Moritz Nabich and the second generation of 19th-century trombone soloists

trombonist

Illustration by Charles Reinhardt for an 1875 story in Harper’s Magazine about a man with the misfortune to live upstairs from a trombonist.

In 1861, Dwight’s Journal of Music reprinted a notice from an unnamed English journal: Moritz Nabich was moving to Paris. His long-suffering English neighbors would no longer have to listen to him practicing that musical menace, the trombone. Parisians would suffer instead. Who was Nabich, and why would a Boston-based magazine print this notice?

The well-traveled and world famous Moritz Nabich was the foremost trombone soloist of his day. His name and reputation would have been familiar even in musical cities that he never visited. He carried on the work of his illustrious predecessors Friedrich August Belcke and Carl Traugott Queisser. Queisser died in 1846 and Belcke had apparently retired as a soloist by that time.

Nabich’s career

The first press notice I have found of Nabich was a concert announcement in the Allgemeine Wiener musikalische Zeitung in 1847. The following year he made his solo debut in Queisser’s Leipzig and then found employment at the Weimar court, where Franz Liszt was music director. He remained there until 1855.

Nabich’s employment in Weimar must have allowed him to travel, because the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris reported a concert appearance in Paris in 1851. He also appeared in London in both January and June of 1853.

At the behest of the great promenade conductor Jullien, Nabich left his court appointment and moved to London in 1855. He performed there frequently until 1861, when, as the article Dwight quoted gleefully announced, he moved to Paris.

I find only a single mention of Nabich in the French press at this time, a concert in Rouen in 1863. By 1864 he had apparently returned to Germany.  He appeared with the Leipzig Euterpe orchestra in 1864 and the Gewandhaus in 1867. The papers also report performances in Dresden, Vienna, and Amsterdam. He eventually retired to Leipzig, where he died in 1893.

How good was Nabich?

Berlioz caricatuare

A well-known caricature of Berlioz by Andreas Geiger, depicting a common complaint about orchestral brass.

Apparently Nabich was good enough to maintain a concert career for more than 20 years, but not good enough to bear comparison with other trombonists or to inspire composers to write new music for him.

Ferdinand David wrote his Concertino for Queisser. It immediately became the concerto that every other trombonist had to master. No other 19th-century trombone concerto achieved that status. It was an important enough work in David’s output that it was performed at his funeral (by August Bruns) in 1873.

After a performance by Robert Müller in 1876 it disappeared from the Gewandhaus repertoire and eventually from “serious” concerts everywhere else. It remained a staple music festivals, promenades, and other low-brow concerts well into the 20th century.

The review by Henri Blanchard of Nabich’s Paris concert in 1851 commended his soft playing, but complained that he was not a master of his breath and that his intonation was not always good. These faults, opined Blanchard, were inherent in the trombone. On this occasion, Nabich was one of three soloists.

Blanchard also found fault with the pianist and the violinist. Perhaps he disliked German musicians as much as he liked the trombone. He didn’t mention what any of them played, but he did mention with some favor the concluding fantasy that featured all three of the soloists.

When Nabich performed David’s Concertino in London in 1853, the Times noted:

The other new solo player was Herr Nabich, a member of the private band of the Duke of Saxe Weimar, who executed a “grand concerto” (so-styled, although it was only a single movement) on the trombone, the composition of Herr David–of Leipsic, we presume–with orchestral accompaniments.

So much has been said of this gentleman that much more was expected of him than he achieved last night. He is, however, a performer of unquestionable talent; and, in spite of a prevailing monotony of style, and an occasional flippancy of expression, he manages both to surprise and please–to surprise by his easy command of so cumbersome an instrument, by the clearness of his articulation, and the stamina of his lungs; to please by the mellowness of his tone and the extreme softness of his piano.

In other points–that of bravura execution, for example–Herr Nabich did nothing last night to authorize us at present in comparing him with Signor Cioffi, who has shown himself so great an adept in that line. The “grand concerto” was greatly applauded, but an attempt to encore it was opposed.

Nevertheless, Herr Nabich, pleased with the manner in which his talents had been appreciated, after the intervention of a vocal piece, volunteered to perform “A small solo of airs of Lucia”–as the gentlemen of the committee who made the speech somewhat quaintly described it. This Herr Nabich accomplished, with much applause, although his first performance was beyond comparison the best.

The review of Nabich’s performance of the same piece in Leipzig in 1864 complained that he didn’t play it as well as Queisser, who by that time had been dead for 18 years. On the other hand, Reifsnyder notes a review of a concert in Dresden by Bruns that compares him favorably to Nabich, Belcke, and Queisser.

So it appears that the only trombone soloist besides Belcke and Queisser deemed important enough for an entry in Hugo Riemann’s Musik-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1882) did not enjoy the critical success of even lesser-known soloists.

In common with every other nineteenth-century trombonist, he had to succeed despite near universal critical skepticism that the trombone was a suitable solo instrument for classical music.  Apparently concert audiences welcomed him anyway.

Sources:

Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 7 (1847): 360
Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 2nd series  2 (1864): 782
Dwight’s Journal of Music 18 (1861): 388
Revue et gazette musicale de Paris 18 (1851): 108; 30 (1863): 14
“The Romantic Trombone and Its Place in the German Solo Tradition” by Robert Reifsnyder. ITA Journal (Spring 1987): 21
Times (London). January 23; June 8, 1853. — July 14, 1855. — March 6; April 9, 22; June 6, 1856 — April 4; December 24, 1857. – May 24, 1858. – September 12, 1859. – February 20; March 20, 1860.

And a tip of the hat to Will Kimball’s Trombone History Timeline, which includes a spectacular collection of images.


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