Sunday, March 14, 2010

Historical Perspective Paper

In case anyone really wanted to read my paper:

A Historical Perspective on Moravian Trombone Choirs
By Patrick Bigsby
February 15, 2010

"In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I have named the 'epic' one. It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst. Directed by the will of the master, the trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices."
--Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz, beyond being one of the most influential composers of the Romantic era, is known to music historians for his 1843 orchestration textbook, Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes. Assuming Berlioz’s expertise on the various instruments of the orchestra, his aforementioned endorsement of the trombone should be considered high praise.
But further analysis of the trombone’s character and history reveals it was destined for success well before Berlioz issued his affidavit. For starters, it was among the first fully chromatic wind instruments, was manufactured in various sizes to correspond with the human voice, and was capable of a wide dynamic range. For these reasons, the trombone came into favor with church composers and musicians – no more so than in the Moravian Church.
Students of European history will recall that that the Moravian movement arose following John Hus’ protest against Roman oversight of Christian outposts in what is now the Czech Republic.2 Although Hus was executed in 1415, his vision came to fruition with the formal organization of the Moravian Church in 1457.
Music played a key role in Moravian services and it was common for each parish to have their own posaunenchor, or brass ensemble. Instrumental music became particularly prominent in Moravian traditions; at a time when most Christian faiths emphasized vocal music, Moravians saw the various trombones as analogous to human voices and quickly found them to be more portable than a pipe organ. While these groups could have any variety of brass instruments, it was typical, as the term indicates, for trombones to predominate. The ensemble’s duties including calling the congregation to services, announcing holidays, mourning deaths, and other various ‘public address’ performances.1
When Moravians began to settle in North America in the eighteenth century, the trombone choirs came with them, marking the beginning of what is likely North America’s oldest brass tradition. Composers from inside and outside the church began to write both sacred and secular for the trombones and these works joined the older chorales and hymns as part of the standard oeuvre.1 Major composers for the group include Antes, Cruse, Leinback, Gregor, Wolle, La Trobe, Graun, and Forsyth.4
The instrumentation of the modern posaunenchor contains all sizes of trombone imaginable, from sopranino in Eb through the BBb contrabass.5 It stands to reason that makers of the high-end harmony trombones like Miraphone and Thein are manufacturing these instruments with Moravian music in mind given that they are rarely called for elsewhere in Western music. The Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey (California), one of the most prominent such ensembles in America, utilizes a twelve-player system of one sopranino, two soprano, three alto, three tenor, two bass, and one contrabass trombone. This arrangement effectively balances to the middle tessitura of the group, emphasizing the most idiomatic trombone timbre.3
Today, Moravian trombones can be found in roles that are very similar to what John Hus could have heard. The aforementioned Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey, founded by Jeffrey Reynolds, is a leading proponent of new music for the ensemble and has commissioned or arranged several works. Reynolds, who served as the bass trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly thirty years, also recorded several traditional Moravian pieces with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Trombone Ensemble.4 Another active performing group is the Bethlehem Area Moravian Trombone Choir (Pennsylvania). Located in America’s best-known Moravian enclave (and the site of Moravian College), this group, founded in 1754, is credited with being the first such posaunenchor in the New World.1
The Moravian trombone tradition has also begun to appear in other Christian denominations. In antebellum North Carolina (a hotbed of Moravian settlement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), trombones began to appear in Baptist and Pentecostal services and fused with black gospel and spirituals to give way to shout bands – trombone choirs that embrace jazz musicianship as a part of praise music.1 Examples include the Sweet Heaven Kings of Washington, D.C. and Kenny Carr and The Tigers of Charleston, South Carolina.

If you want to see a bibliography, contact me.

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