Trombonists, who have been mostly human, have always had lives. Some of them have commanded great personal and professional respect, but not others.
The trombone itself has had its ups and downs. In fact, the high points in the reputations of the trombone and trombonists have not necessarily coincided.
Sometimes playing trombone has been their principal profession, more often, though, not. In fact, most musicians throughout history have had to earn money from something besides music in order to survive.
A bunch of lowlifes
The earliest trombone (ca. 1400) consisted of a trumpet bell moving along a single slide. It looked like the player on the right in Borso’s band.
Even then, the Italians called it the trombone. It was known in French as trompette des ménéstrels, or minstrel trumpet.
That name distinguished the instrument from trompette de guerre, or war trumpet, a natural trumpet. Today we call it the Renaissance slide trumpet.
Minstrels were the professional instrumental musicians of their day. Some of them had steady jobs in a town band or the household of some noblemen. Many others were homeless vagrants. Most also routinely performed a variety of non-musical tasks.
They could be poets, chamber valets, diplomats, or spies at the higher end of the social scale; jugglers, acrobats, or bear wardens at the lower; and watchmen or clock tenders somewhere in the middle.
No matter. They got no respect. As late as 1537, someone could write,
The entertainer and the juggler are not people like other men, but have only a semblance of humanity, and are almost comparable to the dead.
If minstrels toiled in anonymity with no legal protection, court musicians could at least enjoy the protection of their noble patron. Their names are preserved in court records.
The earliest trombonist known by name, one Hennequin van Pictre, played both trompette des ménéstrels and trompette des guerre in the court of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, beginning in 1414.
In 1418, he killed one of his colleagues in a knife fight. The only consequence? He acquired the nickname by which he was known the rest of his life: Copetripe, which roughly means “cutgut.” John could hardly object. Murder was among the strategies by which nobles achieved and maintained their power.
What is this thing?
The English knew the trombone as the sackbut for more than two centuries. It took a while for them to settle on that name.
In 1495, court records show payment of wages to “4 shakbusshes.” Subsequent payment entries spell it “shakbushe(s).” King Henry VII was at that time building an alliance with Spain, and the Spanish word for trombone is sacabuche. “Sackbut” more closely resembles the French sacqueboute.
Before the English settled on “sackbut,” (or “sacbut”) documents at the court and for the London waits tried out “hakbush,” “hakbussh,” “sakbudde,” “seykevude,” or anything within reason.
Most of the minstrels named in the accounts as playing the instrument had already served the court for a long time, but records identified them as trumpeters. Something like trompette des ménéstrels perhaps?
The health benefit
The first published mention of the sackbut in English literature comes not in a musical treatise or work of literature, but in a book by Sir Thomas Elyot called The Castel of Helth (1534). Playing it is healthy.
Here’s what he wrote, in modernized English:
The entrails, which are underneath the midriff, are exercised by blowing, either by constraint or playing on the shawms, or sackbuts, or other like instruments which require much wind.
Those shakbusshes got more benefit from their instruments than the wimpy noblemen, who played keyboard instruments or lute so that no one would see them exerting effort!
Success after being fired
Tielman Susato is best known to music history as the first music publisher to use movable type in the Netherlands. He opened his business in Antwerp in 1543. He had been a member of the town band as trombonist (among other instruments) in 1531. He frequently played trombone as the only instrumentalist in church services.
Many Dutch, apparently including most of the band, practiced Protestantism. The hereditary overlord of the Netherlands, however, was the Holy Roman Emperor, a staunch Catholic. Charles VI visited Antwerp in 1549.
Shortly after his triumphal entry, the entire band was fired. Eventually the others were reinstated. Apparently only Susato refused to promise loyalty to Catholicism. It didn’t hurt his publishing business, and he continued to find work as trombonist for another six years.
Although trombonists served in royal/imperial households, most of them probably had no personal relationship with the kings. In 1501, English records note a large payment (37 pounds 10 shillings) to Hans Nagel and Hans Broen “who lately played before His Lordship, for his pleasure.”
Nagel remained at the English court only until 1504. After that, he served Philp the Fair of Burgundy and played for the town band in Antwerp. He maintained personal contact with the English royal family. Henry VIII entrusted him with diplomatic missions. It appears that Nagel spied for both sides.
Robert Schumann referred to the Leipzig musical fixture Karl Traugott Queisser as the “trombone god.” Although he never left Germany, Queisser was an internationally renowned trombone soloist.
He didn’t make his entire living as a performer, however. He didn’t even make his entire living from music.
Schumann’s epithet comes in the context of introducing the principal string players of the Gewandhaus orchestra. Queisser did not play trombone in the orchestra. He was principal violist.
He was also principal violist in the world’s first commercially successful string quartet. He served for a time as concert master of Leipzig’s other orchestra, the Euterpe. Oh, and he led the town band.
Queisser married the daughter of a local pleasure garden, the Kuchengarten. He owned and ran it for almost 15 years. A touring Englishman left this description:
Here, in one of the suburban gardens, may be occasionally heard the famed trombonist M. Queisser, by his townsmen vaunted the greatest performer of the whole empire. He is himself the proprietor of this rural retreat, having captivated the affections and wedded the form of its female possessor, thus enticing the inhabitants to discuss his viands, and enhancing his fortune, as host, by means of his music.
French trombonist Auguste Léonard de la Tuilerie never achieved Queisser’s level of acclaim, or even respect. He studied at the Royal Imperial Polytechnical College—not nearly as prestigious as the Conservatory—and served in the artillery. After his retirement, he became a pharmacist. Perhaps he never studied music in college at all.
In 1846 he made a formal presentation to the music section of the Academy of Fine Arts about the virtues of the trombone. Speaking to a room full of men who probably all complained that the trombones in the orchestra played too loudly, Léonard de la Tuilerie proclaimed it capable of playing “a gentler, mellower, sadder color.” He offered some of his own arrangements for sale.
No one bought the arrangements. No one considered exploring the trombone’s softer side. Besides his disappointment at not selling his music, the only outcome of his presentation was a magazine article by an important critic, who held him up to ridicule.
The elephant and other odd associations
I mentioned in the introduction that most trombonists have been human. An advertisement in The Times on September 28, 1870 touts an exception:
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.
Throughout the nineteenth centuries, the same paper advertised trombone soloists at Promenade concerts and other respectable venues. They appeared on the same program as soloists on other instruments and, likely as not, a classical symphony.
But plenty of other ads put trombone solos in a much more lowbrow context, along with jugglers and others considered disreputable three or four centuries earlier. This one, for example, from December 8, 1883:
Toole backs Bolo at Kachorka, the new Russian game. To-night. Toole’s Trombone Solo. Toole the secret trustee. Sensational transition from cards to music. The Dumb Witness. Artful cards.
No, horses didn’t play trombone. They left that to the elephant. But in 1886, two different horses named Trombone appeared in The Times’ “Sporting Intelligence” column.
One owned by Mr. Machell is mentioned on Sept. 29, and Oct. 27, and one owned by Mr. Chaplin on Oct. 20 and Oct. 29. Both men owed several other horses named in the same columns.
On Oct. 29, there was a match between two two-year-olds: Mr. Chaplin’s Trombone, by Trumpeter, and Admiral Rous’s Lady Bugle Eye [no parent named], with the betting 3 to 1 on Lady Bugle Eye.
They left the post in close company, and ran so to the bushes, where Trombone took a clear lead, which he retained to the end, and won in a canter by two lengths.
David M. Guion. A History of the Trombone. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
Stewart Carter. The Trombone in the Renaissance: a History in Pictures and Documents. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 2012.
David M. Guion. Carl Traugott Queisser and Musical Leipzig: Trombonist, Violist, and Musical Leader in the Time of Mendelssohn, Kindle edition, 2012.
Edward Holmes. A Ramble among the Musicians of Germany. London: Hunt and Clark, 1828. Reprinted, New York: Da Capo, 1969.