Although Beethoven was not responsible for introducing the trombone section into the concert orchestra, he was the earliest composer of stature whose symphonies contained trombone parts.
Chez Beethoven les trombones remplissent un rôle plutôt décoratif; ils sont destinés à augmenter la quantité sonore, à entourer de tout l'éclat imaginable une composition grandiose ou pittoresque. Ils n'apparaissent sur le champ de bataille instrumental que vers la fin de l'action, en guise de réserve, afin d'appuyer un effort suprème, de frapper le coup définitif.1
In the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven holds the trombones in reserve until the opening of the Finale which Berlioz described as a 'coup de foudre' (a 'thunderbolt'):2
Tout l'orchestre, aidé des trombones qui n'ont point encore paru, éclat alors dans le mode majeur sur un thème de march triomphale...3
Montagu finds it curious that Beethoven should have waited until this point in the symphony (when it changes from C minor to C major) before bringing in the trombones, since the fully chromatic trombones, unlike the natural horns and trumpets, were the only brass instruments capable at that time of playing the minor third, E flat.4 He concludes that 'it was presumably for the sake of their weight and tone colour at the moment of blazing triumph that he wanted the trombone'.5 In a letter to Graf Oppersdorf, Beethoven explained his decision to use the trombone section:
Das letzte Stück der Sinfonie ist mit 3 Posaunen und flautino – zwar nicht 3 Pauken, wird aber mehr Lärm als 6 Pauken und zwar bettern Lärm machen.6
The alto trombonist must enter 'cold' on a c" at fortissimo after sitting tacet through the first three movements.7 Indeed, the alto's tessitura during the entire movement is extreme, with a range of ab to f". Many of the notes are easily 'split' (and often are). By scoring an f" for the first trombone at bars 453-54, Beethoven assured himself an infamous place in history as far as future generations of trombonists would be concerned.8 Of the entire standard orchestral repertoire, this would prove to be the first and (so far) the last f" required of the first trombonist – the highest note that would ever be demanded. Curiously, his teacher Albrechtsberger had cautioned writing above c" for the alto trombone.11, cites eb" as the highest note attainable on the Eb alto trombone. Indeed, Prout in 1898 also gives eb" as the highest possible note on the Eb alto,13 This would have meant that Beethoven's f" for the Eb alto trombone, as well as the e" at bars 803-5, were, technically speaking, a practical impossibility.15 As the f" is in unison with the piccolo, oboes and clarinet, one cannot discount the possibility that it was omitted and 'cause[d] many a fine first trombonist to shake his head'.18 However, as we shall see, Beethoven and Weber in fact wrote for the first trombone in very different registers.
Rhythmically, throughout the Finale of the Fifth Symphony, the trombones generally do not play the up-beats that are otherwise played by the full orchestra. They function mainly as harmonic reinforcement and are limited to simple rhythms. In only one tutti passage - the third bar of the opening theme with a rare up-beat – are they given anything shorter than crotchets to play.
Gevaert states that:
Le grand symphoniste oppose le trio des trombones au deuxième groupe, accru des trompettes, de la même manière que celui-ci est opposé au quatuor, c'est à dire comme un organisme doué d'une mobilité moindre. Il lui assigne en conséquence des rythmes et des formes mélodiques plus simples qu'aux autres instruments à vent, lesquels, à leur tour, reçoivent une figuration moins abondante que les instruments à archet.19
Beethoven's inclusion of the trombone trio did not, as some might contend, establish the orchestral brass choir, as the trumpets, horns and trombones seldom function as a unit. According to Gevaert, the addition of the trombones to the orchestra:
... a pour résultat de constituer les cuivres éclatants en choeur à cinq voix: aux deux dessus viennent se joindre la haute-contre, la taille et la basse. Par la prépondérance de cet ensemble puissant, le champ d'activité des voix individuelles se trouve forcément rétréci: les nuances délicates s'évanouissent quand de violents contrastes entrent en jeu... Bien que ces instruments appartiennent légitimement à la famille des trompettes, Beethoven (à l'exemple de Gluck) les traite presque toujours comme un groupe spécial contenant en lui-même une harmonie plus ou moins complète.20
Often the trombone parts have more in common with those of the woodwinds than with those of the trumpets and horns. As shown in Ex. 1.1, the passage from bars 7 to 15 in the last movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, is interesting, for although the trombones, bassoons and clarinets function together, Beethoven curiously assigns the trombones different note-values from the woodwinds. In bar 7, for example, the first trombone and bass trombone double the first clarinet and contrabassoon respectively, but the trombones play dotted crotchets versus the woodwind's minims. It appears that Beethoven was taking into account the tendency of trombones to lag behind due to the distance of their position at the back of the orchestra.21 This would also seem to account for the dotted crotchet rest in bar 8 – clearing the trombones a quaver early so they would not intrude upon the three-quaver pick-ups played by the upper woodwinds, horns and first violins. But in bar 9, which is identical to bar 7, Beethoven this time gives the trombones the same note-values as the clarinet and contra-bassoon; in bar 11 we are back to dotted crotchets against minims. Bar 10 is also perplexing. This is the same material as that of bar 8, but now the bass trombone plays a dotted crotchet E against the alto and tenor's minim tied to a quaver. In bar 12, ironically, Beethoven demands a staccato fourth crotchet from the clarinets and bassoons but not from the trombones, who with their heavy voice would have a tendency to sound longer than the lighter woodwinds. In bar 13, while the bass trombone doubles the contra exactly in minims, the first two trombones double the clarinets and bassoons but with shorter notes. This means they are also playing shorter notes than the third trombone of the section. The same occurs in bar 15. Inevitably, bars 10, 13 and 15 can feel wrong to the trombone section.
While some of these inconsistencies may be attributed to a copyist's error – certainly this could be the case for bar 12, for the staccato marking does not appear in the recapitulation – one wonders whether the scoring of the trombones came as an afterthought to Beethoven, who perhaps sketched their parts in rather hastily.22
With regard to modern performance practice, today's trombone section will scrupulously distinguish between bars 7, 9 and 11, and it is open to speculation whether this is what Beethoven intended.
As Gevaert points out:
D'habitude les trois trombones marchent réunis; de loin en loin seulement une partie du groupe agit seule (p.e. le troisième pour renforcer une basse importante; l'alto, le ténor, pour faire entendre un chant en grosses notes). Selon l'effet à produire, les accords retentissants du trio sont tantôt serrés, tantôt très larges (au temps de Beethoven on se servait des trois variétés de l'instrument); parfois leurs sons s'étalent longuement, en d'autres moments des coups brefs marquent les accents rythmiques les plus saillants.23
In bars 112-118 (Ex. 1.2), Beethoven assigns a significant passage to the alto and tenor trombone in unison (doubled by the bassoons) – 'leurs sons s'étalent longuement'. Although Beethoven has not indicated on the part that this passage should be brought out, it needs to be played soloistically. These bars are followed by 'coups brefs' punctuating the rhythm.
Referring to bars 112-118, Guion asserts that this 'moment of prominence, [on] any other instrument... would have been a solo',24 suggesting Beethoven's reluctance to assign a prominent solo to a single trombonist. According to Guion:
such was Beethoven's influence that the trombone, alone among the ordinary instruments of the orchestra, had no soloistic role in symphonic music until the end of the century... leaving it to Mahler and later generations to discover what the trombone could add to symphonic work.25
Although Guion fails to take into account the trombone solos in Berlioz's Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840), Halévy's Le Juif Errant (1852), Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet (1868), Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 326 (1886) and Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture and Scheherazade (1888), most later composers who wrote thematically for the trombones did so in chorale fashion (e.g. Schubert, Schumann, Bruckner, Brahms, Dvor(ák) or in section unison, as Wagner did in his Overture to Tannhäuser (1845) and Prelude to Act III in Lohengrin (1850).
However, a solo alto trombone in the upper register, especially against the backdrop of a full symphony orchestra, has a tendency to sound thin and weak, and would have sounded even more so on the narrower-bore alto of Beethoven's day. Very likely Beethoven scored the passage in this manner in order to achieve weight and breadth of sound; and in adding the bassoons also provided for the possibility of a future performance, without trombones.
There is one other 'moment of prominence' in the Fifth Symphony for the alto trombone. Most conductors will ask the alto trombonist to bring out the a' at bar 293, as the alto is the only instrument in the orchestra which moves in that bar and the only one to play the minor third of the f# diminished seventh chord.27
Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, also first performed in 1808, is unique in being the only symphony in the standard repertoire that calls for just two trombones.29 Scored for alto and tenor trombone, reminiscent of the works of the Viennese Fux, Gevaert felt that in the capable hands of Beethoven the two trombones created the most intense effects, depicting the great clap of thunder during the storm scene.30
Gevaert felt that in the capable hands of Beethoven the alto and tenor trombone created the most intense effects, depicting the great clap of thunder during the storm scene.31
Beethoven reserves the trombones for the climactic moment. At the peak of the storm, in 'Gewitter, Sturm', on the last beat of bar 106, the alto trombonist is once again required to enter fortissimo on c", without preparation, and must sustain the note for five bars. However, Beethoven wisely had the first trumpet double this entrance.
Berlioz describes the effect of this entrance:
Alors les trombones éclatent, le tonnerre des timbales redoubles de violence: ce n'est plus de la pluie, du vent. C'est un cataclysm épouvantable, le déluge universel, la fin du monde.32
Nonetheless, the trombone's role is, once again, primarily to add harmonic support. As with the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven omits from the trombone parts the quaver anacrusis that is played by all the other instruments throughout the symphony. The absence of the up-beat makes a difficult passage for the alto even more perilous. Without the quaver preparation, the c" and d" in bars 54-55 of the last movement (Ex. 1.3) become especially dangerous, particularly as some conductors prefer to stretch this phrase out.
However, the first trombone is in unison with the clarinets and first trumpet in bar 54. In bar 55 the alto trombone actually plays higher than the first trumpet; the d" is again in unison with the clarinets and doubled at the octave by the second flute and first violins. Though not nearly as high as the Fifth Symphony, the tessitura is very demanding and great stamina is required.
Also scored for two trombones, tenor and bass, is the overture to Beethoven's opera Fidelio, op.72, (1815). This is probably the earliest instance in the standard repertoire in which the tenor trombone replaced the alto on the first part. (Ex. 1.4).
Utilising the trombones in their traditional role of vocal support, Beethoven scored for an ATB trio in his Ninth Symphony (1824).33 Gevaert writes that:
Par réminiscence de l'exécution traditionnelle du choral luthérien, Beethoven fait aussi intervenir les trombones dans un chant de haute allure religieuse (Seid umschlungen, Millionen) au final de la IXe.34
In the double fugue section of the last movement of the Choral Symphony (see Ex. 1.5), Beethoven writes for the first trombone with discretion and caution, despite the fact that the part is merely supporting the altos of the chorus. In a very deliberate and obvious manner, Beethoven scrupulously avoids taking the alto trombone above c#".
For example, the altos open the fugue on an exposed d"; Beethoven does not entrust this crucial entry to the alto trombone, even though the clarinets and violas are already doubling the voices, but assigns it to the second D trumpet, on which it will be more secure. Only once the section is under way does Beethoven bring in the first trombone on a semitone lower in the second full bar. The first six bars of the second trumpet part, with its intermittent entrances, seem rather peculiar, as it is not serving to emphasise particular words in the alto's text, and many a second trumpet player has looked at his part quizzically. It is only when this part is viewed in conjunction with the alto trombone part that it becomes clear that it was probably intended to steer the first trombone around its first dangerous upper-harmonic entrances.
In bars 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11 the horn and bassoon double the first trombone part. Finally, from bar 12 onwards, the alto trombonist is entrusted with the playing of his part unaided, and the notes here are significantly lower and safer. In bar 22 Beethoven omits the technically somewhat difficult passage from the first trombone, having the clarinet double the voice. In bars 25, 26, 31, 37, 38, 50, 53, 56, 57, 60, 61 and 62 one can see vividly how Beethoven draws the alto trombone's upper register 'ceiling' at c#". Most significantly, Beethoven has the alto trombone descend a major 7th in the last bar to a safe d' rather than move step-wise with the alto voices to the logical d".35
It is open to speculation why Beethoven should have written rather pedestrian and unthematic trombone parts in his symphonies.37 states that 'no incompetence on the part of the trombonists available to Beethoven can account for the lack of intrinsic interest in his trombone parts'.38 Unfortunately, we know precious little about Vienna's trombonists at this time. Within the span of forty years between Albrechtsberger's Konzert in 1769 and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it appears that no alto trombone concerto was written, perhaps due to a decline in the quality of the Viennese alto trombonists.39 While we can conjecture that there was at least one competent tenor trombonist in Vienna around 1791 to enable Mozart to compose the difficult 'Tuba Mirum' trombone obbligato in his Requiem, we should recall that the Vienna production of Don Giovanni (1787) contained no trombone parts.41
Carse relates the difficulty some orchestras had mustering a complete trombone section:
This short supply of trombone players no doubt accounts for the absence of those instruments in some orchestras, and also for the fact that composers often treated them as ad libitum instruments and omitted the parts in their full scores, adding them only as supplementary parts which were not indispensable. In some early 19th century scores the trombone parts are not embodied in the full score, but appear only in an appendix at the end of the score.42
For example, in the manuscript score of 'The Choral Symphony' belonging to the Royal Philharmonic Society and revised by Beethoven himself, the trombones were also relegated to an appendix.43
Of the three symphonies Beethoven wrote that included trombones, only one crucial note for the trombone is not doubled: the a' played by the alto trombonist in bar 293 of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony. Otherwise, anything of relative prominence for the trombones is covered by other instruments, while the rest is harmonic padding and – with very few exceptions – the parts are not exposed.44 Significantly, the trombone parts could be omitted without causing great upset to a performance. This even applies to the extreme tessitura sections for the alto trombone. Rather than viewing these passages as anomalies among otherwise simple parts, we cannot discount the possibility that, since Beethoven used the trombones primarily to reinforce the other lines and to add volume, rather than to 'serve a programmatic function',45 he was indifferent to the severe upper register demands he set. Neither can we discount the possibility that Beethoven overestimated the alto trombonist's ability, particularly in the Fifth Symphony. In any case, Beethoven never again wrote as high for the first trombone.
For example, in the 1812 Drei Equali 46 written for alto, two tenors and bass trombone in choral fashion - a rather pedestrian composition that would probably attract little attention were it not for the fact that it was written by Beethoven47 – the highest note scored for the alto trombone is a single c", which occurs five bars from the end in the last movement; otherwise the first trombone plays mostly in the secure range from d' to a',48 as illustrated in the second movement (Ex. 1.6).
Whether the Viennese trombonists were 'experts', as Guion asserts, remains to be seen. The point is that Vienna could assemble a trombone section at this time while other cities could not. Moreover, those orchestras that could gather three trombonists could not, it seems, count on an assured degree of competency. Around 1805 in Berlin, for example, Die Zauberflöte had to be performed without a trombone section for lack of quality players,50 Thus by writing trombone parts in this manner, Beethoven ensured himself future performances by orchestras that may have lacked three, two, or even one competent trombonist; for the ideal number of trombonists that made up a Beethoven trombone section may have been any number that was available.51