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Albrechtsberger (1736-1809) - Concerto for Alto Trombone

Every now and then, whilst trawling for information, I net some very peculiar fish. Take this little gem: “[Albrechtsberger’s] concertos for jew's harp have occasionally made their way into the modern trumpet repertoire.” Such a seemingly astonishing fact surely deserved some elaboration, but none was forthcoming. Only slightly more germane is the oft-quoted, “His main claim to fame was as Beethoven’s teacher”. I’m sure Einstein’s maths master, whoever he was, must have found that greatly reassuring. Albrechtsberger’s real claim to fame, however, was as a theorist, author of a treatise on composition and three volumes on harmony, a “back-room” influence that brought many pupils - who happened to include Beethoven - flocking to his door. 

No mere dusty academic, Albrechtsberger practised what he preached. A Kapellmeister and organist by trade, he wrote 300 sacred works and 450 instrumental works including symphonies, concertos and some 240 fugues. His career spanned the transition from Baroque to Classical, a period when the simpler style galant was in the ascendant. In promoting strict counterpoint through his favoured Baroque sonata da chiesa model, he exerted a substantial if less than sensational influence on the development of music as we know it. 

Other than his own instrument, he wrote concertos for harp and for trombone, neither of which were exactly mainstream instruments and - correct me if I’m wrong - both missing from Vivaldi’s capacious canon. Considering the awe with which commentators often mention, say, Beethoven’s introduction of the trombone into the symphony, Albrechtsberger surely deserves rather better than obscurity for being the first - or so it would appear! - to introduce the trombone into the rather more eminent rôle of concerto soloist. 

Historically, the trombone’s big advantage was its ability to play all the notes without “cheating”. Hence, in its hey-day, the alto trombone’s light-voiced agility made it top dog in the brass choir. A ready, albeit rough-and-ready, substitute for the horn and to some extent the trumpet, it rapidly fell from grace once valves came along: horns and trumpets could now sneer, “Anything you can do, I can do better”. Well, that is, anything except slide - but in those days nobody pulled any cheap stunts like that. Recently of course it has found an entirely new lease of life, as an “authentic” instrument. 

The concerto affects an air of sturdy geniality that puts me in mind of William Boyce’s music. Throughout the course of its three movements - Allegro moderato, Andante, Allegro moderato - Albrechtsberger strikes a gentlemanly balance between his own “strict counterpoint” and the flash new “style galant”, and makes as fine a case as you could wish for this “substitute horn”.


© Paul Serotsky 
37, Mayfield Grove, 
West Yorkshire HD6 4EE 


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