An article by George Hamilton from The Irish Independent…
16 JANUARY 2010
Listening to the bold brass in Edward Elgar‘s five ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the composer had a special affinity with the instruments in that section of the orchestra. Not so, apparently. Just before he set about composing the first of the marches, as the 20th century began, Elgar decided, at the age of 43, that he’d take up the trombone. A bit late in the day, you’d think, and yes, the results were pretty disastrous.
He told his publisher what he was up to, but was realistic about how he was doing. “I don’t know whether I’m worse on the typewriter or the trombone,” he remarked.
His lack of proficiency was subsequently confirmed by a family friend, Dora Penny, to whom the tenth of his Enigma Variations is dedicated. In her memoir EdwardElgar: Memories of a Variation, published in 1937 under her married name Mrs Richard Powell, Dora recalls his efforts.
He didn’t do it very well, she wrote, and he swore every time he played a wrong note, which caused her to collapse in hysterics, and of course that only made things worse.
That the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ marches turned out so well is probably due to the fact that Elgar sought help, asking the advice of a professional trombonist.
One composer who did play the instrument proficiently was Elgar’s contemporary Gustav Holst, remembered mostly for his ‘Planets’ suite.
There wasn’t enough money in writing music for Holst to support himself and his family so he played trombone in theatre orchestras. In his student days, he’d go down to Brighton in the summer and play on the pier. Holst studied in London, but home was in the Cotswolds, in Cheltenham. To save money, he’d make the trip either on foot or by bicycle. Apparently, he’d break up the journey and stop to practice wherever he thought he mightn’t be heard. There’s a story told of one particular occasion when he got into trouble. He’d been blasting away merrily for some time in a field on a hillside, when the local farmer came roaring. The noise, he said, was making his sheep start lambing too soon.
The trombone is not an instrument that gets out much on its own, but it’s been around for long enough. The original of the species was created almost 600 years ago, mostly for open- air music. By Mozart’s time, they were more common, both in church, and in the opera house. Trombones have been a staple of the orchestra since Beethoven included them in the finale of his ‘Fifth Symphony’.
The first performance of that, in Vienna in 1808, preceded in the same concert by the first performance of his ‘Sixth’ (which also included trombones), was less than a roaring success. “Too much of a loud thing!” was the verdict of one notable critic. Beethoven, and the trombones, though, have had the last laugh.
George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning