Fake histories of the trombone, or, where was Snopes?

Widely copied misinformation did not begin with the Internet. Reliable historical writings about the trombone in English begin with a 1906 article by Francis Galpin. Before that? Fake histories abounded. Likely as not, they appeared in encyclopedia articles. They frequently name sources, but except for the Bible, not with enough precision that interested readers could actually find them. Or else they name current secondary sources that refer only to bibliographic fog. … Continue reading

9 odd wind instruments you have probably never seen

Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music. Ophicleide At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory. The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented … Continue reading

How the Trombone Cheated Death

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 … Continue reading

A prehistory of the trombone

The familiar shape of the slide trombone has been around at least since 1490. That’s when Filippino Lippi included an image of it in frescos he painted at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. It hasn’t been around as long as the word “trombone,” which first appeared in 1439 in court records in Ferrara. The court at Ferrara had a three-piece wind band for most of the century. Pietro Agostino played played trombone in that band from at least 1456 to at least 1503. … Continue reading

Waisenhauskirche Mass: Tradition vs innovation in Mozart’s trombone parts

Mozart’s Requiem, the last piece he ever worked on, has a trombone solo in the Tuba mirum movement. So far as I know, there is nothing like it anywhere in the standard sacred music repertoire. The important word in that sentence is “standard.” People who wrote about musical performances in the nineteenth century were all too aware of the uniqueness of that solo. Throughout the century in every country from which I have seen magazine or newspaper articles, critics rarely mentioned the trombones in classical music except to complain that they were too loud. Along with more than one author … Continue reading

Trombones on five continents during the Renaissance

A recent book by Stewart Carter The Trombone in the Renaissance: a History in Pictures and Documents, sheds light in some previously dark corners of the history of the trombone. Among other things, it documents the use of the trombone on five different continents in the sixteenth century. For the record, here are the numbers of items the book contains from various geographic areas, from most to least: Italy, 178 Germany, 130 France and the Low Countries, 78 Spain, 45 England, 39 Asia, Africa, and the New World, 20 Portugal, 12 Scandinavia, 4 Eastern Europe, 4 Asia, Africa, and the … Continue reading

An old oddity: the contrabass trombone

Trombones come in several sizes. Tenor and bass trombone are the most common. Orchestral trombonists frequently use alto trombones. Soprano and contrabass trombones remain novelties. The latter is by far the older of the two. Someone described a performance on a contrabass trombone (probably) in 1568. Michael Praetorius provided the first really comprehensive description of the trombone in the second volume of his Syntagma musicum (1619). He described and illustrated sizes from the alto trombone to the contrabass. The contrabass must have been an oddity in his own lifetime, because his description is rather vague. The one pictured here is … Continue reading

Trombone ensembles: a brief history

The trombone has been primarily an ensemble instrument from the beginning. It found its first use in the bands sponsored by towns beginning in the 1300s. In fact, the bands predate the trombone. They started out as ensembles of shawms and trumpets, but rising standards of shawm playing left the natural trumpet in the dust. The trombone came along because shawms needed a competent companion. Ensembles of trombones alone came later. The 1500s saw a great deal of experimentation with new instrumental combinations. Courts in Italian city-states, notably Florence, led the way. They presented elaborate theatrical entertainments to project their … Continue reading

Adolphe Sax’s marketing campaign for new brass instruments

If people know only one thing about Adolphe Sax, it’s that he invented a lot of new instruments in the nineteenth century. Today, the saxophone is the most successful. That basically amounts to an ophicleide (a forerunner of the tuba with keys instead of valves) fitted with a clarinet reed. His redesign of the trombone with six independent valves, first introduced in 1852, was much more radical than any of the new instruments he invented. I’d like to look at at least part of his marketing campaign for that instrument as an illustration of his business methods. The important journal … Continue reading

Reprise: five early posts

I started this blog more than two years ago. Since then, I have learned a lot about blogging and what kinds of articles work best. Several of my early posts are way too short to deserve any attention, but I think you’ll still enjoy several of them. Here is a batch: In preparation of my latest book on the history of the trombone, I had to look at a lot of the Times of London. Before the book appeared, I posted some interesting selections verbatim. I did not use all of the quoted material in my book, so people who … Continue reading