Chapter 4: Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann and the trombone. 1839-1851

Schubert’s Symphony of “Heavenly Length”

The casual reader may well ask... “And what of Schubert?” when we consider the assimilation of the trombone into the symphonic repertoire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After all, his two later symphonies containing trombone parts, namely the so-called “Unfinished” of 1822, and the “Great[1]” C major symphony of 1825 logically should been have mentioned in an earlier chapter of this study, not least because Franz Schubert had a particular fondness for the instrument, and the quality of his writing for it, in my opinion, far exceeds that of almost all other composers before Wagner, with the obvious exception of Mozart (who of course never included trombones within any symphonic context). Yet during Schubert’s lifetime his music had almost no impact outside of his native Vienna, and even within that local context he struggled tremendously to have his music performed outside of his inner circle.

It is a generally well known that Robert Schumann was responsible for the recovery of the manuscript of the C major symphony from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in 1838 and the work's subsequent first performance in March 1839 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. After its debut the symphony was to receive no less than fifteen further performances there before 1851 (the year of the first Leipzig performance of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony). The now very famous “Unfinished” symphony had to wait even longer for its Leipzig premiere, which took place as late as 1866. A quick glance at the register (compiled by Alfred Dörffel[2]) of works performed at the Gewandhaus between 1781 and 1881 reveals that the 1839 performance of the “Great” C major symphony as we now call it, was the first appearance there of any work by Schubert in any genre, and that at a time when almost every concert featured a vocal soloist accompanied by the orchestra or pianoforte performing the popular arias and lieder of the repertoire known at the time. Nowadays we think of Schubert as arguably the greatest song composer of all time, yet at the time of the symphony’s rediscovery (eleven years after his death) his songs were practically unknown to the audiences in Leipzig. In the light of this neglect it is not surprising that Schubert’s influence on later composers was to be felt most strongly in composers such as Brahms, Dvorak and Bruckner and others who were active in the latter half of the century. It was not until 1880 that the firm of Breitkopf and Härtel was to publish the first complete edition of Schuberts oeuvre.

For orchestral trombonists Schubert remains one of the most satisfying of all composers to perform. His treatment of the trombone as a melodic instrument is quite unique amongst composers of the first half of the nineteenth century. This is particularly true of the C major symphony in which the trombones often carry important melodic lines and contribute a textural element to the orchestration throughout the work. Schubert’s early experiences as a chorister in Vienna’s Royal Chapel, where he had been tutored by the eminent Salieri, meant that he had become familiar with much of the music of the Viennese liturgical tradition with its key role for the trombones.[3] It would appears from research undertaken by trombonist and musicologist Richard Raum (writing in Brass Bulletin in 1997), that composers such as Reutter, Caldara, Fux, Wagenseil et al (often with obbligato solo passages for the trombone) were performed well into the second decade of the nineteenth century[4], and the young Schubert must have been impressed with the trombonists’ skills that he experienced there, since he was to include trombones in some of his earliest orchestral and theatrical works. As early as 1812 at the age of 15 he produced an Overture in D which included three trombones, and shortly afterward another Overture in the same key also featuring trombones. A little over a year later he composed a “Magic-Opera” entitled “Des Teufels Lustschloss” D.84 with extensive and exposed trombone parts throughout. In particular the Overture to this work contains a significant melodic passage for three trombones alone, a most original idea for the period. None of Schubert’s dramatic music has taken hold in the repertoire and it seems actually unlikely that much of it was performed at all during his lifetime, or even subsequently. His use of trombones is however consistent throughout all the works in which he includes  them. He uses the alto trombone conservatively (except in the two great Masses in Aflat and E flat), and it is conceivable that he may have experienced all alto parts played on tenor trombones in his Viennese musical upbringing[5]. The use of the bass trombone is particularly noteworthy. He often uses the bass trombone alone to support the woodwinds even in very soft melodic passages. Both the C major and Unfinished symphonies are notable for this particularly unique use of the bass trombone. Indeed controlling the long held pianissimo A flat at the end of the Unfinished’s second movement is considered one of the greatest challenges a modern day bass trombonist can face. It is also worth noting that the tessitura of Schubert’s bass trombone parts rarely descends  below the register of a tenor trombone (in fact the appearance of a low D in the overture to Der Teufels Lustschloss is the only instance of notes below the E2 of  which I am aware) which suggests that he may not have heard or been aware of the low F bass trombone. Beethoven too eschews this lower bass trombone register in his trombone writing, and even Mozart uses this register rarely. Both Schumann and Mendelssohn however were more inclined to use the lower bass trombone register below E1, and we shall come to their use of trombones (in connection with the instruments available at the time) in due course.

We do not know exactly who performed the trombone parts of Schubert’s C major symphony in 1839 but the Gewandhaus orchestra did have several members at the time who were skilled on several instruments and some must have occasionally performed trombone parts as needed. Rolf Handrow[6] lists a certain Friedrich Grenser who played cello, violin timpani and trombone in the orchestra between 1821 and 1861 and Johann Jacob Friedrich Peglow (1790-1868), who performed as double bassist, second bassoonist and (bass) trombonist, and is recorded as performing as a casual trombonist as early as 1808, as well as Queisser, who as we know was the principal violist. Both Peglow and Queisser officially joined the orchestra in 1822. In 1842 three specialist trombonists were finally added to the orchestra’s ranks; Carl Gottlieb Burck, alto trombonist, Friedrich August Mai, tenor trombonist and Gottlob Friedrich Kogel, bass trombonist. According to another source[7] Kogel appears to have been playing in the orchestra since 1833, although his official position as bass trombonist seems only to have been confirmed in 1842, the year all the three trombonists joined the orchestra’s pension fund. This section would have performed many subsequent performances of the Schubert’s symphony, and indeed many of the major works of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and it is indeed not beyond the realms of possibility that the three performed the 1839 premiere.. During the 1830’s works including trombones were performed with regularity at the Gewandhaus. Weber’s operatic Overtures were very popular, and the several works of Beethoven and Mozart featuring trombones were also often programmed. Pieces by the young Mendelssohn were also regularly performed before his accession to the directorship in 1835, but it is worth noting that works including trombones were written and performed with greater frequency from 1839 onwards. Indeed at the same concert on 21 March 1839, in which the Schubert symphony received its premiere, Mendelssohn's overture Ruy Blas (with unusually prominent trombone parts) was first performed. Other perhaps less notable symphonic composers such as Spohr, Burgmüller, Kalliwoda, Gade and even the young Richard Wagner (whose Symphony in C, with trombones, was performed in 1833), were performed regularly in Leipzig and their works often called for trombonists. So in spite of there being no permanent trombonists in the service of the orchestra, regular work was available to the local trombonists, who were perhaps likely to have enjoyed a Stadpfeiffer’s education and may have also been employed in various town bands or churches as well. Elsewhere such as in Berlin and Dresden the orchestras did employ trombonists, but it should be remembered that the Gewandhaus orchestra at the time was a “concert” orchestra, which relied on a strong subscription base as opposed to the royal court orchestras in Berlin and Dresden, which were primarily attached to the opera houses of the time. It is not surprising then that F.A. Belcke took the opportunity of full time employment in Berlin after only one year of attachment to the Gewandhaus orchestra (1815). We may also safely speculate that the solo performances of both Belcke and Queisser during these years must have contributed to our instrument's popularity. The continued use of trombones by the composers should attest at least to a more than acceptable level of performance.

Mendelssohn and the trombone

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy acceded to the position of Gewandhauskapellmeister in 1835 and he was to remain in that position until his untimely death at the age of 38 on 4 November 1847. These twelve years remain one of the most significant conductor/orchestra relationships in musical history and without doubt have contributed to the fame and reputation of this orchestra right up to the present day. A detailed survey of Mendelssohn as a conductor during these years is of course superfluous to this study, however we can be grateful that he appears to have been very amenable to promoting trombone soloists during his tenure. During Mendelssohn’s tenure Queisser performed nine times as soloist, but also the trombonists Franz Rex in February 1845, and Moritz Nabich in October 1847. Both performed the David Concertino. Very little is known of Rex, apart from the fact that he was not a member of the Gewandhaus Orchestra but of the Euterpe orchestra, and therefore would have been closely associated with Queisser (who was one of the founders and concertmaster of that second orchestra of Leipzig), and certainly would have appeared with the Gewandhaus Orchestra with Queisser’s blessing. He also composed some solo works of dubious merit for trombone, of which the only the solo parts survive. Franz Rex may have been a pupil or protégé of Queisser, who appears to have curtailed his activities as a soloist after 1845. Moritz Nabich (1815-1905) on the other hand, was a very active promoter of himself as solo trombonist of various orchestras in numerous countries, and was associated with Franz Liszt during his short tenure (1849-55) as a trombonist in the Court Orchestra in Weimar. According to Karlheinz Weber[8], Liszt must have composed his “Hosannah” for bass trombone and organ for Nabich. He later promoted himself as “Soloposaunist der Großen Oper Paris”, and also played for several years in the highly popular concerts of Jullien in London’s Chrystal Palace, where he performed the David Concerto. The dates Weber supplies for this sojourn (1859-63) in London seems to be inaccurate alas. Nonetheless Nabich appears to have been quite a successful and widely travelled soloist, who later appears to have retired from playing to becomes a successful wine merchant. Weber notes that his lip trills were particularly renowned, above those of Queisser indeed. [9]

Mendelssohn’s pertinence to this study though, is chiefly as a composer, and particularly his approach in writing for trombones. Mendelssohn included trombone parts in at least 16 works,[10] most notably two of his five mature symphonies, the 2nd “Lobesgesang”, and the 5thReformations”, the Overture Ruy Blas, the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Athalia op74, the oratorios Paulus and Elijah, the cantata, Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, and four of his Psalm settings. Examination of the trombone parts in all of these works reveals a definite preference for writing in the three clearly differentiated registers, alto, tenor and bass. Indeed Mendelssohn’s alto trombone parts (always designated as such in the score) often lie in the higher regions of that instrument's register and in general demand a strong embouchure.  Certainly the alto trombone appears to be the instrument best suited to performing these parts, and the writing attests to a certain confidence in the skills of his alto trombonist Burck. Likewise Mendelssohn also is prepared to take the bass trombonist into the lower regions of the instrument’s register, below the low E2 which is the tenor trombone’s lowest note. To use a long F bass trombone may also be appropriate in these instances, but we can be sure that Mendelssohn, through his association with Queisser, was intimately aware of the earliest tenor-bass trombones with Quartventil. I very much doubt that a long F bass trombone (which was considered obsolete already by Fröhlich in 1811) would have been used by Kogel in the Gewandhaus Orchestra during Mendelssohn’s tenure. Incidentally. Gottfried Friedrich Kogel appears to have played 43 years (1833-76) in the Gewandhaus Orchestra, an exceptionally long period even by modern standards There is very little biographical information on these members of the Gewandhaus trombone section, but we do know that they performed in the orchestra for the rest of Mendelssohn’s tenure, Mai retiring in 1849, Burck in 1869, and Kogel in 1876. The latter two must have taken part in a great many premieres of the most famous pieces in the orchestral repertoire, including the first Leipzig performances of Schubert’s “Unfinished” and Schumann’s first and second symphonies, as well as most of Mendelssohn’s oeuvre and even works of Wagner and Berlioz. Speculation on the instruments they may have played upon leads us on now to the instrument builders of Leipzig, and in particular Sattler’s successor and son-in-law Johann Christoph Penzel.

Johann Christoph Penzel

By pure coincidence, in the year 2017 we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Johann Christoph Gottlieb Penzel, one of the more significant builders of trombones in music history. He was born in Elster (now Bad Elster) on March 15th, 1817 and according to the Markneukirchen historian Enrico Weller[11] appears to have learnt his trade as brass instrument maker in Adorf near Markneukirchen. Later he appears to have followed the path of travelling apprentice, and found his way to Leipzig and the tutelage of C.F.Sattler. After Sattler’s death in 1842, he took over the workshop in the absence of any male heirs and three years later married Sattler’s daughter Pauline. The workshop remained in business under Penzel’s name until the death of Penzel’s son Robert in 1880, who outlived his father by a single year, although it appears that the maker Gustav Erhard Ullmann and later his son Reinhold Oscar carried the mark further onwards to well into the twentieth century. Although Penzel advertised himself in the Leipzig city address book as builder of “Signal horns, chromatic valve horns, trumpets and every sort of brass wind instruments”[12], it was as a builder of trombones that his posthumous reputation now rests. Although there was a considerable number of instrument builders in the town of Leipzig during the early part of the century, Penzel’s fame as an instrument builder spread widely during the 38 years that his workshop flourished. Indeed when the Vienna Philharmonic decided to abandon the valve trombone in 1883 it was the Penzel workshop (then led by G.Ullmann) who provided the set of trombones (an alto, tenor and tenor-bass) in the absence of any Viennese makers familiar with building slide trombones. It is also worth noting that two separate lines of Penzel’s apprentices, the Ullmann’s Gustav and Oscar, and Hermann Robert Schopper both claimed to be Penzel’s Nachfolger (successor). In fact both father and son Ullmann’s instruments are engraved with the (Seit)1763 date of Sattler’s establishment, to confirm their continuance of the mark. Furthermore, two later, highly renowned firms, the Ed. Kruspe workshop in Erfurt (est. 1864), and Robert Piering in Adorf, also advertised a Penzel-Modell in their catalogue, and the instruments they produced are very much in the Sattler/Penzel mould[13].

Although we cannot be absolutely certain which instruments the Gewandhaus trombonists Burck, Kogel and their various tenor trombone colleagues used during the 1840’s we can be fairly safe in assuming that they had access to the finest instruments available in the city, those of Sattler and, after 1842, Penzel. My own experience of testing a small number of extant Penzel instruments confirms that the workshop produced instruments of an exceptional quality. My findings on these trombones are documented elsewhere in this study.  Queisser would also certainly have known Penzel, and it may have even been Penzel who provided the silver trombone that August Bruns later acquired. All of the tenor trombones of Penzel that I have been able to examine were built with the wider ca.14mm. bore that Sattler had pioneered. And as we move now to examine the use of trombones in the works of Robert Schumann, and other composers during the 1840’s and beyond, it is this richer, darker tone colour of the Sattler/ Penzel tradition that these composers would have experienced.

Schumann at the Gewandhaus Orchestra

A quick glance through the list of Schumann’s orchestral, theatrical and concertante choral works in David Daniels’ “Orchestral Music, A Handbook” [14], shows that Schumann used three trombones extensively throughout his composing life. I have myself often performed his four symphonies, and can describe his trombone writing as generally conservative, but with particular appreciation of the instruments solemn character. Like Mendelssohn he uses the upper alto trombone register with regularity, and occasionally calls for the bass trombone to descend below the tenor register. He also is inclined to occasionally allow the trombones a limited but significant melodic or thematic role. Indeed in all four of his symphonies the trombones receive grateful passages which require refined ensemble and careful tuning. In the first symphony (first performed under Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus in 1841), a short passage for three trombones alone forms a short bridge from the slow movement to the scherzo. In the same year a new symphony in D minor was also performed, this time directed by Ferdinand David, but withdrawn and to re-surface twelve years later in Düsseldorf as the fourth symphony of 1853.  The beginning of the second symphony of 1846 (also premiered by Mendelssohn and the Gewandhaus Orchestra) features a motive played by trumpet and alto trombone in octaves for which Schumann is said to have been inspired by the memories of the morning “Tower-Music” as played by the old Stadtpfeifer in his home town of  Zwickau. The use of the trombones in the second and fourth symphonies is rather limited and conservative. In his third symphony of 1851 however, Schumann was to compose one of the most beautiful, solemn and challenging passages in orchestral trombone literature. Schumann and his family had moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf on the Rhine in September 1850, to take up an appointment as Generalmusikdirektor in the town. In a flush of inspiration he composed his cello concerto within two weeks in October and directly began composing a new symphony to celebrate his new arrival in the Rhineland, which was completed within six weeks by December 9th. Schumann had never before ventured out of his native Saxony, and it was a visit by train to Cologne in September, in which he witnessed the investiture of the Archbishop von Geissel of Cologne as a cardinal in the glory of the nearly completed cathedral (the building of which had commenced some 600 years earlier...), which was to inspire him to compose the solemn procession depicted in the fourth movement of the symphony. Without a doubt it is one of Schumann’s most inspiring moments and the entrance of the trombone section adds a gravitas to the orchestral sound which, once heard, is never to be forgotten. It is interesting to note that the shape of the theme itself could be interpreted as a musical depiction of the profile of the Cologne cathedral as seen from the Rhine river.  Furthermore the phrase rising to the highest register of the alto trombone adds an extra frisson for both performer and listener. The new symphony was premiered in February the following year under Schumann’s direction in Düsseldorf and by the end of that year the symphony was heard in Leipzig conducted by Mendelssohn’s successor Julius Reitz and revived often in subsequent years. Bass trombonist Kogel would have seen the symphony on his stand at least on fifteen separate occasions before his retirement. Both the alto and bass trombone parts are regularly asked for in trombone auditions to this day. These parts require great breath control, perfect intonation and control of legato in pianissimo and remain to this day a challenge for any aspiring orchestral trombonist. It is also a symphony which is often performed by early music specialists and it is indeed the very common misunderstandings that arise in choosing historically correct instruments for pieces such as or contemporary with the “Rhenish” symphony that have inspired me to tackle this subject in this paper. But before I come to offer my own solution to this situation we must examine the general techniques of brass instrument building and the dilemmas that performers and craftsmen face in reproducing copies or versions of historical instruments.

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[1] The epithet “Great” applies to this work, in order to distinguish it from an earlier symphony in C, which was to become known as the 6th symphony. There remains still considerable confusion over the numbering of Schubert’s symphonies

[2] Dorffel, Alfred. Geschichte der Gewandhauskonzerte zu Leipzig, 1781-1881. Leipzig: 1884

Reprinted Dresden: Saxoniabuch, 2013 p .64

[3] See chapter 1

[4] Raum, Richard: Schubertian Trombones in Brass Bulletin n. 99,  p 28

[5] See Weiner, Howard, When is an Alto Trombone an Alto Trombone? The Makeup of the Trombone Section in Eighteenth and Eraly-Nineteeth Century Orchestras  Historic Brass Society Journal Vol. 17 New York, 2005 pp.37-79

[6] Handrow, Rolf.  Berühmte Posaunen-Virtuosen  Würzburg: Crescendo Brass. 2014  p.99

[7] Nösselt, Hans Joachim Das Gewandhaus Orchester, Entstehung und Entwicklung eines Orchester. Leipzig 1943 p.248

[8] Weber, Karlheinz, Ihre Majestät Die Posaune, Würzburg: Crescendo Brass. 2009 p. 85

[9] Ibid

[10] Daniels, David. Orchestral Music : a Handbook Lanham: Scarecrow Press. 2005 pp.243-247

[11] Weller, Enrico 'Vogtländer schreibt Posaunen-Geschichte" Freie Presse Vogtland 03.2016

[12] Dullat, Günter. “Verzeichnis der Holz-und Metallblasinstrumentenmacher auf Deutschsprachigem Gebiet”  Tutzing: Hans Schneider 2010 p.362

[13] Robert Piering Catalogue of 1896.

[14] Daniels, p 341-43

Schubert Great C major Edition of 1850

   Piering Catalogue 1896 with Modell Penzel trombones (courtesy Mario Weller)

Gewandhaus 1880 (Woodcut A.Neumann)

Schumann in 1850

Overture Der Teufels Lustschloss. Detail of trombone trio.

Source: ISMLP