Are the two types of Contrabass Trombone fundamentally different instruments?

Today, I ask an interesting question:

Are the two types of existing Contrabass Trombone, namely the instruments in F and B-flat, fundamentally different species on trombone?

We universally accept the modern Bass Trombone, pitched in tenor B-flat, as a bass.  No one, except a historical purist will argue this point.  For all intents and purposes, the true F Bass Trombone is extinct.  Because of this, today’s instrument in F, with one or two valves, is universally known as a Contrabass Trombone and not as a Bass.  This leaves the B-flat Contrabass Trombone as the outlier.

F Contrabass Trombone Range

B-flat Contrabass Trombone Range

Is the B-flat Contrabass Trombone, today, a Sub-Contrabass Trombone?

Historically, the B-flat Contrabass Trombone was not made with valves.  This means that the lowest available note was E1.  However, all modern B-flat Contrabass Trombones will have at least one valve, which will make the instrument capable of a low C1.  Both of these limits exclude the pedal range, which again, will extend the range even lower.

Converse to this, the modern F Contrabass instrument is capable of descending to a low F1 without using the pedal range.  Between the two instruments, we have a difference of a 4th in range.  In any other instrument family, we would classify two instruments a fourth apart as separate species.

Trombone players, in general, don’t like the large B-flat instrument.  Common quotes I’ve seen from players are along the lines of, “It’s too big,” It handles like a tank,” “It’s slow and sluggish.”  Oddly, professional tuba players will say the same thing about the B-flat Contrabass Tuba, which is why the C Contrabass Tuba is far more prevalent in professional groups.  The slightly shorter tube evidently makes a world of difference.  To this extent, Miraphone has recently constructed a C Contrabass Trombone with two additional valves.  Players who have played it say that it is a huge improvement from the B-flat instrument.

Players view the two instruments as tools to accomplish the same job.  It is expected that they, as would anyone, use the tool that is more efficient and takes less effort.

But, what if we composers and orchestrators treated the instruments differently?

What if we utilized the instruments as both a Contrabass Trombone (F) and a Sub-Contrabass Trombone (B-flat/C)?

For the standard composer/orchestrator, this would be overkill, but for a Hollywood session composer this could be a welcome addition.  Think of the raspy power of multiple Contra Trombone parts.

Maybe something like this…

I think, that in reality, we really do have two separate instruments that need to be handled differently and separately from one another.  For a creative orchestrator, there is, I’m sure, great possibilities here.

Trombones Part 2 – Trombones in the Band

Trombone in the Band

The traditional trombone section is comprised of three parts.  Usually, this is two Tenors and one Bass.  Occasionally, a fourth part is used.  If a fourth part is included, it is another Tenor part.  This is the standard section in an orchestra as well.  In a band, there can be more than one player on a part, whereas in an orchestra it is strictly one on a part.  Like I’ve said in other places, let’s use these extra players to our advantage.

The only works that I know that use Alto in a wind band setting are works from the 19th Century like Mendelssohn’s Trauermarsch.  I know of no reason the Alto shouldn’t be part of a wind band setting.

1 Alto Trombone

2 Tenor Trombones

1 Bass Trombone

This would be a very easy section to form assuming you have a player that is competent on the Alto.  Add to this a Contrabass, and we have a large section of five players with a huge range.

The sheer power of the trombone hit me full force when I started to study the score to the film Inception.  The composer Hans Zimmer uses a trombone section of 6 Tenors and 6 Basses/Contrabass.  Wow!  The sound is immense, powerful, and frightening!  I can imagine this sound in a band, and I like it.

We can think of a think of a large band section like this:

1 Alto Trombone

4 Tenor Trombones

2 Bass Trombones

1 Contrabass Trombone

This will give us a full section of 8 players.  Doublings are not needed here, but one might be made for the Contrabass player and have them take up a Bass or Tenor to save them from tiring from this exhausting instrument.  Very rarely does a Contrabass player play the Contrabass instrument for the entirety of a concert or work.  The Alto player might also take up the Tenor if needed.

I leave out the Soprano Trombone from the section, as I find it rather useless in the context of a trombone ensemble.  Its small sound won’t make an impact against a mass of Tenors and Basses.  Even the Alto has a small sound that might not cut through the mass.

The eight member ensemble can be both powerful and solemn at the same time.  Go listen to some trombone choir music, and you can hear the possibilities available from this majestic instrument.  In harmony, we get the majestic solemnity, in unison, we get the tremendous power.

A Bruckner chorale for 8 trombones (Tenor, Bass, and Contrabass).

Excerpts from Strauss’ Alpensymphonie for 10 trombones (Tenor, Bass, and Contrabass).

Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for Trombones (Tenor and Bass)