Mendelssohn on Trombone


Mendelssohn_BartholdyI recently added the following captions involving Felix Mendelssohn, drawn from three different sources, to the Trombone History Timeline (19th century, 1826-1850). What strikes me about these captions? A few things. First, that Mendelssohn seemed to be of the opinion that brass, including trombone, should be used judiciously, objecting as he did to an apparent trend of “blasting away,” or overuse of brass. Second, that Mendelssohn was picky about editing Handel and did not want to add instruments like trombone that were not in the original. Third, that it seems to have been a fairly common practice to add trombones to Handel at that time. Fourth, that musical offerings on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day included “chorales with trombones.”


1834—Düsseldorf, Germany: In a letter to his friend Ignaz Moscheles, Mendelssohn says, “I quite agree with you in all you say about Neukomm’s music….Then again, that constant use of brass! As a matter of sheer calculation it should be sparingly employed, let alone the question of Art! That’s where I admire Handel’s glorious style; when he brings up his kettledrums and trumpets towards the end, and thumps and batters about to his heart’s content, as if he meant to knock you down—no mortal man can remain unmoved. I really believe it is far better to imitate such work, than to overstrain the nerves of your audience, who, after all, will at last get accustomed to Cayenne pepper. There is Cherubini’s new Opera, ‘Ali Baba,’ for instance, which I have just been looking through. I was delighted with some parts, but in others it grieved me to find him chiming in with that perverted new fad of the Parisians, winding up pieces, in themselves calm and dignified, with thunder-clap effects, scoring as if instruments were nothing and effect everything, three or four trombones blasting away at you as if the human ear could stand anything. Then the finales with their uncouth harmonies, tearing and dashing about, enough to make an end of you” (Brown, A Portrait of Mendelssohn 319-20).

1835—Cologne, Germany: Mendelssohn, charged with directing a performance of Handel’s Solomon, has to start with the 1832 Singakademie version, since he is using their parts. In a humorous letter, Mendelssohn criticizes this version: “[T]he changes are limited to the bass trombone, a few oboes, and horns which Rungenhagen added, and which we now have to ‘write off again.’ They want to change Handel, but they don’t even know how to do that correctly…. To us, who know that a bass trombone and oboes are live animals, it is not fun to see such a crude person, who commits animal cruelty; there are oboes having to play a G sharp Minor in their low register—true horror to the oboe heart, and a terrible bass trombone part! It sounds like an old comb. They want to rescore G. F. Handel, but they would crawl under the table if the big guy was still alive” (Wehner, Mendelssohn and Handel’s Vocal 153).

1835—Düsseldorf, Germany. In a letter to his friend Ferdinand Hiller, Mendelssohn discusses musicians in Düsseldorf in particular, Germany in general: “And yet there are one or two musicians among them, who would do credit to any orchestra, even to your [Paris] conservatoire; but that is just the misery in Germany—the bass trombones and the drum and the double bass excellent, and everything else quite abominable” (Brown, A Portrait of Mendelssohn 145).

1843—Berlin, Germany: Felix Mendelssohn, in a letter to his sister Rebecca, mentions the musical offerings they will be having on Christmas day and New Year’s day, specifying trombone chorales for both: “One Christmas-day I have for the first time to conduct the music in the cathedral with orchestra; there is to be a new psalm of mine, ‘To our salvation,’ from Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ a couple more new trifles of mine, and some chorales with trombones. On New Year’s day it will be much the same, with a slight variation of colour, another new psalm of mine, the Hallelujah Chorus from the ‘Messiah,’ and some more chorales with trombones” (The Mendelssohn Family, 237-38).

1845—In a letter to Mendelssohn, G. A. Macfarren, secretary to the council of the London Handel Society suggests that Mendelssohn, who has been engaged to edit Handel’s Israel in Egypt, provide trombone parts for the work: “Handel’s choruses are never performed in England without the accompaniment of Trombones, & it is thought desirable that (since, according to custom trombones must be played,) our Society should put forth a set of musicianly parts for them rather than leave them as they have heretofore been left, to be arranged by the copyist—or someone worse—this however is, as I have said before, a matter of option to the Editor.” Mendelssohn responds curtly in his next letter: “I will not write Trombone parts. I wish not to prolong the Correspondence, as I told you, or else I should be tempted to tell you my candid opinion of this ‘Trombone’ decision of the Council, which you now communicated to me. Perhaps I shall do so in a letter which I shall soon write to you, (not to the Secretary, but the musician)” (Brown, A Portrait of Mendelssohn 46). Mendelssohn and the other parties involved evidently were not aware of the trombone parts found in Handel’s 1739 performance score of Israel in Egypt (Wehner, Mendelssohn in Handel’s Vocal 158).

1846—Aachen, Germany: Mendelssohn, working out details of a potential performance of a Handel oratorio for the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Aachen, says the following in a letter to the festival’s committee: “The last point leads to the question if you will be able to have an organ available? There is no need for a large organ, but it needs to be a good and pure one, to be clearly heard within thick musical textures. I have always refused the customary way of replacing the organ with clarinets, bassoons, and trombones in Handel’s works, and I will not consent to it—and am even less willing to write them” (Wehner, Mendelssohn and Handel’s Vocal 161-62).