(Fr., It. trombone; Ger. Posaune)
A brass lip-reed aerophone with a predominantly cylindrical bore. The most common trombones are the tenor and bass counterparts of the trumpet. In its most familiar form the trombone is characterized by a telescopic slide with which the player varies the length of the tube; hence the term ‘slide trombone’ (Fr. trombone à coulisse, Ger. Zugposaune, It. trombone a tiro; Fr. and Eng. up to the 18th century, saqueboute, sackbut). Both the Italian and German names for trombone are derived from terms for trumpet: trombone (large trumpet) from the Italian tromba (trumpet), and Posaune from Buzûne, derived in turn from the French buisine (straight trumpet).
The modern tenor and bass trombones stand in 9' Bb' (length of tubing, with the slide retracted, 9 feet). Some tenors and most basses are Bb/F trombones, which incorporate in the bell section a valve which, when operated, extends the tube length to lower the basic pitch of the instrument by a perfect 4th to 12' F'.
The practice of using Bb and Bb/F trombones has almost done away with what survived in the 20th century of the traditional use of three different sizes of slide trombone: alto, tenor and bass. The Bb trombone, however, is still often called a ‘tenor trombone’. Wide-bore models of the Bb/F trombone are often termed ‘bass trombone’, and are used for the lowest of the three trombone parts that have normally been written in orchestral and band music. The Eb alto trombone is used in parts written for it; many players, however, use a tenor trombone to play alto parts. The trombone is a non-transposing instrument except for tenor trombones in the British-style brass band, where the parts are written in the treble clef a major 9th higher than they sound.
The soprano trombone, usually in Bb an octave above the tenor, seems to have appeared in the late 17th century, the period from which the earliest surviving specimens date. It was used in Germany to play the treble part in chorales, and this tradition survives in the Moravian trombone choir at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In the 20th century several manufacturers made soprano trombones as doubling instruments for jazz cornet players, or as a novelty, but the instrument has never been widely used. It lacks its own character and the short shifts make it difficult to play in tune.
In the mid-18th century the trombone was still used principally in church music (particularly for doubling the lower voices) and in small ensembles: it did not become a part of the orchestra until the late 18th century. The instrument maintained strong associations with the underworld or the supernatural. The use of a trio of trombones – alto, tenor and bass – appears to date from the beginning of the modern phase of trombone usage in the late 18th century, when the instrument was increasingly used in orchestral and band music. The widespread use of the trombone is a result of the burgeoning of wind bands and brass bands in the mid-19th century in towns, villages and workplaces all over Europe and North America. Gluck wrote for a trio of alto, tenor and bass (e.g. in the oracle scene of Alceste), as did Gossec, who also scored for a single trombone joined to a bass part. Mozart used trombones only in his operas and sacred works; his dramatic use of the instrument is particularly well exemplified by the supper scene of Don Giovanni, and he provided a notorious solo for the instrument in the ‘Tuba mirum’ of the Requiem (not without precedent in his earlier church music). In Germany the reorganization of military bands gave the trombone the role of strengthening the bass line, although the trio was maintained in large infantry bands as well as in the orchestra.
Romantic composers considered the trombone capable of expressing a broad range of emotional situations; Berlioz said the instrument possessed ‘both nobleness and grandeur’ and had ‘all the deep and powerful accents of high musical poetry, from the religious accent, calm and imposing … to wild clamours of the orgy’. He included an impressive solo in his Symphonie funèbre et triomphale.
19th-century composers often limited themselves to a stereotyped usage of the trombone for reinforcements of tutti passages and for background harmonies in soft passages; because of the preponderance of 19th-century music in 20th-century concert programs, it is with these least interesting sides of the trombone's character that audiences are most familiar. In the dance band music of the first half of the 20th century, however, arrangers made liberal use of the trombone's inimitable cantabile, which dance band trombonists execute so well they are sometimes credited with having discovered new techniques.
Jazz trombonists have explored the expressive potential of irregular attacks, glissandos, microtones, a wide variety of mutes and (particularly the German virtuoso Albert Mangelsdorff) multiphonics of up to four distinct pitches, revealing that a greater range of timbres is available than is usually employed even by modern symphonic composers. Vibrato – always a technical possibility – has become part of the trombone soloist's style; it can be made with the slide, the embouchure, or the diaphragm.
Although the trombone is now seldom heard in the concert hall as a solo instrument apart from jazz, several 19th-century players made reputations as soloists, including C.T. Queisser and F.A. Belcke in Germany, and in France A.G. Dieppo.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Florinel Barladeanu
- Igor Vataman
- Ruslan Plamadeala
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