Apr 12, 2011

To Alt or Not to Alt?

Occasionally I get a question about the use of the alto trombone in symphonic repertoire. There are many questions regarding the original intent of the composer as to the use of alto trombone. I'm not aware of any scholarly studies concerning this, but I'm sure someone will do a doctoral thesis one of these days on the subject. I'll give you my thoughts which I've amassed over many years of trying to figure out what the composer had in mind as far as the trombone choir is concerned.

Of course the classical and early romantic period composers generally wrote for alto, tenor and bass trombones. The bass being a trombone in F with no additional valves. This is not the same instrument in use today, as the modern bass trombone is a large bore tenor with valves which can change the key of the instrument to various lower pitches, such as F, D, Gb. Early composers were very aware of the instruments they wanted, and a good example of this is Beethoven's specific request for only a tenor and bass trombone in the opera "Fidelio." The alto trombone was notated in alto clef, the tenor in tenor clef and the bass in bass clef. It would seem therefore that it would be simple to ascertain the intent of the composer as to which trombone was required by the clef the instrument was written in. That's where things get very hazy, as each school of composition had it's own traditions and habits. There are many examples in the later part of the 19th century where a trombone part was written in alto clef with no expectation that the part would be played on alto trombone. The old way of writing for alto, tenor and bass trombones started to diverge approximately sometime after Beethoven's death in 1827. Schumann and Mendelssohn kept the old tradition alive in their music, but composers such as Berlioz started to specify trombones other than the alto in their scores, probably because the tradition of alto trombone in France had never taken hold, nor had the F bass. Interestingly, I have only found 4 examples in Berlioz's music that clearly require alto trombone; Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy, Judges of the Secret Court overture, and the Funeral and Triumphal symphony. All other music by Berlioz clearly is in the range of a tenor trombone. BTW, I have used alto, large bore tenor and smaller bore tenor on Symphonie Fantastique and I prefer a small bore tenor overall for this work.

I must add that the golden age of writing for alto, tenor and bass trombones was in the music of Schubert, especially in his choral works. He treated the trombones as an equal part of the melodic carrying line, and as far as I'm concerned has never been surpassed. I have for years thought of making a complete edition of all the music for trombones by Schubert, including the fragments. Remember the one movement from an unfinished opera I mentioned awhile back that called for 4 trombones? He was writing music for the future. Also, BTW, I use alto on the Great C major symphony.

Wagner was the first major composer to indicate a preference for tenor trombone on the 1st trombone part starting with Tannhauser. This coincided with the development of the modern tenor trombone which featured a larger bell and bore. In the list of instrumentation of Tristan and Isolde, Wagner says; "the first two trombones are understood throughout to be so-called tenor-bass trombones (thus no alto trombone is to be used;) the third trombone, in any case, is to be played by a real bass trombone." Interestingly enough, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan is written in alto clef! Was this an editors decision or the composers? It is also interesting that Wagner refers to the first two trombones as "tenor-bass," a clear indication of the use of the F rotor valve. Liszt solved the problem head on by calling the 1st and 2nd parts "tenorposaune 1 and 2." He and Wagner were important confidants to each other and it may have been Liszt who influenced Wagner in this regard.

Meanwhile composers such as Brahms stuck to the traditional method of writing for alto, tenor and bass, and it is obvious from the tessitura in his works that an alto trombone was specified. At the same time Bruckner was starting to compose some of his symphonies. He was an ardent admirer of Wagner and no doubt had his orchestra in mind for his own works. Then why do all of his symphonies call for alto, tenor and bass trombones? My suspicion is that the publishers at that time in Germany and Austria were so grounded in the old practice of alto tenor and bass that when they engraved Bruckners music they automatically indicated those instruments even though the 1st and 2nd trombones are always notated in tenor clef. The tessitura of the Bruckner symphonies also indicate the use of a tenor on the 1st part.

The case of Rossini's music is very interesting in this regard, and gives us an insight into the influence publishers exert in the presentation of orchestra music. Most of Rossini's music was written for one trombone. Until 15-20 years ago the overtures to his operas were played in 3 trombone arrangements, many published by Breitkopf and Hartel. Because it is a German firm the parts were arranged for alto, tenor and bass trombones following the traditional German custom. This was apparently a decision by the publisher to perhaps sell more music using a standard orchestra contingent. Most of us have seen in certain excerpt books the strange looking version of the William Tell overture arranged for alto, tenor and bass, with the alto part carefully avoiding the lower octave in strategic places. This is a clear example of a publisher inserting their own preferences into the music at the expense of the composers original vision. Incidentally, the theory that the William Tell overture was written for valve trombones has been repudiated by one of the scholarly treatises on the trombone, saying there was no evidence of the presence of valve trombones at the Paris Opera which staged the premiere. When I was a student at the conservatory we played a B&H edition of the Barber of Seville Overture that had as it's first entrance a high B natural 16th pickup and fermata. Later on in the coda there were high C#'s and D's everywhere. I have never seen that edition again but I'm sure somebody has run into it again.

The music of Dvorak is an interesting case. Although the 1st trombone parts are in the alto tessitura and in alto clef, an article by Ken Shifrin in the ITA Journal a few years ago said that there wasn't a slide trombone professor at the Prague Conservatory until 1900. Does this mean Dvorak's music was written for valve trombones? That could explain the 16th note run at the end of the 8th symphony. Otherwise Dvorak's music avoids technical challenges of the type found in Verdi's late operas for valve trombones.

The music of the 19th century Russian composers presents some interesting problems concerning choice of instruments. Obviously the Tchaikovsky Symphonies are written with tenor trombones in mind, never mind the alto, tenor and bass indication on the B&H editions which are the most common. There was however, a tradition of writing for alto starting with Glinka, which seems to have carried over to composers such as Liadov, Balakirev and Borodin. It is more difficult to discern the intention of Rimsky-Korsakov. While there is the obvious fact that there are 2 famous solo passages for tenor trombone written in the 2nd part, and the first part is written in alto clef, the first part is always in the tenor tessitura, making it difficult to know what instrument he had in mind. It could be that he wanted to make sure that wherever his music would be performed the solos would be played on a tenor trombone, in case an alto was still being used on the first part. This tradition certainly carried over to the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. While usually written in alto clef, in fact both 1st and 2nd parts, they are clearly intended to be played on tenor trombones. Stravinsky decried the fact that the alto trombone was obsolete, and wrote some parts for alto in his later works.

An interesting sidelight to this discussion is the fact that in the late 19th and early 20th century, some of the larger opera orchestras in Germany, actually had a position for a player to play only the alto trombone! If anyone has information on when this started and ended, I and my readers would be interested to know. Also I will be glad to print any scholarly information on this subject submitted by my readers.


This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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