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The Trombone, the hidden voice of fate

"I don't know why, but the trombone makes me very uncomfortable" Zigmund Freud

Why? Perhaps because the structure of trombone is created by two long, slender tubes which connect at one end to create the letter 'S". S for seduction perhaps? Is that what made Freud uncomfortable? Relax, Zigmund! There is much more going about the trombone than just plain sex. It is as complex as a true love story that starts with a deep and hypnotising voice.

In England they called the trombone the sackbut. The name was a combination between the French words for drawing out a sword out and pushing it back in. One plays the sackbut or the trombone by pulling and pushing the curved tube which changes the pitch of the notes.

The most famous concerto for trombone is written by the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, the master of the fairy tales, the Russian folk tunes, elegies and operas. Behind the mask of the musician and the extraordinary legacy of one of the best orchestrators and music theorists was hiding a military man possessing great discipline and endless desire for knowledge. Between editing Glinka's orchestral scores and the transcription of 140 Russian folk songs, Rimsky-Korsakov suddenly wrote a concerto for solo trombone and military band. What possessed him? Perhaps the raging Crimean War. The troops in the first defending post of Kronstadt needed reassurance, and an upbeat one. Korsakov, with his strong nationalistic pride in combination with his Roman heritage and his family line of Russian generals, had to deliver the deep voice of the Russian Empire and for that purpose used the most suitable brass instrument - the trombone . However there is nothing that sounds very Russian in this concerto. No Russian folk tunes and no elegies. In fact it is all rather Italian! The first movement is a tarantella, resembling the opening of Mendelssohn' Italian Symphony, the second movement is a Siciliana - the slow version of the tarantella, and the last movement, which I firmly believe is the source for the Christmas song " The Twelve days of Christmas", in the style of Italian opera-buffa.

Christian Lindberg playing Rimsky-Korsakov concerto

Why so Italian? Because the scholar Rimsky-Korsakov knew that the first proper home of the trombone was Venice and the origin of its name is the Italian Tromba (trumpet) and the suffix One (large). A bit like Pantalone, the old egotistical and vain character from Commedia dell' Arte, representing the money, the status, and the delusional self-perspective of the Venetian tradesmen.

Venice was the place to be in the 15th Century. It was the buzzing heart of Europe, the middle centuries New York, where the new money ruled. It was the place in which one could cover their face and enjoy all the desires of the body. The flamboyance, the beauty, and the endless dancing at the carnival (carnival originating from carne (flesh) - the wild fiesta in the days before the restriction of the Lent) were only possible with the newly generated wealth of the merchants of Venice. Those merchants who would trade anything, even flesh, if it could generate profit. Whilst the newly rich in Amsterdam were demonstrating their wealth by displaying vases with Turkish tulips, the affluent Venetians were having bands, performing on their balconies.

The piffari were the brass bands which every rich and well respected man in Venice kept. Can you imagine what a place Venice must have been in the 15th century - endless dancing, love, rivers of wine and lots of gold.

It was the home of Don Giovanni's prototype Giacomo Casanova with his endless pursuits of love, lust and power.

However, inevitably one day the party ends. The day of justice arrives and Don Giovanni needs to answer for all the hearts he broke in his pursuit of happiness. The trombone arrives along with Commendatore at the grave yard in a very well orchestrated move by Mozart, who reached for the trombones for the days of Judgement day. By the time of Mozart, the trombones have left the partying streets of Venice and have entered the churches and the monasteries. The deep, towering sound of the instrument became the call from eternity, the sound of authority and justice.

Mozart Requiem

Gradually, and very hesitantly the composers decided they could use a bit of the imposing profundity as an additional colour. The trombone started playing in the orchestra, however not always and not for the whole time. Just at selected passages requiring a lot of drama. It was very common for the trombone players to sit and wait for several movements until their turn arrived.

"The role of the trombonist, more often than not, is to wait."

Zac Freiser

Boy, that is difficult! Firstly, you can't really do much apart from looking at your colleagues and the audience. A good painted ceiling is always an added bonus, but there are not many in the concert halls these days. You cannot sleep, read, take selfies, play chess... Especially not at concerts, even less so if you play a Requiem. What if you dislike the other members of the section and need to sit next to them for hours? What if you cannot even share a smile or a smirk and therefore need to only look forward and forward is where the conductor is, so that is not always very pleasant. Waiting is a very difficult game. It is the most challenging test of endurance and patience. Some say that it demonstrates devotion and commitment? Perhaps true, however it is a special and unique quality and the trombone players are experts in it. The violinists would probably explode in anger and impatience if needing to wait for 30 minutes before playing a single note! Well, they better learn to occasionally listen to the others the way trombone players do.

There are benefits to the wait though. Very often the trombones would be allowed to attend just one part of the orchestral rehearsal, and yes, that will still be paid at full rate. Them and that triangle player! Nothing is truly fair in this world, violinists, c'est la vie. That is the trombone's fate, starting with the first proper symphony they were officially signed as a part of the orchestra - Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the famous Ta-ta-ta-taaaam, in which the trombones had to wait until ...the triumphant finale.

The famous motif of Fate might have actually been a reference to a song, popular amongst the rebellious Parisians, plotting the French Revolution. In other words, the Fate of the trombone largely depended on the uprising agains the restrictive old order. The world-shaking ideas of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité profoundly changed the course of music and musical formations. The aristocratic beloved violins, oboes and flutes could no longer reach loud and far enough. They were quickly replaced by brass instrument which the common people could afford to buy. The new voice of Freedom reached far beyond Europe and sent the trombones and their brothers across the ocean, to the yearning for music and dancing independent America. As there was no TV, cinema, radio and social media at that time, the brass bands would produce all the available entertainment. The professionals band leaders would tour the country and mix with the amateurs at any new place they went. Very soon every village would have their own band, marching around the streets on any available occasion. Those varitiations of the European brass bands would become the founding fathers of the big band. Benny Goodman and Glen Miller would soon get all the Americans swinging on the dance floor.

The trombone is good for swing, but not as good for bebop! Its beautiful long lines do not fit in the virtuosic fast improvisations of the new style. That's for the smaller trumpets. True or false? Very false. Turns out the trombone can play fast. It can fly and buzz around the tune like a bumblebee, alas Rimsky-Korsakov did not know that otherwise his famous Bumblebee could have been written for the sackbut. The stirring bebop scene created some exceptional players such as JJ Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Delfeayo Marsalis - brother of Winston and Brandford, and many others.

Carl Fontana + Supersax : Confirmation

We assume that the trombone is a masculine instrument. All this testosterone in its voice tells us that it is the lads who play the trombones. However!

Daniel Bretschneider, Dresden 1582

Many women became excellent trombone players in the 17th century. In the convents the nuns would master the trombone in order to replace the male voices in the liturgy. The Church, particularly in England, would forbid the use of musical instruments in the convents, yet there were many female trombone players around Europe who were masters (or mistresses) of the cornett, the tenor and brass trombones.

Melba Liston was the only woman in Quincy Jones' band. Although that sounds rather special and prestigious, it was not an easy gig for Melba. She was a woman and she was black - a lonely place to be at her time. Many of the men around her were often rude and mean so she had to grow a very thick skin in order to stand in front of the whole battalion and play her tune.

Melba Liston and The Quincy Jones band

The trombones or the bones as they are popularly known, have been in the heart of the NY, London and Paris music scenes the same way they used to be the backbone of the 15th Century music scene in Venice. Usually appearing in a group of three, like the Three Musketeers, they participate in the dances, the churches, the military bands, and the most profound and serious symphonies. So it is hardly surprising that in 2022 - 152 years after Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - The Music Man, the super hit musical from 1962, came to the rescue of the ever diminishing bands on Broadway for the 60 anniversary of the film. It starred the movie X-man Hugh Jackman in the main role.

In the original movie, the fraudster band leader with no real credentials manages to induce a whole little town to get involved with music and brass instruments. Hugh Jackman, with all his Greatest Showman credentials tried to convince the New York audience and producers that having a band is a great asset to the theatre.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in The Miserbles

Sadly, there is not much Liberté, Égalité, and Fratenité on Broadway or in the West End of London, and the 76 trombones in the movie were reduced to only 2 in the theatre. In a true musketeers fashion, the effort to save the two lovers' secret would require two for seventy six and seventy six for two. But one day, that will all change. The numbers of the musicians will change. For sure! The trombones always cry for revolution and redemption. It is in their fate.

The Music Man 76 trombones

In order to shoot this scene the film makers had to recruit all the marching bands across America, Italy, England and Russia. Rimsky-Korsakov would have been so happy! Freud would have been so disturbed! And we, in a good faith, would only be joining the dancing and the carnival along with the deep, seductive voices of the trombones.


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