Chapter 7: Personal Reflections upon Historically Informed Trombone Performance Practice.


There is no doubt that the early nineteenth century was an extraordinarily rich period of development in brass instrument design and manufacture. The invention and application of valves by Stölzel, Blühmel and several other craftsmen, including Christian Friedrich Sattler, in the early 1820’s was to have an enormous influence on composers, craftsmen and players. The horn and trumpet were of course the greatest beneficiaries of this invention, although the trombone certainly was not untouched. The search for an adequate bass instrument for the brass family, as it came to develop during the period, resulted in a phalanx of various inventions and experiments, including ophicleides, serpents, bombardons, and bass horns. The first tuba (developed by Wieprecht and Moritz in 1835) was eventually to take its place in the symphony orchestra by middle of the century, even though it was to take several decades for it to fully replace the ophicleide as the preferred brass bass instrument, at least in orchestras, if not in the military sphere.

The very pace of development in brass design and manufacture in the early nineteenth century brings many problems for the current brass practitioners, within today’s so-called specialist HIP ensembles. Most conductors, directors and members of these orchestras or ensembles have been brought up within the sphere of Baroque and Classical performance practice. Brass instrumentalists specializing in the music of these periods are able to play most of the repertoire of the period on baroque instruments, since the natural horns and trumpets with various crooks remained very much unchanged in design for several centuries. Trombonists at the beginning of the HIP movement too, rarely needed anything other than a generic small bore instrument with a cone shaped bell. These so-called “original instruments” were very much accepted for most repertoire including trombones, up to the early Romantic composers such as Beethoven or Schubert and in some cases further into repertoire that can no longer have any claim to connection with Baroque or Classical tradition. In fact, during the first period of the HIP movement, many of the British trombonists used small bore British brass band instruments from the early 20th century with the bell flare cut back to resemble a “sackbut” bell. It was not until the late 1960’s that real attempts were made to copy original (mostly from Nuremburg) trombones in various museums. Even then, many of these early copies can hardly claim to be truly accurate representations, and most certainly use modern instrument building materials and techniques, such as soldered joints, nickel silver sleeves, ferrules, and stays, as well as chrome plating on slide tubes, and historically inappropriate bell forms. In the 1970’s, several instrument builders made a more concerted effort to study older brass alloys and traditional techniques. Heinrich Thein, in Bremen, was the first instrument builder (as far as I am aware) to document the reproduction of a very early trombone using old techniques[1]. Later figures such as the Swiss instrument builder Rainer Egger, the firm of Meinl and Lauber in Bavaria, and the Dutchman Geert Jan van der Heide also immersed themselves in historic building techniques, measuring significant instruments in museums, and producing reproductions that enjoy currency among the specialist early music trombonists, and the various modern orchestras crossing over into “authentic” practice. At present most of these firms offer the musician a choice of instruments based on Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical era models.

When one arrives at the nineteenth century however, the situation for the early music specialist becomes much more complex. The pace of change in brass instrument design and invention during the early years of the nineteenth century was truly astounding. It is outside the realm of this study to fully document the influence of the invention of the earliest valves by Stölzel, Blühmel, and later Sattler on the development of brass instruments throughout the whole century. This has been exhaustively investigated, and there exists a large body of material available; Herbert Heyde’s Das Ventilblasinstrument (1985) being a particularly interesting and noteworthy tome. But as we have seen, two aspects of the history of valve development cannot be overlooked in regards to the slide trombone. Firstly, the application of three valves to the trombone and other low pitched brass instruments (to replace the use of the slide), which occurred as early as 1821[2], and secondly, Sattler’s 1839 application of a single valve in the bell section of the slide trombone to enable the tones between E2 and the pedal B flat to be sounded without resort to “faked tones”. The three valve trombone was to have a auspicious degree of success during the nineteenth century. Not only did it flourish in military bands and popular music, but also in orchestras in several parts of Europe (particularly in Austria and Bohemia, as well as the area we now know as Belgium, and in the opera houses of Italy), right up until well into the twentieth century. To include detailed attention to these developments falls nevertheless outside the parameters of this paper, except insofar as to remind us of the enormous diversity of developments in brass instrument building and performance during this period of musical history, and that the parallel developments in methods of construction that were made, in particular the enlargement of the bell section designed for outdoor use in military music, also had an impact on the shape of bells for slide trombones for orchestral and solistic use.

One could also delve into the cultural and musical implications of the political turmoil in Europe during the forty or so years that this study covers. Once more I defer to the sufficiency of the available literature. It suffices to mention that an enormous expansion in the number of military bands was occurring during this time. With this came a demand for instruments produced in very large numbers, and a great deal of innovation and invention of new instruments, particularly in the bass register. The natural orchestral brass instruments of the baroque and classical periods, horns and trumpets, were of course involved in military music as well, as they had been in former times, but it was soon clear that the traditional signal roles that these instrumentalists performed were very much changing in regard to activities that the new ever expanding military bands were undertaking. The very nature of military music, which certainly did not preclude public performances of popular and art music in arrangements, as well as outdoor and ceremonial functions, often with very large numbers of performers, meant that the natural horn and trumpets with their limited dynamic compass suited more to the small courtly orchestras of the various royal and noble families now were required to produce much larger amounts of volume; often in outdoor situations. Much the same could apply to the trombonists at the beginning of the century, many of whom, as we have seen, came from the tradition of town bands but performed also in liturgical settings and theatre orchestras as well. Trombones certainly had their place in military bands, and the application (from the mid 1820’s) of valves enabled military trombonists to have sturdy compact instruments with which they could perform outdoors both on the march and in other ceremonial settings. Allied to this came a general increase in the volume at which brass musicians were required to play. Since only a handful of trombonists found regular employment in orchestras at the time (even though that number was steadily increasing to meet the demands of the ever expanding size and instrumentation of the Romantic orchestra), it could be conjectured that the majority of trombonists were moving from the town band to the military orchestras and perhaps finding occasional work in the local theatre and concert orchestras that were emerging, such as the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Sattler is unlikely to have invented a large bore trombone, “out of the blue” as it were, without some form of strong demand for such an instrument. No doubt the increased volume requirements of the military band played a role in this trend, as well as the changing sound ideals of the day, reflected not only in the new musical idiom effectively launched by Beethoven in 1808, and followed by Cherubini, Weber, Schubert (belated as his reception was), Mendelssohn, Schumann, and after the 1840’s particularly Wagner (whose enormous contributions to brass instrument development falls unfortunately outside the time frame of this study). Sattler is indeed often credited with the invention of the large bore trombone. His models, and those of his successor Penzel, form the basis for my proposal for a set of reproduction trombones presented in the preceding chapter. However, I should now like to digress and consider the issues that the modern trombonist performing in authentic settings faces when confronted with the enormous and very disparate development of the trombone throughout Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The modern day “historically informed” trombonist

There is no doubt that a potential but significant source of professional engagement for the modern day classically trained trombonist can be found in the world of historically informed performance practice. Many conservatoria offer specific study in Early Music, including trombone. Indeed at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, specialist baroque trombone study has been offered since the 1970’s. And certainly, as the years have gone by, the playing standards on reproduction instruments have risen, the quality and general historical accuracy of the instruments has also continually improved, and the body of research into instruments, repertoire and performance practice continues to expand. Allied to this, we can discern an ever-increasing desire within the growing circle of active professionals and aspiring students, to acquire appropriate instruments upon which to perform in historically informed settings. At the beginning of the HIP movement, as I have noted, one generic baroque style trombone sufficed for the smaller settings where trombones were used. For many years these more or less generic baroque instruments were considered perfectly acceptable for HIP performances of music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Once this repertoire began to be performed and recorded by the HIP pioneers Roger Norrington and Frans Brüggen during the 1980’s in direct challenge to the modern symphony orchestra, many specialist players have begun to use a more authentic shape copied from Viennese instruments from the late 18th century and pairing this bell form with the slide of their baroque trombone. This so-called “classical” trombone, with its narrow bell throat and more trumpet-like flare, is now considered an essential part of the modern freelance HIP trombonist’s arsenal of instruments. The sound of the classical bell is certainly significantly sharper and more brilliant than that of the Renaissance or Baroque trombone, and this gives this instrument a much more trumpet-like timbre, on the alto trombone in particular. This factor provides a more homogenous blending with the natural horns and trumpets in the classical orchestra, than the baroque and renaissance trombone used previously, which were better suited to performance of sixteenth and seventeenth century sacred and secular music, together with violins, cornetts, voices and organ continuo. Most trombonists I know currently engaged within the HIP scene are in possession of classical bells to use with their baroque trombone slides. Egger and Meinl lead in this market, but other builders such as Stefan Voigt in Markneukirchen offer these classical options as well. Other builders, such as Markus Leuchter, offer “baroque” trombones designed without reference to particular historical instruments built in a larger bored combination style which can produce perfectly satisfying results as an orchestral instrument in music of the classical period. His very skilfully built instruments have particularly found favour with modern orchestral trombonists wishing to experiment with the tone colours of period brass, but with instruments that feel and sound more modern to play. These slightly larger instruments also produce a larger volume of sound well suited for modern orchestras using larger string sections using steel (not gut) strings. This cross fertilisation of the HIP movement with modern orchestra is a trend which has progressively taken root in the recent times. My own orchestra (The Residentie Orchestra) has also recently purchased a complete set of combination baroque and classical trombones from the firm of Ewald Meinl. These instruments have now been used in performances of works by Handel, Beethoven, Mozart and Verhulst.

I can state with confidence there is, in my experience, very little disagreement amongst specialist Early Music trombonists about the appropriate instruments to use in either Renaissance, early and high Baroque music, as well as in music of the classical period up to Beethoven. This cannot be said however of the musicological community, particularly in regard to instruments in use in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Several times in this study I have referred to the writings of Howard Weiner, whose article “When is an Alto Trombone an Alto Trombone? When is a Bass Trombone a Bass Trombone? – The Makeup of the Trombone Section in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Orchestras,” published in the Historic Brass Society Journal 2005, strongly challenges the generally accepted choice of reproduction E flat alto, B flat tenor, and F bass trombone with handle, by the present day HIP trombonists (including myself). In spite of his vigorous defense of his findings and strongly presented evidence, his conclusions nevertheless have had little or no impact on the performance practice of the trombonists engaged in performing this music in “authentic” settings. Indeed this rather ubiquitous “classical” section of E flat alto, B flat tenor and F bass trombone has often been utilized in performances of music written well into the nineteenth century, even as far as Brahms. Indeed I have indeed performed a Brahms symphony on classical trombones, based on models from at least 80 years earlier. The justification of the conductor for this choice of instrument was that Brahms was a “classicist” at heart, therefore would have preferred the classical instrument over the trombones he actually knew. We can be certain, for instance, that at the first performances of his second and third symphonies, the trombonists of the |Vienna Philharmonic were performing upon valve trombones[3]. This is a fact of trombone history that modern day HIP trombonists might prefer not to acknowledge too loudly, lest they be engaged to struggle through an “authentic” performance on unwieldy and out-of-tune valve instruments. But herein lies one of the dilemmas facing the modern day “authentic” performer. Which criteria determine the choice of instrument, and how do we quantify our desire for historical correctness with the limits of our own collections with the very real and present high demands of precision of attack, blending and tuning that are expected of the professional trombonist?

Parameters of historical “correctness”

Over the course of my engagement with the performance of symphonic music in HIP context I have encountered many and varied justifications, criteria or guidelines for choosing particular instruments for the works we play. These range from the presumed “intentions” of the composer, to the instruments used at the first performance, instruments built at the time of composition, or specific requests or preferences of composers either in letters, or instructions in scores. These choices certainly become much more varied and complex with the excursions of the HIP orchestras into nineteenth and twentieth century repertoire. For instance the orchestra with which I most regularly perform, Anima Eterna Brugge (founded and conducted by Jos van Immerseel), began presenting composers such as Johan Strauss and Tchaikovsky, and later Rimsky Korsakov and Ravel, at the Utrecht Early Music Festival in the early years of the current century. Another example was the excellent centennial performance in 2013 of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps played Orchestre Les Siècles on original French wind and percussion instruments, with the full string section using gut strings. In recent seasons I have personally taken part in original instrument performances and recordings of music by Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Debussy, Janacek, Smetana, Dvorak, Brahms, Bruckner and even Carl Orff’s 1935 Carmina Burana. My own instrument choices and those of my colleagues and acquaintances as well as the wishes of conductors and colleagues in this repertoire have been rather varied to say the least.

One of the more common parameters used in my experience is attempt to recreate the style and instrumentation of the premiere performance of a work. The 1808 concert at which Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies were premiered has often been commemorated in re-creations, sometimes even right down to the dress of the performers and the use of candlelight. For a recent Anima Eterna performance of Dvorak’s New World symphony, we trombonists were confronted with the choice of whether to use the valve trombones that were prevalent in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1890’s, or try to discover who performed the trombone parts at the first performance by the New York Philharmonic. Performances of music by Janacek on the same concert also provided a conundrum. Janacek had written his trombone parts clearly with valved instruments in mind, yet by the time of the first performance in 1926, the use of valve trombones in Prague and Brno was already decades out of use. When one also considers the professional necessity of precision and good intonation in the context of a CD recording, then the choice of slide trombones of German origin for both Dvorak, and Janacek is easily justified on “musicological” grounds, however tenuous. A clear case of justifying a more expedient choice on whichever particular parameter best suits the preferred outcome.

Certainly the pace of change, and the enormous diversity of the trombones used in nineteenth century music across many different national traditions, means that the modern practitioner can hardly be expected to be able to provide a separate instrument for every “authentic” performance of this repertoire. A great many of my colleagues have also become enthusiastic instrument collectors, but since we are required to perform such a wide variety of often geographically and chronologically diverse pieces, often programmed together, it is quite unreasonable to expect a completely irreproachable musicological basis for all of our instrument choices. I can confess to have used instruments in my collection on more than a few occasions, that were built several decades out of synchronization with the instruments that the composers would have known. As I slowly build my own collection however, I am trying to minimize these “transgressions”, and realisation of this Leipzig trombone project, should go a long way in rectifying this situation. In any case I feel it is unhelpful and unnecessary to use the term “correct” when we choose our instruments. We simply cannot know exactly which instruments were played by whom, where and when. The best we can do is be as well informed as possible and make our choices based on our research and investigation, and not on what we may presume to be “authentic”, on the basis of hearsay or simple preference for a particular tone colour.

The HIP trombonist’s “Arsenal”

In order to work as a trombone performer in orchestras performing nineteenth and early twentieth century music in HIP context, one ought to be able to provide representative instruments that meet with both colleague's' and conductors' approval. Therefore certain parameters and traditions have arisen within the HIP circles populated as they are mainly by freelance trombonists. As we have seen, not all of these parameters are completely irreproachable. But practically, we can come reasonably close to the required instrumentation of the specialist ensembles with the following collection of instruments...

  • A reproduction baroque tenor trombone (market leaders Egger and Meinl). Alto or bass baroque trombone as required by the chosen specialism
  • Classical-style trombone or at least a bell using this type of flare. Used in all Mozart Beethoven Haydn and Schubert, currently used also in Romantic repertoire such as Mendelssohn and Schumann even as far as Brahms (see above).
  • A trombone for French repertoire (Berlioz to Stravinsky at least). Usually a small bore Courtois or Couesnon (not reproduction) of twentieth century provenance.
  • A German built trombone for Germanic and Russian repertoire usually of early twentieth century provenance, usually of medium to narrow bore and sufficing for most repertoire from 1850’s onwards. Trombones of Heckel and Kruspe are typical but also later builders such as Lätzsch and Glassl are not uncommon.

Despite widespread use of valve trombones in the later nineteenth century and the almost complete absence of examples of nineteenth century German examples of trombones with small bore, most of the twentieth century German trombones that are commmonly found in HIP perfromances are built in medium to small bore. A typical example of this type of instrument is the narrow bored Ed. Kruspe Modell Weschke, which was introduced in the early 1920’s and became the most widely popular orchestral trombone in Germany right up until the 1960’s. Oddly enough this admittedly fine trombone is often to be found used in HIP context masquerading as a nineteenth century instrument even though it has a bore size the same or even smaller than a modern B flat trumpet! All the Penzel and Sattler trombones and those of the later builders until the early years of the twentieth century are of considerably larger bore (often similar to the bore of a modern American-style symphonic bass trombone). I have yet to find any tenor trombone of German origin post dating the 1851 cut-off point of this study that exhibits the small bore of either the classical trombones or the German style tenor trombones of the twentieth century, not to mention the narrow bore "pea-shooter" trombones that were popular in England and France during this period.

It should be clear that one of the purposes of this study is to encourage my colleagues (both instrumentalists and conductors!) in the early music scene to reconsider their (now perhaps entrenched) position that the most appropriate instruments for the performance of early and mid century Romantic works are those of narrow bore alto, tenor, and bass trombones in the classical style. It will certainly take the production and promotion of excellent reproduction instruments to help affect this change. I sincerely hope that the time in ripe for this next chapter in the history of Historical Brass performance practice to become a reality.


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[1] See Thein, Heinrich, Zur Geschichte der Renaissance-Posaune von Jörg Neuschel 1557, und der von Heinrich Thein, 1979.  MS Bremen 1979

[2] As presented by Belcke. See chapter 2

[3] Herbert, Trevor. The Trombone ,Yale: Yale University Press. 2006 p.167