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TitleAlto in Treatises _ WILL KIMBALL
TagsDouble Bass Elements Of Music Orchestras Clef Trombone
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ALTO TROMBONE in TREATISES, DICTIONARIES, and METHODS

1600-1925

Introduction: Below is a chronological listing of what many written sources have recorded about the alto
trombone throughout history, beginning in the 17th century and continuing through the first quarter of the 20th
century. These sources offer much useful historical information about key, use of the instrument, clef, etc.
Three things should be stipulated: 1) Not all sources are of equal importance. For example, Hector Berlioz’s
treatise carries significantly more weight than that of William James Henderson. 2) Sources are often
derivative. For example, much of the information in late 19th and early 20th century orchestration treatises
derives from Berlioz’s treatise. While the fact that a particular source is derivative may mitigate its historical
worth to a certain extent, it can also illustrate influence. 3) Finally, it goes without saying that not all sources
contain accurate information, which is one reason that looking at broad overall patterns may be useful. All of
the below references are listed in the Alto Trombone Bibliography, most of them in the “Primary Sources”
section.

Summary of Alto Trombone Keys:

OVERALL KEY TOTALS:

41 D/E-flat

4 F

2 B-flat

1 E

GERMANY: 14 D/E-flat, 1 B-flat

Praetorius (1619)—D

Speer (1697)—D

Niedt (1721)—D

Majer (1729)—D

Christoph and Stössel (1736)—D

Eisel (1738)—D

Koch (1802)—D

Fröhlich (c. 1811)—B-flat/E-flat (contradictory)

Riemann (1882)—E-flat

Saro (1883)—E-flat

Jadassohn (1889)—E-flat

Schroeder (1889)—E-flat

Hofmann (1893)—E-flat

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voice was played by the cornett, and the others by alto, tenor, and bass trombones” (Kastner, Danses des morts
213). Kastner specifically describes the alto trombone elsewhere as an instrument pitched in E-flat (see 1839,
above).

1844—Paris, France: Hector Berlioz describes the alto trombone in E-flat
(“small trombone, or alto trombone in E-flat”) in his highly influential Treatise on Modern Instrumentation
and Orchestration (see facing image; public domain) (Berlioz-Clarke 152). About the use of the alto trombone
he says, “There are four types of trombone, each bearing the name of the human voice to which it most closely
approximates in range and tone…. These last three [alto, tenor, and bass] are the only ones in general use. Still
it must be said that the alto trombone is not found in every French orchestra and that the bass trombone is
almost unknown in France” (Macdonald 208). About clef he states, “The alto trombone is written on the alto
clef…” About key and nomenclature he says, “With its slide in closed position the notes which may be
obtained with the lips are shown in Ex. 141a, the same series as that produced by the natural resonance of the
tube on horns, trumpets, cornets and all other brass instruments in E-flat. Hence the name ‘little’ or ‘alto’
trombone in E-flat, as players call it, though this need not be specified in scores since it sounds at its written
pitch and is not one of the transposing instruments…” Although Berlioz offers a mixed opinion about the alto
trombone, he does have a few positive things to say, mentioning that the instrument’s high notes are “very
useful” and thus bemoaning, “it is a matter for regret therefore that the alto trombone is now to be found in
very few of our French orchestras” (Macdonald 208). In his discussion of valve alto trombone (which he
explains is pitched in E-flat or F), he is also complimentary: “Melodic solos are frequently written for the alto
valve trombone. If well phrased, a melody can have considerable charm on this instrument.” Although the
statement is in reference to valve alto trombone, Berlioz adds, “But it is a mistake to believe it would have any
less charm on the slide trombone in the hands of a true virtuoso…” (Macdonald 228).

1844—Hector Berlioz, in his orchestration textbook, includes 4 alto trombones (in E-flat; see above), 6 tenor
trombones, and 2 bass trombones in his “dream orchestra” (Macdonald 329).

1848—Paris, France: Jean Georges Kastner’s treatise on military
music, Manuel Général de Musique Militaire, includes prints of a
number of different types of trombones used in military music,
including rear-facing trombone, double-slide trombone, and
several types of valve trombones (see facing image; public
domain). The note on the bottom of the page reads, “There are, as
we know, three types of trombone, alto, tenor, and bass; but it is
simply a difference in size and not in the shape of the instrument
(Kastner, Militaire Pl. XVII).

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Albrechtsberger-Novello

1855—England/Austria: In Novello’s translation of Albrechtsberger’s collected writings, J. G.
Albrechtsberger’s Collected Writings on Thorough-bass, Harmony, and Composition, edited by Seyfried, the
overtone series and range of the alto trombone is diagrammed, clearly showing an instrument in E-flat. The
overtone series diagram begins with 6th position and proceeds to 1st (see above image; public domain)
(Albrechtsberger-Novello 253).

1859—London, England: Charles Mandel, Professor at the Royal Military School of Music, discusses alto
trombone in his Treatise on the Instrumentation of Military Bands. Although he describes altos in E-flat, E, and
F, as well as offering position charts for each, he comments that “at the present time, instead of an alto, tenor,
and bass trombone, three tenor trombones are employed…” (Mandel 65). Later he mentions that “[the alto] is
superseded by valved alt-horns, or by the tenor trombone; while, again, the bass trombone, being too
troublesome, is replaced by the bass valved instruments, or the tenor trombone” (Mandel 67). However, he
concludes with his own unique proposal of a section of different sizes of trombones in relatively close keys:
“For my own part, therefore, I should be inclined to employ the three trombones, with a slight difference of
key; choosing the first in C or D flat, the second in B flat, and the third as tenor-bass, supported by a bass
trombone, on which some of the bass notes might be doubled by means of the lower octave (Mandel 68).

1863—Paris, France:
François Gevaert, who later
becomes director of the
Brussels Conservatory,
writes his influential Treatise
on Instrumentation, which
includes a slide position chart
and range diagram of the alto
trombone, revealing an
instrument in E-flat (See facing
2 images; public domain; Gevaert 241-242).

1867—London, England: F. J. Fetis, in his orchestration guide published in the periodical The Musical World,
says, “The compass of the trombone alto, like the bass trombone, is not alike in all countries; in Germany the
dimensions of the tubes being larger than in France, and the manner in which some portions of it are disposed
being different, the bass trombone descends to C, while in France, it only descends to E…The alto trombone is
a fifth higher than the bass trombone, and descends to B-flat, reaching up to E-flat….Three parts are generally
written for the trombones, which are called bass trombone, tenor trombone, and alto trombone. The tenor
trombone part is sometimes played upon the bass trombone. Some composers write these three parts on the one

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influential musicologist and professor at Leipzig
University, writes his Handbuch der
Musikinstrumente, in which he diagrams the
range of the alto trombone, clearly an instrument
in E-flat (see facing image; public domain) (Riemann Handbuch 87).

1921—Brussels, Belgium: Belgian composer and teacher Paul Gilson, former Professor of Composition at
Brussels Conservatory, writes the following in his treatise, Le Tutti Orchestral: “The alto trombone, which has
fallen into disuse, was in E flat–a fourth above tenor trombone in B flat; the latter is the only one that remains
of the old trio of trombones. The alto trombone therefore climbed with relative ease up to E flat (see the 4th
movement of the 3rd Symphony by Schumann, 4th measure; this passage is cited by Gevaert in his Traite
d’Instrumentation)” (Gilson 58).

1922—Boston, Massachusetts: Arthur Elson remarks in Orchestra Instruments and Their Use, “The alto
trombone stands in F; that is to say, its fundamental tone is F, and its harmonic series with closed slides is
based on that note. Its lower register is inferior in quality, and as it corresponds to the best part of the tenor
trombone, it is never needed. But its upper notes are superior to the same tones on any other instrument of this
family, and they might well be included in some of our extensive modern orchestras” (Elson, Orchestra 240).

1924—Boston, Massachusetts: William C. White discusses the trombone family in his treatise, Military Band
Arranging, clearly stating the key of alto trombone: “Trombones are built in E-flat alto…” (White 23).

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