Among contemporary authorities there seems to be a consensus that Bruckner intended an alto for the first trombone in his works.
Robin Gregory writes:
The alto trombone practically disappeared from the orchestral scene, though Bruckner specified the instrument in his symphonies for parts which are comfortably within the range of the tenor and are nowadays usually played on that instrument without, perhaps, quite fulfilling the composer's intentions with regard to tone colour.1
Eric Crees, Co-Principal Trombone of the London Symphony Orchestra, comments that:
It is interesting to consider whether Bruckner's conception of tone colour is ever correctly realised today as the first trombone part, designated to an alto instrument, is invariably played on a tenor.2
Karl-Heinz Weber, Principal Trombone of the Gürzenich Orchester (Köln) and Principal Trombone, Bayreuth Orchester, is more emphatic:
Ich kann nicht denken, dass Bruckner bei der Instrumentation seiner Messen bewusst an eine Tenorposaune (für die 1. Posaune) gedacht hat. Ich glaube vielmehr, dass er so geschrieben hat, wie er es für die Posaunen gewohnt war, nämlich vokaliter in den Stimmenlagen Alt, Tenor, Bass.3
And William Runyan:
It must be admitted that the utilization of the alto trombone in the nineteenth century may have been due more to tradition than to any feelings that its timbre was a necessity; yet, having chosen to use it... Bruckner certainly wrote parts that are uniquely suitable.4
Thus speak today's authorities.5 We shall examine their statements in the light of the existing evidence. (For a summary of Bruckner's most significant works that include trombones, and the type of trombone used for the first part, see Table 3.1, p. 118.)
From 1845 to 1855, one of Bruckner's responsibilities as organist of the Stift of St Florian was to provide music for the Catholic church services. According to Nowak, 'die erste Anregung zu eigenem kompositorischen Schaffen erhielt Anton Bruckner von der Kirchenmusik'.6 Derek Watson adds that Bruckner was:
attracted to music of the Baroque era, and his love for it is echoed in the primitive lustre of his brass writing... The rich splendour of his symphonic brass writing is clearly a development of his early predilection for brass instrumentation. Something of the magnificence of antiphonal brass writing associated with St Mark's Cathedral in Venice in the Renaissance era lives on in Bruckner's early music.7
As one might expect, Bruckner's liturgical works often utilised trombones.
Having received virtually no formal instruction, Bruckner would have studied the examples of the old masters8 who, if they wrote for the trombone at all, scored for the ATB trio. According to Howie, Bruckner was also influenced by Schubert and Schumann,9 both of whom wrote for the alto trombone; the latter, we recall, was at this time assigning the alto prominent thematic material in his symphonies. During this period it appears that Bruckner also intended an alto as the first trombone in his compositions.
Bruckner's earliest extant choral works to include trombone parts are the 'Kyrie' movements from his incomplete Masses in G Minor and Eb Major, composed in 1846 and 1848 respectively. There are no surviving handwritten parts: only the autograph scores exist. In the 1846 'Kyrie', orchestrated for SATB chorus, trombones and organ, Bruckner has included a blank stave for the 'tromboni'. In the later work, similarly, the oboe, string, organ and 'cello staves seem to have been completed, whereas by the trombone parts, named 'Alt', 'Tenor' and 'Bass' with their corresponding clef signs, there are three blank staves, possibly suggesting that the trombones were to be used colla voce.
According to P. Benedikt Wagner, the Seitenstetten Stiftsarchivar,10Bruckner composed two Aequale for three trombones around 1847. Written in the style of Beethoven's similarly entitled work,
dieses weniger der Trauer als dem Trost und der Hoffnung Ausdruck gebende Begräbnisstück mit seiner stellenweise weichlichen Sexten-Melodik ist eines jener damals beliebten Stücke, die in St. Florian beim äußeren Stiftstore, wo die Leichen abgesetzt wurden, erklangen, bis der Priester die Einsegnung vornahm.11
The three handwritten parts of the first Aequale specify 'Alto', 'Tenor' and 'Bass' written in their respective clefs. The compass of the alto trombone part extends from a to bb'. In the second Aequale (Ex. 3.1 and 3.2), the first two trombone parts are inscribed as in the former; the bass trombone part has been lost. Bruckner required a very modest range of g to g' for the alto trombone.
Bruckner's first major work for chorus with orchestra was the 1849 Requiem in D minor. Although the original parts apparently no longer exist, the compass and function of the first trombone strongly suggests an alto trombone. The trombones are used in the traditional manner of vocal support; the same can be said of Psalm 114 of 1852 (Ex. 3.3) and the Libera Me in F minor of 1854 (Ex. 3.4, 3.5, 3.6). The first trombone erste Abschriftstimme of the latter work (Ex. 3.4) is written in alto clef, and specifies 'Alt Trombone'. In Bruckner's 1854 Missa Solemnis in Bb12 considered by many his most important early work, the trombone parts double the voices, though less slavishly than in the previous works and rather more in the style of Handel or Mendelssohn. The first trombone part ascends to eb'' and falls within the range in which, according to Gevaert, the alto sounded best: 'les deux octaves comprises entre mib4 and mib2'.13
During the mid-1850s Bruckner was often called upon to write dedicatory works, Gebrauchsmusik, in honour of the Prelates. The choral accompaniment was invariably scored for brass ensemble, the absence of strings suggesting these works were performed outdoors. One such composition, 'Vor Arneths Grab' (1854), was written for Männerchor with three accompanying trombones. According to the Göllerich score of 1928,14 the first trombone functions as support for the first tenor and might have been intended for a tenor trombone. The 1855 'Auf Brüder auf die Saiten zur Hand ' from the Kantate für Prälat Meyer (Ex. 3.7) – scored for chorus, three horns, two clarini trumpets, bassoon and three trombones – is somewhat ambiguous in regard to the species of the first trombone. Although in the autograph score the first trombone is written in alto clef, the copyist Schimatschek15 has transposed the part to bass clef, as seen in Ex. 3.8. Moreover, in the opening section of the piece, the first trombone supports the first tenor voice of the all-male chorus. It thus seems logical that Bruckner would have intended a tenor trombone for the part, as the evidence suggests. However, in the Schlusschor the men are joined by the women's chorus and the first trombone now supports the altos in a tessitura that on one occasion reaches c#". There are a number of possible explanations for this ambiguity. Perhaps Bruckner had wanted to use four trombones (ATTB) but another player was unavailable, and he judged that of the two sections of the chorus the tenors required the stronger reinforcement; or it may be that the tenor trombonist was to change to an alto for the Schlusschor, although there is no such indication. Despite the fact that the part is written in bass clef and that it would have been highly unusual, it is not inconceivable that an alto trombonist could have played from this clef. However, in light of the close working relationship between Bruckner and his copyist Schimatschek, whom Nowak described as an 'ausgezeichneter und genauer Kopist',17 or conveyed an instrumentation contrary to Bruckner's intention. According to Hawkshaw:
a large number of Schimatschek's copies contain entries in Bruckner's hand. In some sources the collaboration between the two was so close that their handwriting is evenly distributed throughout. In view of this intimate relationship, Schimatschek's copies must be considered among the most important sources for Bruckner's compositions.18
Thus if the trombone part was intended for a tenor, as it indeed seems to be, it is apparently the first time Bruckner used the instrument as his first trombone with a mixed choir. Moreover, the c#" is probably the highest note that had been demanded of a tenor trombone at that date, although one must remain sceptical about the fulfilment of the extreme upper register demands placed on the first trombone when doubling the vocal line, as noted earlier for the works of Bach, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others.19