The enraged neighbor, or, trombones don’t get no respect

“The downstairs neighbors must have had quite a party last night. It almost sounded like someone was pounding on the ceiling until two o’click in the morning.”

“That must have made it hard to sleep.”

“It sure would have. Fortunately I was still practicing my trombone”

I know I’ve had trouble finding apartments where I could practice, And I’m never up that late. I told prospective landlords that I would do my practicing mostly in the early evening and never practice late at night or early in the morning. Little did I realize that trombonists had had similar troubles for more than a century and a half.

L’Enragé Musicien, a lithograph by Bourdin after an image by Robert William Buss (1838)

Here, it’s not a landlord rejecting a prospective tenant. The neighbors are upset by the sound of a bass trombone. They’re wearing night clothes, so that clock doesn’t say 2:30 in the afternoon. Even the picture of Handel looks disgusted.

Hardly anyone at that time specialized in bass trombone. This dedicated musician also played double bass, an instrument that probably would not have created such outrage. But why did the artist choose to make the trombone the butt of his joke? Why not a trumpet or horn?

Because they were legitimate musical instruments

It’s amazing how many times reviews of classical concerts say something to the effect that trombones playing too loudly ruined an otherwise perfect performance, or that the trombones showed admirable restraint. Popular concerts featured well-respected trombone soloists.

The same newspapers that complained about trombones in orchestral concerts or opera orchestras commented favorably on them. But then again, they don’t say anything about the trombones in the orchestra, which in popular dance tunes, etc., had much more active and prominent parts that in symphonic concerts.

At least from the time the trombone became a permanent member of the symphony orchestra (around the 1830s), it has been known mostly as the instrument that’s always too loud. Trombone parts in the orchestra at that time seldom had any thematic significance. Most composers added them to increase the volume.

Mediocre composers thought just having lots of brass would add excitement and cover up their dullness and lack of inspiration. (They still do, by the way.) Critics of the early nineteenth century uniformly considered Rossini a mediocre composer who overused and misused trombones. And because he frequently puts three trombones in unison fortissimo on after-beats, it’s hard to disagree with them.

Oh, and the “bass” trombone part seems to have considered the principle part, even though outside of Germany hardly anyone actually played it on one.

Maybe that’s why the picture shows a bass trombonist.

Photo credit: Public domain. There are a lot more where this one came from, Will Kimball’s Trombone History Timeline

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