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Bcschipper
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« on: Feb 19, 2017, 11:04PM »

What do we know about Parry's use of the alto trombone?

We are going to play C. Hubert H. Parry's "Blest Pair of Sirens - An Ode" (first performed 1887), set to music for chorus and orchestra. The score says "alto trombone". It is set in tenor key though. Moreover, the range does not exceed G (above staff using tenor key). Both the range and the use of the tenor key probably point to the use of the tenor instead the alto. Yet, Parry was assistant editor to Sir George Grove's "Dictionary of Music and Musicians", an authority in music at that time, in which the use of alto trombone has been well-described. Moreover, there were alto trombone manufacturers and decent alto trombone players in England in the second half of the 19th century (e.g., notably George Case, the alto of the London Trombone Quartet) although the alto must have almost disappeared in England at the beginning of the 20th century.

Another issue would be balance with the trombone section. As far as I know, English trombones were much more narrow bore (quite different from German trombones) in the second half of the 19th century. My colleagues play a large bore Shires (2nd) and an Edwards bass trombone. I usually blend well with my Kruspe Weschke tenor on 1st.

Another issue is interaction with the choir. Coming from a German tradition, the trombone section would support the choir. It should not "cover up" the choir.

In the same concert, we are going to play Brahms' Requiem, where I surely play alto since Brahms was adamant about using the alto. It would be convenient to not have to carry two trombones. But this pragmatic thought should be secondary.

Any thoughts on Parry's use of the alto trombone would be appreciated. 
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Edward_Solomon
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« Reply #1 on: Feb 19, 2017, 11:40PM »

By 1887,  there's very little question that the alto trombone was all but obsolete in Britain. Orchestral trombonists used either B flat tenor or G bass instruments and the Parry works are quite clearly not intended for a high alto instrument. Alto was also often enough a publisher rather than a composer designation. So I would always select two tenor trombones and one bass trombone for this repertoire and either a bass tuba in E flat or F.
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Bcschipper
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« Reply #2 on: Feb 20, 2017, 12:32AM »

By 1887,  there's very little question that the alto trombone was all but obsolete in Britain. Orchestral trombonists used either B flat tenor or G bass instruments and the Parry works are quite clearly not intended for a high alto instrument. Alto was also often enough a publisher rather than a composer designation. So I would always select two tenor trombones and one bass trombone for this repertoire and either a bass tuba in E flat or F.

Thank you. But how does "obsolete" fit with the evidence mentioned in Will Kimball's Alto Trombone History http://kimballtrombone.com/alto-trombone/alto-trombone-history-timeline/ (my emphasis in bold):

"1871-88—England: Production records for Boosey & Co. show a surprisingly high number of alto trombones: 89 alto valve trombones in E-flat, 3 alto slide trombones in E-flat, and 2 alto slide trombones in F (Myers, Brasswind)."

"1877—London, England: Ebenezer Prout, soon to become professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music and later Guildhall School of Music, writes the following about alto trombone in his text, Instrumentation: “Formerly a soprano trombone seems to have been known, as we find it indicated in some of Bach’s scores. It is now, however, entirely obsolete; and even the alto trombone is not employed in France, though in this country and in Germany it is frequently to be met with in the orchestra. THE ALTO TROMBONE is in the key of E-flat—i.e., the natural sounds produced by the difference of embouchure when playing with the slide closed for part of the harmonic series of that key….Three trombones are usually employed in the orchestra: in England and Germany, an alto, a tenor, and a bass; and in France, three tenor trombones. If a student bear this fact in mind he will see the reason for the difference in the treatment of the instruments which he will find in French scores (e.g., those of Auber or Hérod), as compared with those of German masters.” (Prout, Instrumentation 87-88). Regarding notation and clef of the trombone family, he mentions several different practices, while concluding that “many give a separate line to each instrument, and write each with its proper clef” (Prout, Instrumentation 88)."

"1883—London, England: The Musical Standard, a wide-ranging British musical periodical with a publication run of 72 years (1862-1933), publishes the following as part of an unsigned review of the Leeds Festival: “The constitution of the Leeds orchestra for large choral works has proved as before to be a satisfactory one; and generally it is that adopted at Birmingham, with the wood wind doubled. Sir M. Costa’s first experiment included the doubling of the brass as well, but experience proved this to be unnecessary, so the brass remains the same as usual, save that two trumpets and two cornets are secured to form the upper group. Sir Arthur Sullivan deserves to be complimented upon his efforts to secure the proper trio of alto, tenor, and bass trombones. The French custom of using three in B flat, and the usual plan in England of employing two tenors and one bass, are not altogether satisfactory. The bass trombone in G is necessary to do justice to the lower notes below F, and the alto is equally necessary for the proper sustentation of the upper part, for the tenor cannot produce with effect the high B natural, C, etc., which appear in the scores of the great masters, as in ‘Elijah’” (emphasis added; Leeds Festival 240)."

"1885—London, England: A price list for London manufacturer Silvani & Smith lists slide alto trombones in E-flat and F. Also offered are B-flat tenor (both slide and valve) and G bass (both slide and valve) (University of California Santa Barbara Romaine Trade Catalog Collection)."

"1885—London, England: Boosey & Co. makes 13 different “Case Model” trombones (instruments made in collaboration with trombonist George Case), including alto in E-flat; slide trombone in C; trombones in B-flat small, [standard], medium and bass; bass slide trombone in G; and bass slide trombone in F. One unique feature of these instruments is the tuning slide at the foot of the hand slide (Myers, Brasswind)."

"1885—Sunderland, England: A photograph of the Sunderland Monkwearmouth Salvation Army Band shows trombone players with alto, tenor and bass trombones (see below image; public domain)." (Image under http://kimballtrombone.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/sunderland.jpg.)

"1890—London, England: Author George Bernard Shaw writes about trombone in his music criticism column: ... Mr. Geard was playing the bass trumpet part on an alto trombone. During the few bars in which the theme was left to him the lady did not keep her fingers in her ears; and the volume of sound from the orchestra was greater instead of less than when his colleagues were blaring away, because the accompaniment could be heard through his transparent and musical tone, whereas the others drowned everything else with their distracting rattle. ..."

"1898—London, England: According to Mansfield, “At the funeral of that great English statesman, the Right Honourable William Ewart Gladstone, in Westminster Abbey, May 28, 1898, there were performed (we believe for the first time in England) Beethoven’s three Equali for four trombone, the trombones and drums uniting with the organ at various points during the service. The four trombone players—two altos, a tenor and a bass—were stationed in the chantry of Henry V, above the high altar. Says a writer who was present, ‘The hushed stillness which pervaded the noble fane was broken with indescribable tenderness as the sustained chord of D minor fell upon the ears of the great congregation in tones of weird simplicity and exquisite pathos.’” Mansfield mentions a specific trombone ensemble: “Their use at Mr. Gladstone’s funeral was due to the action of Mr. George Case, the alto of the London Trombone Quartet, by whom they were played on that occasion” (Mansfield)."
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Edward_Solomon
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« Reply #3 on: Feb 20, 2017, 04:03AM »

I'd still argue that compared with B flat tenor and G bass trombones, alto trombones were a rarity by 1887. They were certainly no longer in widespread use by that date. To argue that the works of major composers of the time would have been performed on the alto trombone is also to run counter to performance practice of the day, as well as instrument production trends.

As for statistics, the production numbers of the Besson factory in London should serve to illustrate how few alto trombones were made and in circulation.

Besson slide trombone production, 1874-95
B flat tenor - 2828
E flat & alto - 13
G bass - 800
C tenor - 13

With only the tiniest proportion of instruments being produced being altos, as well as a general decline in the use of the alto trombone, which set in during at least the third quarter of the nineteenth century (see Philip Bate The Trumpet and the Trombone), it becomes abundantly clear that the alto trombone was not widely manufactured, sold, or used.

To quote Trevor Herbert (The trombone, p. 213): "Up to 1891, only a small number (13) of the tenor trombones were pitched in C; all other tenor instruments (2,828) were in B flat. Eight hundred instruments in G were produced, and this follows a predictable patter for a company based in the UK, where trombone sections were usually made up of two tenor instruments in B flat and a bass in G. The fact that only ten of the 419 instruments exported to the Fischer company in the USA were G bass trombones is hardly surprising. It is equally unsurprising that only thirteen E flat and 'alto' instruments were produced in the entire twenty-year period, confirming what we know from other sources: that the alto trombone was by this time slipping into a temporary obscurity."
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« Reply #4 on: Feb 20, 2017, 06:51AM »

From my understanding, and from doing research for the long overdue update to my alto trombone method (coming soon...ish!) the dead giveaway that cues you in to using tenor for this piece is the clef. After about 1850 (though after 1827, Beethoven's death, you can start questioning it) you can nearly always assume that a 1st trombone part, even if it is in alto clef, labeled "alto trombone" was labeled that way because of publisher conventions, especially in continental Europe. Where was the piece published?

The fact that the composer chose to write it in tenor clef and in the tenor tessitura pretty much puts the lid on it.
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« Reply #5 on: Feb 20, 2017, 07:40AM »

[Sir] C[harles] Hubert H[astings] Parry, English composer and musicologist, director Royal College of Music, assistant editor (to George Groves) of  Groves' Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Given that Blest Pair of Sirens was commissioned for and premiered at a concert to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, one would presume it was published in England.

[Edit: The score on IMSLP lists the the publisher as London: Novello, n.d. (ca.1890). Plate 8003.]
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« Reply #6 on: Feb 20, 2017, 08:03AM »

Well that doesn't help my case about continental Europe one bit!

I still think that the fact that the composer's use of tenor clef made it into the score is the tip off.
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« Reply #7 on: Feb 20, 2017, 08:49AM »

Take a look at the full score: http://www.goodmusicpublishing.co.uk/info/pdfviewer.aspx?ST=GMCH014&Score=.

It is quite clear from the writing that a pair of tenor trombones is intended. The frequency of occurrence of low E flat, F and G in the first part, as well as the unison low E flat in the very first entry, is an obvious indicator of the use of a tenor trombone. Moreover, there isn't enough separation of the trombone lines to warrant an alto trombone. Usually the alto part would sit a fourth or so above the tenor to merit the use of an alto trombone. Given the very narrow bores used back then, the alto trombone being even smaller than the already slender tenor trombone, such writing would have sounded terrible. (Little wonder that Berlioz and Wagner both decried its use.)

I hold by my original statement that the alto trombone was as good as obsolete by 1887 and would not have been used in performance, nor even intended by the composer.
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« Reply #8 on: Feb 20, 2017, 09:04AM »

How historically informed does your performance have to be?

Ed's point about a small tenor being used in the original performance is correct.

But you have another piece that requires alto trombone (does it?).

My experience playing in an orchestra supporting a chorus is that when the high trombone supports the altos, a tenor often is just too "big".

You are probably not excited about hauling two horns to a gig.

A Conn 36H or similar alto with Bb attachment can probably cover the part and blend accurately enough with the tenor trombone to work.

But it won't be "historically informed".
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« Reply #9 on: Feb 20, 2017, 10:25AM »

Honestly, if it were a performance with a decent size chorus, I'd use a tenor for both works. I've seen the tenor used for Brahms Requiem and certainly for Parry. In fact I don't think I've ever seen a performance of the Brahms Requiem using an alto except for period instrument performances. Unless you're really comfortable with doubling on the alto, remembering that there's relatively little for trombones in the Brahms, I'd err on the side of caution and use either a medium or large tenor. There's little point putting yourself through all the stress of working up the alto part unless you're really comfortable switching instruments in the interval.
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« Reply #10 on: Feb 20, 2017, 02:42PM »

Thank you very much for the informative responses. That's why the trombone forum is very useful.

When I first looked at Parry's trombone parts, I also got the impression that the "alto" part fits more to a tenor. It is not just that it is written in tenor clef (as Harrison Reed pointed out) but also the way first and second trombone play together. What made me hesitate is that Parry was a capacity in composition, must have known extremely well about the use of the alto trombone, and would have had access to professional trombone players who could play alto at that time. (He was a professor of composition and music history and became later the head of the Royal College of Music.) Why would he call for an "alto" when it is a tenor part? But the argument that the publisher might have labeled the part "alto" rather than the composer may explain the inconsistency.

Even though not many altos were produced at that time (as Edward Solomon pointed out), I would expect that professional players like George Case still had them available and were actively using them. It is sufficient that a small critical mass of players were capable of playing them for them to be relevant to music at that time.

Our performance doesn't have to be historically informed. I guess the overall goal is to make nice music. Still, I like to know the background of the scores I play.

For the other piece in our performance, Brahms' Requiem, I will play alto. This is really an alto part (although it is easily playable on a tenor). It is quite different from 2nd and 3rd trombone. It is not just "little" playing as Edward Solomon remarked. The trombones support nicely the chorus most of the time. I don't think Brahms had always an alto trombone available. But at some point he was rather adamant about using the alto trombone. In a letter on an upcoming performance of the Begraebnisgesang (also a kind of requiem) he wrote "Daß keine 3 Tenor Posaunen kommen! Eine ächte kleine Alt-Posaune und wo möglich auch eine ächte Bass-Posaune.” (Translated: 'Don't use 3 tenor trombones. A real small alto trombone and if possible a real bass trombone.') I disagree with Edward Solomon on the frequency of use of the alto for Brahms' Requiem. Today's performance practice is mixed. There is an older survey from 1994 on this topic in the trombone forum surveying principal trombonists at well-known orchestras, see for results http://tromboneforum.org/index.php?topic=2399.0;wap2. It was actually posted thanks to Edward Solomon using data from Ken Shifrin's thesis. (Who has a copy of the thesis? I would be interested.) Looking at the survey the alto is used frequently in Brahms' Requiem including by Eric Crees, Lance Green, Chris Houlding, Peter Oram, Ken Shifrin, Jay Friedman, and Michael Mulcahy. There is an extremely nice performance of Brahms' Requiem on Youtube https://youtu.be/dJelOS-fjrY with Danmarks Radio-Symfoniorkestret under Herbert Bloomstedt in which the first trombone player plays an alto.

I am sure that I will feel stress playing alto since it is a new instrument to me. Yet, I am looking forward to playing alto and actively welcome the opportunity. That's why I bought my alto.

I do not like to play the Conn 36H. In the spectrum of alto timbres, it sounds closer to the tenor than other altos (at least to me). Moreover, it is even heavier than my Kruspe Weschke tenor with f-attachment. (Why do they need to build instruments like tanks?) I prefer my nice light Kruspe alto. In terms of balance, the entire section will have to adjust to the instrumentation and the piece we play. We got a wonderful professional bass trombone player. The entire section has to play Brahms differently from let's say Tchaikovsky.
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Edward_Solomon
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« Reply #11 on: Feb 20, 2017, 11:58PM »

I've performed the Begräbnisgesang recently. In preparation for the performance, I practised the bass trombone part on several instruments, including the F bass trombone. I can categorically state that the F bass trombone is the last instrument anyone would want to use for this, as the part is quite difficult and lies much better on the B flat/F instrument, which was widely used by that time. Even the alto part is quite oddly written, with a couple of low Cs thrown in for good measure. It's interesting, but not necessarily Brahms' best alto trombone writing.
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