Spurious compositions, forged historical instruments, plagiarised texts and music: nothing out of the ordinary in the musical world. But an instrument with a bogus history? That is something that could only happen to a trombone - to the soprano trombone.
The perpetrator of this fabricated history is Hans Kunitz. It is to be found in his series Die Instrumentation, whose eighth volume, Posaune, was first published in 1959 by Breitkopf & Härtel. To be sure, most of the assertions that we will be examining did not originate from Kunitz himself; some of them have been in circulation since the nineteenth century. But Kunitz brought together these historically untenable "facts" and championed them - lawyer that he was - with dogmatic vehemence and abstruse argumentation.
In spite of the obvious source-historical problems in Kunitz' book, other writers have apparently considered it to be credible, repeatedly employing it as a source for their own publications. Even recently, works betraying Kunitz' influence have appeared, including the "trombone" article in the new MGG.1
A problem in attempting to verify what Hans Kunitz wrote, is that he was very stingy when it came to supplying source references. The reason for this is simple: Little of what he wrote about the history of the trombone is based on historical fact. Let us take, for example, the very first sentence of his version of the soprano trombone's "historical development":
"The soprano trombone, also called descant trombone, has belonged to the trombone family from the very start, thus at least since the beginning of the sixteenth century."2
There is no evidence to support this assertion. Neither graphic depictions nor written descriptions of soprano trombones exist from the sixteenth century. Instruments as well as a dedicated repertoire are likewise completely lacking.
But even where Kunitz' source is evident, one has to be very careful:
"Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, one differentiated between the following types of trombone:
Kunitz does not cite a source for the contents of this list, but the terminology points to Michael Praetorius' Syntagma Musicum.4 This, of course, being the only early seventeenth-century source that provides such an itemisation. The following table shows the correspondences and, more importantly, the differences:
As one can see, the designations that Kunitz gives for the tenor, bass, and contrabass trombones are largely identical to those given by Praetorius. But something strange has happened with Praetorius' Alt oder Discant Posaun. The terms no longer agree, and one instrument has become two: The "alto or descant trombone" has become an "alto and a descant trombone". In this manner, the four types of trombone specified by Praetorius become five in Kunitz.
Since Kunitz is not the only one who has trouble interpreting Praetorius correctly, it is probably a good idea to take a quick look at the original: On page 31 of the second volume of Syntagma Musicum we read: "Posaun ... deren seynd viererley Arten oder Sorten" - "Trombones ... of which there are four types or sorts."
On page 20 a chart of ranges shows "Ein ganz Accort." - "A complete accord" - "Tromboni: Posaunen. 1. Sort: Octav Posaun. 2. Sort: Quart Pos[aun]. 3. Sort: Gemeine oder rechte Posaun. 4. Sort: Alt Pos[aun]."
And finally on page 13: "Ein Accort od' Stimmwerk von Instrumenten, helt in sich etliche unterschiedliche Sorten: Nemlich ... Viererley (Sorten / die) Posaunen:" - "An accord or set of instruments consists of various sorts: Namely ... sets with four sorts / the trombones:" "Alt Posaun, Gemeine rechte Posaun, Quart Posaun, Octav Posaun."
Fact: The soprano trombone is mentioned nowhere in Praetorius, and is also not to be found in any other source from the beginning of the seventeenth century.
This, however, did not stop Kunitz from blaming Praetorius for the instrument's lack of use:
"The soprano trombone, also called descant trombone, has belonged to the trombone family from the very start, thus at least since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Already after a relatively short time, however, it fell in a sort of "disrepute" among the instrumentalists and, as a result, also in the specialist literature, something that has not been rectified to the present day. Already in 1618 Praetorius declared that the soprano trombone was 'insufficient in sound and technique.' And this judgement, which is found in such an important and authoritative work as his 'Syntagma Musicum,' has been uncritically accepted throughout all the following centuries, and indeed, not only by the specialist literature, but also by the composers and the instrumentalists."5
And in another place:
"The reason given by Praetorius, that the soprano trombone was not equal to the other trombones in sound and technique, cannot be considered correct."6
Aside from the fact that Praetorius was not talking about the soprano trombone at all, this interpretation is rather arbitrary. Actually, the original reads quite a bit differently:
"Alto or descant trombone: ... with which a melody can be played very well and naturally: Although the sound in such a small corpus is not as good as when the tenor trombone, through good embouchure and practice, is played in this high register."7
One will also search in vain for the "judgement" that the soprano trombone was 'insufficient in sound and technique' - a "judgement" that Kunitz puts into Praetorius' mouth. This quotation actually stems from Hermann Eichborn, and is found on page 23 of his book Die Trompete in alter und neuer Zeit, which was published in 1881.8
But Kunitz has also made out other guilty parties:
"The real reason for its infrequent usage lay undoubtedly in the lack of ability and readiness on the part of the musicians to occupy themselves with the instrument ..."9
Now the truth comes out! The musicians are the villains in this piece. They refused to play an instrument for which the composers had not written any music, an instrument that did not even exist for much of the period in question. [quote] "The indolence and insufficient technical ability"10 [unquote] of these musicians is hardly to be believed. And on top of this:
"... as the cornett, during the Renaissance technically improved, but still very mediocre in terms of sound quality, came more and more into use during the Baroque period, the instrumentalists often made it easy for themselves and simply employed, instead of the difficult to use soprano trombone, the cornett, with its easy to play fingering system ..."11
It apparently rankled Kunitz that another instrument occupied the position he would have liked to have seen taken by the soprano trombone:
"In those cases in which the cornett is employed as the highest voice of a closed trombone group, it is in fact a makeshift solution ..."12
- And he also does not hesitate to resort to defamation, for example, when he speaks of
"the vulgar, base, and dull sound of the primitive cornett ..."13
And when Kunitz refers to the cornett as an instrument that has been "declared unusable for art music," as he does on page 798, one only has to turn back one page to determine that it was Kunitz himself who declared:
"In view of all this, the cornett cannot at all be considered an instrument appropriate for art music."14
Kunitz gives new meaning to the word "self-reliance." He takes recourse to himself as his own source, because he doesn't know the historical sources - and in any case, they would not have suited his purposes. We do not want or need to defend the honour of the cornett here. The relevant historical sources and present-day performers such as Bruce Dickey, Jean Tubéry, and William Dongois give eloquent testimony as to the qualities and possibilities of this instrument.15 The cornett came upon the scene much earlier than the soprano trombone, and was demonstrably required and employed as the highest voice of the "closed trombone group." The cornett did not supplant the soprano trombone, nor did the soprano trombone supplant the cornett.
Be that as it may, an instrument has to have something to play. After having fabricated the historical foundation, Kunitz set about to conjure up a repertoire:
"The great masters, such as Schütz, Bach, Gluck, and Mozart employed the soprano trombone in the four-part trombone group usual at that time, and indeed until the end of the eighteenth century ..."16
With this statement, Kunitz calls up four of the most important composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as witnesses for his swindle.
"... the soprano trombone was initially a full-fledged member of the trombone group, as can be recognised from the works of Heinrich Schütz, in which the closed, four-part trombone group, made up of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass trombones, is to be found."17
"As already stated ... the four-part group with the soprano trombone still predominated in the works of Heinrich Schütz."18
It was very foolish of Kunitz to make these assertions, for even as he wrote them, it was possible to checked their validity in the old Schütz Collected Works. Just how "predominant" is the four-part trombone group in the works of Heinrich Schütz? Schütz called for trombones in thirty-two works, of which nineteen have a three-part, and only seven a four-part trombone group. Hardly what one would call "predominant." And how many of these seven works require a four-part trombone group with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass trombones? Not a one!
For Kunitz, the combination of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass clefs is the "usual manner of notation"19 for the "centuries-old, traditional, pure four-part trombone group."20 My research has turned up seventy-three four-part trombone groups in sixty-eight instrumental and vocal works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with a total of fifteen different clef combinations. The most frequent was the combination alto-tenor-tenor-bass, which appeared twenty-three times. Kunitz' "usual manner of notation" did not turn up at all.
It should be noted, by the way, that one cannot infer the intended instrument simply from the clef of the part. A part in alto clef, for instance, does not necessarily demand an alto trombone. Much more important is the tessitura. For example, although many of Schütz's "high" trombone parts are notated in alto clef, all but a couple remain within the range given by Praetorius as normal for the tenor trombone.
An ensemble of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass trombones, notated in Kunitz' "usual" clef combination, is found in three cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh' darein (BWV 2), Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) and Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir (BWV 38). One might think that Kunitz would have jumped at the opportunity presented to him here, but strangely only Cantata 2 attracted his attention. Cantatas 21 and 38 are simply ignored. Instead, Kunitz attempted to smuggle the cantatas Sehet, welch' eine Liebe (BWV 64) and Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt (BWV 68) into the canon of works with soprano trombone, although the highest parts of these works are labelled cornettino and cornetto, respectively. Kunitz' reason?
"Bach is to be considered one of the last representatives of the pure four-part trombone group, employing the real trombone family, reaching from the soprano to the bass instruments, whose usual notation: [soprano, alto, tenor, bass clefs] also predominates in his scores where he employs trombones, even when he sometimes ... labels the highest part with cornetto."21
If we apply Kunitz' own criterion, however, we would have to automatically disqualify the highest part of Cantata 68 as a soprano trombone part. This autograph cornett part is not in soprano, but in treble clef. The highest part of Cantata 64, labelled cornettino, also lacks a characteristic typical of a Bach trombone part: Unlike all of Bach's authenticated trombone parts, this one is not transposed.
But why did Kunitz ignore Cantatas 21 and 38, even though both offer authentic soprano trombone parts?
"It should be noted that the cornetto parts in Bach's cantatas were indeed written for the Stadtpfeifer cornett in those cases in which they support, with simple sustained tones, the cantus firmus of the choir, without organic relationship to the trombone parts ..."22
Accordingly, the cornetto and soprano trombone parts with a cantus firmus or simple chorale melody are actually cornett parts, and the cornetto and cornettino parts with numerous fast notes are actually soprano trombone parts. Is that clear?
"In any case, especially at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the instrumentalists' arbitrary practice of simply substituting the cornett for the specified, but technically more difficult to control, soprano trombone had become so widespread that not only was a genius like Johann Sebastian Bach forced to make concessions in order to even secure a performance of his cantatas, but that, at times, one even designated the soprano trombone itself as cornetto."23
These absurd assertions surely do not require commentary. The last of these, however, comes up again in connection with Christoph Willibald Gluck:
"Thus, Gluck, too, made use of the soprano trombone under the name Cornetto in the Italian version of the score of his Orpheus."24
Exceptionally, Kunitz cites a seemingly reliable source here, namely Hector Berlioz, who in his instrumentation treatise from 1843 did in fact state:
"Only Gluck, in the Italian score of Orfeo, wrote for the soprano trombone, under the name Cornetto."25
I must admit to having been rather astonished when I first read this. But, Berlioz too was only human, and humans can err. In 1862, nineteen years after his treatise appeared, Berlioz published an essay about the 1859 production of Orfeo at the Théâtre Lyrique, in which he wrote:
"At the time in which Gluck wrote Orfeo for Vienna, a wind instrument was in use that even today is employed in some churches in Germany to accompany the chorales, and is called the cornetto. It is made of wood, has a conical bore and is played with a mouthpiece of brass or horn similar to that of a trumpet.
In the religious funeral ceremony held at Euridice's grave, in the first act of Orfeo, Gluck combined the cornetto with three trombones to accompany the four parts of the choir."26
And the soprano trombone sneaked out of the stage door... If Kunitz had known Berlioz's later remark about the cornett, he would certainly have dismissed it as a " completely false" or "incorrect representation," like everything that did not fit into his scheme of things.
At first glance, Mozart's Mass in C Minor, K. 427, would also seem to provide evidence for the use of the soprano trombone. But when Kunitz claims that Mozart
"explicitly labelled the trombone parts as Posaune I - IV,"27
he is, again, fantasising.
In his autograph score, Mozart signalled where the trombones were to play and pause by means of appropriate indications in the vocal parts. Only in the first movement, Kyrie, are there three such markings in the soprano part: in bar 6 "tro:", in bar 27 "Senz: trom:", and in bar 86 "senz: tr:". According to the editors of the New Mozart Edition:
"All indications for the participation of the trombones in the Kyrie were added to the autograph by Mozart only at a later point in time. This can be discerned at numerous places by the placement of the respective annotations or through the superscription over already existing characters. It is possible that Mozart performed this process rather mechanically and did not give care how often and in which part he placed the entries."28
There is, however, weighty evidence for Mozart's actual intentions. In the Sanctus, for example, Mozart himself wrote the indications Trombone 1mo, Trombone 2do, and Trombone 3tio, corresponding to the alto, tenor, and bass vocal parts, respectively. There is also a brace from the Hosanna, marked 3 Tromboni; this, too, in Mozart's hand.
And last but not least, we have the Trombone 1mo part from the first performance of the Mass in Salzburg in 1783. This part was written by Salzburg court musician Felix Hofstätter, who frequently copied music for the Mozart family. As can be seen, this part too corresponds to the alto voice line. There is obviously no place here for a soprano trombone, and Kunitz presumably would have resisted the temptation to designate his beloved soprano trombone as Trombone nullo.
With this we have uncovered the main points of the swindle, and exposed Kunitz' history of the soprano trombone as a forgery. The swindle, however, mutates to a scandal when one realises that Kunitz' history of the entire trombone family is just as contrived as that of its smallest member, that this humbug could be published by one of the most prestigious music publishing houses, and that it has been read, believed, and cited repeatedly by scholars and players for more than forty years.
To conclude, I would like to quickly survey the authenticated soprano trombone sources.
The earliest piece of evidence is a soprano trombone by Christian Kofahl, dated 1677, which turned up in Austria a couple of years ago.29
Three printed sources mention the soprano trombone. In his Abbildung der Gemein-Nützlichen Haupt-Stände (Regensburg 1698), Christoff Weigel wrote that "the trombones are also made in various sizes, namely soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and quart trombones ..."30 In a similar work, Johann Samuel Halle's Werkstäte der heutigen Künste (Brandenburg and Leipzig 1764), it is stated that "there are four trombones; soprano, alto, tenor, and quart or quint trombones ..."31 The third source comes from Norway: The Musikaliske Elementer by Johann Daniel Berlin was published in 1744 in Trondheim. In the chapter, "On playing the cornett," Berlin wrote:
"The cornett ... is generally used in loud and splendid music, and in accompaniment or together with trombones; it is employed on the highest part when there is no soprano trombone.
§2. However, even in such a case, one still prefers the cornett to the soprano trombone, because the cornett can be played gracefully."32
Two manuscript sources from Leipzig were publicised by Arnold Schering earlier this century: Shortly after assuming the position of Thomaskantor in 1701, Johann Kuhnau submitted two inventories to the Leipzig town council, itemising the music and instruments in the possession of St. Thomas'. In the second inventory, dated May 22, 1702, he stated:
"Since the trombones are good church instruments, the ones here, however, old and damaged and therefore hardly usable, it would be necessary that new ones, and namely a pair of descant trombones, be acquired in their stead."33
Almost seventy years later, on August 2, 1769, Thomaskantor Johann Friedrich Doles evaluated the playing of a candidate for the position as Stadtpfeifer:
"The simple chorale on the descant, alto, tenor, and bass trombone, he played nicely."34
The earliest surviving works with soprano trombone parts also come from Leipzig, namely the three cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach mentioned earlier. Bach's pupil and successor Johann Friedrich Doles (Thomaskantor 1756-1789) wrote twenty-six so-called figurierte Choräle and a cantata that require four trombones, with the soprano trombone doubling the chorale melody in the highest voice.35
Two Telemann passions have soprano trombone parts, however not in their original versions. A St. John's Passion from 1761 and a St. Mark's Passion from 1767 were adapted in 1793 and 1788, respectively, by Telemann's grandson, Georg Michael Telemann, for performances in Riga, where he was employed as church music director.36
And finally, there is a sizeable repertoire of wind music with parts for soprano trombone, which comes from the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine or Moravian Brethren. In Europe and in America, the Moravians frequently employed a four-part trombone group with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass trombones. Two collections of music from the second half of the eighteenth century have come down to us from the Moravian community in Zeist, Holland. The first is a chorale book in score with 169 chorales for trombone quartet.37 The second collection, preserved in part books, contains thirty-four pieces for trombone quartet.38 In the holdings of the Moravian Music Foundation in Winston-Salem there is a manuscript from the Moravian settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which contains six sonatas for trombone quartet written by a composer named Cruse.39
Thus, the soprano trombone apparently first appeared during the last quarter of the seventeenth century and found its primary usage in the Protestant Church, where it occasionally strengthened the soprano voice in the chorales. Foremost in using the instrument in this manner were the Moravians, who also developed an appropriate instrumental repertoire. In this way, the soprano trombone has led a marginal, yet honourable existence since the eighteenth century - and certainly has not deserved to have false honours heaped upon it by Hans Kunitz.