Jay Friedman and Ken Shifrin Talk Trombone History

Taken from the Brass Herald Magazine, issue 51 and 52, December 2013 – February 2014. Principal Trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, Jay Friedman, and Ken, discuss the use of the alto trombone, valve trombone and euphonium in the symphony repertoire in relation to works by Bruckner, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bartok and other composers

Jay Friedman is principal trombone for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Friedman joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1962 at age 23.. When appointed principal in 1964, he was the youngest brass player to take the first chair in a major orchestra. Friedman has also appeared extensively as a conductor, becoming Music Director of the Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest in 1995, having served as Music Director of the River Cities Philharmonic, and Resident Conductor of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra. He has appeared as guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Italian Radio (RAI), the Malmö Symphony, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Rome.
Friedman has also prepared and published numerous transcriptions of orchestral and classical music for brass ensemble, most frequently trombone choir.


Jay: The old way of writing for alto, tenor and bass trombones started to diverge approximately sometime after Beethoven’s death in 1827.

Ken: Depending on the publisher, also. For example, Simrock’s publication of Dvorak’s symphonies in which the trombones were still being labelled at Alto, Tenor and Bass.

J: The 6th is obviously for alto, but later on he got more tenor-ish in his writing. Why?

K: I’m not so sure the Dvorak 6th was written for an alto trombone. According to my research, it appears that his works were written for valve trombone.

J: Interestingly, I have only found 4 examples in Berlioz’s music that clearly require alto trombone: Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy, Judges of the Secret Court overture, and the Funeral and Triumphal symphony.

K: The latter solo was for an optional valve alto trombone in F.

J: Yes, I just conducted the piece at school last year and saw the optional solo instruments. Also the alto indications for some of the tutti parts. All other music by Berlioz clearly is in the range of a tenor trombone. BTW, I have used alto, large bore tenor and smaller bore tenor on Symphonie Fantastique and I prefer a small bore tenor overall for this work.

K: With regard to Berlioz, it seems that until 1843 he considered the highest practical note playable on the tenor trombone to be high Bb (bb’) and thus anything written above that necessitated the use of the alto trombone, the sound of which he described in his Memoires as “shrill” and “poor” but capable of playing the notes b’ – f”.

Even though he would have been familiar with the Paris Opera’s Antoine Dieppo, the so-called “Dragonetti of Trombone,” apparently it was only after observations in Berlin in October 1843, did Berlioz become aware that a tenor trombonist could play reliably above high Bb. He thus came to advocate three tenor trombones as the ideal trombone section sound — provided the first tenor trombonist was capable of playing higher than bb’ — conveniently, one might say, since instruments were no longer furnished by the Parisienne municipality and with players having to provide their own, the tenor trombone was the obvious choice. Unfortunately, Berlioz did not amend his section on the trombone in his 1844 Traite (the manuscript of which he submitted in December 1842) to reflect his new thinking. This has led to confusion today regarding his preference for which instrument to play the first trombone part in Symphonie Fantastique: In 1830 he “demanded” in the score an alto trombone simply because he considered the first part unplayable on tenor. Thus, the first trombone parts of works composed before 1843, such as Les Francs-Juges, Messe Solenelle, the 1832 version of Lelio, and apparently even Harold in Italy, were also written originally for an alto — not because Berlioz preferred the sound, but because he was under the impression that only an alto trombone could meet the upper register demands

J: I must add that the golden age of writing for alto, tenor and bass trombones was in the music of Schubert, especially in his choral works. He treated the trombones as an equal part of the melodic carrying line, and as far as I’m concerned has never been surpassed. I have for years thought of making a complete edition of all the music for trombones by Schubert, including the fragments. Remember the one movement from an unfinished opera I mentioned awhile back that called for 4 trombones? He was writing music for the future. Also, BTW, I use alto on the Great C major symphony.

K: I think you are referring to the Schubert work “Des Teufels Lustschloss” (loose translation, the Devil’s Castle of Pleasure”) An early, student work (1814), in the overture he assigns the trombones a lovely, extended melodic passage in the Largo, perhaps one of the earliest occasions for this to occur,and a big part in the Finale to Act II in the Largo, in which acapella voices are answered by trombones (+1 bassoon) alone. Very innovative stuff for the time. It was never performed in his lifetime.

J: Yes, I’ve known about it for many years, but never played it in the orchestra. I copied out the parts years ago and have played through it. The one I was thinking of is an aria from an opera called “Adrast,” which was not completed.

J: Wagner was the first major composer to indicate a preference for tenor trombone on the 1st trombone part starting with Tannhauser. The modern orchestral trombone was first developed by C.F Sattler, followed by makers such as J.C. Penzel, Kuhn, Robert Schopper and of course the Kruspe family.

K. Well, technically speaking, Berlioz had expressed this preference a few years earlier, but he really had no choice as I mentioned above. But you are right: thanks to Wagner, the trombone section of two tenors and bass is what we consider the norm today

J: In the sketches for Rheingold, Wagner had the trombones assigned to what later became the Wagner tuba parts. We know Wagner visited Sax’s shop in Paris looking for new brass instruments.
He saw what was known as the Sax horn, a precursor of the modern Euphonium. Interestingly, it was Hans Richter, a horn player, who decided that the Wagner tubas would be played by horn players. The Wagner tuba actually is a small bore Euphonium fitted to take a horn mouthpiece. This brings me to the fact that in the Mahler 7th symphony, Mahler specifically asks that the “Tenor horn ist nicht ein Bariton, es muss haben ein sharf klang.”

K: Richard Strauss had intended a Wagner Tuba — which just to make things even more confusing was also called a tenor tuba — for Heldenleben and Don Quixote, but in 1899 after conductor Ernst von Schuch was conducting Don Quixote in Dresden he wrote Strauss that  “my tenor tuba [Wagner Tuba] player cannot play the part so well so I have arranged for a baryton [euphonium] tomorrow.” Consequently, Strauss wrote that “performances have shown that as a melodic instrument the euphonium is much better suited… than the rough and clumsy Wagner Tubas with their demonic tone. Indeed, Wagner in 1846 wrote in his Reform Plan for the Royal Dresden Orchestra: “The alto trombone’s compass is insufficient, and the alto trombonist is therefore often forced to omit entire passages or play them up an octave. A tenor trombone must therefore be put at the disposal of the alto trombonist addition to his usual instrument”.
(Incidentally, his Reform Plan was rejected!)

J: This coincided with the development of the modern tenor trombone which featured a larger bell and bore. In the list of instrumentation of Tristan and Isolde, Wagner says: “the first two trombones are understood throughout to be so-called tenor-bass trombones (thus no alto trombone is to be used:) the third trombone, in any case, is to be played by a real bass trombone.” What do you think he means, “real bass trombone?” Also that strange wording in the Ring that the contra “should alternate with the ordinary bass trombone?” There are people who claim they know where to alternate. Any thoughts?

K: Regarding a “real BassTrombone”.  perhaps Wagner was referring to the recently invented tenor trombone with the F- valve and he wanted  to make sure that this instrument was not used on the bass trombone part. This is a good quote. Can you give me the source please?

J: It is in the forward of the Dover score which is a reprint of Breitkopf and Hartel.

J: Interestingly enough, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan is written in alto clef! Was this an editors decision or the composers? It is also interesting that Wagner refers to the first two trombones as “tenor-bass,” a clear indication of the use of the F rotor valve. Liszt solved the problem head on by calling the 1st and 2nd parts “tenorposaune 1 and 2.” He and Wagner were important confidants to each other and it may have been Liszt who influenced Wagner in this regard.
Meanwhile composers such as Brahms stuck to the traditional method of writing for alto, tenor and bass.

K: It is interesting to note that when the Vienna Philharmonic premiered his Second Symphony (the First Symphony was premiered in Karlsruhe) the players in all likelihood were using valve trombones! I covered this in more detail in an article I did some time back, in the Brass Bulletin in 2000.

J: I have a possible answer to this. I can’t believe Vienna were using valves all that time. What if the sources saw the words “Posaune mit- Ventil’ in the records and as non- trombone players assumed it meant valve trombones????

K: Actually, there was a different reason. Around 1835 according to archival documents the Vienna Philharmonic/Opera Orchestra adopted valve trombones and they were used virtually exclusively through 1833. (One of the players in the trombone section, Johann Haferl, could only play slide trombone, so he was permitted to perform only ballets. I still can only speculate on the reasoning behind this.) In any case, it appears that the Vienna Philharmonic would have used valve trombones in the 1881 premiere of Bruckner’s 4th, and apparently four years earlier in the premiere of Brahms 2. Moreover, it should be noted that in 1862 when the orchestra pitch was lowered, a new set of valve trombones replaced the old set. The new set consisted of tenor and bass valve trombones only, so it seems that when the Vienna Philharmonic premiered the Brahms Second Symphony under the baton of Hans Richter, the first trombone part was played on a tenor valve trombone. Prior to the premiere while testing out the Second Symphony in Meiningen — Brahms had developed a special relationship with the Court Orchestra of Meiningen where his friend Bulow often tested out his compositions while Brahms and trusted colleagues would listen and he would make changes — he was harshly criticized for using the trombones in this symphony, especially in the opening because of the bad intonation, sound, legato and “no element of strength in the register in which their notes are concentrated…..[It is] a shrill outbreak of rage and pain that hurt my ears,” wrote Lachner to Brahms. Brahms himself replied that “I earnestly wished and attempted to manage without the trombones in the first movement.” I am speculating that in Meiningen they may have been using slide trombones (alto, tenor and bass) because of the specific criticism. Thus, maybe valve trombones — particularly a valve tenor trombone on the first part — in Vienna gave Brahms a better result?

J: Wow, this is shocking. I guess we have to look at it from their eyes. After a thousand years of the slide the prospect of modernizing the trombone must have been tempting and exciting.

K: Well, yes, although it was more like 400 hundred years. In 1883 when Director Jahn demanded the use of the new large-bore German slide trombones — including an alto — three trombonists from Germany (Berthold, Melig and Alex) had to be imported since none of the 5 Vienna Phil/Opera trombonists could play slide trombone, nor could any slide trombonists be found in Vienna. The three oldest members of the section were pensioned off (Turek, Mettenleitner and Schuoker), and the two other members (Malischek and Schubert) given a year to learn to play slide trombone, a task the former proved unable to accomplish, with the result that a slide trombonist from Budapest (William Schwannberg) had to be brought in to replace him.

J: Brahms must have been unaware of the mess in the Vienna trombone community to write such classic parts for alto, tenor and bass, or maybe he was just writing for posterity? Which do you think?

K: Maybe, as you suggest, for posterity, if unwittingly. It helps to have an idea of the general level of trombone playing in the 19th century: For example it was quite common for the tenor trombone obbligato in Mozart’s Tuba Mirum to be played by a bassoon or horn in Germany, and German trombonists were reputed to be the best in Europe. In Mannheim, Beriloz had to abandon the Finale of Harold because the trombonists couldn’t cut the part: in Hechingen he had to edit the trombone parts because the first player “could only handle the notes Bb, C and F and distinguished himself mostly by his silence”. In another orchestra he described the trombonists as “enough to make you bang your head against the wall”! Even as late as 1914, after hearing many performances of the Mozart Requiem in London, Cecil Forsyth, a leading English musicologist, wrote that the pitalic Tuba Mirum spargens sonum] appeared to him “not to have been written by someone who understood the instrument, and might be better described as Tuba Dirum spargens sonum (‘the dreadful trombone splatters its sound’)”

J: The Mozart solo was written by Mozart because it is in his handwriting. That’s been proven. There’s another funny quote about it in an old orchestration book, I forget which one, about it sounding like “Father time dragging himself into the new year” or something.

K: I love that quote! But I wasn’t suggesting that Mozart didn’t write the Tuba Mirum. I was just trying to give an example of what the level of trombone playing must have been, that even as late as 1914, Tuba Mirum was considered too difficult to be played on the trombone.

Contributing to the popularity of the valve trombone — throughout Europe — was the fact that it seems that, except for a few noted virtuosos, slide trombonists, especially in France, were at the bottom of the orchestral food chain. (I imagine even violists must have been telling “trombone jokes”!). Legato playing on the slide trombone, as we know it, was largely unknown (in France, trombonists were taught to play slurred passages as if each note was written line/dot to avoid smearing,) and composers at the Paris Opera welcomed the advent of the valve trombone which enabled them to write many lyrical, orchestral passages for solo trombone (in Halevy’s Le Juif Errant, for example ), not to mention the gymnastic passages replete with trills and grace notes that Verdi was able to give to Italian trombones. (The historian Adam Carse maintains that the popularity of the valve trombone in Italy was due to it being more manageable in the cramped opera pit, but I’m not buying it as a main reason, and I argued against that in my dissertation). There were also vested financial interests involved — Sax in Paris and Kail/Czerveny in Prague for example. (Kail, who some say invented the valve mechanism, was the trombone teacher at the Prague Conservatory and was very well connected “politically” on the musical scene, and fought long and hard in maintaining a ban of the slide trombone which he argued was “too strenuous” for the pupils, and although Kail retired in 1867 the study of the valve trombone was not abolished until 1903. (In 1928, Janacek had no problem with the Czech Philharmonic in getting the trombonists to play his Capriccio on valve trombones.) Of course, valve trombones naturally would’ve facilitated cornet and trumpet players to double more readily. In Germany, where apparently trombone slide technique was more advanced, the trombonists there were the first to abandon the valve trombone, and von Gontershausen writes that by 1855 the better players had abandoned the valve trombone. In Paris in 1873, thanks largely to the efforts of Dieppo’s former student Paul Delisse, “no less brilliant an instrumentalist”, study of the of the valve trombone was restored in France.

J: They couldn’t have been aware of the drawbacks of the valve trombone like sound, intonation, dynamics etc.

K: Czerveny of Prague, a leading manufacturer of valve trombones, maintaned that “the intrinsic sound was no different from that of the slide trombone”. And ironically, when the Vienna Opera Orchestra/Philharmonic abandoned slide trombones and adopted valve trombones around 1835, it was argued that valve trombones were superior in technical facility as was as sound to the narrow-bore slide trombones that had been used there.

J: If they did they probably thought they could be fixed by better design improvements. Luckily Wagner didn’t buy into this as he calls for tenor-bass trombones, clearly a slide description.

K: Just found an interesting quote: Frederick Corder, a leading English musicologist, predicted that the tenor slide-trombone, which he maintained was in a “transitional stage”, would be superceded by the valve trombone due to the “impossibility of playing really legato” on the former. He wrote that in 1895!

Also, something else interesting: the valve alto trombone in France was sometimes called “trombone soprano a piston” in the scores when there are four trombones. Apparently it was called “soprano” because the customary section of 3 tenors was called “alto, tenor, bass” so a higher trombone would have to be a soprano.

J: I don’t know of any French orchestral music calling for 4 parts.

K: Halevy’s Guido et Ginevre is written for four and has a gorgeous solo in the first part. Likewise, Thomas used four in his Overture to Le Compte Carmagnola. Robin Gregory (and others) are mistaken when they say this was written for a slide alto-trombone. Thomas specifically indicated in the autograph score a trombon soprano a piston en Mi. Incidentally, Gregory and Kunitz are also mistaken when the maintain that the trombone solo in Thomas’ Hamlet was for a (slide) alto trombone. It was written for a (six-valve) tenor trombone and is so stated in the autograph score.

K: I have some questions for you: do American trombonists in the major orchestras use an alto on the first trombone parts of Brahms’ symphonies?

J: Not that I know of, but I do. You have to have the right alto and mouthpiece, however. I think someone needs 2-3 different sized mouthpieces. You wouldn’t use the same one for Beethoven and then Mozart or Brahms.

K: Does anyone today perform Brahms IV on alto trombone?

J: I do for the last 15 years. I don’t see any reason not to. What is your query as to why people don’t?

K: I was just referring back to our discussion about the seemingly prevalent opinion that Brahms wanted a big, dark trombone sound (contrary to historical evidence). In fact, in an 1859 letter written by Brahms to his friend and fellow musician, Theodor Ave Lallemant about the upcoming performance of Begräbnissgesang, Brahms makes a firm, specific request about the instrumentation of the trombone section: “On no account three tenor trombones! One genuine little alto trombone and, if possible a genuine bass trombone.” (“Six Unpublished Letters from Johannes Brahms”, in For the Love of Music: A Festschrift in Honor of Theodore Front, Lucca, Italy: Lim antiqua, 2002)
Speaking of using the alto, there seems to be a worrying trend to think that because the first player is using smaller equipment (i.e. the alto) then therefore the 2nd and 3rd should also use smaller horns. This masks the three distinct timbres that composers were looking for.

J: I agree with you about not playing a smaller tenor when alto is used. There is more color in trombones that are much different in size. I don’t like the tendency to play the biggest alto and mouthpiece for most alto parts. The alto trombone should not sound like a small tenor or the effect is lost. It should have a classic alto sound, warm but focused, which if need be blends with the alto voices.

K: I agree with you completely. It sometimes seems as if we have gone full-circle. At one time non-alto playing trombonists would frequently use a small-bore tenor to approximate the sound of the alto. Now it seems players are using large-bore altos to sound like small-bore tenors!

J: I agree with you about not playing a smaller tenor when the alto is used. There is more colour in trombones that are much different in size.

K: Today’s modern alto trombone, being of larger dimensions than it’s 18th century or even 19th century predecessor, the proportional relationship is maintained hen the 2nd player uses his/her customary large-bore tenor. Thus there is no need for a smaller bore tenor trombone on the second part when the alto is used on first. Indeed, using a smaller bore tenor works to mitigate against the intended difference of colour.

J: The tendency to close the gap between voices, such as playing smaller equipment when an alto is used, is diminishing the intended effect of different voice to achieve a spectrum of colours. Since the modern bass trombone is certainly larger than the old F bass trombone that Haydn and Beethoven wrote for, it is important that the distance between alto and tenor trombones be of enough size to produce the spectrum of colours the great composers envisioned.

K: Tell me, what do you make of the low d pedal point for the trombone section in the Requiem, with regard to the alto?

J: The only question about the Brahms requiem is that the alto and tenor sounds don’t match on the D especially with the tiny mouthpieces they probably used.

K: Yeah, that was my point. I figure (hope!) that the alto trombonist was “judicious” in playing the note — more so than Brahms in writing it — playing just long enough for the 2nd trombone to take breaths!

J: At the same time Bruckner was starting to compose some of his symphonies. He was an ardent admirer of Wagner and no doubt had his orchestra in mind for his own works. Then why do all of his symphonies call for alto, tenor and bass trombones? My suspicion is that the publishers at that time in Germany and Austria were so grounded in the old practice of alto tenor and bass that when they engraved Bruckner’s music they automatically indicated those instruments even though the 1st and 2nd trombones are always notated in tenor clef.

K: This is a very good point. It is near to impossible to deduce from Bruckner’s autograph scores of his symphonies that he wanted the ATB trombone trio, some of which have all three parts in bass clef and indicated only as “Posaunen”

J: The tessitura of the Bruckner symphonies also indicate the use of a tenor on the 1st part.

K: You would be amazed at the so-called scholars who have written (mistakenly in my view) that Bruckner intended an alto trombone for his symphonies and that we are not getting the right trombone sound for Bruckner by playing the first part on tenor! Yet my research and examination of the first handwritten parts leads to the conclusion that in some of his choral works, particularly his earlier ones, he preferred an alto trombone on the first part. I have a complete list of around 38 of Bruckner’s major works in my Dissertation (Table 3.1) indicating which instrument he intended for the first part.

J: I think the tradition was so strong at that time that it was automatically indicated for alto, with no thought whether it would be played on alto or not. Bruckner’s writing is so tenor orientated as far as range that he just left it to the player. He must have been aware of Schubert’s alto writing and his bears no resemblance to that tessitura.

K: I think you are referring to the high tessitura of Schubert’s alto trombone parts in his masses in which the trombones are doubling the voices, in the old-fashioned, traditional manner.

From around 1846 to around 1854 evidence points to Bruckner’s use exclusively of an ATB trombone trio in his compositions — choral works –in which the trombones largely, but not slavishly, reinforce the voices. From 1862- 1863 Bruckner studied with Otto Kitzler, an adherent of Wagner who introduced Bruckner to more “modern” ways of writing for the trombone, marking a turning point in Bruckner’s style of composition. From this point onward Bruckner appears to have scored exclusively for a tenor first trombone (with the possible exception of the F Minor Mass which calls for a high D and C# in support of the alto voices) in both his sacred and symphonic works. In Bruckner’s later sacred works the trombones play more of an independent, “orchestral” role, and moreover the first trombone is often strengthening the tenor voices in the choir, not the alto voices.

J: The case of Rossini’s music is very interesting in this regard, and gives us an insight into the influence publishers exert in the presentation of orchestra music. Most of Rossini’s music was written for one trombone. Until 15-20 years ago the overtures to his operas were played in 3 trombone arrangements, many published by Breitkopf and Hartel. Because it is a German firm the parts were arranged for alto, tenor and bass trombones following the traditional German custom. This was apparently a decision by the publisher to perhaps sell more music using a standard orchestra contingent. Most of us have seen in certain excerpt books the strange looking version of the William Tell overture arranged for alto, tenor and bass, with the alto part carefully avoiding the lower octave in strategic places. This is a clear example of a publisher inserting their own preferences into the music at the expense of the composers original vision.

K: According to Elizabeth Bartlett, an acknowledged Rossini expert,when Guillaume Tell was performed in Paris, the “three trombones were called ‘alto’, ‘tenor’ and ‘bass’….Rossini notated the parts on a single line in bass clef… for Rossini primarily conceived of the trombone as a bass instrument.”

J: Incidentally, the theory that the William Tell overture was written for valve trombones has been repudiated by one of the scholarly treatises on the trombone, saying there was no evidence of the presence of valve trombones at the Paris Opera which staged the premiere. I read it in the ITA years ago by someone who was an expert on performance practice at the Paris Opera. A non-trombone player.

K: There was no evidence of the presence of the valve trombone at the Paris Opera at that time, because by all accounts it hadn’t been invented yet. ?

J: BTW: When I was a student at the conservatory we played a B&H edition of the Barber of Seville Overture that had as it’s first entrance a high B natural 16th pickup and fermata. Later on in the coda there were high C#’s and D’s everywhere. I have never seen that edition again but I’m sure somebody has run into it again. Also, Dvorak’s trombone parts are interesting. Although the 1st trombone parts are in the alto tessitura and in alto clef, an article by you in the ITA Journal a few years ago said there wasn’t a slide trombone professor at the Prague Conservatory until 1900.

K: Actually what I think I wrote — what I hope I wrote! — was that it wasn’t until 1903 that the Conservatoire Trombone Class was taught by a proper slide trombonist, Joseph Hilmer. Smita, his predecessor, played both slide and valve trombone but was primarily a valve trombonist.

J: Does this mean Dvorak’s music was written for valve trombones?

K: There is much evidence to suggest, that with the exception of his first symphony, a student work, Dvorak was writing for valve trombones.

J: Perhaps that explains the sixteenth note run in the eighth symphony.

K: And maybe the fourth movement arpeggi in the Te Deum

J: The music of the 19th century Russian composers presents some interesting problems concerning choice of instruments. Obviously the Tchaikovsky Symphonies are written with tenor trombones in mind, never mind the alto, tenor and bass indication on the B&H editions which are the most common. There was however, a tradition of writing for alto starting with Glinka, which seems to have carried over to composers such as Liadov, Balakirev and Borodin.

K: Del Mar says that R-K was of the group of four Russian composers, along with Cui, Borodin and Musorgsky, who had been influenced by Balakierev and adopted his predilection for “writing the 1st and 2nd trombones together on one stave and using the alto clef”, which Piston states did not indicate that alto trombones were intended. Moreover, in R-K’s Principles of Orchestration, while he discusses the various pitched trumpets, cornets and horns, he makes no mention of the different species of trombone. As far as R-K is concerned there appears to be only the tenor trombone with an F-attachment. (Figure 3.3 in my Dissertation.)

J: It is more difficult to discern the intention of Rimsky-Korsakov. While there is the obvious fact that there are 2 famous solo passages for tenor trombone written in the 2nd part, and the first part is written in alto clef, the first part is always in the tenor tessitura, making it difficult to know what instrument he had in mind. It could be that he wanted to make sure that wherever his music would be performed the solos would be played on a tenor trombone, in case an alto was still being used on the first part.

K: A good point. But, in the manuscript score of the Russian Easter Festival Overture (italic The Complete Works of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Conductor’s Score], facsimile, Belwin Mills, 1981) which presumably is a re-print of R-K’s score, all three trombone parts are written in bass clef. I believe R-K wrote both of these works in 1888 and both were premiered by the same orchestra in St Petersberg that year. If this is the case, he could have perhaps intended the solos for a specific player.

J: This tradition certainly carried over to the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. While usually written in alto clef, in fact both 1st and 2nd parts, they are clearly intended to be played on tenor trombones.

K: Absolutely. Writing in this manner here should be seen as a convention rather than an indication of what instrument was intended. Tell me: What do you make of Bartok’s use of 4 alto trombone extras in Bluebeard’s Castle? Why alto trombones in this register? Or for that matter Mahler’s indication of a muted alto trombone in a passage in his 6th Symphony (which is lower that the optional use of an alto in a passage in his 7th Symphony) — even though he wrote higher for the tenor trombone in his earlier and later symphonies?

J: I have pondered this for years and have no answer except the editor made a big mistake. I think some publisher got the word alto in there by mistake

K: This is a mystery to me. I had a professor at Oxford who suggested it was because Bartok was going for a shrill sound, but I argued that this takes place in the opera’s most luxuriant moment, when Bluebeard’s immense wealth is portrayed (the opening of the fifth door),and besides it’s the alto’s upper register which is associated with shrillness, not the register in which the four altos are playing.

J: There’s no other explanation. Just like the Concerto for Orchestra’s publisher got the MM wrong in the 2nd movement.

K: All I know for sure, is it sounds lousy on altos and is embarrassing to be a part of it!

J: I guess get the biggest alto and mouthpiece you can and hope for the best. BTW we play it on altos in order to get doubling and be offstage!!

K: Yeah, we did too. Priorities, huh!

J: Speaking of the alto trombone indications in the Mahler 6th and 7th symphonies, I can hear some old style 1900‘s trombone player trying to squeeze out softly the G and A in the Mahler 6th passage with the trumpet. Maybe that’s why he did it.

K: I agree: I think composers were influenced more by the inadequacies of the trombonists with whom they were familiar than with the few virtuosos they may have come in contact with. (Mendelssohn was very lucky to have the outstanding Queisser in his band at Leipzig). Hence certain dynamics, articulations — perhaps even “bells up” in Mahler.

J: Stravinsky decried the fact that the alto trombone was obsolete, and wrote some parts for alto in his later works.

K: Yeah, good ol’ Stravinsky lamenting the demise of the alto and then approving of a valve trombone to play Pulcinella if no slide trombonist was available.

J: How do you do the glisses??

K: Ask Stravinsky!

J: An interesting sidelight to this discussion is the fact that in the late 19th and early 20th century, some of the larger opera orchestras in Germany, actually had a position for a player to play only the alto trombone!

K: This is very interesting. I have never run across this. What is the source of this? What I have heard from a colleague ( Karl-Heinz Weber) was that by this time since most players had to provide their own instruments in Germany, and since they couldn’t afford to own two instruments they thus naturally settled on the tenor, and if an alto trombone was absolutely required, the orchestra had to provide the instrument.

J: I have heard this off and on when I first started in the 60’s. That’s not to say they only played alto on the job. A large opera house such as Vienna would be the type of place if this were true. Something like Magic Flute is so common there I can see someone specializing in the alto. I seem to remember someone telling me about Das Orchester advertising an alto position in the 1900’s. I saw Berlin Phil. play Schubert 9 a couple of years ago and the 1st player played tenor.

K: I know what you mean. I am not saying that this is the case here, and I am sure you agree, but far too often the alto is viewed by some first players as an upper register aid, and not as an instrument of a different timbre. Maybe this has to do with some alto trombones having such large bores, but it also seems the attitude sometimes is “I’ve got good high chops, I dont need the alto” –especially when the orchestra doesn’t pay a doubling fee. ?

J: BTW. We are about to acquire a full section of old Kruspe’s. I have a great tenor, (pic on my website) I just got a 1930’s alto, and we are about to get a 1930’s bass that was made for the Berlin Phil. I have been trying for this since I first got in the orchestra.

Vienna used valved contra on Solti’s ring. I had a picture of the Rheingold section 1957. In 1965 the Bavarian Radio played Bruckner 4 with a Bach 42 on 1st and a 36B on bass! I have many stories from my youth. In the 70s Concertgebow played King 2 and 3B’s and an 88H on bass for Brahms 1st.

I also have been trying to find out what the old German players played as far as bore size. I have 5 Kruspe tenors. 4 are large and 1 is small. The large ones are approx. 547 and 9 inch bells. The old Berlin section played small Kruspe and Latzsch. Did the Mahler era players play the bigger ones?

K: I’ve got a picture of the Czech Philharmonic playing Mahler’s 6th Symphony conducted by Mahler, but there is not a crisp enough focus to tell anything about the trombones, unfortunately.

J: Someone did. Maybe the military so I’ve heard. There is an 1890’s picture of the Chicago Symphony at the Auditorium Theatre and the trombone players are playing German type instruments with large bells, but interestingly enough the 3rd player doesn’t have an F attachment. The bells are large but even the smaller bore horns had large bells. They look like the typical Kruspe-type style.

K: The trend for larger bells was started by, ironically, the French in the early 1800s with their military bands in order to produce more sound for playing outdoors.

J: I guess we must surmise that the history of the trombone in the 19th century was as much influenced by circumstance and practical considerations as by tradition, and this caused some pretty bizarre divergences into things like valves and the use of tenor instruments in place of the alto. Since the horn and trumpet were experiencing revolutionary advances in technology, it was only natural that the trombone should be included. What was apparently not realized however, was the unique nature of the slide trombone, with it’s possibility of perfect intonation, chromatic ability, and most importantly the purity of sound which made it the perfect partner for the human voice, and therefore the closest orchestral instrument to it.

K: And it is the purity of sound and similarity to the human voice which makes the slide trombone unique among wind instruments in that its construction has remained basically unchanged since its inception.

Ken Shifrin Online