How the Trombone Cheated Death

trombone with round stays

Copper engraving by Giovanni Volpato (Rome, 1774-77) of a painting by Giovanni da Udine (Vatican, 1517-19). His engravings are generally faithful to the original, but this trombone has 18th-century round stays.

At the beginning of the 1600s, courts, towns, churches, and individual members of the nobility all over Western Europe sponsored musical organizations that included trombone.

These ensembles participated in music making from dance music to public concerts to participation in Christian worship. By the end of the century, they had practically disappeared, and the trombone along with it.

If no one had used it anywhere, the trombone would have become like the krummhorn and other obsolete instruments that early music enthusiasts resurrected in the mid 20th century. No one else would know or care anything about it. Instead, it lay hidden in a few scattered locations.

People who don’t like the trombone might appreciate an analogy with cancer cells. After being apparently trombone-free, Europe experienced a relapse at the end of the 18th century as the trombone roared back to life. (Yes, roared. Critics complained for more than a century that trombones were always too loud.)

Trombones first invaded the opera orchestra and then the concert orchestra. Soon enough it found new roles in military music and dance music. Then some people even began to play flashy solos on it. Music history has always remembered that it hung on in Germany, where J.S. Bach used it in a few cantatas. That does not account for its radically new roles. It is places that scholars failed to notice that explain them.


trombone painting Italy

fresco in Santissima Annunziata, Florence / Franceschini Baldassare detto Volterrano, 1644

Scholars have carefully documented the development of opera, the solo cantata, keyboard music, the orchestra and other important Italian innovations.

Until recently, they paid less attention to the continuation of earlier institutions and practices. And while scholars explored new developments in church music, these never made it into music history texts.

The popes still maintained musical establishments that included the standard loud band of cornetts and trombones until the Napoleonic invasion of Italy destroyed their financial ability to do so. So did other Italian cities like Bologna. Naples likewise never stopped using trombones. In the mean time the trombone’s new roles began in Rome.

In 1665, 21-year-old Roman composer Alessandro Stradello introduced a trombone to double the bass line in his Accademia d’Amore, a semi-dramatic secular vocal work for eight voices and instrumental ensemble. He included special performance instructions for the trombone. Whoever played the part probably belonged to the pope’s band.

Stradella’s piece may or may not have been the first non-traditional use of the trombone in Rome, but so far the literature does not identify any other comparable pieces from about the same time. By the 1690s, composers were beginning to use a trombone on the bass line in oratorios and in two brand new types of composition: the sinfonia and the concerto.

George Frideric Handel used a trombone in La Resurrezione, one of the oratorios he wrote while living in Italy. Later, he used trombones to great effect in Israel in Egypt and Saul, two of his great English oratorios. Viennese composer Christoph Willibald Gluck visited England and met Handel during his own student days. He introduced Handel’s approach to writing trombone parts into some of his later dramatic works.

The persistence of the papal wind band may be one reason why Bologna, a city in the Papal States, also kept its wind band until Napoleon abolished it. Bologna’s principal church, San Petronio, likewise had trombones in its orchestra. San Petronio was a major center for the composition of the concerted mass, that is, a mass for chorus, solo voices, and orchestra.

One of the earliest composers of concerted masses, Camillo Cortellini, was a trombonist in both the town band and church orchestra. The chapel masters and other Bolognese composers continued to produce concerted masses for generations.

The Empire

Trombone painting Vienna

A fresco by Johann Michael Rottmayr in Karlskirche (St. Charles’s Church), Vienna, 1725-1730)

Early in the 17th century, the future Emperor Ferdinand II toured northern Italy and became enchanted with the large-scale ceremonial music (with lots of trombones and cornets) that he heard in Bologna and Venice, among other places.

He filled his own court with musicians who could play it and compose the same kinds of music for him.

He also appreciated the Bolognese concerted mass, but it was Leopold I later in the century who ordered a collection of masses from San Petronio. He received forty-four volumes of them.

The next phase of the revival of the trombone, then, took place in and around Vienna. The imperial court and the courts of Austrian nobles–especially the prince-archbishops–were the only courts in Europe that explored new roles for the trombone. By the eighteenth century, most composers in Vienna routinely used two trombones to double the choruses in their masses and oratorios. Most composers in Salzburg (including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) used three.Composers Johann Joachim Fux and Antonio Caldara began to write florid trombone solos.

The succession war following the death of Emperor Charles VI ended performance of the kinds of pieces that used solo trombone. Mozart had a good solo trombonist in Salzburg, but none in Vienna. Still, the standard of trombone performance remained higher in the Empire than anywhere else in Europe.

In 1762, Gluck introduced a trombone into his ballet Don Juan. Shortly thereafter, he used three in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, modeling the scene where the trombones are most prominent after the funeral scene from Saul, which includes the Dead March, with three trombones in the orchestra.

From then on, only Mozart continued to write church music with trombone parts in the traditional Austrian manner. Haydn and many now-unknown composers wrote trombone parts in sacred works that more nearly resemble Handel’s.


trombone method book

Gamme et Méthode pour let Trombones / André Braun (Paris, ca. 1795)

The trombone never had a major role in French music of the Renaissance, but it remained at least nominally a part of the Ecurie (Stable) in the royal court establishment until the French Revolution.

The group did participate in the coronation of Louis XIV in 1654. Otherwise, hardly anyone took notice of the Ecurie or the trombone in writing except the official L’État de France.

There, the same boilerplate text appears in every issue, even ample documentation demonstrates that the group had changed from primarily trombones, trumpets and shawms to primarily oboes and bassoons.

Gluck spent some time in Paris during the 1770s and used trombones in several of the operas he produced there. Several of his Italian rivals in Paris had come from Naples, another Italian city where the trombone persisted throughout the seventeen and eighteenth centuries. Many of them used trombones in their operas, too. These foreigners inspired French composers to start writing trombone parts in their operas.

The last issue of L’État de France (1789) named someone who played trombone part time in the Ecurie. It is not clear whether he represents a surviving vestige or a reintroduction.

During the French Revolution, the government invented a new wind band that more nearly resembles our modern military bands than it does any earlier wind ensemble. It included three trombones and was very popular. Some composers active in Paris at this time introduced the trombone into their symphonies and other orchestral music.

The newly established Conservatory needed pedagogical literature for its trombone class, and André Braun provided it in about 1795. His description differs radically from any published earlier. Instead of a trombone in A with four diatonic positions, he described a trombone in B-flat with seven chromatic positions. The instrument itself had not changed in any way.

And so in 1700, the trombone could be found only in some German cities, the papal court and some Italian cities, and several important centers in the Empire. Italian composers found new uses for the trombone, which had tremendous influence in England and Austria.

Austrian and Italian operatic composers excited interest in the trombone among French composers. All of these major centers eventually influenced each other, as well as capitals of less influential countries and non-capital cities all over Europe. The trombone had come back to life and by the end of the eighteenth century had more varied roles than ever before.

David M. Guion. A History of the Trombone. (Scarecrow Press, 2010)
David M. Guion. “The Missing Link: the Trombone in Italy in the 17th and 18th Centuries.” Early Music 34 (2006): pp. 225-32.

Photo credits:
Public domain from Trombone History Timeline / Will Kimball.

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