The trombone has been primarily an ensemble instrument from the beginning. It found its first use in the bands sponsored by towns beginning in the 1300s. In fact, the bands predate the trombone. They started out as ensembles of shawms and trumpets, but rising standards of shawm playing left the natural trumpet in the dust. The trombone came along because shawms needed a competent companion. Ensembles of trombones alone came later.
The 1500s saw a great deal of experimentation with new instrumental combinations. Courts in Italian city-states, notably Florence, led the way. They presented elaborate theatrical entertainments to project their power on such occasions as births and marriages of members of the ruling family. The long-established, everyday standard ensembles did not provide sufficient opportunity to show the court’s riches and extravagance. Little music is extant, but records indicate that several pieces called for a singer backed only by (usually four) trombones.
Meanwhile, the ordinary town bands grew in numbers all over Europe. The earliest ones had had three members. Even at the dawn of the 1500s, by which time cornetts had largely supplanted the shawm, a five-piece band was exceptionally large. By the end of the century, towns all over Europe boasted a professional cornett/trombone ensemble of seven or eight players, plus one unpaid but surely active apprentice for each member.
Such a large group rarely played as a single ensemble. Their size enabled them to provide several four or five-part bands for jobs in different parts of the city. Some of these may have been trombone ensembles. Little music survives until well after 1600.
Praetorius described how to combine voices and instruments into separate choirs of different registers. Following his instructions, choir masters could assign four trombones to play one of the lower-voiced choirs. It was not necessary to have written arrangements for these ad hoc performances. On the other hand, seventeenth-century composers began to write pieces for singers accompanied by trombones. Heinrich Schütz’ masterpieces “Fili mi, Absalon” and “Attendite, popule meus,” both for bass voice and four trombones, are but two of numerous such pieces by German composers.
Providing players for church music was one important task of German town bands. They also played daily concerts from the city hall tower. PIeces for three and four trombones by Daniel Speer have become a familiar part of today’s repertoire. Speer wrote them as teaching pieces, but they must be representative of the kinds of music heard in German cities long before and long after Speer’s time. Leipzig’s town band maintained its ancient structure and privileges into the 1860s.
Beethoven wrote his “Equali” for four trombones in 1812. It was played at his funeral, and then has dignified countless more funerals ever since. Frenchman François René Gebauer published six trombone trios in about 1795. Three are arrangements of music by better-known composers. Like Speer, Gebauer wrote them as teaching pieces, in this case for use at the newly formed Paris Conservatory.
A later Conservatory trombone professor, Antoine Dieppo, created a sensation when he presented some very difficult trombone quartet arrangements on one of Jules Rivière’s Promenade concerts. Since novelty was the name of the game in Promenade concerts, Rivière did not program trombone quartets again for several years. Other popular conductors probably did from time to time.
Near the end of the 1800s, the rediscovery of Schütz’ music included numerous performances of “Fili mi, Absalon.” At least one professional trombone quartet emerged to take advantage of this new vogue for the sound of trombone ensembles. The Times of London carried advertisements for the Concert Trombone Quartet from 1894 into 1896. Unfortunately, when it expanded its repertoire beyond the Beethoven and Schütz pieces, it turned to arrangements of mediocre tunes. The only newspaper review I have seen called them tiresome.
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Trombone ensembles, from duets to twelve-part choirs, continue to be an important adjunct to trombonists’ education. Students play duets with their teachers at the very least. Once they reach the college or conservatory level, they take part in larger ensembles. Well into the 1900s, they played mostly arrangements of other music. After graduation, trombonists still love to gather together to play large ensemble music. Informal groups comprise both professional and amateur trombonists and occasionally perform in public.
Over the past sixty years or so, trombone ensembles have collected a considerable repertoire of original compositions. There is no point in trying to list significant pieces here. Trombonists know them and, for the most part, the composers will not be at all familiar to concert goers. Of course, trombone ensembles still play arrangements. They’ve gotten much, much better–better music, more imaginative arrangements, and probably a higher standard of playing than in the days of the Concert Trombone Quartet.
Trombone ensembles are by no means limited to student or amateur ensembles. Los Angeles studio trombonists used to gather in a garage every week to play through some often difficult music by Hoyt Bohannon, Tommy Pederson, and others. This music has become an important part of every other ensemble’s available repertoire.
At least two professional European trombone quartets achieved international fame and stayed together for over 25 years: The Paris Quartet and the Slokar Quartet. Although both have long since disbanded, a Google search for “professional trombone quartet” brings up a number of currently active ensembles from all over the world. Check out the video below for a stunning performance by a quartet called Bones Apart.
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Photo credit: Some rights reserved by The United States Army Band