You can’t play that on trombones!

Trombone Quartet

Indiana University Trombone Quartet

According to an anecdote I read long ago and now can’t find, Theobald Boehm, inventor of modern flute fingering, spent a night at Rossini’s house. In the morning, he began a warmup, playing low trills.

Rossini burst into the room and said, “You can’t play that on a flute.” Boehm said, “But I just did.” Rossini responded, “I don’t care. You can’t play that on a flute.”

The same sentiment has followed performances on trombone, too. A European orchestra actually took Arthur Pryor’s trombone apart looking for the trickery. They knew what they had just heard was impossible. “You can’t play that on a trombone!”

But I’m not writing about soloists this time. A quartet of trombones can also astound audiences with what seems to be impossible.

A little trombone quartet history

The music of Heinrich Schütz makes a convenient place to start thinking of trombone quartets. He didn’t write the first ones by any means, but two of his motets (Fili mi, Absalon and Attendite, popule meus) for four trombones and solo bass voice are acknowledged masterpieces.

Away from major German courts, town bands in Germany regularly performed chorales on four trombones. That tradition continued until the bands were abolished in the 1860s.

Elsewhere, trombone ensembles began to appear as popular entertainment as early as the 1860s. Of course, they weren’t allowed anywhere near art music unless the conductor chose to present classical music and popular entertainment on the same program.

An early music revival in the late 19th century brought the first mentioned Schütz piece, along with Beethoven’s Equali for four trombones before modern concert audiences. London first heard this combination in 1890 under the auspices of the Wind Chamber Music Society.

In 1894, the Times began to announce performances of the Concert Trombone Quartet. The advertisements seldom mention what music they played. I have found only one review, part of a single sentence in a notice of a promenade concert: “and a tiresome quartet of trombonists played some very poor compositions in a mediocre manner.”

This group apparently started in response to the enthusiasm with which the London public received the Schütz and Beethoven pieces, but played unimaginative arrangements of popular tunes. One ad mentions “The Little Church” and “Robin Adair (harmonized)”.

Trombone quartets have since become commonplace, but mostly as student ensembles at colleges. Besides the three historical pieces already mentioned, the trombone quartet repertoire comprises a few other early pieces, a handful of original compositions by little-known composers, and transcriptions of just about anything imaginable.

Some truly incredible Bach

I saw an incredible video of a trombone quartet playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on Facebook. The arrangement is very unidiomatic for trombone. If the individual parts don’t seem unreasonable, the ensemble does. “You can’t play that on trombones!”

So I decided to find it as an illustration of how far the standard of trombone quartet playing has come since the Concert Trombone Quartet. I Googled ” bach toccata and fugue in d minor trombone quartet” and, to my amazement, found four different videos!

One is half the length of the others, and one is obviously a rehearsal in an otherwise empty hall. I couldn’t make myself pick just one. The rehearsal is pretty awesome in its own way.

Cuarteto Trombones de Costa Rica

A Korean quartet on Seung-hyun Kim’s senior recital

Do you hear occasional lapses? Are you likely to hear an organist play the piece with no more serious lapses? Both of these ensembles comprise players with both excellent technique and excellent sense of ensemble playing. They are joined by other equally good quartets worldwide.

Don’t they deserve to be heard live in front of more than the few dozen people who attend trombone recitals?

Source: A History of the Trombone (The American Wind Band) / David M. Guion

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Bill Bradley.


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