In the 16th century there was an octave trombone (trombone doppio = double trombone), which was tuned to an octave below the tenor trombone. The enormous length of the slides (the tube was around 6 m long) meant that only slow playing was possible. Attempts to divide the slide into four parts (a double U), thus halving its length – a single slide movement doubled the length of the tube – had been made as early as the 16th century, but had no role to play in baroque or classical music.
It was this double U system that was called the “double slide” or “double trombone”.
But it was not until 1816 that a double trombone in F was designed by the German Gottfried Weber (and actually made by Halary in Paris in 1830), which shortened the slides to such a degree that they were even shorter than the old bass trombone. This shortening was a significant step forward.
In Berlin in around 1860 C. A. Moritz made a double-slide contrabass trombone in Bb (with no additional valve) for Richard Wagner, who was the first to give the instrument an important role, which he did in the Ring. Composers such as Giuseppe Verdi (Aida, 1871; Requiem, 1874), Giacomo Puccini (La Bohème, 1896), Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg (Gurrelieder, 1911) wrote ever deeper parts for the 4th trombone, which could ultimately only be played by the contrabass trombone.
Double slide trombone in F (low tuning), presumably from Markneukirchen, Germany, ca. 1820/30 (Musikinstrumentenmuseum Schloss Kremsegg, Austria, Streitwieser collection)
What all of these works have in common is a large trombone section and vocal parts. The principal task of the contrabass trombone was to provide sufficient volume for a stable and supportive foundation to the four-part trombone section while blending with its homogeneous overall sound, which was something the tuba could not do.
In 1921 Ernst Dehmel used the principles of the tenor-bass trombone to make the improved version of the contrabass trombone which is still customary today: a bass trombone in F1 with two valves (Eb1 and Bb0), which can be opened either singly or together. When both are opened together the pitch is lowered to Ab0 (a fifth plus a major second). In technical terms this combination of the bass and contrabass trombones corresponds to the system developed by C. F. Sattler in Leipzig in 1839. Other valves such as the Eb and C valves have subsequently also gained acceptance. The double slide system is therefore no longer usual today.