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Author Topic: Contrabass trombone in the 1920s  (Read 40089 times)
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Steve Dillon
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« on: Dec 14, 2005, 03:36AM »

What would an orchestra of the 1920s use a contrabass trombone for and would the rest of the section use larger instruments when the contra is being used?
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Edward_Solomon
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« Reply #1 on: Dec 14, 2005, 05:40AM »

Quote from: "Steve Dillon"
What would an orchestra of the 1920s use a contrabass trombone for and would the rest of the section use larger instruments when the contra is being used?


By the 1920s there were really only six major works for which the slide contrabass trombone had been scored:

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold
Richard Wagner - Die Walküre
Richard Wagner - Siegfried
Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung
Richard Strauss - Elektra
Arnold Schoenberg - Gurrelieder

There is no call for the other trombonists to use a larger instrument than usual. Certainly that was not the case in Germany, nor have players ever done so since then. I cannot imagine that it was the case anywhere else. In the 1920s it is most likely that only an opera house would have possessed a contrabass trombone and, as today, used it in addition to the standard section of two tenors and one bass trombone.

By 1924, Ernst Dehmel's F/E flat/B flat contrabass trombone had been patented and he played on it in the Bayreuth orchestra, while the B flat double slide contrabass, probably made by Moritz of Berlin, was in use before then.

The French used their own types of contrabass trombone, either in low B flat with double slide or else a more modern design based on the same principle as the German instrument, viz. a bass trombone with valve attachment. The Italians preferred a three or four valve B flat contrabass trombone, which was scored for by Verdi and Puccini in some of their operatic and ecclesiastical works. It was adjoined to a section of three B flat valve tenor trombones.

The British used the Boosey & Co. contrabass trombone in C or B flat or a G/C bass trombone to cover the contrabass parts. It is only in very recent years that the rest of the world has begun to deploy the contrabass trombone and it is usually a model in F/D/C or F/E flat/B flat which is used nowadays.
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« Reply #2 on: Dec 14, 2005, 07:03PM »

Ed, why the British preference for G/C and not not F/C
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« Reply #3 on: Dec 15, 2005, 01:23AM »

Quote from: "Lebanese Bass Bone"
Ed, why the British preference for G/C and not not F/C


The British used a G/D bass trombone with a C slide in the valve attachment instead of a D slide, which facilitated the production of the low A flat, a semitone above the first fundamental. This was the preferred choice at Covent Garden for many years and provided a good match for the tenor trombones in vogue at the time. The added advantage for the player was that there was little alteration to the basic technique in order to be able to cover the contrabass trombone parts using the C slide, which was only ever required if a passage included low A flat, otherwise the D slide would suffice.
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« Reply #4 on: Jan 13, 2006, 04:27AM »

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The Italians preferred a three or four valve B flat contrabass trombone, which was scored for by Verdi and Puccini in some of their operatic and ecclesiastical works. It was adjoined to a section of three B flat valve tenor trombones.


Weren't (aren't) these BBb instruments cimbassi?
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« Reply #5 on: Jan 13, 2006, 10:40AM »

I guess Ed will be back, but until then…
Cimbasso was not an instrument from the beginning in Verdi´s time, but the part just below the (valved?) trombones.
It could be played on an optional wind bass of brass. Tuba, ophicleide, bass horn or basstrombone (valved).
The Italian tuba was very narrow. The part was often played on the Italian tuba or the bass (valve) trombone. I don’t know from what year the modified large bass valved trombone got the name Cimbasso, but valved bass trombones that was not by any means called cimbassi was used in Europe in the 19:th century.
The use of valved trombones (alto, tenor and bass, even contrabass occasionally) in Sweden was very common not only in military bands, but also in opera and symphony orchestras all the way into the beginning of the 20:th century.
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« Reply #6 on: Jan 20, 2006, 03:20PM »

The whole issue of the word "cimbasso" and what instruments were used when composers wrote for an instrument of that name is one that needs a lot of unravelling.  I just had an article published, "Some Clarity About the Cimbasso" in "The Brass Herald", Issue 11, December 2005 (pp. 56-57).  Briefly: there actually was an instrument called cimbasso (short hand for "corno di basso" or bass horn).  It had a wood body and a metal bell, an evolution of the bass horn which in England was all metal.  It was a form of upright serpent.

Here is a photo of me  taken at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, holding the earliest extant "cimbasso" by the Italian maker, Piana, c. 1815.  Also in the case behind me can be seen (left to right) a copper serpent, English bass horn, military serpent, and the bells of a Russian bassoon and buccin):




The word "cimbasso" rapidly became associated with the best available bass brass instrument. Later, parts written for cimbasso would be played on keyed and valved ophicleide, bombardon, valve trombone in BB flat (Verdi's "trombone basso Verdi" - a valved contrabass trombone in BB flat), valve trombone in F (the modern cimbasso we see with 4-6 valves, a form of valved contrabass trombone in F) and slide contrabass trombone in F (the most sensible modern instrument to play "cimbasso parts" since  in Verdi's time, all four trombones were valved instruments - today, we do not use valved trombones in most orchestras so when slide tenor and bass trombones are used, a slide contrabass trombone - rather than a valved contrabass trombone - would be most sensible.  Verdi was adamant that a tuba should not be the bass of the trombone section; he did not feel it blended well with trombones.).

In Italy in 1881 the Gazetta Musicale de Milano carried an article about Verdi's visit to the Pelitti factory where his "trombone basso Verdi" was made - the article speaks of the Italian trombone section consisting of, "two b flat tenor trombones, a bass trombone in F and the new bass trombone in BBflat [which] are necessary in order to achieve a trombone quartet tht is perfect, homogenous and effective without bringing into the orchestra a timbre from the band (ie: a tuba) that would affect the instrumental blending of the various instruments."

For more on this subject, see:

Renato Meucci: "The Cimbasso and Related Instruments in 19th -century Italy". Galpin Society Journal, number XLIX, March 1996. pp 143-179.

and

Clifford Bevan: "The Tuba Family".  Piccolo Press, second edition, 2000. pp.  406-425

-Douglas Yeo
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Douglas Yeo   

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« Reply #7 on: Jan 20, 2006, 03:35PM »

Quote from: "Ed_Solomon"
The British used the Boosey & Co. contrabass trombone in C or B flat or a G/C bass trombone to cover the contrabass parts.


Hi Edward!  Great info from you on this thread.  

There was a British BBflat contrabass trombone manufactured by the Salvation Army which appeared in SA catalogs as early as 1905.  I have one of these instruments, a very narrow bore and not likely used in orchestras at the time (and how it may have been deployed in Salvation Army Bands is not clear).  A very interesting specimen.  Here is a photo:



More photos can be found on my website trombone gallery (including photos of a 1905 Conn BBflat contrabass trombone with its original owner, August Helleberg) at:

http://www.yeodoug.com/articles/trombone_gallery/trombone_gallery.html

-Douglas Yeo
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David Gross
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« Reply #8 on: Jan 21, 2006, 12:42PM »

I'm reminded of a line from the "Batman" movie where the Joker asks "Where does he get all those wonderful toys?"
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« Reply #9 on: Jan 21, 2006, 07:02PM »

The Italian "cimbasso" looks to have a similar construction to the butt stock on a bassoon.  Could you tell if that was indeed how it was constructed?
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« Reply #10 on: Jan 21, 2006, 07:54PM »

Quote from: "Labrat"
The Italian "cimbasso" looks to have a similar construction to the butt stock on a bassoon.  Could you tell if that was indeed how it was constructed?


Yes, there are clear similarities, although bassoons at that time were of a much narrower bore, not as thick walled as the bass horns.

The cimbasso and other bass horns are really forms of upright serpents.  They had various names but all had similar characteristics - usually in C,  usually with 6 holes and perhaps a few keys in addition, usually a bell flare at the top, most often with wooden butt stock.

Here is a photo of a serpent Forveille:



The classic serpentine shape is gone; now the serpent is sporting more metal, the beginning of basically having a bocal, then a down tube and an up tube, with the bell at the top.

Here is a photo of a "basson Russe" or Russian bassoon:



It is neither Russian (it is French)  nor a bassoon, but it does have a bassoon like butt stock.  The zoomorphic head (in this photo, the head is turned backwards, it should be facing to the right) is common in this form of upright serpent.  These upright serpents - and the cimbasso - all were easier to play when marching in a band than a traditional, serpentine shaped serpent, and also had the advantage of the bell being at the top of the instrument where the sound would project well.

While the serpent, cimbasso, basson Russe and other forms of upright serpents were part of the evolutionary path that led to the modern tuba, they were all 8 feet long and played with mouthpieces similar in size to modern trombone mouthpieces.

-Douglas Yeo
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« Reply #11 on: Jan 22, 2006, 04:31AM »

Excellent information, Douglas.
Thank you very much for sharing it.
Chris Stearn.
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TexasBassBone
« Reply #12 on: Jan 22, 2006, 06:17AM »

Quote from: "yeodoug"
The whole issue of the word "cimbasso" and what instruments were used when composers wrote for an instrument of that name is one that needs a lot of unravelling.  I just had an article published, "Some Clarity About the Cimbasso" in "The Brass Herald", Issue 11, December 2005 (pp. 56-57).  Briefly: there actually was an instrument called cimbasso (short hand for "corno di basso" or bass horn).  It had a wood body and a metal bell, an evolution of the bass horn which in England was all metal.  It was a form of upright serpent.

[The word "cimbasso" rapidly became associated with the best available bass brass instrument. Later, parts written for cimbasso would be played on keyed and valved ophicleide, bombardon, valve trombone in BB flat (Verdi's "trombone basso Verdi" - a valved contrabass trombone in BB flat), valve trombone in F (the modern cimbasso we see with 4-6 valves, a form of valved contrabass trombone in F) and slide contrabass trombone in F (the most sensible modern instrument to play "cimbasso parts" since  in Verdi's time, all four trombones were valved instruments - today, we do not use valved trombones in most orchestras so when slide tenor and bass trombones are used, a slide contrabass trombone - rather than a valved contrabass trombone - would be most sensible.  Verdi was adamant that a tuba should not be the bass of the trombone section; he did not feel it blended well with trombones.).

In Italy in 1881 the Gazetta Musicale de Milano carried an article about Verdi's visit to the Pelitti factory where his "trombone basso Verdi" was made - the article speaks of the Italian trombone section consisting of, "two b flat tenor trombones, a bass trombone in F and the new bass trombone in BBflat [which] are necessary in order to achieve a trombone quartet tht is perfect, homogenous and effective without bringing into the orchestra a timbre from the band (ie: a tuba) that would affect the instrumental blending of the various instruments."

For more on this subject, see:

Renato Meucci: "The Cimbasso and Related Instruments in 19th -century Italy". Galpin Society Journal, number XLIX, March 1996. pp 143-179.

and

Clifford Bevan: "The Tuba Family".  Piccolo Press, second edition, 2000. pp.  406-425

-Douglas Yeo


Hi Mr. Yeo, I wanted to add to the whole Cimbasso thread, back in Sewanee I played the Reformation Symphony by  Felix Mendelssohn , I played the basso part, while the other bass in our studio played the cimbasso, it was awesome.Yup....
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« Reply #13 on: Jan 22, 2006, 11:47AM »

Quote from: "TexasBassBone"
I wanted to add to the whole Cimbasso thread, back in Sewanee I played the Reformation Symphony by  Felix Mendelssohn , I played the basso part, while the other bass in our studio played the cimbasso, it was awesome.Yup....


That is one way to do it, certainly.  Mendelssohn wrote for three trombones.  He also wrote for two bassoons, serpent and contrabassoon.  If no serpent can be found, any kind of historical bass horn (English bass horn, early cimbasso, basson Russe, etc) would work well; a small bore British style baritone is the best modern substitute, especially if a serpent mouthpiece is used; failing that, a euphonium would be a good fit and then another bassoon.  A bass trombone on that part would work well if played very sensitively in order to blend with the contrabassoon and make a new kind of sound that is neither bassoon nor serpent.  When I played the Mendelssohn "Reformation" Sym with the Boston Symphony a few months ago, I played serpent.  Ton Koopman was the conductor; his comment, on hearing the unique blend of serpent and contrabassoon, was that Mendelssohn clearly knew about the blending of sounds; as an organist, he would have understood the mising of the 8 and 18 foot instruments and their overtones would give a new kind of sound, unique to that particular combination of instruments.

-Douglas Yeo
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Douglas Yeo   

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Bob1062
« Reply #14 on: Jan 27, 2006, 01:43PM »

If I may ask some general questions-

When playing the G/D(C) as a contra, was there a change in mouthpiece or sound concept? I see that "slides," not a slide (as would seem to make sense in the picture) are added to put it into C, is it also possible to put it into Db?

Mr. Yeo, do you happen to know the bore and bell size of the Conn contra? I imagine you have spent some time on a Miraphone contra, how does the Conn compare to it?
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« Reply #15 on: Jan 27, 2006, 02:28PM »

I have never seen any information that would lead me to believe that the orchestral G/D/C bass trombone was used to play contra parts in the UK.
Before the 1960's the Ring cycle was not often performed in the UK.... at least not as much as it has been since, and it was my understanding that the Boosey CC instrument was always used in London. I do not think there had been performances outside London in the early 20th C.
I have never heard of any larger mouthpieces being used for low parts on the G/D/C. The players involved are all dead by now.... the best person to ask is the historical specialist for Covent Garden, Tom Winthorpe.
Chris Stearn.
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« Reply #16 on: Jan 27, 2006, 06:38PM »

Quote from: "Bob1062"
Mr. Yeo, do you happen to know the bore and bell size of the Conn contra? I imagine you have spent some time on a Miraphone contra, how does the Conn compare to it?


My Conn contrabas trombone has a 9.5 inch bell.  I played a Miraphone BBflat double slide contrabass trombone only once, back in 1983 when I was in the Baltimore Symphony and we played the Varese Integrales.  I do remember it was terribly difficult to center notes on the Miraphone.  The Conn centers reasonably well (better, as my distant memory can recall, than the Miraphone - the Conn has no valves while the Miraphone I used had two valves) but suffers from the same problem all BBflat contras have - the length of cylindrical bore tubing is so long that notes don't tend to slot well and the horn has a rather unstable feeling above the fourth partial.  I mostly use a contrabass trombone in F (by Lätzsch) when playing with the Boston Symphony, as I will be doing when we play the Schöenberg Gurre-Lieder for three performances on February 23, 24 and 25 (Symphony Hall, Boston - James Levine, conducting).

I have recently added a new/old photo of my Conn contrabass trombone taken around 1905, held by its original owner, August Helleberg.  That photo can be seen on my website at:

http://www.yeodoug.com/articles/trombone_gallery/trombone_gallery.html

As to how the G/D/C bass trombone may have been used to play contrabass trombone parts in England, that, as the Brits say, is my friend Edward's pigeon, and I'm sure when he comes up for air and has a chance to look back in on the forum he'll have more to add to that thought which he originally posted above.

-Douglas Yeo
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« Reply #17 on: Jan 28, 2006, 05:23AM »

I would just like to clear this up Mr Yeo, obviously you use the Latzch when playing contrabass parts but in your website when talking about the Conn contra you said:

"I use this instrument in the Boston Symphony when I play parts by Wagner on contrabass trombone."

So have you ever played the Ring on that amzing Conn-trabass Grin ?
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« Reply #18 on: Jan 28, 2006, 10:14AM »

Quote from: "Lebanese Bass Bone"
So have you ever played the Ring on that amzing Conn-trabass Grin ?


No. I will edit that comment on my website as after experimenting in several concerts of Wagner's music, I have decided not to use the BB flat contra on that music. The horn simply isn't stable enough to give me the quality of sound and evenness of response I would want on the Ring Cycle.  Others might have more succes with the BBflat contra than I, but like most players who play contrabass trombone these days, I prefer the F contrabass which behaves like a trombone and has a great sound.

-Douglas Yeo
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« Reply #19 on: Jan 29, 2006, 07:21AM »

Quote from: "blast"
I have never seen any information that would lead me to believe that the orchestral G/D/C bass trombone was used to play contra parts in the UK.
Before the 1960's the Ring cycle was not often performed in the UK.... at least not as much as it has been since, and it was my understanding that the Boosey CC instrument was always used in London. I do not think there had been performances outside London in the early 20th C.
I have never heard of any larger mouthpieces being used for low parts on the G/D/C. The players involved are all dead by now.... the best person to ask is the historical specialist for Covent Garden, Tom Winthorpe.
Chris Stearn.


The use of the G/C bass trombone in Britain to perform Wagner's contrabass trombone parts is mentioned by Anthony Baines, Jeremy Montagu (who provides a photograph), and Philip Bate, and specifically at Covent Garden up to the 1950s by Anthony Baines. I cannot for a moment imagine that Anthony Baines got his facts wrong when everything else that he has written is 100% accurate. Yes, it is true that Godfrey Kneller asserted that he played quite comfortably on the old Boosey C contrabass trombone, but I would have thought that he was in a minority.

Quote from: "Bob1062"
When playing the G/D(C) as a contra, was there a change in mouthpiece or sound concept? I see that "slides," not a slide (as would seem to make sense in the picture) are added to put it into C, is it also possible to put it into Db?


There was no change in mouthpiece - at least none that I am aware of. It was simply equivalent to German players using an E flat slide in the F attachment tubing and tantamount to modern players using a B flat/F bass trombone to play the contrabass trombone parts because the player simply used his regular G/D bass trombone and mouthpiece and used the C slide any time that low A flat was called for (it's remarkably stuffy with the C slide down there and only used when absolutely necessary). The D slide (and C slide) was not long enough to draw out to a length to render D flat. There is really very little play in the tuning slide, so it doesn't extend much more than around three or four centimetres before coming right out, at least on the Boosey & Hawkes "Imperial" model that I own. Still, I am sure that, much as today, players then did not wish to upset their usual method of playing the instrument by using unusual tunings, so they probably kept such changes to a bare minimum.
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