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Christmas Bells Are Ringing: Trombone History and Christmas
The trombone developed from the straight trumpet in the 15th century. As I mentioned in another article, since early on in its history, the trombone has been associated with special occasions, including water processions, parades of various types, weddings, coronations, and a wide range of religious celebrations. Christmas, of course, is one of the primary religious celebrations in the Christian calendar, and music has traditionally been an important part of that celebration.
The trombone, which has an extensive history as a religious instrument, has participated often in Christmas musical performances, instrumental and vocal, both as a regular member of the ensemble and as an added member for this special season. Settings range from grandiose polychoral motets in Venice's St. Mark's to struggling "Christmas waits" in the streets of industrial London. Below are some highlights.
For full citation of sources, as well as additional historical context, see Trombone History Timeline.
1454—Siena, Italy: Records showing a clothing list for musicians for Assumption Day and Christmas performances indicate three pifferi (or shawms) and a trombone (specifically, the German trombonist Maestro Giovanni, listed as Maestro Giovanni trombone) (D’Accone, Civic Muse 526).
c. 1522-23—Munich, Germany: Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting, Mary and Child in Glory, includes a depiction of an angel trombonist among several other angel musicians (see detail and full image below; public domain; Winzinger 45) (thanks to Stewart Carter and Herbert Myers for help identifying this painting). Although the painting is not a nativity, of course, the theme of Mary and child makes it Christmas-related.
1551—France: Sometime after this date, an anonymous Nativity long attributed to engraver Jean de Gourmont is painted. The painting includes a cherub playing trombone (see detail and full image below; public domain) (The Louvre).
1561—London, England: A witness of Christmas entertainments at the Inner Temple in central London reports, “At every course the trumpeters blew the courageous blast of deadly war, with noise of drum and fyfe, with the sweet harmony of violins, sackbuts, recorders, and cornetts, with other instruments of musick, as it seemed Apollos’ harp had tuned their stroke” (Nichols 134).
1587—Venice: Giovanni Gabrieli's O Magnum Mysterium a 8, a Christmas setting, features trombone. See video below.
c. 1599—Venice, Italy: A copy of Giovanni Gabrieli's Christmas motet, "Quis est iste qui venit" from Sacrae Symphoniae (1597), names players and their instruments, showing that trombones, cornetts, and bassoon, though not specifically indicated in the music, are used in performance (Charteris, Performance of Giovanni Gabrieli's Vocal Works).
1602—Venice, Italy: The nucleus of musicians at St. Mark’s cathedral, which includes four trombones and cornetts, expands for Christmas day music, when six extra trombones are hired among the 14 additional instrumentalists (the others are three cornetts, two violins, and a violone) (Moore 81; Tim Carter, Music in Late 117).
1603—Venice, Italy: Music for Christmas services at St. Mark's cathedral includes five trombones, four cornetts, one bassoon, two violins, and a violone (Moore 81).
1603—Venice, Italy: According to a treasurer’s note detailing the instruments employed for the music at St. Mark’s cathedral at the midnight Mass and Christmas morning Mass, more trombones are employed there than any other instrument that they utilize. The instruments include one violin, three cornetts, one trumpet, four trombones, a bass violin, a bassoon, and a portatif (on the balcony), in addition to the two main organs.
1606—Innsbruck, Austria: Paolo Piazza’s altarpiece painting, Adorazione dei Magi, located in Innsbruck’s Kapuziner-kirche, depicts many angel musicians, including an angel trombonist (see upper-left of below image; public domain) (Panchieri 43).
1607—Venice, Italy: Jean-Baptiste Duval, French ambassador to Venice, visits St. Mark’s cathedral on Christmas day, hearing music in which “the double organs and different instruments, such as trombones, cornettos and treble violins were united with voices of the singers, and all this indeed filled the church and produced a grand harmony" (Kenton 35).
c. 1610—Works by Praetorius suitable for Christmas performance probably utilize trombone. See video below.
1610—Claudio Monteverdi's famous Vespri della Beata Vergine, often referred to in English simply as Vespers of 1610, calls for trombones in the sections that specify instrumentation. The sections of the work intended for the Christmas season, typically called Christmas Vespers, probably also utilize trombones. See video below.
1615—Venice, Italy: Giovanni Gabrieli's polychoral Christmas motet, Salvator noster a 15, from the collection Symphoniae sacrae, includes trombones. See video below.
c. 1615—Germany: Michael Praetorius utilizes trombones in his setting of In Dulci Jubilo (see video below).
1622—Siena, Italy: At the church Santa Maria di Provenzano, the 4-singer chapel is augmented with a trombone for music of the Christmas season (Reardon, Music and Musicians).
1623—Siena, Italy: As in 1622 (see above), at the church Santa Maria di Provenzano, the four-singer chapel is augmented with a trombone for music of the Christmas season (Reardon, Music and Musicians).
1657—Venice, Italy: Music for the Christmas celebration at St. Mark's involves five trombones: an extra two trombones, in addition to the cathedral's regular complement of three trombones (Selfridge-Field, Venetian Instrumental Music, 17).
1664—Dresden, Germany: Heinrich Schütz, often considered the most important German composer before J.S. Bach, writes his Christmas History (Weihnachtshistorie), which includes a pair of trombones acting as obbligato instruments and specifically representing high priests (Smallman 151). See video below.
1686-1729—Las Palmas, Gran Canaria (Canary Islands): Diego Durón, maestro de capella at Las Palmas Cathedral at the Spanish island outpost of Gran Canaria, composes numerous Christmas villancicos. Many of the works specify trombone (sacabuche ), including Al arma (1686), Ya rompen sus velos (1690), Dorado bajel del sol (1691), Contra la noche (1692), Qué sacra eterna palabra (1700), and Qué tempestad amenaza (1729). The primary non-continuo instrument that performs alongside trombone in these settings is the shawm (Stevenson, Christmas Music from Baroque Mexico 24).
1755—Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: According to local legend, a group of Moravian trombones ward off an American Indian attack in the early morning of Christmas Day. Indians supposedly interpret the sounds of the Moravian trombone choir playing a Christmas chorale from the roof of the Brethren's House as a sign that the Great Spirit will protect the Moravians, and they subsequently abandon their plans for attack (Carter, Trombone Ensembles of the Moravian).
1847—England: A wood engraving depicts a group of Christmas carolers, including a trombonist (see below image; public domain).
1853—London, England: H.G. Hine’s The Waits at Seven Dials portrays a group of “Christmas waits” or street musicians, including a trombonist. After the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, there were no more official waits as funded by British municipalities, but ad hoc musicians often formed during the Christmas season, playing throughout the streets of London in hopes of raising money (see below image; public domain) (Illustrated London News, December 1853).
1873—Paris, France: Christmas Eve in a Spanish Church, a print after Miranda appearing in the Paris illustrated newpaper, L’Illustration, features a buccin, or trombone with a bell in the shape of a dragon’s head (see middle-left of below image; public domain) (L’Illustration, January 4, 1873, pp. 10-11).
1911—Martinez, California: A mission established by Moravians forms a trombone choir in the fall of 1911. For Christmas, the trombone choir, vocal choir, and orchestra perform together. A report in a Moravian mission publication explains, "Christmas at Martinez was a most joyous festival. After much labor the Sunday School, together with the vocal and trombone choir and the orchestra, succeeded in rendering the cantata 'Christmas' in an admirable manner" (Carter, Trombone Ensembles of the Moravian).
1913—Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: An article from The Record reports the following on Christmas day: "High above the crowd came a flash of light from an unexpected place. It was the cupola of the tower of Independence Hall... Into the lighted space stepped the six members of the celebrated trombone choir of the Moravian Church at Bethlehem, who welcome Christmas with the sounding of their instruments every year in their home town. They had been brought to Philadelphia for the first time to take part in the city's first municipal celebration. Raising their long instruments to their lips, the trombonsits sent forth a blast over the heads of the crowd. First they played 'How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," then "From Heaven High to Earth I Come," and finally, very sweetly and in moderated tones, they sounded the notes of 'All My Heart This Night Rejoices" (Quoted in Joanne Martell, American Christmases: Firsthand Accounts of Holiday Happenings, 224).
1965—The now-classic "Charlie Brown Christmas" airs for the first time. Based on the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz, the animated feature uses trombone in place of all adult voices. According to the animator, Bill Melendez, "Sparky [Schulz] didn't want any adult voices in the films, either, so we came up with the idea of using a trombone. In the recording studio, an actor would read the line to the trombone player using a lot of inflections in his voice. The trombone player would then play and shape the musical line to mimic the inflections of the actor's voice" (Mendelson, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, 58).
c. 2013—Troy "Trombone" Shorty performs Jingle Bells (see video below).
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