Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

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felixs
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Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by felixs » Sat Nov 14, 2020 10:07 pm

As a student conductor at university, I am a little unclear about the details of trombone allocation.

Largely, a symphonic orchestra is almost always two tenor trombones, a bass trombone and a tuba.

My question is - how does one determine when there is a bass trombone and when there isn’t? It doesn’t always seem to be written in the part. Sometimes scores specify “bass trombone”, sometimes they just say “three trombones.”

Am I right in thinking that “three trombones” almost always means two tenors and a bass, and almost never three tenors?

If the music in the score is divided into two lines - two trombones on the top line, and 3rd trombone and tuba on bottom, then that is DEFINITELY a bass trombone, yes?

Finally, what about Verdi?

Take an opera like Macbeth.

The bottom part I know can be taken by Tuba or maybe Cimbasso if you are lucky to have one.

The three trombones - are they still two tenors and a bass, or are they three tenors? Can the “cimbasso” part be played by an ordinary Bass Trombone, if you haven’t got a Cimbasso?

Just hoping for some clear tips on deciphering some of this, particularly the Verdi question.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by Doug Elliott » Sat Nov 14, 2020 10:26 pm

For the most part, tenors in an ensemble would not ever go below the bass clef staff. They can play lower but it would not likely be in an ensemble part - if a 3rd part goes lower, it's a bass trombone part.

I will leave the opera questions to those who are more qualified to answer.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by BGuttman » Sat Nov 14, 2020 11:08 pm

A bass trombone is basically a tenor with a valve to go lower, and a larger bore.

Some composers wrote for 3 tenors. Some wrote for alto (a trombone in Eb), tenor, and bass. When to use what? Mostly the choice of the section and the conductor.

I've seen some 3rd trombone parts that go higher than the tenors. The 2nd Arlesienne suite comes to mind.

Many German composers wrote the 3rd trombone as the main part and often called it Trombone Basso (literally low trombone, not necessarily bass).

Some Russian music had all 3 trombone parts written in alto clef, but clearly not meant for alto trombone because of the tessitura.

If you are looking for a rule, generally a symphony orchestra will field 2 tenors and a bass. The tenors will have F-attachments for convenience and the bass will have 2 valves to make sure the low B below the bass staff is easily covered. Exotic instruments can be covered by doubling (bass trumpet, tenor tuba, etc.), but if you write them in, the orchestra management may not want to pay for extra players or doubling fees.

Modern players can frequently play well beyond the "published" ranges. A bass can go fairly deep into the pedals; often to Eb 4 lines below the bass staff to C an octave above Middle C. Tenors can play from D below the bass staff (if equipped with F-attachment) to the F at the top of the treble staff. Don't write this way for school musicians, though. Many of them can barely play the published ranges.

The tuba was first developed in the 1840s (and it wasn't standardized until some 50 years later). It's still quite a schizophrenic instrument. Most professional orchestra players will use a CC tuba, but some use BBb. For higher parts a tuba in F can be used (although I can play as low on my F as most CC tuba players). Band players generally like BBb and Eb tubas. Tuba players don't play transposed parts (except for British Brass Band) so the player will look at the part and decide which size tuba to use.

Wagner promoted a contrabass trombone in BBb. Some other composers wrote for contrabass trombone in Eb or F. Right now contrabass trombones are not commonly used except in the Hollywood studios.

The Cimbasso is basically a valved contrabass trombone used in some Verdi and Puccini operas. It competed with an instrument called the Bombardon, which was a small bore tuba in Eb (Verdi didn't like the Bombardon).

Good luck.
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felixs
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by felixs » Sun Nov 15, 2020 4:07 am

Thanks so much.

So, clear up my confusion. When I look at a score like Verdi’s Macbeth.... I see three trombones on one stave. And then a separate line for “trombone basso” - our infamous Cimbasso.

So... is that three tenors, and a bass trombone? Two tenors and TWO bass trombones? Two tenors, a bass, and a contrabass trombone? Three tenors and a contrabass? Some other combination? Who plays what and who decides? The conductor? The section? What is usually done?

It seems unclear to me, and yet presumably everybody knows what to do!
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by StephenK » Sun Nov 15, 2020 4:39 am

I think you are looking for a simple answer to a simple question, but the answer isn't quite as simple, as Bruce has pointed out.
Also, before large bore trombones became common, equipment was smaller and that needs to be taken into account. Here in the UK we had a lockdown performance of Mozart Requiem on TV. It looked like Alto (Becky Smith), medium straight tenor, and large bore Bflat+F tenor.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by BGuttman » Sun Nov 15, 2020 10:42 am

Verdi's orchestra most likely consisted of 3 tenor (valve) trombones and the 4th voice was the Cimbasso.

Many orchestras will play it using 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, and a tuba. That's primarily because Cimbasso players are kinda rare, not all tuba players double on one, and (as I said before) a bass trombone is really a tenor trombone with an F valve and a larger bore.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by Kbiggs » Sun Nov 15, 2020 12:05 pm

A couple of side notes... and this is getting into the weeds...

The excerpt from L’Arlisienne by Bizet mentioned by Bruce is a brief passage in the second suite, last movement, where the editor/printer accidentally reversed the 1st and 3rd parts. I don’t remember who did the research on this, but most bass trombonists play it as written these days. Some play it down one octave, especially during taxing pop concerts. :wink:

The modern cimbasso is very different compared to Verdi’s understanding of a cimbasso. The modern instrument is essentially a valve trombone in F, sometimes in Eb, and rarely in CC or BB-flat. It sounds appropriate in a modern orchestra with modern instruments. Verdi’s cimbasso was more like an ophicleide, and suited to smaller ensembles with fewer dynamic extremes. (Clifford Bevan’s book on the tuba is one place to look up the history of the cimbasso. A few people on this forum—Howard Weiner, Maximillien “Le Tromboniste,” etc.—have posted some good, brief summaries of the history of this forgotten instrument.)
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by CalgaryTbone » Sun Nov 15, 2020 12:21 pm

I'll try to jump in on this -

First of all, I would suggest that the best course of action is to leave the choice of instruments to the players, since they will be trying to make an appropriate sound for the music of that composer, and dictating an instrument choice to them is likely to just produce inferior results if the players aren't comfortable with a different choice. The way that the instruments are grouped in the score has absolutely nothing to do with the composer's intent, and instead is just a typesetting choice of the publisher.

In professional settings, there is an economic factor - an orchestra usually employs two tenor trombones, a bass trombone and a tuba. Some major orchestras add another trombone (a tenor who might play some bass), and some of the major opera companies even have one or two more players to deal with the busy performance schedule. Since those forces are on contract, being paid, in most cases, that will mean they will be the players that perform whatever music is scheduled. They may choose to use other instruments to try to change the sound of the section, or they may adapt their approach on their usual horns.

There has been a movement towards historically-informed performances in recent years, and there are more players that are comfortable playing some of these original instruments. For years, my orchestra performed those Verdi works with 2 tenors, a bass and a high-pitched tuba. Our recently hired tuba player has started using a cimbasso on the bottom part - great sound, but only because he is experienced with it and plays that instrument well. The Met Opera played Verdi with 2 tenors and 2 basses, because that worked best with the forces they had on contract. Their Verdi performances with that combination sounded good (as did ours with a tuba) - good players will make the music work with what horns they have available.

There have been a lot of changes in low brass instruments, particularly in the tuba chair, over the centuries. Not every performer can play all of them, and modern orchestras are a bit of a compromise - not just in the low brass. I often hear inexperienced conductors trying to address problems by changing an instrument. I've been asked to rent my alto trombone to a Youth Orchestra player to help with high notes, that a young player won't be able to hit on any trombone - never mind that they would need 6 months to a year of study on the alto to be able to play it in public. Likewise, the valve parts in Verdi are unlikely to be played on a valved instrument by most trombonists without years of study on a valved instrument.

Trust your low brass section to make the best musical choices that are available in your particular setting.

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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by CalgaryTbone » Sun Nov 15, 2020 12:26 pm

Kbiggs wrote:
Sun Nov 15, 2020 12:05 pm
A couple of side notes... and this is getting into the weeds...

The excerpt from L’Arlisienne by Bizet mentioned by Bruce is a brief passage in the second suite, last movement, where the editor/printer accidentally reversed the 1st and 3rd parts. I don’t remember who did the research on this, but most bass trombonists play it as written these days. Some play it down one octave, especially during taxing pop concerts. :wink:

The modern cimbasso is very different compared to Verdi’s understanding of a cimbasso. The modern instrument is essentially a valve trombone in F, sometimes in Eb, and rarely in CC or BB-flat. It sounds appropriate in a modern orchestra with modern instruments. Verdi’s cimbasso was more like an ophicleide, and suited to smaller ensembles with fewer dynamic extremes. (Clifford Bevan’s book on the tuba is one place to look up the history of the cimbasso. A few people on this forum—Howard Weiner, Maximillien “Le Tromboniste,” etc.—have posted some good, brief summaries of the history of this forgotten instrument.)
I think that Bizet passage appears in the 3rd Trombone part because that edition is one where it is set up so the piece can be played with less players (with cues in certain parts). The 3rd Trombone part is the one to be used if you don't have all the forces there.

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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by Fridge » Sun Nov 15, 2020 1:05 pm

Best answer will probably come from Chris Stearn. Fossil on here. He plays in an opera orchestra for a living.

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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by BGuttman » Sun Nov 15, 2020 1:06 pm

I should also point out that the 3rd trombone part in the L'Arlesienne Suite doesn't require a bass trombone -- it could easily be played on a tenor; although I played it on my bass.

Second Jim's point on alto trombone. Unlike the most common flavors of trombone, the alto is not something you can just switch to like going from tenor saxophone to alto saxophone. They are very different instruments. And an alto is not an easy way to play high notes; they are just further apart in the harmonic series which makes them easier to separate from adjacent notes than on a tenor trombone.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by imsevimse » Sun Nov 15, 2020 1:23 pm

Usually if there are three parts then the third trombone part is the bass part. If it should be played on a bass trombone is for you to decide and the section. If first trombone is an alto then the second and third could be tenors. The third part could be a large tenor with a valve. If you don't tell the conductor might never know. If it sounds good then it is good.

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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by paulyg » Sun Nov 15, 2020 1:38 pm

You'll have to do your homework. The low brass section, as it stands today, really wasn't standardized worldwide in many respects until after WWII. Before that point, regional differences meant different instrumentation and characteristic sounds.

The expectation with modern performances is that two tenor trombones, a bass trombone, and a tuba are permanently engaged by an orchestra, and that instrumentation will be used when three trombones and a bass voice are required. The bass trombone will therefore be required to play some parts in the tenor range.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by BGuttman » Sun Nov 15, 2020 1:42 pm

Another complication: British orchestras of 100 years ago had sections with two small bore tenor trombones (smaller than those used in jazz bands today) and a bass trombone in G. Gerard Hoffnung made a humorous depiction in the attached cartoon.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by sf105 » Sat Nov 28, 2020 1:39 pm

How long have you got? There's a 30 page discussion about what "cimbasso" might mean on one of the Tuba sites.

If you have a decent section, best to let them lead on what to do. There's nothing quite as offputting as being lectured by a conductor on your own instrument, although most will be more than happy to open a discussion.

Tubas are even worse. Before the war, the French used a C instrument smaller than a modern baritone, the Brits used a piston F, and both used tiny trombones narrower than a modern trumpet.

And, by the way, parts of Austro-Hungarian empire used valve trombones (Dvorak, Janacek, Verdi). There's a case to be made that Wagner would still have been conducting valve trombones for Rheingold.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by FOSSIL » Sat Nov 28, 2020 2:19 pm

Sorry not to answer, but...... this is so complex that EVERY case has to be looked at on it's individual merits...even after 36 years in the job I find myself scratching my head at times. I usually consult with the principal trombone and we arrive at a recommendation for the conductor.

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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by Basbasun » Wed Dec 02, 2020 4:28 am

Many orchestras use two tenors, one basstrombone and a tube even when there it is not sure that thats the composers intension. Wagners music often use contrabass trombone, and tuba, 4 trombones and tuba. Could be two tenor one bas one contra and tuba. Years ago the contra basstrombone part was played bu a regular bass trombone (sometimes still happening) Verdi music has ben played with lots of different combinations tenor tenor bass and tuba, tenor tenor, tenor and bass (no tuba) tenor tenor bass and cimbasso (or contra) so lots of cominations.
Today in Stockhom (and other places) the opera hous (Royal Opera) use thre valve trombones and a cimbasso to be as close to the appropriate sound as possible, Maybe there are more combinations, I am sus there is. Confusing? Yes.
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Re: Tenors vs Bass vs anything else - how and when?

Post by PaulT » Thu Dec 03, 2020 9:23 pm

If you get to be famous, remember us and write your best orchestral music with six trombone parts... or maybe eight. Yes, go with eight trombone parts. That's tenor trombone. Add in four or five parts for bass trombone, as well. Those orchestras can pony up and hire a bunch of trombone players. Maybe cut a few trumpet parts, if necessary. They're too shrill, anyway. One is plenty.
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