Chapter 5: Dvorak

Ken Shifrin: The Alto Trombone in the Orchestra: 1800-2000

Trombones... are made in several sizes... Dvořák usually had two altos and a bass.2 (Annie O. Warburton)

Dvořák used the alto trombone in his Ninth Symphony.3 (Jiří Kratochvíl)

In Bruckner symphonies... Dvořák's New World, and other pieces where a large volume of sound is now required, the alto trombone tends to be swamped and is less satisfactory.4 (Ralph Sauer, Principal Trombone, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra)

We recently performed Dvořák's Symphony No. 6 in D Major. The conducting interpretation was classical, and we were encouraged to be more seen than heard. Partly with that in mind, I chose to use the alto on first.5 (Ron Barron, Principal Trombone, Boston Symphony Orchestra)

I would definitely use the alto [trombone] for a performance of the Dvořák Symphony No. 1.6 (Milt Stevens, Principal Trombone, National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC)

The above statements represent the received wisdom regarding the use of the alto trombone by Dvořák. In this chapter I wish to reassess this view and explore the hypothesis that Dvořák was writing for valve trombones.

In contrast to Bruckner's case, the original handwritten parts to Dvořák's works no longer exist;8 Nonetheless, one may still conclude, on the basis of other evidence, that Dvořák did not write for the alto trombone. For not only did Czech trombonists forego the alto in the early part of the nineteenth century, in part due to the difficulty in playing it in tune,9 but according to my research during Dvořák's lifetime valve trombones, tenor and bass, were used almost exclusively in Bohemia.

5:1 Music Education and the Valve Trombone in Bohemia

According to Jan Branberger, slide trombones were not used in Bohemia from 1826 to 1861.10 In 1826, the Prague Conservatoire of Music dismissed its professor of slide trombone, František Weiss, and replaced him with Josef Kail, a staunch advocate of the valve trombone12 According to Bohuslav Čížek, Curator of Musical Instruments at the Museum of Czech Music, Kail, in whose self interest was the study of valve trombone, 'constantly found important benefactors' and had great influence on musical opinion in Prague.14 The valve trombone offered not only enhanced technical capacity, but proponents such as Červený, a leading Czech instrument-maker, also maintained that 'the intrinsic sound was no different from the slide trombone'.15 Study of the slide trombone continued to languish despite the efforts of the Conservatoire's Director Kittl, who argued correctly, in the author's opinion, that 'only the slide trombone kept the true sound of the trombone', and that valve trombones were 'degenerate, just like big trumpets'.16

However, in 1860, and over the strenuous protests of Kail and his supporters, Director Kittl 'imported' the Berliner August Bolze from the Krakow Theatre Orchestra to teach slide trombone to a few of the valve-trombone pupils. Nonetheless, the slide trombone remained unpopular, and according to Jaroslav Ušák, the renowned Czech trombonist and pedagogue, 'the introduction of the slide trombone was not accepted favourably by the whole of our music public'.17 The following year, the new Deputy Director discouraged the teaching of the instrument, which he considered 'too strenuous for the pupils'.18

Following Bolze's suicide in 1863, slide trombone instruction was placed in the hands of a second-year student, František Haužvic. Kail retired in 1867, after forty years' service, and Václav Smita, bass trombonist with the German Estates Theatre Orchestra in Prague and a former student of Kail's, was appointed to teach both valve and slide trombone21 the Conservatoire trombone class was taken over by a proper slide trombonist, Josef Hilmer, who abolished the study of valve trombone altogether,22 and whom Karel Hoffmeister, Rektor of the Conservatoire, recognised as having distinguished himself by the fact that he did not play valve trombone, which up to that time was the standard instrument in the country.23

Table 5.1

Professors of Trombone at the Prague Conservatoire of Music, 1826-present24

Name Type of trombone taught Years taught
Josef KAIL valve trombone 1826-1867
August BOLZE slide trombone 1860-1863
Aruosl TESKE slide trombone 1864-1874
Václav SMITA valve and slide trombone 1874-1903
Josef HILMER slide trombone only 1903-1934
Antonín KOULA slide trombone 1934-1938
Jaroslav SIMSA slide trombone 1938-1950/1952
Jaroslav UŠÁK slide trombone 1940-1956
Miloslav HEJDA slide trombone 1956-1986
Josef STÁDNÍK slide trombone [Unknown]
Jaroslav VÍTEK slide trombone [Unknown]
Joleník PULEC slide trombone [Unknown]
Jaronín HAVEL slide trombone 1986-1989
Mastinvic PELC slide trombone [Unknown]
Jin JANDÍK slide trombone 1988-1989
Jon SAILER slide trombone [Unknown]
Josef ŠIMEK slide trombone 1986-
Václav FEREBAUER slide trombone 1990


In 1911, Branberger wrote that Kail's valve system had been 'used for a long time at the Prague Conservatoire, and such instruments were produced in Prague until recent times'.25 Thus, according to Jaroslav Tachovsky, Principal Trombonist of the Czech Philharmonic:

Dvořák wrote for valve trombones which were played in his time. Slide trombones were first introduced in Prague in 1919 at the National Theatre at the insistence of the Chief Conductor Kovařovic.26

Burghauser feels the date is more likely to have been closer to 1900,28 According to Hejda, towards the latter part of Dvořák's compositional career, the Czech Philharmonic trombone section could have consisted of both slide and valve players29. Yet generally speaking, with the exception of a few bars from the Eighth Symphony and Te Deum, some passages in the Rhapsodies and Symphonic Variations which at that time would have been considered technically difficult, and a number of exposed soft entrances involving slurred notes without natural 'breaks' in slow, step-wise motion,30 Dvořák's writing does not appear unduly influenced by the fact that, in the main, only valve-trombones were available to him in Prague and is today considered well-suited to the slide trombone. The clearest evidence of Dvořák's apparent use of the valve trombone occurs in the Finale of his 1889 Symphony Number Eight in G Major (Ex. 5.1) and in the fourth movement of the 1892 Te Deum (Ex. 5.2). Ironically, by this stage in his career Dvořák had conducted his works abroad on a number of occasions and must therefore have been well aware of the use of the slide trombone outside his homeland. For example, Stabat Mater, the D Major Symphony and the D Minor Symphony were all conducted by Dvořák in Britain during the years 1884-85, the latter being composed for the Philharmonic Society of London.

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