Jun 6, 2011

J and K talk more trombone history

The following is a continuation of a discussion started last month between Ken Shifrin and Jay Friedman on the history of orchestral trombone writing and use of the alto trombone.

Jay: In a previous article called "The hundred years war," I talked about the difference in the tradition of writing for trombones between basically Germany and France. The French opting generally for a section of 3 tenors and the German's preferring 3 different sized trombones; alto, tenor and bass. A closer examination of these traditions reveals the advantages and disadvantages of each. The French preference for 3 tenors had one goal in mind and that was blend

Ken: I would put it this way: In 19th century Paris, the municipality no longer provided instruments. Players having to supply their own, the tenor was the logical choice for trombonists, and works originally intended for a section of alto, tenor and bass were now played by three tenors (with notes for the alto trombone which were too high to be played by the tenor trombonist were given to another instrument, usually a trumpet). Pragmatically, French composers wrote for this combination. The outcome was a trombone sections having a uniform timbre, a homogeneous section sound. On the other hand, in Germany, the ATB trombone section prevailed for a longer time, and generally speaking, the German trombone section sound was characterized by three distinct timbres. 

J: The Germanic tradition had another goal in mind and that was; color. Lets examine exactly what this difference means in terms of overall concept of sound. Imagine an orchestra of midrange instruments; violas, cellos, bassoons, horns, trombones. This combination would produce an amazingly blended, homogenous sonority. Also, imagine that a chorus was made up of only tenor voices divided into parts. Again, the result would be a perfect blend of timbres, with each line equal in type of sonority. The result would be a unified blended sound, but only containing one color. Now imagine an orchestra made up of instruments ranging from piccolo to contrabassoon and everything in-between, i.e. the modern orchestra. The choral equivalent would be a group of voices divided into soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The result of this concept would be a timbre with much less blend and a range of many more colors. 

K: The ATB (and on rare occasions SATB) trombone section mirrored this range of choral colours, each trombone producing a distinct timbre.

J: So, the question is; which concept is the be-all, end-all? The answer is; neither! It depends on the demands of the music and the composers original vision. I can't imagine the Beethoven 5th symphony, or a Schubert mass played on 3 tenor trombones. By the same token I can't imagine that wonderful aria of Mephistopheles in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust for low cornet and 3 trombones, played on alto, tenor and bass. Of course not all Germanic music was written for alto, tenor and bass. Wagner changed the trombone world forever when he wrote music specifically for a tenor trombone on the 1st part and a contrabass on the lowest part.

K: In advocating a tenor trombone for the first part, Wagner had been influenced by the French, in particular Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Halevy. In his Reform Plan for the Royal Dresden Orchestra Wagner wrote that "the employment of another tenor trombone is necessary, because for most of the new operas, as well as for the French operas (in which only tenor trombones are scored) the alto trombone's compass is insufficient”
J: When asked by the music world how he wrote so excellently for the trombone he replied; " I only write for a trombone when I get an idea for a trombone." Interestingly, even though he called for the discarding of the alto trombone in his music he still wanted the old tradition of a spectrum of colors. He achieved this by moving the entire trombone family down approximately a fourth, and instead of alto, tenor and bass, it became tenor(s,) F bass, and Bb contrabass trombones. The crucial thing to notice here is the idea of different sizes and therefore different colors of trombones, which produces a wider range of colors. Even though the voicing was moved from a more brilliant sound to a warmer, broader, more resonant register, it still adhered to the old tradition of a wide spectrum of different colors, which served the style and sound of the music he was creating.
K: There seems to be a trend to think that because the first player is using smaller equipment (i.e. the alto) then therefore the 2nd and 3rd should also use smaller horns. What are your thoughts on this?

J: I agree with you about not playing a smaller tenor when alto is used. There is more color in trombones that are much different in size.
K: Today's modern alto trombone, being of larger dimensions than its 18th or even 19th century predecessor, the proportional relationship of the alto to the tenor is maintained when the 2nd player uses his/her customary large-bore tenor. Thus there is no need for a smaller bore tenor trombone on the second part when the alto is used on first. Indeed, using a smaller bore tenor trombone (or bass trombone ) works to mitigate against the intended difference of colour. 

J: To sum up; the tendency to close the gap between voices such as playing smaller equipment when an alto is used, is diminishing the intended effect of different voices to achieve a spectrum of colors. As with an orchestra or chorus, the wider the difference between voices, the larger the range of colors is produced, something which was the object of the old masters. Since the modern bass trombone is certainly larger than the old F bass trombone that Haydn and Beethoven wrote for, it is important that the distance between alto and tenor trombones be of enough size to produce the spectrum of colors the great composers envisioned.

More about the alto as an upper register aid (akin to piccolo trumpet and high trumpets).
K: Having played Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Pelleas und Melisande, I feel he wrote the alto trombone part to add another colour to his orchestral palette.

However, having also performed -- and studied the autograph scores -- of Berg's Three Pieces, Lulu, and Altenberglieder,  I am not so sure the same thing can be said about him.  I believe Berg was using the alto, not so much for its tone colour but a means of extending the trombone section's upper register. The Universal Edition editor H. E. Apostel writes in the score of the 1929 version of the Three Pieces:
"The first trombone part was originally written in alto clef. Due to technical reasons, and with the permission of the composer, the first trombone part has been subsequently transposed into tenor clef. The occasional extreme upper register therefore necessitates the employment of either an alto trombone or an Eb bass trumpet."

One can only speculate what the "technical reasons" were. (They thought trombonists  couldn't read in alto clef??)
Another revision was made in 1953 in which the instrumentation has been amended from "4 Posaunen" to "4 Posaunen (3 Tenor und 1 Bassposaune).

I raised these points with Claudia Patch of Universal Editions, Vienna, when she allowed me to examine  the autograph and hand-corrected first published score. She told me that a new edition was being prepared in which the first trombone part would be indicated as "tenor and alto" Incidentally, in the autograph (1913-1915) there is a high F for the first trombone on the fourth beat of the penultimate bar tied to the first beat of the last bar which is not in the published versions.
J: I was aware of the 1st version of the 3 pieces, I actually found a score of that version and the surprising thing is that high F at the end is the only change he made other than changing clefs. Did you notice that the low E's are bracketed as if to say, "I know an alto can't play this, but just in case?"  

K: I have a feeling that the bracketed low E's were done by Apostel, the Universal Edition editor at the time, not Berg, but I could be wrong about that. I have to try to locate and dig out the autograph score that Universal copied for me, but it was almost 15 years ago. I cant even find the shirt I wore last night.

In Berg's Wozzeck, although the autograph score and the Universal Edition score specify that the first trombone is to be played on the alto, most of the part, as you know, is better suited for tenor (indeed Berg has written some notes that are too low to be played on an Eb alto. For example, the passage in Act III, 2nd variation bar 85-86: it starts on low G (doubled by the 2nd) and ascends to high Eb,and there is no indication on the part itself (1.Posaune) that an alto is required.)  Although Lulu contains similar upper-register parts for the first trombone, the autograph does not specify an alto. Notwithstanding, there are two well-known passages in which the alto is frequently used in Act II (although one of them starts on a low E that is fortunately  doubled by the 2nd trombone). The highest sections of Lulu for the first trombone are either doubled by the trumpet or cued into their parts "in case the first trombonist cannot play that high".

However, in Berg's Altenberglieder, written roughly around the same time, he indicates that the trombones are ATTB, although he seems to be aware that some of the notes were too low to be played on an alto trombone. Since much of the part is either muted or in a nearly inaudible pianissimo it seems unlikely that Berg was utilizing the alto for its tone colour.
J: I've played the Lulu and Wozzeck passages and they seem to be for tenor because of the low notes. It's as though Berg wrote for alto knowing the tradition in Germany/Austria and when he actually got out into the orchestral world realized that the alto had or was falling into disuse. The Schoenberg works are clearly for alto, but I'm always disappointed when playing them how little there is, and how much he gives to the 2 tenors.  It's clearly a color he uses very sparingly.

K: Hmmm. Berg, on the autograph score of Wozzeck, indicates that the first trombone part should be played on alto: alto & tenor -- or preferably tenor & alto -- would have been more accurate.

Lulu was written more than a decade later, and the autograph does not specify an alto. Berg died before he completed the orchestration, but he had completed it through the upper tessitura trombone licks.

Given the inconsistencies and inaccuracies about what notes could be played on the alto and the tenor in the Altenberglieder -- and there are many -- I get the uncomfortable feeling that Berg may just not have been completely sure what could and could not be played on an alto or tenor trombone. (He wouldn't be the first composer, if one considers the untrillable trills written by baroque composers for alto trombones, or the impossible glisses for tenor trombone written by some composers). In any case, I think he was using the alto to extend the trombone section's range, rather than for its colour, which makes his use of the alto distinct from composers before him.

And by the way, what is your take on Richard Strauss's Frau Ohne Schatten (Act II, Sc 3, bars 238-243) with the high E, D and Db? I think Strauss was being very optimistic writing that passage for a tenor in 1919, especially when you consider Pfitzner's 1917 Opera Palestrina: A lovely lyrical solo from the opera for the first trombone is a frequent German audition excerpt. Where the solo reaches its highest point, going  in half notes d" c" b' a' c" b' a' g', it is bracketed with the instructions, "perhaps to be played by the first horn!" (That's not my exclamation mark, by the way). I was surprised that it was not indicated that perhaps as an alternative the whole solo could be played on alto trombone, since it lies superbly on the alto. Is this an indication that by 1917, even in Germany, alto trombonists were thin on the ground?
J: The Strauss passage looks like it's for tenor, and I'm thinking he was aware of someone like Paul Weschke who was famous for being able to play up to double Bb. Those small bore horns and mouthpieces they used made those passages easier than we experience today. Strauss was pushing the limits of the orchestra in every way and since most of what he wrote is in the standard tenor register he probably thought "the best players now and in the future can play this passage." Zarathustra has high D for both tenors so he must have thought tenor players were taking over the alto territory and pushing the range higher.

K: I still think Strauss was being optimistic -- especially given the qualms Pfitzner had about the upper register ability of trombonists only two years earlier, and he and Strauss knew and wrote for the same trombonists. I haven't played the Frau Ohne Schatten, but I would be willing to bet that E is doubled by the horns or trumpets or both. I recall being  told by some German trombone colleagues that the alto is sometimes used in this passage to cut through the thick scoring.

J: By the way: have you ever played the 1949 Strauss Fantasy on Frau Ohne Schatten? There is a solo for 1st trombone that comprises some 56 bars, and might be the longest solo ever written. It is a tenor voice part from the opera. It is thickly scored and the solo is somewhat buried in the texture. We made a recording of it in the early 90's with Barenboim and used our newly acquired Glassl trombones which were a copy of an older Latzsch I had. The difference in color of those instruments on that piece is striking and noticeable. 

K: By the way, speaking of the alto I just found a very interesting quote written by the German music historian Heinrich Kunitz in 1970, which should be bring a self-satisfied smile to all alto trombonists out there: 
"One has to realise that, generally speaking, no player today specialises exclusively on the alto trombone anymore. The alto trombone is taken up when the need arises by tenor trombonists at which time they always have to re-adjust to the alto trombone's shorter distance between slide positions.The technical demands which are thus put on trombonists are fittingly highlighted by the fact that only rarely does a player have to alternate between violin and viola."

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

TenorPosaune Web Development