A hallmark of Schumann's writing for the trombones is the use of the section in soft solo chorale passages. By far the most significant is the solemn chorale with which Schumann begins the fourth movement of the Third Symphony (Ex. 1.35). Max Alberti writes that:
to the usual four movements an additional movement was inserted between the Andante and the Finale, inspired by the Cologne Cathedral and the festivities on the occasion of the Archbishop von Greissel's elevation to the Cardinalate. It is a slow and solemn movement, hence, contrary to the other movements, the full orchestral apparatus including trombones was used... The fourth movement was originally inscribed 'Im Character der Begleitung einer feierlichen Zeremonie'.139
This chorale is one of the most difficult - if not the most difficult - passages written for the alto trombone. It is insightful to appraise Schumann's style of trombone scoring in light of the remarks made by contemporary and contemporaneous writers. For example, Del Mar describes it as 'a cruel entry',140 as the trombonist must enter 'cold' after three tacet movements. The fact that it is in unison with the first horn does not minimise the difficulty, as the line is very exposed and any slip is immediately apparent to all listeners. Under very nerve-wracking conditions, great lip flexibility and a relaxed embouchure is required to span an interval of an eleventh, up to a sustained eb", within the space of three bars. This is just the opposite of what Widor contended was required: 'l'extrême tension des lèvres'.141 Firm support of the diaphragm is absolutely essential to produce a smooth legato in pianissimo in this range.
Gevaert maintained that legato passages such as these could not be performed adequately on the slide trombone – a style of writing seen only in German music.
Le chant lié ne peut s'exécuter d'une manière satisfiante sur le trombone à coulisse, seul usité en Allemagne... 142
The author further reasons that glissandi are inevitable on the trombone:
... lorsque les intonations liés proviennent de positions différentes, à cause des intervalles intermédiares que le glissement de la coulisse produit inévitablement.143
Unfortunately, Gevaert is unclear whether 'le chant lié' was in fact performed satisfactorily by German trombonists. He goes on to say that this style of writing for trombones was even uncommon in Germany ('mais ce cas est assez rare'.144) According to Gevaert:
En général les maîtres allemands ont traité le trombone à coulisse à manière d'une voix chorale, ne lui donnant que de grosses notes ou de courtes phrases d'un vigoureux dessin rythmique, et ne séparant jamais le ténor de ses deux compagnons.145
One notes that the prevailing opinion of what constituted suitable trombone writing had remained relatively unchanged from Sundelin's day.
Gevaert's explanation that slide trombonists would play a slurred passage simply as sustained notes ('à l'exécution il se convertit en un simple sostenuto'146) suggests that trombonists at this time, or at least the ones whom Gevaert observed, were not adept at legato-tongue technique or supporting with the diaphragm. Indeed, in order to mask this deficiency, according to Gevaert composers would frequently double legato phrases for the trombone with other low-pitched instruments:
Comme la plupart des traits chantants des trombones sont doublés par d'autres instruments graves, le compositeur n'a pas scrupule de mettre des liaisons illusoires, comptant sur l'effect de la masse pour couvrir les défaillances individuelles.147
Thus it appears that the assumption made during J. S. Bach's time – that the trombone was an instrument with inherent deficiencies which were virtually impossible to overcome – had prevailed almost into the twentieth century. According to Gevaert, 'cet instrument, on le voit, offrait d'assez maigres resources techniques à la virtuosité individuelle'.148
Widor, not very helpfully, describes Schumann's writing for trombones as 'tantôt trop haut, tantôt trop bas';149 presumably he felt this was an example of the former.
Although the first horn plays bars 1-8 of Ex. 1.35 in unison with the alto trombone, the part is not quite as difficult. Not only is the first horn accustomed to seeing even higher notes, it has the advantage of valves for producing a smooth legato. Moreover, the third horn doubles the first horn at times, thus enabling the latter to breathe undetected during the phrase and to re-set his embouchure for the upper register. Robert Sheldon, musical instrument curator at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, adds:
I doubt that the horn-trombone doubling on the theme was a kind of safety factor but rather for an assured sustained effect due to staggered breathing possibilities to be worked out between the players if necessary.150
Additionally, one should note that when the theme is re-introduced in the 3/2 section, (Ex. 1.35, bars 30-58), the trombones play the chorale unsupported as the alto trombone soars above the horns and trumpets. Widor, who mistakenly believed this passage was intended for a section with two (if not three) tenors, as was the custom in France at that time, wrote that:
Schumann se sert encore de la clef d'Alto pour ses deux premiers Trombones; il les écrit d'ailleurs comme si c'étaient des Trombones-Altos, témoin... de sa IIIe Symphonie... C'est là, certainement, un example d'écriture dangereuse... Soyons sages, n'écrivons pas si haut.151
Kunitz, in pointing out Widor's mistake, compounds the error by asserting that Schumann had intended both the first and the second part to be played on the alto trombone: 'Schumann hat hier tatsächlich Altposaunen verlangt'.152 According to Del Mar, such confusion arose from Schumann's unorthodox score notation, which placed the first two trombones on a single stave of alto clef:
written without regard to the actual instruments playing the lines... thus producing the anomaly that the instruments... will not be at all two altos... but one.153
Although Gevaert described this chorale as: 'cette phrase religieuse, d'allure austère et imposant',155 However, it seems more likely that Schumann turned to the sound of the trombones to express the feeling of solemnity and enhanced the sound with the addition of the similar-timbred horns to capture the sense of serene majesty. As Robert Sheldon asserts, 'the theme and its treatment is very much in a trombone chorale style'.156
Gevaert argued that Schumann, like Schubert:
... [a] montré un goût moins pur. Trop souvent un grossier placage de trombones alourdit l'instrumentation de leurs symphonies et rappelle les formules banales de l'orchestre rossinien.157
Sheldon disagrees, maintaining that:
Schumann is, for my taste, wrongfully and too often over-criticized for poor orchestration and over-doubling. For me the 4th movement opening is an example of beautifully effective doubling, the three trombones, two bassoons, and three of the four horns working together as a fine octet of relatively dark sounding timbres. The only constant doubling throughout those measures in the brass is the melody line. It could have been done instead with the two upper horns (1st and 3rd) which then might have put the 1st trombone somewhere in the middle harmony lines, and... played on an alto... would have risked lightening the effect [as] the approach to horn playing (and this is ditto for the long trumpets in E-flat and F) [was] probably very laid back and carefully applied, never forced, little edge, and rather dark and poopy sounding – especially considering the very funnel-shaped horn mouthpieces of the period, often made of sheet metal with a rolled-over solder-on rim and therefore with no modern back bore... Compared to such horn timbre, trombones have (had) a more defined sound, and that opening just screams out (to me) to have the alto on the lead voice whether or not doubled by the horn. It really is trombone music, emotionally speaking, and Schumann's voicing has the three trombones covering lead, principal bass, and an inner voice with the horns and bassoons just filling it out... Considering the period equipment, Schumann got the best effect as an orchestrator. Robert Russell Bennett could not have done it better for my tastes.158
Also known as the 'Rhenish Symphony', it was written for the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra which was, according to Carse, a second-echelon orchestra during the mid-1800s.159 In 1835, Mendelssohn gave this scathing description of the orchestra:
[In Düsseldorf] ist so durchaus gar keine Musik zu hören und zu machen, dass ich mich wieder nach einem bessern Orchester sehne... Wenn Du mich einmal dies Orchester dirigieren hörtest, Dich trächten vier Pferde nicht zum zweiten Male hin.160
But according to Ferdinand Hiller, only a short time later, by the time Schumann took over as director, the orchestra had improved greatly:
Als ich gegen das Ende des Jahres 1847 als Dirigent nach Düsseldorf gekommen, fand ich die Musik dort auf einer ganz anderen Stufe stehend. Ferdinand Rietz hatte nicht vergeblich dort eine zwölfjahre Wirksamkeit enthaltet. Bei meiner übersiedlung nach Köln, 1850, vermittelte ich die Besetzung der Stelle durch Robert Schumann.161
Orchestral writing for the ATB trio reaches its peak with Schumann's Fourth Symphony, which marks his most creative use of the trombones. Exploiting several facets of their tone colour, Schumann uses the trombones in prominent chorales (Ex. 1.36) and in dramatic unisons and octaves, both solemn (Exx. 1.37, 1.38) and ominous (Ex. 1.39).