A Short History of the Trombone

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

Flashes in the Pan

From: The Trumpet and Trombone in Graphic Arts, 1500-1800

(8.1) Trombones have occasionally been used in some kinds of music for a sufficiently short time that it can't be called part of a tradition, but certainly ought to be mentioned.

(8.2) A small body of works composed at or within the cultural orbit of the Burgundian court some time before 1450, mostly but not exclusively Mass fragments, contains the word "trumpet" or something similar in a rubric for the contratenor line. Do the rubrics associating the contratenor part with the trumpet mean that these are actual trumpet parts? It almost seems too much to expect, in a time when even text underlay and accidentals were left to the performers' choices, that composers would specify a particular instrument for a specific line, but some scholars have thought so. These parts would be unplayable on a natural trumpet, but lie within the capability of the medieval slide trumpet, which is the earliest form of trombone. It is possible, but less likely, that the modern trombone slide was already available.

(8.3) Other scholars have raised objections, the most serious of which is that Alta bands did not participate in performance of the liturgy before the sixteenth century and did not play with singers. Surely this is too sweeping a generalization. Instruments did not ordinarily participate in the liturgy. Singers did not ordinarily perform with loud instruments. Composers did not ordinarily supply anything beyond notes and rhythms. But if the rubric did not prescribe the manner of performing the line, what did it mean? These are not ordinary pieces; they are exceptional. They are few in number and appeared over a short span of time and limited geographical provenance. If the rubrics do not mean performance on a trumpet, what do they mean? There is as yet no definitive answer to that question.

(8.4) This mere handful of pieces by minor composers has generated a great deal of heat. The Burgundian court was the most innovative cultural center in Europe. Many of its artistic experiments were imitated by every other court of any pretension. It stands to reason, however, that not every Burgundian innovation proved successful. If indeed the rubrics in those few pieces mean that a slide trumpet player played the contratenor while singers performed the other parts, then it was a short-lived innovation that no one wanted to imitate. The Church Music Tradition (2.3) did not begin in earnest until the sixteenth century.

(8.5) As noted in The Alta Band Tradition (1.11), trombonists who became composers usually limited their output to unaccompanied vocal music, while violinists and organists wrote most of the instrumental music. The earliest published music that specified which instruments were supposed to play particular parts was the Sacrae symphoniae (1597) by Giovanni Gabrieli, an organist. Over the next thirty years, Italian publishers issued dozens of collections of canzonas and sonatas. A significant number of individual pieces included trombone parts. But in 1630, the plague devastated northern Italy. It took years for the population and the economy to recover. By that time, the old-fashioned trombone was confined to a few churches and wind bands, where it played older kinds of music. Only a very few sonatas and canzonas with trombone parts appeared after 1630. The number of solo pieces (6.1) is even smaller; two Italian pieces from the early seventeenth century and one Bohemian piece from the last third of the century constitute the entire known repertoire.

(8.6) In England, on the other hand, a divergence developed between bandsmen, who played trombone among a wide variety of wind instruments, and trombonists who may have played violins but no other wind instruments. These more specialized trombonists participated in a peculiarly English type of chamber music, the consort. A few consorts by such composers as John Coprario, Henry Loosemore, and John Hingeston explicitly call for trombone. More often, it is likely that much of the music that appears from printed or manuscript sources to be for an ensemble of viols could have been performed with a trombonist on one of the lines some of the time. In fact, English musicians delighted in experimenting with various combinations, and there are a significant number of references to the trombone in descriptions of performances. The English civil war, which began in 1642, effectively ended this role for the trombone. The viol consort itself did not survive very long into the Restoration.

(8.7) The trombone may have disappeared entirely if the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II had not been so enamored of Italian music. He especially loved the pomp and splendor of Venitian music and began to employ trombonists at the court he established in Vienna. His successors were all music lovers. At least three were very competent composers. They all used trombones in some of their pieces, so at a time when the trombone seemed stodgy and old-fashioned in most of Europe, it was something new and different in Vienna and the surrounding smaller courts and monasteries. By the eighteenth century, Austrian masses made extensive use of solo instruments, and only the violin appeared more frequently than the alto trombone in that role. Every year at Lent, the court mounted a special kind of oratorio (for the private entertainment of the imperial family) called sepolchri. These, too, usually included trombone solos. The first trombone concertos (6.2) likewise appeared within the Viennese orbit (Solo and Chamber Traditions). Before the time of Haydn, however, Viennese music had little influence on developments in the rest of the world. By Haydn's time, the court had had to stop sponsoring sepolchri as an economy measure, and the more innovative composers were turning to newer instruments than the trombone for instrumental solos in masses.

(8.8) One exception to this lack of influence is the appearance of the trombone in a few Roman oratorios, described in The Operatic and Symphonic Tradition (4.3). Scholars have not yet studied this repertoire very extensively, but it does not appear that there was ever any large or influential body of the more innovative kinds of Italian music that included trombones. (Handel, of course, composed one of the oratorios and later reintroduced the trombone to England.)

(8.9) The trombone concertos by Wagenseil and Albrechtsberger (along with a few others that have not been issued in modern editions, if indeed they are still extant) were apparently performed in monasteries and not at the imperial court. And so by the time the trombone was admitted into The Symphonic Tradition (4.6), decades of wonderful soloistic writing for trombone were so far distant in either time or space from contemporary Viennese music that it the practice disappeared without a trace.

(8.10) In the nineteenth century, Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the prestigious Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, composed a concertino for his equally illustrious colleague Carl Traugott Queisser. It remains the most successful nineteenth-century solo in the trombone's repertoire. There were, to be sure, other trombone concertos and similar works for trombone and orchestra written over a fairly brief span of time, but few appear to have been widely performed. For all practical purposes, David's Concertino led nowhere.

(8.11) Closer to our own time, composers began to explore "extended techniques" for the trombone and other instruments, usually with the effect of imitating electronically generated sounds. It appears that Luciano Berio's Sequenza V, and perhaps a few other pieces will endure in the repertoire, but on the whole, this kind of music never achieved wide acceptance either among performers or the general public. It seems to have reached its peak on trombone recitals in about the 1970s; most of the pieces of this kind frequently performed at that time are by now horribly dated and no longer played.

Flashes in the Pan: Reading List

Besseler, Heinrich. "Die Entstehung der Posaune", Acta musicologica 22 (1950): pp. 8-35.

Carter, Stewart. "Trombone Obbligatos in Viennese Oratorios of the Baroque." Historic Brass Society Journal 2 (1990): pp. 52-77.

Guion, David M. "Recital Repertoire of the Trombone as Shown by Programs Published by the International Trombone Association." Online Trombone Journal (1999).

Herbert, Trevor. The Trombone in Britain before 1800. Ph.D. dissertation: Open University, 1984.

Höfler, Janez. "Der 'Trompette de menestrels' und sein Instrument". Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis 29 (1979): 92-132.

MacIntyre, Bruce C. The Viennese Concerted Mass of the Early Classic Period. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1986.

Rasmussen, Mary. "Two Early Nineteenth-Century Trombone Virtuosi: Carl Traugott Queisser and Friedrich Auguste Belcke." Brass Quarterly 5 (Fall 1961): 3-17.

Safowitz, Vivian. "Trumpet Music and Trumpet Style in the Early Renaissance." M.A. thesis: University of Illinois, 1965.