The Trombone – ‘Too Sacred for Frequent Use’

trombone angel

Phew – It’s snowy isn’t it…

So with last weeks blog post, I tossed a tiny pebble into the ocean that is the internet and somehow ended up with 800 or so views – such is the power of the Queen/Adam Lambert fanbase.  Somehow, I imagine, this week’s blog on the role the trombone plays in the nineteenth century symphony orchestra may be somewhat less popular… But playing trombone in a symphony orchestra is what I do an awful lot of, so I thought I’d waffle on a bit about it.

I’m halfway through rehearsals for the next concert with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra, an all Russian programme. And the orchestra is sounding uncommonly good. Perhaps there’s something about this fiery dramatic writing style – wearing it’s geographical origins, one foot in the enlightened cities of central Europe, the other in the mystical exoticism of central Asia and beyond on it’s sleeve –  that suits the temperaments and playing styles of the amateur musicians of North Cheshire.  Or perhaps, says he a little cheekily, it’s because the programme is a particularly busy one for Wilmslow symphony’s extremely fine trombone section…

As the title of this week’s essay suggests, the trombonist is one of the few members of the symphony orchestra that spends more time with the instrument on the stand than actually playing any notes, and there are solid historical reasons for this.  Whilst I’m inclined to think that the quote about being “too sacred for frequent use” was probably said by some oversensitive conductor who didn’t want this (let’s face it) frankly noisy and cumbersome instrument getting in the way of some intricate and delicate string playing, the phrase has actually been attributed to the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn.  Beethoven himself described the trombone as ‘the voice of God’, and, well quite frankly he’s right!  But in all seriousness, before it’s relatively late inclusion into the symphony orchestra, this remarkably ancient instrument (the basic design has remained unchanged for over 500 years) was found primarily in the church. They were often used to accompany the choir.  Different sizes of trombone would play the alto, tenor and bass lines allowing the singers to listen and sing along to their individual parts.  The tone of the trombone provided a sonorous solemnity to the proceedings and thus composers outside the church reserved the trombone for similar moments of religious fervor or unearthly weirdness. Therefore, you have Mozart reserving the use of the trombone in his opera ‘The Magic Flute’ for moments of masonic mysticsm.  Beethoven, in what is often said to be the first use of trombones in a symphony, reserves them for the final movement of his 5th Symphony. The final movement is to all intents a triumphant choral anthem emerging from the darkness of the previous movements. When the trombones join in, they basically represent the missing choir.

It has to be said that composers’ use of the trombone’s godly qualities has tended to fall down on the side of Particularly Angry Thunderbolt Flinging Deity, so we do spend a lot of time representing death and hell and doom.  In Mozart’s greatest opera, Don Giovanni, he reserves the trombones for two short moments when the murdered Commendatore returns from the depths of hell to haunt the Don.  They’re great moments, but there’s awful lot of sitting around in the orchestra pit waiting for them to come.

There’s one bit of doom laden music that comes up time and time again for us at the back of the orchestra.  Composers can’t get enough of a little bit of 13th century Gregorian Chant from the Latin Mass for the dead, called the ‘DIES IRAE’ (pronounced dee-ez ear-ah) or ‘Day of Wrath’. Cheerful stuff. It sounds gloomy enough when it’s intoned by a bunch of monks, and it’s frankly terrifying when tanked out by a bunch of trombones, tubas and church bells as it is in the final ‘witches dance’ movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, especially having followed immediately on from the equally cheerful ‘March to the Scaffold’.   Over the years the Dies Irae has become a musical shorthand used by composers when they want to represent a general all gone tits up moment – and it’s more often than not it’s the boys and girls at the back of the orchestra that get to play it.   Notable examples include Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre; almost certainly some shit by Liszt; Steven Sondheim’s trombone-heavy masterpiece Sweeney Todd (“swing your razor high Sweeeneee…”), ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and a whole other bunch of film scores including this notable example:



So, anyway – where does this all fit in  with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra Russian programme?  Well, the first number of the concert, Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov is a piece made up almost entirely of tunes taken from Russian Orthodox liturgical chants.  Quite frankly, these plainsong melodies aren’t a great deal more cheerful sounding than the Dies Irae above.  In fact when the music appeared on the stand, the part didn’t look a whole lot different from the aforementioned Symphony Fantastique.  Makes you wonder what exactly how much celebrating was being done at these nineteenth century Easter funfests.   Having said that, it’s a really fun piece of music! So, religious subject matter? Tick!  Ancient, somber melodies? Tick!  It all adds up to a whole lot of trombone! Yay!

As for the other two pieces, well they’re both by another great Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninov.  As well as being a phenomenal pianist and writing some of the most compellingly beautiful tunes in the repertoire, Rachmaninov also happened to have a minor obsession with the Dies Irae.  It turns up in almost all of his major orchestral pieces, even the more light hearted ones, get a sneaky dies irae in there somewhere…played by, yup, that’s right….

So when is all this ecclesiastical solemnity happening?  Well, Valentine’s Day of course!  Now, aside from an oft quoted ‘hilarious’ gag about trombonists doing it in 7 positions, no one has ever described the trombone as the voice of love.  Aww….:) – picture credit


Gig Guide

A quick heads up this week for the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra concert, next Saturday 7th February in West Didsbury.

It is being guest led by my lovely and talented wife, Susan Harris and is a superb programme of pieces including the 3rd Symphonies of both Brahms and Sibelius – 2 phenomenal works, linked really only by the fact that they both have the words symphony and 3 in the title….

…which I think is probably a good enough random topic for a blog. Everyone loves a list, especially on the internet, so – next time – best (and worst) 3rd Symphonies.  So, if you have your own favourite, let me know.  And if you don’t know any symphonies, go ahead and pick a 3rd one at random, it’s as good a way as any other to try something new…

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