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Bass trombone - History

The history of the trombone’s development shows that high-pitched instruments became less important in the 19th century while technical improvements were made on lower-pitched ones.

The Renaissance trombone – first experiments in the bass register

The bass trombone was already playing an important role in the instrument family (soprano, alto, tenor and bass trombone) in the 16th century. The instruments were called the “fourth” (F) and “fifth” (Eb) trombone because of their tunings in relation to the tenor trombone. During the following years the technique of placing a fourth-crook or fifth-crook in the tenor trombone was occasionally practiced to achieve the necessary tube length which would enable the tenor trombone to be used as a bass instrument, as was customary until the end of the 18th century. The maximum slide length of 92 cm (on the Eb bass trombone) and the wide positions imposed severe limitations on the speed of response of these bass trombones in the lower register. The chromaticization of horns and trumpets at the beginning of the 19th century placed greater demands on the bass trombone, and efforts were made to gain greater agility in the region of the great octave and to improve the embouchure.

The Romantic period – the tenor-bass trombone as an all-round instrument

The valves that were invented between 1813 and 1830 inspired the instrument maker F. C. Sattler of Leipzig to develop the tenor-bass trombone in 1839. He made it possible to integrate the additional piece of tubing (crook) into the U-shaped slide in front of the bell without having to make any other alterations to the tenor trombone. The addition of this piece of tubing meant that bass parts could now be played using the slides of the tenor trombone, in other words greater agility in the bass register was achieved thanks to the closer positions of the tenor trombone’s slide. Players could now switch from tenor to bass pitch by means of a valve (fourth-valve or fifth-valve).

From the middle of the 19th century the new tenor-bass trombone replaced the bass trombone in orchestras and has been used as the third trombone ever since, the three-part trombone section having established itself as standard practice.

Tenor-bass trombone

Tenor-bass trombone (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)

By the end of the 18th century trombones came in three sizes: alto, tenor and bass. These formed the basis of the three-part trombone section in orchestras. Soon the higher parts were being played by tenor trombones in Bb and the lower parts by a tenor-bass trombone. Bass trombones in F were also used, albeit relatively rarely. Up until the beginning of the 20th century these instruments were made primarily for military bands.

Bass trombone

Bass trombone in Bb, Hermann Heinel, Markneukirchen, Germany (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)

In his Ring Wagner already calls for tenor-bass trombones. Often all three trombone parts were played by a tenor-bass trombone.

Composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky and Shostakovitch wrote trombone parts in such a way that they could only be played by a tenor-bass trombone. Today the tenor-bass trombone (with fourth-valve and fifth-valve) is standard in symphony and opera orchestras. In spite of the tenor-bass trombone’s wide range, a distinction has been made in recent times between the tenor-bass and bass trombone – both work according to Sattler’s functional principle and both have the same length of tubing, but the bass trombone has a wider bore (from 13.8 mm), a wider bell (from 24.8 cm), an additional valve (either Eb or D) and a larger mouthpiece.

In around 1830, the valve system developed by Blühmel and Stölzel led to the creation of the valve trombone, on which the slide was replaced by valves. Although this instrument evinces great agility it fails to produce the typical trombone sound. It was used for a time in Italian opera in the 19th century (e.g. Verdi’s Aida, Troubadour). Nowadays the valve trombone is only found in military and wind bands.