Trombones come in several sizes. Tenor and bass trombone are the most common. Orchestral trombonists frequently use alto trombones. Soprano and contrabass trombones remain novelties. The latter is by far the older of the two.
Someone described a performance on a contrabass trombone (probably) in 1568. Michael Praetorius provided the first really comprehensive description of the trombone in the second volume of his Syntagma musicum (1619). He described and illustrated sizes from the alto trombone to the contrabass.
The contrabass must have been an oddity in his own lifetime, because his description is rather vague. The one pictured here is proportionately the same as the ordinary (tenor) trombone, but twice as long so that it sounded an octave lower.
Today, contrabass trombones aren’t exactly oddities, but they’re not common, either. What’s odd is that two very different instruments go by the name contrabass trombone. Do you find that confusing? Blame the bass trombone.
What’s a bass trombone?
The bass trombone itself has a convoluted history. Praetorius describes two different sizes, neither of which corresponds to what we call a bass trombone today. He described all three of the lower trombones not as bass or contrabass, as we do today, but according to their relationship to the ordinary trombone.
He called the bass trombones “fourth” and “fifth” trombones and the contrabass “octave” trombone. An inventory taken in Stuttgart in 1589 mentions a “third” trombone, which would also be a bass trombone.
Nowadays, we name trombones according to their fundamental note in first position. The tenor trombone in in B-flat. Trombones a third, fourth, or fifth lower would be in G, F, or E-flat respectively.
The trombone in G was the standard bass trombone in England throughout most of the nineteenth century up through the Second World War. The trombone in F was nominally the bass trombone in Germany at the same time. Berlioz considered the E-flat trombone the authentic bass, but noted that it was no longer available in France.
From the late eighteenth century, some writers insisted that alto, tenor, and bass trombones were all B-flat instruments. The only difference was the mouthpiece. B-flat instruments were certainly the only trombones used in France, but elsewhere the idea of using a B-flat instrument as a bass trombone must have been fairly common as well.
Christian Friedrich Sattler, a German maker, introduced the so-called tenor-bass trombone, a B-flat instrument with the wider bore of the F trombone. He added a thumb-valve (what Americans call the trigger) to this kind of instrument in 1839.
With the trigger, a B-flat instrument had both the bore size and most of the usable range of a trombone in F. It probably supplanted the lower-pitched bass trombones anywhere the slide trombone had not been supplanted by valve trombones. Except of course in England, where they kept their G basses for more than a century afterward.
Since the 1960s, “bass trombone” has meant a B-flat instrument with an even larger bore and two triggers. Even before that time, if anyone still played the old F trombones, they called it a contrabass trombone instead of a bass trombone. And it probably had a trigger.
What did everyone have against the long trombones?
At least as early as 1816, some thought that the bass trombone was unreasonably difficult to play. It was so long that the player needed a handle to reach the outer positions. Even on a B-flat instrument, the player may need to move the slide as much as two feet from one note to the next. It must have been fatiguing to play.
In that year, Gottfried Weber suggested that instead of two tubes, the trombone slide should have four. That would cut the distance between adjacent positions in half. His idea never caught on. The valve trombone came along shortly thereafter and Sattler’s trigger not long after that.
Meanwhile, writers of orchestration textbooks throughout the nineteenth century continued to complain about how physically taxing the long basses are to play and how the handle made intonation and any kind of rapid movement unreasonably difficult.
The fact that Sattler’s B-flat/F instrument had replaced all but the shortest of the older bass trombones indicates that these authors merely reported what most players thought. But there are always some outliers.
As I said, some continued to play F trombones and started to call them contrabass trombones. But I also said that the contrabass trombone refers to two different instruments. The other is a modern monster.
Sometime, probably in the very late nineteenth or early twentieth century, someone resurrected Weber’s four-legged slide. But instead of using it to shorten the positions on a regular B-flat trombone, he made an “octave” trombone and used the four-legged slide to give it the same positions as a regular tenor. Weber, I assume, would have been very dismayed to learn that.
And what of modern orchestration textbooks? Those that mention the contrabass trombone at all counsel against using it. It is too physically taxing for the player! Listen to the following two videos. What do you think?
Here is a contrabass trombone in F. . .
. . . and here is a special contrabass trombone in BB-flat–evidently getting ready for Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
(Sorry, I couldn’t find anything with both a well-played extended passage for this instrument and a good view of it. I decided to go with the view.)