There is no doubt that the trombones, including alto, enjoyed long-standing use in Sacred Music, and subsequently Court Music, during the 17th and 18th centuries, being the only chromatic member of the brass family. However, in France and England towards the end of the 17th century there was a change of taste away from use of the trombone in both sacred and secular music 16, 9. In Austria and Hungary, under the Hapsburg dynasty (1493-1780), the Catholic liturgy continued to use trombones, since music had an important rôle both in the divine service and on religious holidays.
Trombones, including alto, also had a rôle in each German city's Stadtpfeifer tradition of versatile town musicians regularly playing from the walls and towers, though this only survived into the 19th century in Austria. It is probable that in Bohemia a large repertoire, including alto trombone solo works, was lost when the Jesuit monasteries were sacked 7. The traditional trio took their place in the sacred choral works of Germanic classical composers, including Handel, thence to operas, and finally into the symphony.
Numerous factors came into play to make the alto trombone's rôle in the symphonic repertoire relatively brief. The invention of valves meant that composers had the opportunity to treat the valve trumpet as the treble instrument amongst the brass 16. Subsequently, the bass trumpet (developed from the cavalry trumpet) could provide a similar sonority for solo work in operatic music. Schubert began to experiment with different uses of trombones in choral works, setting them sometimes as an independent sound, not doubling the alto, tenor and bass voices of the choir 3, and in his symphonies sometimes building the sound into the overall texture, sometimes using them alone for special effect.
Berlioz was a flamboyant champion of innovations in instrumentation and a supporter of Adolphe Sax, whose craftsmanship led to the standardisation of the French military band, which did not include alto trombones. When writing the overture Les Francs-Juges (1827) Berlioz was influenced by Beethoven, whose Fifth Symphony's fourth movement opens with, effectively, a brass band fanfare. Truly radical sounds and concepts are innate in the Symphonie Fantastique (1830), which effectively marks the watershed between the Classical and Romantic eras. Berlioz marked the original first trombone part in the score as for alto trombone. He later criticises the alto trombone tone as being too shrill 16, and in his memoirs advocates the use of three tenor trombones in orchestral works. It appears that this was already the fashion in France at that time. Berlioz produced large scale works some of which use the 'menacing and formidable' sound that he desires from the trombone section. His Grande Messe des Morts uses four brass sections.
Berlioz meticulously studied orchestration, publishing his influential Treatise on Orchestration in 1855. In it he actually defends the use of alto, tenor and bass trombones, but yields to the prevailing custom and predominance of tenor trombones. Wagner and Berlioz influenced each other and the German musical innovator went on to extend downwards the might and weight of the new-style operatic brass section, much extended in the Ring. There was no place for the alto trombone in this sound, and it was thereafter used rarely as an additional colour, in for example the vast brass section of Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder (1913). In the German-speaking countries as early as 1811 the equal blend of tenor trombones had been advocated by Fröhlich (18 p242), later by Nemetz in Vienna, and by Gottfried Weber in 1835. Thus practically all composition from 1850 onwards was for orchestras with three tenor trombones.
Russian composers never used the alto trombone, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Treatise on Orchestration only mentions the B flat tenor, and B flat/F bass trombones. Here it can be mentioned that the clef of a part is no guide to the type of trombone to be used. Berlioz had deplored the practice of scoring for parts marked alto, tenor and bass, since outside France the convention that they were all to be played on tenor would be unknown. The practice of scoring both trombones one and two in either alto or tenor clef persisted well into the 20th century (e.g. Elgar), and copyists were also writing parts in alto, tenor and bass clef to a varying degree. Right up to the time of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Russian music, with alto trombone unknown, usually has both first and second trombone parts scored in alto clef.
Numerous French texts on orchestration published between 1703 and 1909, are listed in Ref. 5. Many of them give range diagrams for alto, tenor and bass trombone. It is interesting to note that five diagrams dating between 1794 and 1837 give ranges for alto as well as tenor trombones; but diagrams in four of a sequence of ten such books dating between 1876 and 1904 only mention the tenor trombone. Alto trombone ranges are given in 1873 and then not again until 1904. This sums up the diminution of interest in the alto trombone that took place during that period.
Whether orchestral performers, accustomed to playing new and recent compositions exclusively for, and on tenor trombones, with parts written in the conventional alto, tenor, and bass clefs would wish to swap instruments for the sake of 'authenticity' when performing a piece written before 1830, is open to debate. The concept of an orchestral musician having to purchase his own instrument, and not wishing to own a set of different ones (as in today's relatively affluent times) is valid. However, the lightness and small bore of the tenor trombones of the mid-19th century suggests that their sound might in any case replicate quite faithfully that of an alto trombone in its middle and upper register.
Alto trombones might have been used sporadically in British brass bands, since some early photographs appear to show small enough instruments in use 13. They were less popular probably because of their lower volume and thinner tone. The instrument does not appear to have had brass band use at all beyond 1860 12, which book has an appendix showing copies of historical catalogues of instruments for sale. These catalogues do not mention F natural trumpets, nor valved trumpets, so possibly there were separate orchestral specialists with their catalogues. However, alto trombones are offered for sale in those dated 1839, 1851, 1873, but not in the catalogues dated 1889, 1913, or 1927. This provides a further tool with which to date the virtual extinction of the alto trombone in Britain: circa 1880, perhaps?
Post Second World War, American influences led to the adoption of wide- bore tenor trombones on both sides of the Atlantic, radically altering the sound of the orchestral brass section to a sought-after 'fat' timbre, leaving the narrow bore instruments to their continuing role in what is called 'the lighter side of the business'. This influence towards heaviness of sound has spread, possibly not permanently, to the brass band world also. However, in performance of the Classical repertoire the effect is often too heavy, whereas the earlier relatively lightweight tenor trombones had coped, being of comparable bore-size to the original instruments. A realisation of this and a greater attention amongst brass musicians to style and timbre rather than power has contributed to a new and growing interest in the use of alto trombone where appropriate 2.
A 1964 photograph of the brass section of the Philharmonia Orchestra 17 shows an alto trombone in use. It would be enticing to surmise which work is being performed (3 trombones, 2 trumpets, four horns + bumper). Different orchestras would have a differing ethos on sound and authenticity. However, since the 1960s there has been a definite resurgence of interest in period instruments, and in giving performances of some degree of 'authenticity'. Specialist orchestras such as the Hanover Band and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have been formed during that period, leading the field in demonstrating the virtues of a lighter sound in the proper context.
Efforts are being made to unearth earlier repertoire, including solos, from libraries previously in the Eastern Bloc 7. The international brass journal, Brass Bulletin, founded in 1971, has carried six articles on the alto trombone since 1979. Surveys regarding alto trombone opinion and repertoire have been carried out in the USA and in the UK in the early 1990s 8, 11. The alto trombone has appeared in the syllabus of music colleges since the mid-1970s. Several major, and many smaller, manufacturers now produce high quality alto trombones, and in our more affluent society many professional players consider them to be essential equipment. As well as period pieces, a modern, often avant-garde, solo and ensemble repertoire is emerging 19. Orchestral and choral composers have yet to re-adopt the instrument, but an increasing body of players, amateur and professional, are wishing to use the instrument in its correct context.