Ask any trombonist, "Who was the first composer to write for a section of trombones in the symphony orchestra?" and the reply will most certainly be Beethoven. But you have been duped. The credit should not be going to Ludwig van, but to another German, Franz Ignaz Beck.
Beck, however, is a bit of an enigma, as the records of his birthdate and other dates throughout his life are varied. He was born either on the 15th February, 1723 or between 1730 and 1733 in Mannheim, and died on the 31st December 1809. The difficulty of arranging Beck's life in the correct order, or getting his details to correspond, is made harder by the uncertainty of his actual age at any time.
He received violin lessons from his father - Johann Aloys Beck - who was an oboist and advisor for the Electoral Prince Karl Philip in the Palatine Court. When his father died in 1742 the Court took responsibility for the young Beck's education. He was now taught by Johann Stamitz and he thoroughly enjoyed playing at court.
He was a favourite of the Prince, but unfortunately this caused some jealousy and led to a duel where Beck was given to believe that he murdered his opponent. (This turned out to be a hoax, realised by Beck, when he met the 'dead' man years later in Paris.) Because of this upset, Beck fled to Venice where he was taught by Galuppi. He travelled, giving concerts on the violin, and also began to compose. After a few years he eloped to Naples with his employer's daughter, Anna Oniga.
Beck moved to Marseilles in the 1750s, where he became the leader of a theatre orchestra. Between 1757 and 1762 his symphonies were played in quick succession and at this time he reached the climax of his creativity. He soon moved to Bordeaux where he was conductor of concerts at the elegant Grand Théâtre, composer, organist and teacher. He was so appreciated and happy in Bordeaux that he stayed there for the rest of his life.
Beck was a freethinker in favour of the Revolution, but his critical comments about the freedom slogans made him unpopular with some of the people he played billiards with, who reported him to a tribunal. He is supposed to have stood before the Revolutionary Court in a nightshirt saying "What can I do against the French Revolution?" Needless to say, after that episode his position was in jeopardy and he had to give up composing for a time, which led him into debt. During this time, when asked whether he had any new works to be published, he replied "Bah!".
As a composer he was an individualist and quite ahead of his time. His music has a dramatic intensity which comes from dualistic thematic material, with much contrast in instrumentation and dynamics, very bold harmonic progressions, flexible rhythms. He constantly writes independent parts, and emphasis on thematic material led Sondheimer (Beck's most reliable biographer) to consider him as the predecessor to Haydn and Beethoven.
In 1962 Brook described Beck's symphonies as "among the most original and striking of the Classical period". In addition the Romantic sounds he created correspond to sounds written in the 19th century, despite the smaller size of orchestra used. Beck wrote 6 symphonies between 1757-66. The Second Symphony was written in 1760 and is in the key of E flat major. It is in three relatively short movements: Allegro con brio: Andante : Funèbre/Menuett 1 and 2/Funèbre. The orchestration is for 2 oboes, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a full string section. The trumpets are not used until the beginning of the final Funèbre section and the trombones don't enter until the 9th bar from the end. The bass trombone enters first, doubled by the violas, celli and basses. The 2nd trombone plays later, and the 1st two and a half bars after that. When the section is eventually playing together, the dynamic range is essentially forte, so Beck's use of trombones is as extra padding. The second trombone part interestingly ends on a low E flat, and as Bb/F trombones were not invented until the early 19th century, it would be interesting to know if the player had to lip the note down or play it at the higher octave.
So now we know that a section of trombones was used in a symphony 45 years earlier than first thought, and by a man who was considered ahead of his time, which is probably the reason for his music not impressing the public of the day.
Beck's other works include operas, sacred music, and sonatas for both harpsichord and piano.
Sarah's Diploma Recital programme included Milhaud, Nielsen and Serocki, and she prepared a 5000 word dissertation on the History and Development of the Trombone. In the course of her research, she came across the Symphony No 2 by Beck, and followed up for the BTS with the revelations in this article. She is an accomplished player on both tenor and bass trombone and has already worked with the RSNO, BBC SSO, Scottish Opera and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Read Avishai Kallai's article The Sackbut Rebut to gain a different perspective on Sarah Gordon's research.