I recently posted, in both the 19th century timeline (2nd half) and the Alto Trombone Timeline, a remarkable quotation from an 1859 letter written by Johannes Brahms to his friend and fellow-musician, Theodor Avé Lallemant (Avins and Eisinger, “Six unpublished letters from Johannes Brahms” in For the Love of Music: A Festschrift in Honor of Theodore Front, Lucca, Italy: Lim antiqua, 2002). The letter has only recently been published and, as far as I can ascertain, is not generally familiar to most trombonists and trombone historians. After discussing some logistics of an upcoming performance of Begräbnissgesang, Brahms makes a firm, specific request about the instrumentation of the trombone section, a request that is of note because 1) there has been significant modern scholarly debate about performance practice and use of alto trombone in Brahms’s music; and 2) there has been some recent discussion about the use of alto trombone (or lack thereof) in the 19th century in general. Here is what Brahms says in the letter:
“On no account 3 tenor trombones! One genuine little alto trombone and, if possible, also a genuine bass trombone” (“Daß keine 3 Tenor Posaunen kommen! Eine ächte kleine Alt-Pos. u. wo möglich auch eine ächte Bass-Pos.”) (emphasis in original; Avins 127, 136).
(Avins and Eisinger point out, incidentally, that Brahms deliberately misspells the word echt as ächte in order to mimic the local dialect [Avins 128]).
It may be worth pointing out the similarity of Brahms’s request with that of another important composer of the era, Hector Berlioz. Less that 30 years earlier, Berlioz “demands” a “true alto trombone” for Symphony Fantastique (Trombone History Timeline–1830): “The alto trombone part must not be played on a big trombone, as is often done in France: I demand a true alto trombone.” The similarity of the adjectives is what I am drawing attention to here: “genuine” and “true” alto trombone.
The Brahms quotation would seem to suggest that Brahms may have had an affinity for the alto trombone and bass trombone. The Brahms and Berlioz quotations together would seem to indicate that the “true” or “genuine” alto trombone of that time was “little” (and not simply another tenor with a small mouthpiece; Berlioz describes it as an instrument pitched in E-flat in his orchestration treatise).