The selection of Vaclav Smita's Concertino in E flat major for Trombone and Orchestra as a required test piece in the recent Prague International Trombone Competition highlights the organological confusion that surrounds the type of trombones used by Czech players during the time of Dvořák. (By the way, for those of you who, like me, thought that organology had something to do with organs - electric, pipe or human - it is a term coined by a highfalutin musicologist that refers to the study of instruments in general.)
A number of music historians as well as respected professionals have informed us that Dvořák wrote his first trombone parts for the alto trombone. Indeed, we have been advised in the pages of the ITA Journal how to perform Dvořák's works, based on this "fact". However, recent research that I have undertaken in the Czech Republic reveals evidence indicating that Dvořák was most probably writing for valve trombones - two tenors and a bass. Haven't we all been intrigued by the slurred descending scale in the composer's Eighth Symphony?
Led by Professor Joseph Kail, who some claim invented the first valve trombone, the study of the slide trombone was banned from the Prague Conservatoire from 1826-1860, and not until 1903 - a decade after Dvořák composed the New World Symphony - was a slide trombone "specialist", Josef Hilmer, engaged as a permanent instructor.
According to Professor Miloslav Hejda, the distinguished Czech brass pedagogue, the Czech Philharmonic did not start using slide trombones until 1896. Jarmil Burghausen, the well-known Dvořák expert, adds that at this time that the trombone section probably included both valve and slide players; and that it was in 1901 that Chief Conductor Kovarovic demanded the exclusive use of the slide trombone. (Webmaster: Ken Shifrin covered this topic more extensively in his presentation to the International Trombone Festival in May 1997.)
Vaclav Smita, a former student of Kail, was the bass trombonist in the German Opera Orchestra of Prague from 1841-1867. Primarily a valve trombonist he was responsible for the teaching of both valve and slide trombones at the Prague Conservatoire from 1868-1903. Miloslav Hejda has recently edited a new piano reduction of Smita's Concertino (available from Edition BIM) based on a copy that is housed in the library of the Conservatoire. The original manuscript is presumably no longer extant. According to Hejda, the former professor of bass trombone and bass trombonist of the Czech Philharmonic, Smita composed the Concertino in 1899 for his slide trombone students, and the work has been continuously used since then at the Conservatoire as an exam piece.
For a slide trombone solo, the Concertino exhibits curious technical requirements - for example, the following passage from the Rondo.
The Rondo from the Smita Concertino. At one in the bar, it is hardly ideal for the slide trombonist.
Given the non-idiomatic treatment of the slide trombone characterised by the frequent, deliberate omission of natural break slurs in favour of legato tonguing in rapid passages, and the still relatively nascent stage of slide pedagogy in Prague in the 1890s, one might conclude that the Concertino could have been more suitable for a valved instrument, especially at that time.
Compared to the David Concertino (written for Mendelssohn's extraordinary trombonist, Carl Traugott Queisser) or Arthur Pryor's pyrotechnic solos - compositions clearly not intended for student examinations - the Smita work, in some ways, requires even greater technical prowess. It is also interesting to compare Smita's solo with the contemporaneous Holst Concertante (piano reduction available from Virgo Music). Although composed for a different purpose and stylistically dissimilar, one notes the far simpler technical demands of the latter. One might even consider Smita's Concertino the most difficult pre-20th century trombone concerto ever written.
Did the copyist alter any of the articulations? This is an obvious question that comes to mind; but unless the original manuscript surfaces, we can only speculate about the reasons for the apparent anomalies. The Smita Concertino is a work of great historical importance, and the trombone world is grateful to Professor Hejda for bringing it to our attention.