Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trombonissimo: My choice of 10 great trombone moments from the orchestral literature

I can't let the memory of last weekend's final measures from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra fade any further without lifting up the wonderful trombone glissando — a French/Spanish version of Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp" if ever there was one — in "Feria," the festive conclusion of Maurice Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole."

As I said in my review, just a couple of raucous smears evokes the suggestion that collective good times are about to get out of hand — as they often do when people pour into the streets to party. Then the piece ends, at just the right time.

Cologne Cathedral: Musically, it calls for trombones.
As a former trombonist, I count this moment among ten touchstones for my instrument in the orchestral literature.  I offer here nine others to suggest the marvelous ways composers characterize the trombone. Its voice is essential to so many pieces, though trombonists typically make do without the near omnipresence of their horn and trumpet cousins. Great composers make sure the trombones never wear out their welcome.

Here's another favorite glissando (a natural move in playing the slide trombone, but best used sparingly). This one has a more purely comic purpose: the double guffaw in between two statements of the "interruption" theme in the "Interrupted intermezzo" movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. That lively intrusion is generally taken to be a parody of the obsessive first-movement "invasion" theme in Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, which the ISO played to great acclaim earlier this month. Bartok puts a cap upon his use of the device with a "that's that!" glissando for trombones sweeping up to the piece's final chord.

The trombone is capable of so much expressively. Here are my other favorites, with brief commentary attached:

3. Picking up the "Feria" note of overflowing high spirits, the coda of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major, where I like to think the trombones kick up all the energy. Then they are given an unaccompanied sustained chord near the very end, between full-orchestra punctuation points. Thrillsville!

4. Trombones are good for transforming musical material introduced by other instruments into something that promises to deliver great excitement. When Berlioz wants to repurpose the Benvenuto Cellini love theme first stated by strings in the "Roman Carnival Overture," he places it over the initially soft return of the saltarello pattern and gives it to the trombones, of course. Goosebumps assured!

5. Wolfgang Mozart does something similarly dramatic, but in a sacred context, in his Vesperae solennes de confessore. The trombone writing is wonderful throughout, but let me direct your attention to the fugal movement, "Laudate pueri," where the trombones help the men introduce the subject. The psalmist's text thereby becomes not just an invitation to praise the Lord, but a command to do so. Blame (or credit) the trombones!

6. Mozart is not a composer readily associated with trombone glory, perhaps, though operagoers thrill to its accompaniment of the ghostly Commendatore in Don Giovanni. I'm leaving opera literature out of this list, however, because instrumental reinforcement of a dramatic situation is too hard to consider in isolation. Let me hold up instead a solo passage (more than a moment, it's true): the obbligato threaded along the vocal solo for bass in "Tuba mirum" from the Requiem.

Something that always excites me about this music is its poised declamation of the Last Judgment, in contrast with later, also wonderful (but noisy) settings of the same text by Berlioz and Verdi. When that Last Trump sounds, Mozart seems to be saying, it won't necessarily be all about the tumbling, writhing and rising figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It will be a somber event out of time, because God has all the time in the world. In other words, it will be as it is in Mozart, guided by a stately trombone.

7. Ravel's "Bolero" — thanks to its application to a sex scene in a forgettable movie some years ago — has unnecessarily erotic implications for today's audiences. But until the swelling repetitions discharge into the splendor (with that key change!) of the end, the attentive listener should not fail to notice the music's peculiar dignity and restraint. The sensuousness is held in check by this quality, no more so than in the high-register trombone solo placed just after some woodwinds have their say. Just one glissando helps underline the sensuousness, by the way, and lofty dignity rules when the solo is properly played — sostenuto, with its marcato accents scrupulously observed.

When all hell breaks loose in "The Miraculous Mandarin," the trombone is there.
8. Did sex rear its ugly head?  OK, here's another Bartok example where the temptation of carnality applies: "The Miraculous Mandarin," a ballet-pantomime more controversial, and for longer, than Stravinsky's notorious "Rite of Spring." The figure in the title is less lustful than emotionally needy, however. He's apparently deathless (much to the consternation of his would-be killers) and really just wants love. When the girl posing as a prostitute in this lurid scenario gauges the intensity of the Mandarin's interest, she is horrified. After her seductive waltz climaxes, a muted trombone enters with a ghastly snarl, introducing a climactic chase that ends in the Mandarin's release from his earthly trials only when the girl finally pities him. So, that forceful, muted outburst is both Freudian and pivotal, and it's a trombonistic masterstroke.

9. How about a symphonic structure actually expanded to permit a showcase for the trombone section? Oh, the glory! The movement marked "Solemn" in Robert Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony (No. 3 in E-flat major) reflects the composer's admiration for the Cologne Cathedral.  For centuries, this Gothic structure has been the most imposing landmark near the shores of the storied Rhine River that lends the symphony its nickname. An architectural masterpiece and trombones — a natural match, it seems to me.

Spruce Goose aloft: Sound accompanying takeoff in "The Aviator" may have borrowed from Beethoven's use of trombones

10. Finally, everyone knows Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor. To the casual listener,  the first movement (or at least its four-note motif) is iconic. But the work's genius partly relies on the wonderful suspense as the third movement yields to the climactic fourth. And when that note of triumph is sounded, the trombones are right there — for the first time in the score. There's nothing like it: You feel your spirit taking off.

Speaking of which: Years ago, after seeing the movie about Howard Hughes called "The Aviator," I mentioned to my son Theodore how impressed I was that speakers from the theater's four corners were finally engaged to represent the sound of Hughes' dream aircraft "the Spruce Goose" roaring down the runway. The sound of planes flown earlier in the film had come from near the screen.

"That was like when the trombones enter in the finale of Beethoven's Fifth," I marveled. Theodore  said he guessed I was the only person who would notice such a parallel. Really? I thought. Well, why not? I'm a trombonist, after all.

Besides, trombones have had a longer ride than the Spruce Goose.

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