During the course of my life as a professional orchestral musician, I have taken a keen interest in the history and aesthetics of my chosen instrument, the trombone. It was during my student years in the late 1970’s that I was first exposed to the practice of performing early music on historical instruments, when I performed on a reproduction sackbut in performances of Monteverdi’s Maria Vespers at Melbourne University. Although I had very limited knowledge of the instruments and performance style at the time, and the project was very much in the “semi professional” sphere, I felt nevertheless that a certain spark had been lit within me.
After spending the first two years of my professional career performing ballet and opera in the theatre orchestra in Melbourne (now known as Orchestra Victoria), my first appointment as a principal trombonist in a symphony orchestra took me to Hobart in the state of Tasmania and to an orchestra of only 46 permanent members. It was here that I first began to consider the possibility that the modern orchestral trombonist need not limit him or herself to one particular tone colour, (in other words- a single instrument and mouthpiece) to cover the entire orchestral repertoire. A series of performances of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony on a Tasmania wide tour of small towns was for me a watershed. I performed the very high alto trombone part on the only instrument I owned, a standard American tenor trombone of large dimensions with a very large mouthpiece, upon which I produced the very rich and dark sounding timbre that I thought was worthy of aspiring to. Yet the string orchestra for this particular performance consisted of only 26 players. Already at this early stage in my career I began to realise that I would need to purchase an alto trombone (for which the first trombone part of the symphony is clearly scored), not only to help me get through demands of the high tessitura, but also because the tone colour I was producing at that time, was so completely inappropriate not only to the idiom of the work, but also to the size of the orchestra.
It was however to be a considerable time before I was in a position to purchase the aforesaid alto trombone. At this time (1981) this instrument was considered rather unusual and exotic and not readily available in Australia. The fact that the market for alto trombones to this day remains a small, almost entirely professional niche for principal trombonists in orchestras, meant that no alto trombone could be found new or second hand in Australia, and of all the eight principal trombonists in the entire country, only two players actually owned an alto trombone, which they had both imported themselves from Germany. The knowledge that I had gained about the several builders of alto trombones in Germany I had through these two colleagues in Melbourne was palpably insufficient, and I certainly had no playing experience whatsoever of the instrument itself. So I battled on with alto trombone parts played on the large bore tenor instrument as was the custom of the day. One could assert with confidence that the “Historically Informed” performance practice that had begun to make its presence felt in modern orchestras in Europe had yet to make any mark on Australian orchestras in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Nevertheless my experience of playing in the excellent but very modestly sized Tasmanian Symphony had planted a seed of interest in the search for the most appropriate stylistic approach to orchestral trombone playing particularly in respect to the classical and early romantic repertoire.
At the beginning of the 1982 season I won a new position as principal trombonist of the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra in Sydney (now known as Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra), which was the resident orchestra of the Sydney Opera House. Once more it was to be the performances of two iconic works of the classical period in which trombones feature significantly, which was the catalyst to finally take action and order an alto trombone. This was a series of performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Opera House, and a performance of the same composer’s Requiem at Sydney University in which I performed not only the important tenor trombone solo in the Tuba Mirum, but also the entire alto trombone parts of both works on my large American tenor trombone and mouthpiece. Already I was certain that my approach was stylistically on the wrong track, and the sheer physical exertion required to play the high-lying alto trombone parts at a suitably discreet dynamic caused me considerable distress. So I resolved to place an order for an alto trombone with the Cologne firm of Josef Monke. Within a few months the instrument arrived, and my abiding interest in trombones built in the very different German tradition thus began.
Through my contact with the outstanding trombonist Michael Mulcahy, a former principal trombonist of the Melbourne Symphony who had emigrated to Germany in the 1981 and was then playing as principal trombonist in the WDR Sinfonie Orchester in Cologne, it became quickly clear to me that the Monke alto trombone I had purchased was unfortunately not of the highest quality. Michael Mulcahy had been involved with an excellent instrument builder Heribert Glassl in Rüsselsheim Germany, and was testing a newly developed model of alto trombone based upon a particularly fine Franz Kuhn instrument from the 1930’s.. This new alto trombone was first seen and heard in Australia at a national trombone seminar at which Michael Mulcahy was a guest artist in 1985, and after hearing and testing this instrument there, I decided to order a tenor trombone that was being developed at the time by Glassl, also based upon a model by Kühn. Around the same time I was informed of the presence of a fine old German tenor trombone that had been found in a locker room at a local grammar school, which had apparently been donated to the school by a former trombone teacher of German nationality several years before and had remained unplayed for perhaps a decade. Fortuitously, this instrument was actually a superb example buily by one of the finest of all German trombone builders, Herbert Lätzsch, and I was very happy to be able to purchase this instrument for my own collection. So within a short period I had become the owner of a complete set of German trombones. A superb Glassl alto trombone was soon to follow, which was to help me gain a change of position to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1986 as the only candidate at the audition to perform a solo work and the appropriate orchestral excerpts on the alto trombone.
My emigration to the Netherlands in 1988 was also to prove very significant in regard to my exposure to the world of the above mentioned “Historically Informed Performance Practice” (henceforth to be referred to as “HIP” in this paper). I had become a member of the Residentie Orkest which had already during the 1970’s shown a pioneering interest in inviting eminent early music specialists Nicholas Harnoncourt and Ton Koopman as guest conductors. My new colleagues also proved very open to the idea of purchasing a set of German style instruments for appropriate mid 19th century repertoire. At the same time I was able to purchase my first set of reproduction baroque trombones, alto and tenor, and set about trying to learn to play them in a stylistically appropriate manner. Through contact with other interested trombonists in Holland, I formed a small group to come together to read through various pieces of 16th century music and learn to interpret the old notation from facsimile editions, as well as the basic skills of playing in many movable clefs and pitch centres. From this point I have been able to develop a modest parallel career playing upon historical instruments, collecting along the way both original antiques and copies of museum instruments, alongside my “normal” modern orchestral playing and teaching. Lately my special interest has focussed itself once again on historical trombones and other brass from the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with my involvement with the orchestra Anima Eterna Brugge.
It is indeed that very subject which concerns me here in this research paper.. The HIP movement has gradually encroached on the repertoire of the modern symphony orchestra, having proven an extremely strong case for an authentic or historical approach to Baroque and Classical composers which has also gradually filtered through to modern orchestras in most parts of the world. We have a clear trend of the application of HIP practice in modern symphony orchestra, even going as far as using natural horns and trumpets and reproduction trombones (usually the generic baroque models that I will describe in a later chapter) in combination with modern woodwind instruments and string sections using modern bows and steel strings. On the other hand, specialist early music orchestras such as Anima Eterna in Brugge, or Les Siecles in Paris have delved into repertoire that was always considered the exclusive domain of the modern orchestra. Composers such as Rimsky Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, even Carl Orff have all been accorded attention by the specialist early music ensembles. Often with very fascinating and revelatory results. There are many musical (and musicological) issues that arise through this cross-fertilization which I hope to address in this study.
When one considers the history of the trombone, it is generally accepted that the instrument underwent a period of decline in the 18th century particularly in England, Italy, and most of the German speaking world, except in present day Austria. This period of trombone history is of course significant for this present study in the light of its general resurrection at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The fact that the trombone experienced this rehabilitation in Leipzig and that there the first major expansion of its dimensions in over 300 years were to be realised means the seeds of it’s coming of age must have been sown during the dark years of the late 18th century. I will be concerning myself with this subject matter in the first chapter of this study. I will also examine the descriptions of the trombone in the 1811 publication “Vollständig theoretisch-pracktische Musikschule” of Josef Fröhlich. I will also be looking into the tradition of brass playing in town bands (Stadtpfeifer) and professional circumstances of the early trombonists.
In the second chapter I will examine the re-emergence of the trombone in the symphony orchestra at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which began in 1808 with Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, with particular emphasis on instruments that may have been used. There are indeed very few trombones of German make extant from the first three decades of this period, but the few surviving instruments and several images (in particular that of Friedrich Belcke holding his trombone) can give us clues as to the state of trombone development at the time.
The following chapter will concern the person of the instrument builder C.F. Sattler and his most famous client Carl Traugott Queisser, the man Robert Schumann described as the “Der Posaunengott”. It is the set of Sattler trombones in the Grassi Museum which represent the oldest surviving complete set of what we now term the German Concert Trombone (Deutsche Konzertposaune). I will also examine the circumstances of the composition and first performance of Ferdinand David’s Concertino op.4 and document my search for instruments that could have been used for early performances of that work and contemporary orchestral works of the Leipzig school, such as Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.
The fourth chapter will focus on the revival of the music of Schubert led in Leipzig by Mendelssohn and Schumann, and the instruments of Sattler’s son-in-law and successor Johann Christoph Penzel, culminating in the 1851 performance in Leipzig of Schumann’s third symphony in which the trombones perform a pivotal role.
Subsequent chapters will deal with the issues of reproducing historical brass instruments in modern times, a proposal for a set of “Romantic” trombones based on instruments by Sattler and Penzel, for HIP ensembles, and finally a general analysis of the dilemmas facing modern brass instrumentalists in the contextual interpretation of nineteenth and twentieth century repertoire.
The casual reader may well ask... why this particular interest in German-built instruments? Is there a difference? Surely a trombone is simply a trombone. To my mind (and ears) there remains an essential and significant difference in sound between the modern American trombones prevalent worldwide, and the small collection of German instruments that I had by then collected. I hope to show in this research paper exactly what this tradition represents, aesthetically and tonally, and contribute to the understanding and appreciation of the extremely significant role that the German tradition plays in the history of our instrument. I also hope to provide a clear guide for current trombonists (both those engaged in modern orchestras and those players specializing in HIP ensembles) about appropriate instrument and stylistic choices in the mid 19th century Germanic repertoire.
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