600 Years of the Trombone in 5 Minutes

The history of the trombone begins more than 600 years ago. The earliest surviving mention is a salary payment record from the city of Braunschweig (Germany) to an alta cappella band consisting of two shawm players and a trombonist in 1403. The alta cappella was the primary ensemble for the trombone throughout the fifteenth century.

Trombonists from Rome, the German-speaking lands, and England gathered at the Council of Constance (1414-1418), where a variety of genres and styles could be heard and imitated. By 1500, nearly every city and court in Europe employed at least one trombonist. At the end of the fifteenth century Filippino Lippi painted a fresco in the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome that includes the earliest surviving depiction of a trombone.

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Carafa Chapel fresco by Filippino Lippi

The sixteenth century saw the trombone reach the Americas, evidenced by a surviving painting on a wall in the church of San Esteban in Tizatlan, Mexico. In 1537, Bologna’s town band, Concerto Palatino, replaced their shawms with cornetti, which would become the trombone’s natural partner for roughly the next hundred years. In his book The Trombone, Trevor Herbert describes the period 1550-1650 as the “Golden Age of the Trombone.”

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San Esteban Church in Tizatlan, Mexico
Henry VIII would employ as many as eleven trombonists (mostly foreigners) in his court. The citizens of Bologna enjoyed Concerto Palatino’s hour-long concerts every day in front of their city hall. And in 1551, Erasmus Schnitzer built the earliest surviving trombone in the brass instrument manufacturing center of Nuremberg (Germany).

The Tenor Sackbut of Anton Schnitzer the Elder at Nice


With it’s quieter partner, the cornetto, the trombone was brought indoors to play music for services in Europe’s chapels, churches, and cathedrals. This leads us to San Marco Basilica in Venice, where the greatest composers for the trombone lived and worked. On a grand scale, it would be hard to match the output of Giovanni Gabrieli, whose polychoral works took advantage of the incredibly resonant space within the basilica. On a more intimate scale, the virtuosic sonate concertate (for trombone, violin, and basso continuo) of Dario Castello have yet to be surpassed.

The seventeenth century saw the trombone used in a variety of settings, from large-scale sacred works like Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers and small-scale sacred works by Viadana, Riccio, and Cima to the secular sonatas and canzonas of Picchi, Castello, and Marini to operas by Monteverdi (where it picked up an association with the underworld) to the courts of the most powerful rulers in Europe. But by 1700 the trombone fell out of fashion and disappeared from elite music-making.

The trombone survived the eighteenth century in the German-speaking lands. The court chapels of the Holy Roman Empire use the trombone as an obligato instrument in sacred works, and J.S. Bach included trombones in some of his cantatas, usually accompanying the choir in colla porte fashion. By analyzing the works for obligato trombone from this period, musicologist Stewart Carter has identified 1712 as a hinge point in the history of the trombone, before which the normal (tenor) trombone was played in A, and after which it began to be played in B-flat.

The trombone continued to be strongly associated with the underworld and the church, and it was in this latter capacity that Mozart used the trombone in his Masses and Requiem. Likewise, Haydn used the trombone in The Creation, but never in a symphony. It wasn’t until Beethoven’s infamous Fifth Symphony that the trombone was welcomed into the orchestra.

The trombone played an important role in the Romantic symphony orchestra. Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, Brahms’ First Symphony, and later Mahler’s Third Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony all use the trombone in fundamentally important ways.

In 1895, New Orleans trombonist William Cornish began to perform with Buddy Bolsen’s jazz band, beginning a new chapter in the history of the trombone. It becomes so associated with the new genre that Maurice Ravel writes a jazzy solo for the trombone in his Boléro of 1928.

While trombonists continue to work in symphony orchestras even today, they also find work in jazz combos and big bands, salsa bands (like Willie Colón), reggae bands (like Rico Rodriguez), marching bands, chamber ensembles (including trombone quartets and brass quintets), and as soloists with the finest ensembles in the world. Modern trombonists also work in historically-informed performance ensembles using replicas of trombones from the 16th, 17th, and even 18th centuries. The world of music for the modern trombonist in 2015 is rich and diverse, where opportunities abound. Perhaps one day, many years from now, historians will look back at our time and call it the “Second Golden Age of the Trombone.”

-Bodie Pfost
Bodie has been playing the trombone for twenty years. He began his training as a student of Dr. Dan Aldag at Humboldt State University and went on to further his studies in trombone with Abbie Conant and sackbut with Charles Toet and Wim Becu at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Trossingen, Germany. Bodie has performed in a variety of styles from symphonic to salsa to reggae and jazz. Bodie was a founding member of the Kings Brass Quintet in Visalia, California and is currently in the process of founding a trombone quartet in the Eugene area. Most recently, Bodie was the principal trombonist of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra under the direction of John Farrer. Bodie has served as a member of the Advisory Board for the Brass Chamber Music Workshop at Humboldt State University. He has taught trombone for ten years.
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