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The idea of the trombone as a solo instrument seems to appeal mostly to trombonists. Trombone soloists who tour or record extensively can develop quite a following. Nowadays, many can be found on You Tube, where people can not only hear, but watch performances. As long as they remain freely on line, people will be able to find them and enjoy them indefinitely. It’s easy for us to forget earlier generations of trombone soloists.
A trombonist’s reputation does not necessarily vanish after his or her death or retirement simply for lack of recordings. It is easy to find information about such greats as Antoine Dieppo (first professor of trombone at the Paris Conservatory), Carl Traugott Queisser (a legendary trombone soloist from Leipzig), or Frederick Neil Innes (considered by some superior even to Arthur Pryor). Here are five pioneering soloists who deserve to be better known.
Since people who knew and studied with the former trombone professor at Juilliard are still alive, it might seem a stretch to list Davis Shuman among forgotten soloists, but many compilations of important trombonists of the twentieth century omit him entirely. Everyone who ever gives a trombone recital and gets paid for it owes Shuman a debt of gratitude. After all, he started it.
Shuman made history when he presented a full-length recital for trombone and piano at New York’s Town Hall in 1947. Until that time, hardly any music besides contest solos existed for that combination except for Hindemith’s then-recent Sonata. Shuman played transcriptions of music by Beethoven and Brahms and commissioned three new works. He actively commissioned new music for the rest of his life, including Milhaud’s Concertino d’hiver. I can only speculate that the Russian-born Shuman had a sound and technique significantly different from the developing American sound, and other trombonists therefore disliked it.
Shuman may have presented the first full-length trombone recital, but not the first trombone recital. That honor goes to Alfred Phasey, who presented three springtime series of concerts at London’s Crystal Palace in 1889, 1890, and 1891. Newspaper advertisements frequently called them bass trombone recitals. Each consisted of only three pieces, accompanied by organ rather than trombone.
Phasey’s recitals were offered “at no extra charge,” but so were as many as three other concerts also presented at the Crystal Palace at the same time. It appears that, once someone paid the general admission to the Palace, all the various events going on there did not cost extra. The fact that Phasey presented several concerts every year for three years, which started at exactly the same time as three other offerings sufficiently indicates how successful and well respected he was.
Advertisements occasionally mentioned what he would be playing that evening. On one, he played “Nasce al bosco” / Handel, “The lost chord” / Sullivan, and “Old German drinking song.” A week later played “O, ruddier than the cherry” / Handel, “The two grenadiers” / Schumann, “and, by special request, Old German Drinking Song.”
At the time, much of what we consider classical music had broad popular appeal. Think of Phasey and his organist-partner covering top hits on a chart that didn’t change very fast. Phasey was neither the first nor most successful English trombone soloist, just the first to entertain with organ accompaniment instead of orchestra or wind band.
Some times, some very highly respected performers worked at the same time as other, even more highly respected performers. They fall by the wayside. Nowadays, trombonists know of Antoine Dieppo. He was the first of a long line of distinguished trombone professors at the Paris Conservatory. Not a whole lot has been written about his playing career, though.
We also know the name Felix Vobaron. He taught a provisional trombone class for three years before Dieppo won the permanent position. History has judged his method book better than Dieppo’s. Vobaron claimed to be the first Frenchman to attempt a solo in public.
The name of Victor Cornette is familiar enough: his method book is older and now more widely used than either Dieppo’s or Vobaron’s. Again, no one has written much about his playing career.
Since trombone soloists are a pretty obscure group to begin with, how could any contemporaries’ reputation stand up to those three?
Edouard Dantonnet never wrote a method book, but he, like Dieppo, played trombone for the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, one of the top orchestras in the world at the time. Like Dieppo he regularly played solos at the popular series of promenade concerts led by such popular conductors as Musard and Jullien. Both conductors took their orchestras to London, and Dantonnet played there two years before Dieppo did.
Typical of the newspapers of the time, write-ups of these concerts give little indication of what they played or how the audience responded. The Times, however, did thoroughly describe the time Dantonnet came out on the first half of a concert to play his solo and collapsed on stage. What or how well he played when he recovered enough to play it on the second half remains a mystery.
Gioacchino Bimboni remains obscure largely because he was Italian, and everyone knows that Italians didn’t compose anything but operas in the nineteenth century. Actually, the history of Italian military bands is every bit as interesting and important as the better-known development of bands in Germany, Austria, France, England, or the United States. James Wesley Herbert wrote a doctoral dissertation on the subject in 1986, and Henry Howey has published some material. Perhaps eventually the Italians will get their due, and Bimboni with them.
I could have used any of four men as my example for this post, but Bimboni may be more responsible than any other single individual for the Italians’ overwhelming adoption of the valve trombone and abandonment of the slide trombone. He first became the first Italian instrument-maker to manufacture valve trombones. Only then did he travel throughout Italy as a trombone soloist. He and the others appear in the Italian press. For what it’s worth, a lukewarm review of a performance by Bimboni in Vienna is the only mention I have found of an Italian trombone soloist in the foreign press, at least until Carlo Antonio Cappa, a slide trombonist of excellent repute, emigrated to the United States. Bimboni and his contemporaries played exclusively Italian operatic arias or variations and potpourris based on them.
How is it that we don’t even know his first name? The American Musical Journal referred to Schmidt in passing as “the best trombone that ever existed.” When a Viennese correspondent to the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung expressed the same opinion, the editor of that Leipzig-based magazine added a footnote that he would not believe it unless Schmidt challenged home-town hero Queisser directly. At about the same time, the Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung commented favorably on Queisser’s performance of a concertino, but lamented that, with trombonists the caliber of Queisser, Belcke (another household name among anyone who cares about trombone history) and Schmidt, it was too bad they had no good music to play. He must have been outstanding to rate mention with those two!
Besides incidental mentions like these in the contemporary press, I know nothing about Schmidt except that he was a court musician in Kassel. As far as I know, he was given leave from his post only for this one outstandingly successful tour. The only book I have found about the musical establishment at the court in Kassel lists only opera singers by name. Perhaps someone with access to archives there can do us all a great favor and let us know who this guy was!