Gustav Holst made his living for a while as a trombonist. Edward Elgar, for some reason, decided to learn to play trombone when he was 43. Holst, therefore, was a trombonist who later became a well-known composer. History has known several trombonist composers. If we include jazz trombonists who become noted arrangers, the number becomes legion. Elgar, on the other hand is an example of a well-known composer who later became a trombonist–of sorts. He is probably not unique, but there can’t be very many others.
When Holst was a music student at the Royal College of Music, he was too poor to buy train tickets back home. He frequently walked the 100 miles from London to Cheltenham, with his trombone slung across his back. He used to practice along the way when he thought he wouldn’t disturb anyone. One time, though, a sheep farmer scolded him for making so much noise. He claimed it was making all of his sheep lamb too soon.
His daughter Imogene later recalled that Holst supported his composing habit first by playing trombone in various orchestras and, after he decided that orchestra tours left him no time to compose, by teaching. His orchestral experience immeasurably helped his composition, and of course, he wrote especially well for the trombone. J. A. Westrup, who considered anything but long notes and rather staid arpeggiated passages an abuse of the trombone, complained bitterly about Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets:
Of course it is quite playable. The compser, a trombone-player himself, would harly have written anything absolutely impossible. but I contend that passages of this kind, especially t hose necessitating rapid jumps from remote positions, are ineffective, simply because the instrument is not given a chance to do full justice to its tone.
It probably never occurred to Westrup, who was equally critical about the solo in Mozart’s Requiem and other staples of the orchestral repertoire, that perhaps Holst as trombonist was thoroughly bored by the sort of parts he had to play constantly. Much of the orchestral repertoire, and probably the part Westrup approved, adds so little besides volume that most of the audience never notices the trombones unless they make a mistake.
Elgar as trombonist
Elgar’s case, of course, is much different. He mentioned in a letter to his publisher in 1900 that he was learning to play trombone. He didn’t say why. Since he was 43 at the time, it would be too much to expect that he ever became proficient. He never mastered the typewriter, either, and wondered which was worse.
The year before, a friend of his named Dora Penny wrote the following in one of her letters:
“On one occasion, he [Elgar] got up and fetched a trombone that was standing in a corner and began trying to play passages in the score. He didn’t do very well and often played a note higher or lower than the one he wanted… and as he swore every time that happened, I got into such a state of hysterics that I didn’t know what to do. Then he turned to me [and said]: ‘How do you expect me to play this dodgasted thing if you laugh?’
“I went out of the room as quickly as I could and sat on the stairs, clinging to the banisters ’til the pain eased but it was no good. I couldn’t stop there as he went on making comic noises, so I went downstairs out of earshot for a bit.”
Twenty years later, Elgar decided to donate his trombone to the YMCA’s Music Section in Worcester, which had asked for instruments to send to British troops around the world in order to raise morale. After his death, when the trombone turned up at another YMCA branch, it was donated to the Royal College of Music, where it lay on display next to Holst’s trombone.
“The Misuse of the Trombone” / by J. A. Westrup The Musical Times 66 (1925): 524-5
Statue of Holst. © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Elgar and his trombone. Public domain. Elgar Birthplace Museum