When the trombone was almost cool

trombonist contest winner

Winning trombonist of the 1849 Paris Conservatory contest

There have been two periods in history where solo trombone captured the popular imagination. Most recently, jazz made stars of Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Leonard Brown, Tommy Dorsey, J. J. Johnson and too many others to mention.

Jazz no longer defines popular music in America. No living trombonist has the same standing in public esteem.

The other period began in Germany early in the 19th century and quickly spread worldwide, even to the US, then struggling to establish its own musical life. English musical life included many trombone soloists, all but one of them human.

France also produced very successful trombone soloists. And a wannabe who published an angry notice over his failure to persuade the rest of French society how cool the trombone was.

It all started in Germany

Kuchengarten, Leipzig

Kuchengarten, a pleasure garden in Leipzig owned for a while by Queisser, who performed many trombone solos there. / Heinrich Georg Drescher (1847–1925)

In 1815, Friedrich Belcke surprised a Leipzig audience by playing a potpourri for trombone and orchestra by Leipzig composer Carl Heinrich Meyer.

It may be that an older tradition of trombone solo playing in Bohemia had not completely died out, but Belcke’s performance was without precedent anywhere else in Europe.

The notice in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung noted that Meyer had written the piece “with perfect knowledge of the instrument and skillful use of all its features.” Belcke handled its difficulties “with a precision, purity, and niceness, even with such a good cantilena as we hve never heard from trombonists.”

Belcke eventually got an appointment as royal chamber musician in Berlin and toured Europe extensively. Soon after this concert Carl Traugott Queisser moved to Leipzig and remained a fixture of musical life there until his death in 1846.

He did not become a touring virtuoso, but he performed more than a hundred trombone solos throughout Germany, including 26 with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. This figure probably doesn’t count the number of times he delighted his guests at the Kuchengarten, a pleasure garden he owned for a while.

M. Schmidt of Hesse also got excellent reviews on his tour, even though no one recorded his first name.

Belcke, Queisser, and Schmidt did not labor in obscurity. The German musical press covered them frequently. No less an authority than Robert Schumann declared Queisser the trombone god.

French musical journals noted Belcke’s prowess as trombone soloist when he performed in Paris (both in concerts and wealthy people’s homes).

Even Queisser was well enough known there that the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris reported on a concert he performed jointly with Clara Schumann and Sigismund Thalberg. It also reported his death. The American Musical Journal refered to Schmidt.

Of the extensive repertoire of music performed by these three virtuosos and others, only the Concertino by Ferdinand David remains known.

Perhaps nowhere in the world did the trombone enjoy as much critical respect as a solo instrument as in Germany. The press in other countries didn’t write about it as much, either, but by the 1830s trombone soloists had become commonplace everywhere

Every (American) orchestra has a trombone

New York was a cultural backwater in the early 19th century. As late as 1825, a local music writer bemoaned the lack of trombones in town. But by 1828 the situation had changed.

A German visitor noted that New York had four theaters, but no good orchestra. Instrumentation was still lacking, but he went on to observe,

In every orchestra there is a trombone, which never plays its part, but generally that of the violoncello; and if the performer is skillful enough, he sometimes plays that of the violin. Trombones and double basses are best paid.

Three trombonists had taken up residence in New York by 1828. Filippo Cioffi, an active and supremely popular soloist, was by far the best known. Other popular soloists included trumpeters John Norton and Alessandro Gambati. A writer in American Musical Journal finally complained that they played too often

Take Niblo’s concerts for example, and a reference to them will prove that not only a brazen concerto is the feature of each bill, but often two or three were played in the course of the night. In England they have Harper, a first-rate trumpet; and Germany has Schmidt, the best trombone that ever existed; this gentleman visited England and was heard occasionally,–but at Niblo’s Garden, we will undertake to say, that more trumpet and trombone concertos were played last season than have been heard in England or Germany for two years.

In 1835, many of New York’s best musicians, including Cioffi, Norton, and Gambati, grew tired of the instability of its musical institutions. An impresario from New Orleans lured them to his theater.

Cioffi played as many solos in New Orleans as he had in New York. Perhaps because Norton and Gambati did not remain there as long, no one complained about an excess of brass soloists.

In 1846, Cioffi announced his intention to go to England for one year and then return. But he remained in England for the rest of his life.

Acrobats, animals, and trombones in England


A poster by C. Burckardt advertising for a circus, ca. 1880

Cioffi soon became a fixture as trombone soloist with Jullien’s promenade orchestra. He was not without rival, however. William Winterbottom also performed frequent solos, as did the visiting German Moritz Nabich.

My collection of English journal articles has little about trombone solos. My notes on the Times comprise mostly advertisements and brief notices.

One critic took umbrage when Cioffi played one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, but indicated that he would have even disapproved of a singer taking Mendelssohn’s melodies.

Henry Russell first appears in Times ads in 1857. Cioffi and Winterbottom were still active, and Nabich was in town as well. But Russell played a series of solos with Jullien.

Unlike any of his predecessors, he seems not to have had a regular job as orchestral trombonist. A series of promenade concerts by Alfred Mellon’s orchestra in the fall of 1861 featured Russell’s Trombone Union, one of the earliest trombone ensembles that came together for more than a single concert.

Between December 1861 and March 1862, advertisements announced Russell as trombone soloist in a series of entertainments that included an acrobat and a contortionist.

England did not lack for trombone soloists from the first solo with Valentino’s promenade concerts in 1839 through the end of the century. Most were human.

An 1870 advertisement announced “Papeta, the largest and most wonderful Performing Indian Elephant, accompanied by her two Infant Prodigies. Plays the organ, harmonicon, and trombone; blows a horn, dances to music, picks up a coin and answers any question that may be put to her.”

A racehorse named Trombone competed in 1866 and won one of his races.

Crusade of a French apothecary

Mounted military trombonist

Mounted military trombonist. Detail from an illustration by Joseph Scholz, ca. 1829

France likewise had its share of widely respected trombone soloists, led by Antoine Dieppo, professor of trombone at the Paris Conservatory. It also had a couple of eccentrics who tried hard to make a name for themselves and gain respect for the trombone.

Auguste-François-Noël-Léonard de la Tuilerie caught the sarcastic attention of the noted French critic Henri Blanchard. Léonard de la Tuilerie, an apothecary by profession, played trombone in the 10th Legion of the National Guard of Paris. He published a large collection of compositions and arrangements for trombone.

It did not go over well. Perhaps the fact that, by his own admission, he didn’t understand the rules of musical composition explains why no one bought it. He found the rejection so incomprehensible that he had a notice published.

Since January 22, 1846, the time of my first publication, it has not come to my attention that anyone has answered the call that I made to cast a more attentive glance on the trombone, an instrument that is too little appreciated up till now, in my opinion. That has enabled me to establish some facts.

Today, February 16, 1847, I have hardly sold 40 pennies worth of the musical works that I had engraved, with, I dare say, great expenses. There is more; when I speak about the trombone, I am considered ridiculous, and people almost laugh in my face. Some artists seem to me only to wrinkle their eyebrows and say nothing. I have a light-hearted attitude towards the human species–see my comic song titled “The End of the World”–and carry out my investigations for future times. I suppose that what will happen will happen.

Either my ideas will be adopted or they will not. If they are not, I will keep silent, and my care, my time, my money, my work, the steps I have taken, all will be lost.

If they are [lost], I WILL BE SLANDERED!

I have spoken:

Paris, February 16, 1847. A. Léonard de la Tuilerie

Someone named Jacob, another regimental trombonist, was both odder and, financially at least, more successful. He combined trombone playing with curing the sick! And not with any toxic medicines, either. The Times had an article about him in 1867. He was still healing and tromboning in 1879, when a writer in L’art musical took the time to ridicule him.

Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 17 (May 1815): col. 324.
David Guion. “Felippe Cioffi: A Trombonist in Antebellum America.” American Music 14 (1996): pp. 1-41. I have long since lost track of the notes I took when I first encountered Cioffi, and I’m not sure where the name Felippe came from. Filippo is probably correct, but he was identified as Philip Cioffi in American sources I have seen and only as F. Cioffi in British sources.
David Guion. A History of the Trombone (Scarecrow Press, 2010)
Henri Blanchard, “Le trombone!” Revue et gazette musicale de Paris 15 (July 16, 1848): pp. 215-17.

Photo credits:
Kuchengarten. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Other illustrations from Trombone History Timeline / Will Kimball. All pubic domain.

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