- The Trombone in the Renaissance: A History in Pictures and Documents by Stewart Carter
The trombone is a very old instrument, but historical interest in it is fairly recent. The earliest attempts to describe its history show much more imagination than scholarship. The process of debunking myths and studying documents began in the late nineteenth century. Throughout the twentieth century, only one book in the English language was entirely devoted to the history of the trombone. The Trombone in the Renaissance by Stewart Carter is the third one so far this century. Others will surely follow, and their authors will be greatly indebted to Carter’s scholarship.
Documentary hints of what might have been something like a trombone occur by the end of the fourteenth century. In fact, one of the earliest documents Carter presents, a French poem from ca. 1304–07, simply uses sacqueboute, a word that would become the French word for trombone more than a century later. Unfortunately, the documents do not become much less ambiguous or more informative until long after the trombone indisputably existed, by whatever name it was called. The publication of Sebastian Virdung’s Musica getutscht in 1511 probably marks the first time an author mentioned the trombone with the intention of informing readers about musical instruments, and it was another hundred years before anyone wrote a really good book on the subject.
Most of the earliest documents, even if it is fairly clear that they actually mention the trombone, exist as financial documents, descriptions of special events where music was part of a larger spectacle, or are otherwise about something else entirely besides music. Hardly any of them have much precise information to tell us about the instrument, the people who played it, or even, broadly speaking, what music was performed for particular occasions.
Pictures, sculptures, and other artworks are more helpful, but not without ambiguities of their own. For one thing, they cannot indicate motion. Did an instrument that looks something like a trombone actually have a moving slide? Do odd-looking details tell us about various experimental forms instruments took? Or do they simply show that the artist was not especially good at drawing, or perhaps distorted shapes for artistic reasons we cannot know?
No trombone or obvious piece of a trombone survives that was made before 1551. Barely a dozen survive that were made before 1600. Even these have less value as evidence than would first appear. All of them have since undergone repair, and it is impossible to be certain of their design and characteristics when they were new.
Carter set a difficult task for himself in attempting to make sense of a mass of ambiguous and fragmented information written in several languages, scattered over several centuries from all parts of Europe, plus Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Fortunately, over the past couple of centuries, many scholars have dug through various archives and published extracts as they relate to music. Carter had access to many original documents or photocopies of them, but he also took advantage of the secondary literature.
The book is divided into two parts, one for documents written up to 1499 and the other for the sixteenth century. Each part is subdivided geographically. That is an unfortunate choice, because it means starting the story of the trombone in five different countries, and then having to skip several chapters to continue each one. France and the Low Countries make a single chapter in part 1, but each gets its own in part 2.
Each document, artwork, or instrument receives a unique number, beginning with the number of the chapter. Virdung’s book is 11–11, for example. The system makes cross-referencing easy. Carter presents many of the documents in their original languages in an appendix, where they are identified with the same numbers.
Carter’s coverage of earlier documents and artworks strives to be...