Jun 10, 2008

Bore-ing history

It's the end of the winter season and my mind starts to wander in no organized manner. I started thinking about the historic journey the trombone has taken over the last couple of hundred years as far as the size and style of trombones around the world. In this age of instant information, things are getting pretty standardized as far as equipment goes. It's becoming a giant melting pot, and the national schools of playing are losing their individual distinctive features. The upside of this is the fact that you can go to very far off places and hear state-of-the-art playing.

I remember hearing about what the well known players were playing when I was growing up. My teacher, John swallow, told me he studied with Neal Di Biase, 1st trombone of the NBC Symphony with Toscanini, and that Di Biase

played his entire career on a Bach 16. Di Biase played with the Pittsburgh under Fritz Reiner, and when Reiner came to Chicago, he tried to bring Di Biase with him, but in those days the big money was in New York, in the staff orchestras. Contrast that with the fact that Gordon Pulis, my idol when I was growing up, played on a Conn 8H with a Bach 3G mouthpiece. Pretty big stuff for the 1940's. No doubt he was influenced by his teacher, Emory Remington, who I understand was involved in the development of the Conn 8H.

I get the feeling that in the pre-Remington era, the likes of Gardell Simons and other players of the era were not symphonic type players as we think of the term today. I mean, their equipment was not totally geared toward the production of only symphonic music. Symphony orchestras at that time were not where the money was. It was more lucrative in the theaters and radio stations. Therefore, a player needed to have a more commercial style, and symphonic music was only one facet of a trombone player's employment. Contrast that with a country like Germany where symphonic playing was the norm and there was plenty of work for a legit-type player. Therefore the equipment could be totally geared to symphonic performance. All the early examples that I have seen of German made trombones from this era, ie; 1900-30 are large bore, except for the ones used by the former trombone section of the Berlin Philharmonic, which were very small bore Kruspes and Latzschs. I wonder if this was unique to this orchestra, or a tradition among earlier German players.

In a 1900 photo of the Chicago Symphony with Theodore Thomas on the podium, the trombone players are playing large bore German made trombones with no F-attachment, even on the 3rd player's horn. No doubt they were German-born musicians brought here by Thomas when his was a touring orchestra. Meanwhile in England the trombone players played on narrow bore Besson's, and G bass trombones, and mostly came from the brass bands that were and are prevalent in that country. Across the channel the French were playing small bore French-made trombones. The classic French section consisted of 3 tenor trombones, as opposed to the old German concept of alto, tenor and a real bass in F, providing 3 different colors. It's interesting that Wagner insisted in his later operas that the alto be replaced by a tenor-bass and added a contra-bass as well, thereby deepening the texture of the trombone section. Then we have that mystery in his instructions describing the instruments of the Ring cycle, that the "contra-bass should alternate with the ordinary bass trombone," but never specifying where. Some research needs to be done on the 1st trombone parts such as the Bruckner symphonies where alto trombone is indicated. Was this a bow to convention or did he really want an alto?

Have you noticed lately that our modern composers write for trombones very conservatively in regards to range, and completely below the register of the trumpet section? Any cursory study of the great masters shows that almost all of them integrated the upper trombones into the range of the trumpets, so that many times the 1st part was higher than the 2nd or 3rd trumpet. In the Beethoven 5th symphony, the famous high F is actually higher than even the first trumpet part, showing that Beethoven was keenly aware of the sound he imagined and how to get it. In Berlioz's book on instrumentation, Richard Strauss, who updated it, chides beginning composers for writing clarinets below the register of oboes simply because of the clarinets being on a lower staff in a score. I believe the same mistake is being made when it comes to trumpets and trombones. One only has to look at Schubert's trombone writing, the bible that every composer should look to when studying trombone writing.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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