Euphonium players might object to the title of this post. After all, Simone Mantia was the leading euphonium soloist of his generation. He played euphonium on most of his best-known performances. On the other hand, he never wrote a book called The Euphonium Virtuoso.
Simone Mantia was born in 1873 in Palermo, Italy. Some sources say that he and his family immigrated to New York when he was 17. However, the only biographical sketch I have found that appeared during his lifetime implies that he arrived in New York when he was 8. In either case, his Italian heritage shaped his first experiences in music.
Italians’ love of opera in the 19th century is well known. Less well known are its numerous wind bands, both military and amateur. At the time of Italian unification, there were about 1,700 of them, with thousands of enthusiastic participants.
Italians adopted the valve trombone as soon as it became available. A few valve trombonists became nationally known as soloists, playing mainly transcriptions and variations on operatic arias. Only near the end of the century did Italian trombonists begin to switch to playing slide trombones.
In the US, therefore, most bands and orchestras used slide trombones, but opera companies that specialized in Italian opera used valve trombones as long as Italians did. When Italian opera companies began to favor slide trombones, American companies began to switch as well.
As a child, Mantia started to play alto horn, an important voice in 19th-century wind bands. He later switched to euphonium and valve trombone, likewise important band instruments. Slide trombone came later under harrowing circumstances.
Simone Mantia as euphonium player
According to the biographical sketch in his edition of the Arban studies,
His career and ultimate success were brought about not only through in-born talent but through the incessant perseverance and unending patience of the true artist. From the time of his boyhood days and when only twelve years old, Simone Mantia was playing an old-style Valve Trombone in various small orchestras and earning a scanty livelihood with whatever outside work he could find . . . [H]e was the main support of his parents and numerous smaller brothers and sisters.
For some of that “outside work,” he played euphonium in various bands. At the time, bands provided a more dependable living for brass musicians than orchestras. Eventually, he played in such notable bands as Jules Levy’s Band and Schneider’s Band.
At some time in the 1890s, he started taking lessons from Joseph Raffayolo, who had achieved national fame as euphonium soloist in the Gilmore Band. When Gilmore died, Raffayolo served as euphonium soloist for John Philip Sousa.
When Raffayolo died in 1896, Mantia succeeded him as Sousa’s euphonium soloist. As a result of touring with Sousa, Mantia became internationally famous. He surpassed his teacher not only in fame, but according to some, in virtuosity. Like many of the top virtuoso soloists of his generation, he composed much of his repertoire.
During Sousa’s European tour in 1903, many listeners had trouble believing Mantia could play so fast on an ordinary euphonium. Arthur Pryor’s technique on trombone provoked equal skepticism. In Leipzig, members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra insisted on taking the instruments apart to prove that the virtuosos did not depend on some kind of trickery.
When Arthur Pryor left Sousa’s band to form his own, Mantia went with him to become not only Pryor’s euphonium soloist but assistant conductor. He stayed with Pryor for 20 years.
Mantia had a five-valve double bell euphonium custom made for him. I have not found out if that’s the instrument he played on Sousa’s European tour, but it is the one most closely associated with him.
He performed on euphonium at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. In 1948, he became euphonium soloist with Paul Lavalle’s Cities Service Band of America, which performed nationwide radio broadcasts. He remained active as a performing musician until a week before his death in 1951.
Unfortunately, he made very few solo recordings, and most of them are very early, with surface noise obscuring his performance.
Here is a performance of Mantia playing with John Philip Sousa in 1902. The piece is called “Original Fantasy,” but it’s Mantia’s arrangement of a work by Emano Picchi.
Mantia dedicated one of his last compositions, Priscilla, to John Philip Sousa’s daughter. The next video is from a radio broadcast of him playing it with Paul Lavelle’s band in 1949.
Simone Mantia as trombone player
When he was 17, Mantia got his first really good job as valve trombonist with the Brooklyn Opera House. All American opera houses eventually abandoned the valve trombone in favor of the slide trombone. When Brooklyn made the change, it gave its trombone section a week’s notice.
Losing that job was unthinkable, but he had no money to hire a teacher. So he bought a second-hand slide trombone and worked on his own to learn to play it. In five days, he had become proficient enough to keep his job.
Although most famous as euphonium soloist, Mantia probably played trombone more than euphonium. Even with Pryor, he soloed both on euphonium and trombone.
In 1909, Mantia became first trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and remained there for 35 years. Over the course of his career, he also performed with the Victor Herbert Orchestra, Philharmonic Society of New York, Chicago Opera, Philadelphia Grand Opera, and Russian Symphony Orchestra.
Mantia’s other musical roles
Not only did he play trombone for the Metropolitan Opera, but he also served for ten years as personnel manager.
Simone Mantia is not known as one of the major teachers of brass instruments, but he had at least some very successful students. My teacher at the University of Iowa, John Hill, studied with him. In any case, most trombonists today probably know Mantia’s name best from two of his pedagogical works.
The Trombone Virtuoso (1921) is one of the most important trombone method books of the first half of the 20th century. It includes “the Mantia system for gaining perfect intonation on the Slide Trombone.”
In 1936, Mantia co-edited a trombone version of Arban’s cornet method with Charles Randall. The first volume includes biographical sketches of Arban and the two editors. Mantia’s biography is longer than the other two combined. The direct quotations in this post come from it.
Arban’s famous method for slide and valve trombone and baritone in bass clef / adapted by and issued under the editorial supervision of Charles L. Randall and Simone Mantia (Carl Fischer, 1936)
A history of the trombone / David M. Guion (Scarecrow Press, 2010)
Mantia, Simone / Heritage Encyclopedia of Band Music
Twentieth-century brass soloists / Michael Meckna (Greenwood Press, 1994)