Trombone Concerto

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        The trombone has been characterized as a “donkey” among horses, owing to the inherent difficulty of operating the slide with the facility that comes easily to all other instruments.  And, the general demise of bands--both “big bands” and “military bands”--as important elements in American musical life has had a deleterious influence upon the instrument’s popularity.  You just don’t see as many of them as you used to--even in combo jazz.  Nevertheless, the trombone has long been an important part of serious music--it has been there from the late Middle Ages in the church when the trumpet was still only a military signal instrument and the French horn was still out hunting foxes.  Today, it is a versatile member of the modern symphonic orchestra; the master of orchestration Hector Berlioz memorably said of the trombone that it can “chant like a choir of priests,” but is capable of a “savage, orgiastic outburst.”

        Despite its value in the orchestra, the number of trombone concertos written for it pales compared to those for all the rest of the instruments--you can count the number known to the average music lover on less than one finger.  Yet, they do exist, and while they have a long history, most performances of them take place on conservatory and university programs.

        The concerto by Grøndahl is one of the most popular of this relatively limited repertoire, and audiences everywhere respond warmly to its attractive and idiomatic style.   The composer is, needless to say, not a household name in this country, but was an important musical figure in his native Denmark, where he is fondly remembered as a major conductor, as well as an active and successful composer.  He was an important interpreter of the music of Carl Nielsen, and served as the music director of the Danish National Symphony for many years.

          His musical style is definitely on the conservative side of twentieth-century musical language, and balances a dynamic forcefulness with a warm, lyrical side. Film buffs with a penchant for minutiae know that he was the composer for the background music for the rather bizarre and controversial silent documentary on witches, sadism, and demonic possession, Haxan (1922).  I’ve seen it, and don’t particularly recommend it for most folks.  But, his music is attractive and well crafted.

          Early in his career he studied in both Paris and Vienna, but composed the trombone concerto in 1924 during his stay in Italy, and dedicated it to Vilhelm Aarkrogh, a fine trombonist in the Royal Orchestra in Copenhagen.  The concerto—his most famous work--is cast in the usual three movements, beginning with a vigorous, declamatory statement of the main theme by the soloist.  Recitative-like sections follow, with subsequent lyrical moments with piano.  The slow, middle movement is characterized by the composer as “quasi una leggenda,” and the well-known capability of the trombone for warm, vocal lyricism comes to the fore.  Indeed, the instrument does relate a story. The last movement is like a rondo, that is, a major theme alternates with contrasting ideas.  At the beginning of the last movement the attentive listener will spot the main theme of the first movement (played by the soloist), followed by another recitative-like section, and then off to races with the dancing main theme of the movement.  Quieter sections enter from time to time, but the exciting main idea concludes the work in a statement by the trombone that emphatically wins the game.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan