Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Concert Preview: The Voice of God and of Men

Early Trombones and Viols
3:00, Sunday, April 10, 2016
Old St. Mary's, OTR
123 E. 13th St.
Cincinnati OH, 45202

When this instrument first appeared in England in the 15th century, it came with Spanish and French musicians, so the English called it what they called it: a sackbut. [From the Middle French sacquer “to pull” and bouter “to push.” (Hence our word “button,” something you push.)] The sackbut was a pretty miraculous instrument: extremely loud, it was good for outdoor playing and for summoning crowds; and because of the sliding tubes it was able to match pitch perfectly. It was mostly saved for special occasions, like coronations, weddings, and church music. The Germans and Venetians especially loved it. But as the Baroque era wore on, the sackbut slipped out of the commonplace. By the 18th century it was just about gone from England. Throughout Europe, in fact, the “specialness” of the instrument hobbled composers who couldn’t always decide what to do with it, and so did nothing. The architectural evolution of the instrument, therefore, was pretty minor compared to many other instrument families.

After about 100 years of holding pattern, composers starting taking a second look. When the slide horn drifted back into England in the 19th century, it was part of a coalescing European musical tradition that looked to Italy as its leader, and that’s why the English started calling it by its Italian name, trombone (“big trumpet.”) Even then composers handled the trombone with kid gloves. Haydn only dabbled in trombone, Mozart used it to connote death or the supernatural, Beethoven put it in only three of his symphonies. Legend has it Beethoven considered the trombone to be the musical equivalent of the voice of God, to be used sparingly for greater impact.

Heaven knows what they would make of our careless overindulgence today, with 76 trombones leading the big parades, the swinging bones of Glenn Miller, the sullen menace of Darth Vader – we fling the trombone about as though it were as common as flute or guitar. 

It’s important to remember that once there was a mystique to the sliding horn, that it had an elusive cachet for composers and audiences alike. It was the special occasion instrument.

It will be a special occasion when Dark Horse Consort comes to Cincinnati. A trio of sackbuts will join a quartet of violas da gamba, an exquisite combination of dark tonalities nicely balanced by soprano Melissa Harvey. The music will come from Italian and Franco-Flemish composers of the late Renaissance. For the first time Catacoustic will perform at Old St. Mary’s in Over-the-Rhine, a space whose acoustics have been waiting for just this chance to show what they can do. 

Tickets $25, students $10, under 12 free. Available at or at 513-772-3242 or at the door.