had since the heyday of The Alta Band Tradition (1.4).

Operatic and Symphonic Traditions: Reading List

Baines, Anthony. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Scribner, 1976. Reprinted New York: Dover, 1993.

Brown, Clive, "The Orchestra in Beethoven's Vienna," Early Music 16 (1988): pp. 4-20.

Buonanni, Filippo. Gabinetto armonico (Rome: Giorgio Placho, 1722), p. 50.

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

Marx, Hans Joachim. Introduction to Arcangelo Corelli: Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe der musikalischen Werke. vol. 5: Werke ohne Opuszahl, ed. Hans Joachim Marx (Cologne: Arno Volk, 1976).

Schreiber, Ottmar. Orchester und Orchesterpraxis in Deutschland. Berlin: Junker & DŸnnhaupt, 1938.

Weiner, Howard. "André Braun's Gamme et méthode pour les trombonnes: The Earliest Modern Trombone Method Rediscovered," Historic Brass Society Journal 5 (1993): 12-35.

Weiner, Howard. "Andreas Nemetz's Neust Posaun-Schule: An Early Viennese Trombone Method," Historic Brass Society Journal 7 (1995): 63-101.

Zaslaw, Neal. "When Is an Orchestra Not an Orchestra?" Early Music 16 (1988): pp 483-95.