With heartfelt thanks to Edward Solomon for his constant encouragement and expertise, proofreading the French and German language extracts, consultative advice and inspiration for the title and ultimately publishing the current work on the Internet.

Many thanks to Tonkünstler-on-the-Bund (https://www.tonkunstler-on-the-bund.com), an orchestra in Shanghai, that is responsible for the presentation of the Dissertation on-line. They are currently working on creating on-line access to Volume II, the examples.

The Alto Trombone in the Orchestra: 1800-2000

Extracted from the published edition (Originally PhD thesis, Oxford University, May 2000)


In examining the nineteenth-century orchestral repertoire from the perspective of the first trombone part, I have reached a number of conclusions that challenge received wisdom, particularly regarding the use of the alto trombone. The alto’s orchestral career was indeed brief, but those who place it within a time-frame that begins with Beethoven and ends with Wagner over-simplify matters. Though the first composer of symphonies with trombones whose works entered the standard repertoire, Beethoven’s use of the alto -tenor-bass trio in the Finale of Symphony No. 5 in 1808 was preceded by others, notably Eggert in his 1807 Symphony in Bb. With Weber and Schubert, the alto-led section became an accepted, integral part of the orchestral instrumentation. While Beethoven wrote for the alto trombone at the upper extreme of its register, the first trombone parts of Weber’s operas and Schubert’s symphonies (as opposed to his masses) are often claimed to be too low to have been written with an alto in mind – a contention refuted by historical evidence and by the first trombone erste Abschriften – so the tenor trombone is generally preferred for these works today. Mendelssohn and Schumann, on the other hand, wrote the most demanding parts for the alto, exposing the instrument’s uppermost register in very prominent passages. Orchestral writing for the ATB trio reached a creative high point with Schumann, with the trombone’s tone colour being utilised in forte and piano and in salient chorales, both sombre and uplifting.

The influence of the French vogue for the tenor-led trombone section – whose original impetus may have had more to do with practical than musical considerations – and the widespread popularity of the versatile valve-trombone during the mid-1800s, contributed more to the decline of the alto trombone than did the advent of the valved F-trumpet as contended by Widor and others. Even Berlioz, who initially lamented the absence of the alto trombone in France, came to favour the replacement of the ATB trio with a section of three tenors.

Composers at the Paris Opera – but notably not, as commonly believed, Rossini – embraced the tenor valve-trombone enthusiastically, not only for its technical facility but also for its lyrical legato advantage over the slide trombone. By around 1840 the alto had virtually disappeared from French orchestras. Contrary to claims by Gregory and Kunitz, the alto trombone was not used in France as late as 1868 in Thomas’s opera Hamlet, nor for that matter, was it employed in Thomas’s 1841 opera Carmagnola, as Gregory and Flandrin erroneously state. In Carmagnola, Thomas wrote for an alto valve-trombone, an instrument akin to the cornet à piston. Though relatively short-lived, it too contributed to the fall from favour of the alto slide-trombone, as it highlighted the latter’s inherent difficulties in playing legato in the upper tessitura (with respect to the abilities of the players of the day).

Wagner’s Reformentwurf for the Royal Dresden Orchestra in 1846 marked a pivotal point in the eventual make-up of today’s standard orchestral trombone section of two tenors and a bass. In his Reform Plan, Wagner argued for the tenor trombone’s place as first trombone in the orchestra, criticising the alto’s limited compass and inadequate sound. However, to suggest that Wagner composed exclusively for a tenor first trombone is too overlook hie earlier works, not only of Rienzi (1840) but Konzertouverture in C dür (1832) and Rule Britannia (1837), in which he had written for the ATB trombone section, taking advantage of the alto’s upper register. Following the example of Wagner’s post-Reformenturf trombone writing, composers increasingly abandoned the alto. For a while, the alto lingered on, mainly in those parts of Germany and Austria where a more traditional style prevailed. However, to claim as Del Mar does, that the alto was still being used in Russia by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888 seems unlikely, especially given the fact that the composer makes no mention of any type of trombone other than the tenor trombone with the F-valve attachment (and its piston trombone counterpart) in his Principles of Orchestration.

In attempting to discern the type of instrument used for the first trombone parts, the orchestral compositions of Bruckner, Brahms, and Dvořak are probably the most perplexing and misunderstood; nomenclature and clefs used in their manuscripts are misleading and unreliable. Moreover, scholarly editions and modern publications are also often misleading and contradictory. To a certain degree this is due to the fact that this was a period of great flux, with divergent performance practice often dependent on locale. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, in these frequently performed works, the trombones are assigned some of the most salient, extensive and exposed passages that exist in the orchestral repertoire.

It is often lamented that the authentic Bruckner trombone sound is lost today when the first trombone part is performed on the tenor rather than the (supposedly) intended alto. This sentiment, however, is applicable only to Bruckner’s early works, written between 1845 and 1861, at which time, as church organist in St Florian and then Linz, he was responsible for providing choral music for religious ceremonies. During this period the role of Bruckner’s ATB trombone section was to lend support to the vocal lines, although not strictly colla voce. A set of two Aequale (1847) for the trombone trio was also scored for the ATB combination, a conclusion that runs counter to the prevailing but erroneous opinion that, since the first part ascends only to g’, Bruckner could not have had an alto in mind for the first part. However, beginning with the Festkantate (1862), his first composition written under the tutelage of Otto Kitzler (with whom Bruckner studied from 1862-1863), and prevailing through the rest of his lifetime,[1] Bruckner wrote for a TTB trombone section.[2]

Brahms’s trombone parts are frequently performed today with dark, weighty sounds, the large-bore tenor being favoured for the first part. However, according to my findings, with the exception of Rinaldo, the conservative Brahms desired an alto for the first trombone parts, commencing with Begräbnisgesang[3] and concluding with the Fourth Symphony, apparently the last work of the standard nineteenth century orchestral repertoire for which the alto instrument was specifically intended.
With regard to Dvořak, contrary to the general consensus that maintains that an alto trombone was employed on the first part, I contend that Dvořak scored for a section of two tenors and a bass. Moreover, my findings indicate that Dvořak composed for valve trombones, a viewpoint which I do not believe has been expounded previously.

Based on prevailing misconception, leading players, conductors and some musicologists have propagated a trombone sound and interpretation that is often at odds with what was actually intended by a number of nineteenth century composers, and the trombone section, with its powerful voice, can easily influence and dominate the colour of the entire orchestra. The implications of my findings for modern performance are clear: that a thorough re-examination and new discussion of the stylistic approach to the trombone parts of many of the most important and frequently programmed orchestral works is in order. It is my fond hope that my dissertation will serve as the first few steps in the journey of “re-discovery” of the alto trombone. It is also my hope that it will inspire further research by future scholars who will be able to add to (and, if necessary, question) the conclusions I have drawn.

Ken Shifrin
Michaelmas Term 1999
Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
University of Oxford

[1] With the exception of the 1868 F Minor Mass
[2] It should be noted that I found no historical justification for the all too common British practice of doubling the first trombone part in Bruckner’s symphonies.
[3] “Das keine 3 Tenor Posaunen kommen! Eine ächte kleine Alt-Pos. u wo moglich auch eine ächte Bass-Pos” [“On no account 3 tenor trombones! One genuine little alto trombone, and if possible, also a genuine bass trombone”] demanded Brahms. Quoted in Avins and Eisinger, “Six Unpublished letters from Johannes Brahms” in For the Love of Music: A Festschrift in Honor of Theodore Front, Lucca, Italy: Lim antiqua, 2002.p. 127.]

Ken Shifrin Online