A Brief History of the Trombone

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Trombone By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Trombone
Last updated: 06/04/2016
Tags: bass trombone, classical music, jazz trombone, theory, trombone

The Trombone is an instrument with a long and complex history. It has developed from origins mainly of ceremonial and religious purposes into a mainstay of many ensembles and genres whilst also having a thriving solo repertoire.

It is widely believed that the origins of the trombone date back to approximately 1350 with the word entering our vernacular by the fifteenth century. According to Trevor Herbert, the trombone was “ubiquitous in secular and sacred music in most regions of Europe [during the Renaissance]. By the seventeenth century it was in the Americas, and in the nineteenth it was carried to most continents of the world”[1]. The trombone is an instrument which has continued to be used by humans of all races and social backgrounds and played a part in many genres of music such as western music, jazz, military music, Latino music, contemporary music, pop, rock and roll, vaudeville and all denominations and combinations of these styles. Due to this fact, trombone has played a significant role in shaping the world in which we have lived for centuries.

The origin of this instrument begins with medieval composers, who often separated instruments into quiet, indoor instruments such as string ensembles and loud instruments which would play in large banquet halls or outdoor events. The loud category included instruments such as the Shawm, (a double reed instrument with a piercing sound, the trumpet and later the trombone.

It was around 1350 that the trumpet, previously used for military fanfares and heralding duties began to be used for entertainment purposes. However, due to the design of medieval trumpets they were limited by the harmonic series. This left the trumpets versatility much to be desired, especially in the lower register, which became more apparent when the trumpet was being used for entertainment in smaller intimate venues. The next step forward and towards what we now know as the trombone came in the form of a technological advancement, the Roman art of crafting a cylindrical tube was rediscovered.

This development of the slide trumpet made the trumpet into a much more dexterous instrument whilst simultaneously leading to the sackbut or the instrument we now call trombone today. The slide enabled it to play the notes of about 4 adjacent harmonic series. No original slide trumpets have survived to the present day, the closest instruments to the original slide trumpet are replicas which music historians have tried to recreate. The sackbut stemmed from this instrument, with the development of the U-shaped slide. This development created what is effectively a trombone. The word trombone is a derivative of the Italian words ‘Tromba’ (meaning trumpet) and ‘one’ (a suffix meaning large). According to Herbert, as early as the fifteenth century the trombone “had most of the fundamental features that we find on modern trombones”[3].

The Alta Band

The Alta Band tradition began in 13th century Europe (known as Waits in England) this was an ensemble of town pipers. The ensembles usually consisted of instruments belonging to the ‘loud family’. They began using two shawms and a trombone or slide trumpet, but later grew to five instruments by the 15th century. A common line-up for Alta bands consisted of “one trombone or slide trumpet (sometimes two), with two or three reed instruments and sometimes a drum.”[4]

The duties of the Alta band were to perform at many civic ceremonies such as heralding a royal’s arrival or to provide music for dance or entertainment such as a sacred or secular dramatic play. According to Herbert “the dances were based on the polyphonic decoration of a relatively small number of cantus firmus melodies derived from popular songs”[5]. There is also evidence which shows similar ensembles were used in the church around the 15th century. The most famous of which being San Marco in Venice, in which Giovanni Gabrieli would separate various wind instruments in galleys above the congregation to play in a polychoral style. Gabrieli wrote many canzonas and sonatas, which was a new form of musical style at the time, many of these compositions included trombone parts.

The earliest depiction of a trombone in its recognised form can be found in a fresco illustration within the church of S. Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome (Fig 2.1). The fresco depicts The Assumption of the Virgin and dates back to 1488; this painting is now cited as irrefutable proof of the use of trombone in this period. It depicts an instrument which is shockingly similar to the instruments played today. However, this is one of the only paintings of this time to depict a trombone, according to Herbert “other images that are actually later in date clearly depict slide trumpets”[6]. This shows that the trombones predecessor, the slide trumpet, was still in frequent use around this time.

An outbreak of a great plague in northern Italy in 1630, coupled with a freeze on hiring musicians at San Marco from 1690-1714 spelt an early end for the trombone. In addition to this, the ever rising popularity of string instruments and the ‘soft instruments, especially with nobles and the higher classes, made instruments such as the trombone and trumpet seem old fashioned and outdated. During this period the trombone was restricted to a select few church and Alta bands.

According to David M. Guion, it was the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II that played a large role in resurrecting the trombone. This is due to how “He especially loved the pomp and splendor of Venetian music and began to employ trombonists at the court he established in Vienna.”[7] This meant the trombone began to be used widely again and it was no longer viewed as an outdated instrument. This trend continued, by the 18th century the trombone was a popular instrument. This can be shown by Austrian sacred masses written at this time. It was commonplace for these masses to include many parts for solo instruments. The most frequent solo instruments were the violin and the alto trombone. The trombone was now here to stay.

Trombone in Court

The Alta band tradition called for loud instruments to be used during various ceremonies and for heralding Royals. By the late 15th century, a few courts and rulers began to use Latin comedies or dramas as a form of entertainment, this practice continued until the 16th century, in which these forms of entertainment were commonplace throughout Europe.

The plays were written especially for events such as weddings, consisted of five acts and would usually be exclusively for the higher classes. These spectacles made use of many different instruments and was not limited to ‘soft’ and ‘loud’ instruments. The instruments would often be mixed, for example La Pelligrina is a particularly elaborate piece written for the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand I and Christine of Loraine in 1589. This piece consisted of 30 separate pieces, 60 singers and a large collection of instruments including four trombones.

With the emergence of Opera at the end of the 16th century the need for grand ceremonial music diminished. At this time Opera was a young art form, the first fully formed example of this genre that used exclusively music throughout without spoken dialogue is widely believed to be L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi. Early Opera orchestras rarely included trombones, however Monteverdi used an ensemble of cornetts and trombones in acts III and IV. Trombones would now frequently be used in Opera. Since this time some of the best orchestral music written for the trombone is from operatic works. The trombone has often had very symbolic, pivotal roles in the music, such as Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Trombone in Church 

By the beginning of the 16th century having a variety of instrumentalists at a church service was commonplace all over Europe. The church would either hire the local town/court musicians, or have a band resident to that church. It was around this time that composers began to write parts specifically for the instruments, previously, the instrumentalists would have just doubled or decorated the parts written by the choir. This tradition then developed, so by the middle of the 16th century it was common place for churches to employ their own bands. Examples of this can be found in San Marco, Venice with the music of Gabrieli. This church became an important centre for the concerted mass which would spread throughout churches all over the world. 

Composers often used trombones in their masses, not only as part of the orchestral texture but often as solo instrument. This is partly due to the symbolism of the trombone at this time, the trombone has repeatedly been used in Operas and in the church as a symbolism of religious events, particularly those of death and judgment. For example, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) the trombones play throughout, but their use during the “Chorus of Spirits” is particularly important. As evidenced by Ernie Hills who describes the trombones being employed in order to better depict the “infernal and horrendous scenes”[8]. Other examples of this can be seen in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787). Adams writes “the trombones only appear twice in the opera, both in Act II and then when only the statue is in the scene”[9] this is further evidenced by Mozart’s scoring, the trombones play many diminished chords and in the “tragic”[10] key of D minor.

It was these works and many more which meant the trombone naturally had an association with judgement and the divine, resulting in it’s prevalence in sacred music which composers such as Cortellini, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and many more.

Most of the large scale orchestral music paired with this sacred tradition is now heard more frequently in concert halls, not churches. This means many sacred works containing trombone are now classed as part of the operatic and symphonic traditions. In the present day, the trombone is rarely heard in church, many churches rely on volunteer musicians as opposed to having a full band resident to the church, using only a choir and an organist to provide accompaniment to the services.

 Trombone in The Operatic and Symphonic Tradition

The seventeenth century saw the emanation of a new form of ensemble, the orchestra. Previously large ensembles consisted of mainly wind instruments with string instruments sometimes added. However, the emergence of this new ensemble saw their roles change, with orchestras using strings and very rarely wind instruments. It is commonly believed that the orchestral tradition began in Italy, mostly in opera houses, and then began to spread throughout Europe. This was at a time in which courts and churches would still hire their own musicians, according to Guion “the church music tradition was [still] making significant use of the trombones”[11]

The anterior use of trombone in an orchestra according to Guion was between 1687 and 1708. At this time, Arcangelo Corelli was one of the most well known orchestra leaders on the planet, and during this time he conducted no less than five oratorios that made use of the trombone in the orchestra. These Italian oratorios may have been the catalyst which sparked the use of trombone in George Fridric Handel’s oratorios. Handel’s oratorios Israel in Egypt and Saul are said to have had a contagion effect and inspired Christoph Willibald Gluck to include the trombone in his orchestration. Most notably in the ballet Don Juan, Orfeo ed Euridice and several other of Gluck’s operas.

The contagion effect continued from Gluck to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it appears at this time many composers were smitten with the trombone and enthused to write for it as one report from Paris claims in 1802, “trombones, trombones, trombones, these are for our latest composers the most splendid, just like drums for children”[12]. Trombone was now being included in many Italian and Parisian operas, which eventually led to trombone occupying a permanent place in operatic orchestras.

The symphonic tradition arose from opera. There is much disagreement on the earliest symphony to include trombones, the most widely believed is by Joachim Nicolas Eggert in the third movement of his Third Symphony. On the contrary, Guion claims there may have been a symphony composed by Joseph Krottendorfer as early as 1768, along with three other symphonies of French style composed by Ignaz Pleyel for his visit to London in 1792. However, most musicians agree that the most significant introduction of trombone is in the final movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Since this time trombone have been used regularly in the symphonic tradition. It is also worth noting that at this time the Alta band tradition in Germany was still present, therefore, according to Guion “the earliest trombonists in French and English orchestras were nearly all either German or Italian”[13]

The outfit of trombones used for these early symphonic works would be three trombones of the same size, known now as ‘straight trombones’ these would be small bore instruments with no valve attachment. The only way the trombones in the section would differ is the size of mouth piece used for the higher or lower parts. The growing popularity of orchestral trombone meant that many nations were developing a unique sound and way of playing at the time. French trombone players were noted to play on trombones of a smaller bore size and disregard the bass trombone entirely, whereas German trombone sections used trombone with a larger bore for the role of bass trombone. The F trigger or valve attachment was invented (around 1830 by German instrument maker Christian Friedrich Sattler) in order to lower the pitch of the instrument by a fourth. German trombone sections now included two tenors with a tenor-bass trombone.

This development continued further with the compositions of Wagner. Wagner wanted a bigger and larger sound for is operas, so the contra-bass trombone was born. In contrast, English sections employed French-style trombones, with the addition of the bass trombone in G, the bass trombone in G had no valve attachment but instead used a longer length of tube. This meant a handle was fixed to the outer slide to enable the player to fully extend to 7th position. Meanwhile, with the introduction of the piston vale, many Europeans and Italians made use of the valve trombone, completely disregarding the slide.

The trombone had not yet finished its development until the twentieth century. A new consensus of using larger trombones was now accepted. The most common trombone section now consists of two tenor trombones with F triggers and one bass trombone with two triggers. These instruments also began to have larger bores such as:

Alto trombone bore – 0.500

Tenor trombone bore - 0.547

Bass Trombone bore – 0.562

The use of these larger bores creates the wider sound which is associated with trombones of today. However, in a retrospective manner many players and conductors are now opting for a smaller bore as they believe it better suited to certain repertoire.

Solo and Chamber music

Trombone is not often associated with having a thriving solo repertoire and opportunities to hear much of this repertoire (excluding solo audition pieces) is rare. Compositions for solo trombone date back to the seventeenth century, one of the earliest being La Hieronyma by Guilio Martino Cesare that was published in 1621. However, Guion states that ‘Francesco Rogue included divisions on Lasso’s song Suzanne un jour in an improvisation treatise that appeared in 1620.

Trombone solo repertoire was still uncommon in the eighteenth century, concertos have been written by Wagenseil, Albrechtsberger and Micheal Haydn, but they are rarely performed. All of these pieces originated from the Viennese Hapsburg dynasty.

Despite the previous lack of trombone solo repertoire, in the 19th century there emerged a number of trombone soloists. For example, According to Guion “in Leipzig Friedrich August Belcke appeared twice as a soloist with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1815”[14]. After this there are many examples of trombonists who managed to establish solo careers, playing in many countries such as Felippe Cioffi.

Since the time of Belcke there has never been a shortage of trombone soloists such as Frederick Neil Innes, J.J Johnson, Arthur Pryor and Tommy Dorsey. Much of the trombone repertoire has risen out of establishments such as the Paris Conservatory, or have been used in order to asses a player’s ability. For example, Concertino by Ferdinand David remains on of the most successful trombone concerto of the nineteenth century and is played regularly in conservatoires all over the world. In addition to this, trombones have had a growing popularity in art music, with an ever growing number of virtuoso players. However, the opportunity to hear a concerto for trombone and orchestra performed are fairly rare unless it is performed by a player with a worldwide presence such as Christian Lindberg. The brass band tradition does provide a huge amount of new repertoire for the trombone, with many solo pieces such as Gordon Langford’s Rhapsody.

In the 20th Century there is now a large amount of repertoire for the trombone, both accompanied and unaccompanied. In addition to this, trombone players have now started to challenge and question what the instrument is capable of. Many pieces contain electronics to accompany or modify the sound of the trombone, or make use of the variety of extended techniques in order to convey musical ideas. Stuart Dempster and Vinko Globokar were pioneers of this new repertoire such as Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V.

In regards to chamber music, the earliest examples of this are religious music such as Beethoven’s Equali. However, it was not until the 20th century that chamber music would be written not for an occasion but purely for the enjoyment of the performer or listener, early examples of this being the brass quintets of Victor Ewald. Due to groups such as The Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble, there is now an ever growing pool of repertoire for chamber groups in addition to solo trombone repertoire. 

Jazz

The trombone is now a staple of jazz ensembles and solo performances across the globe. The use of trombone in jazz stems from New Orleans and the music widely known as Dixieland. Dixieland ensembles would usually feature trumpet, clarinet and trombone accompanied by a rhythm section.  Dixieland ensembles would only usually contain one trombone who would improvise melodies to a set chord structure. As jazz developed, the swing era meant three or four trombonists would play from sheet music as part of a dance/big band, often taking improvised solos. This genre gained huge popularity and resulted in popular, well known trombone players such as Glenn Miller.

After the swing era came Bebop, in contrast to the swinging charts previously mentioned this music was purely for listening, not dancing. Due to the nature of bebop’s fast, legato playing style, many trombonists used the valve trombone in order to accomplish this. However, many players overcame the cumbersome nature of the slide and learnt to play in this new way such as J.J Johnson. The trombone has continued to be an integral part of Jazz music and is still prevalent as a solo instrument today, with players such as Marshall Gilkes, Ryan Keberle, Vincent Gardner and Elliot Mason being at the forefront of jazz trombone playing.


[1] Herbert, Trevor, The Trombone (Yale University Press, 2006)

[2] A Shawm in the British Museum Collection, (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=669876&partId=1)

[3] Herbert, The Trombone. pg. 82

[4] Herbert, The Trombone. pg. 96

[5] Herbert, The Trombone, pg. 52

[6] Herbert, The Trombone pg. 61

[7] Guion, D. (1996) A Short History of the Trombone. Available at: http://trombone.org/articles/library/viewarticles.asp?ArtID=254 (Accessed 11 December 2015)

[8] Ernie Hills, “The Use of Trombone in the Florentine Intermedii, 1518-1589” (DMA diss., University

of Oklahoma, 1984), 196.

[9] Stan R. Adams, “A Survey of the Use of Trombones to Depict Infernal and Horrendous Scenes in Three Representative Operas,” Journal of the International Trombone Association 9 (1981), 17.

[10] Adams, “A Survey of the Use of Trombones to Depict Infernal and Horrendous Scenes in Three Representative Operas,” Journal of the International Trombone Association 9 (1981), 17.

[11] Guion.  A Short History of the Trombone, The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions. Available at: http://trombone.org/articles/library/sh4-opera.asp.

[12] Guion.  A Short History of the Trombone, The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions. Available at: http://trombone.org/articles/library/sh4-opera.asp.

[13] Guion.  A Short History of the Trombone, The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions. Available at: http://trombone.org/articles/library/sh4-opera.asp.

[14] Guion.  A Short History of the Trombone, The Operatic and Symphonic Traditions. Available at: http://trombone.org/articles/library/sh4-opera.asp.


John Caddick Chamber Music Coaches (North London)

About The Author

I am a freelance musician from London and Birmingham.
I have had experience teaching all age ranges, meeting the pace and style that each student requires. I can give teaching and support for any ABRSM or Trinity examination.
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