Last October, I wrote an article for The Last Trombone titled, Rethinking Mozart’s Tuba mirum. If you’re reading THIS article and haven’t read my earlier thoughts this subject, please take a minute to read my earlier article so you can have a fuller context for what follows.
For many years, I have puzzled over a question: Why does the trombone solo to the Tuba mirum movement in Mozart’s Requiem seem to be of a completely different character than the vocal text of the movement? In my previous article I raised the question and wondered if we could begin a conversation about this. What happened was quite unexpected: that article about Mozart’s Tuba mirum has received thousands of views. Clearly this question is something that is on the mind of many others.
To recap, the text of Tuba mirum of the Requiem mass speaks of the dead being raised from their graves as they are being summoned before the throne of God for judgment. Here is the text in Latin:
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchral regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
And here is the “standard literal” translation in English:
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through all the sepulchers of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.
Here is a fuller, more accurate translation of the text in English:
The trumpet, blowing its amazing sound to all of the corners of the earth,
signals to all of the dead in the world
to rise from their tombs and come before the throne of God for judgment.
Surely this is a text that demands dramatic treatment. And many composers, like Berlioz, Verdi and even contemporaries of Mozart such as Antonio Salieri, Michael Haydn and Luigi Cherubini infused this movement with fast tempos and loud trumpets, trombones and timpani.
But not Mozart.
After the initial opening “fanfare” of the call of the last trumpet, Mozart wrote what is usually interpreted as a florid, legato passage to accompany the bass vocal soloist. Here is the trombone solo as printed in a commonly performed edition:
It must first be said that apart from the three slurs that appear in measures 15, 16 and 17, none of the expressive markings are Mozart’s. He did not live to hear the Requiem performed and the Tuba mirum was left unfinished; he did not even indicate an opening dynamic for the trombone solo. Had he lived, he certainly would have gone back to this movement and edited it more clearly for performance. A look at the except from Mozart’s manuscript at the top of this article (if you are reading this article because you have subscribed to The Last Trombone by email, click on the title of this article to open this page in your web browser and you can see the header image) shows just how little Mozart gave us in terms of expressive guidance.
Still, the tradition that calls for this solo to be played legato dates back to the Requiem‘s first edition, published in Leipzig, Germany c1800 by Breitkopf & Härtel. Below are the first three pages of the Tuba mirum in this edition. The full score to this edition, which is owned by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston and is on deposit at the Boston Public Library for safekeeping, is available online by clicking HERE. You will also notice something that seems a little shocking: after the opening notes of the trombone solo, this edition gives most of the Tuba mirum solo to a solo bassoon (Fagotto in German), not solo trombone. Seriously. But more on this in a minute. Have a look at these pages and you will see that from this first edition, the character of the trombone solo was legato:
Note: You will see that the trombone solo in measures 5-7 is not marked legato even though it is usually played that way by today’s players. I think a case can be made for a detached tenuto OR a legato approach to these measures. Part of this thinking is a consideration of what we are learning about 19th century trombone performance practice and part of it is based on a consideration that these measures might – might – actually depict the initial movement of the dead from their graves.
However, with the mostly legato character of the opening of this movement clearly established from its earliest performances, the question still remains: why does Mozart treat this dramatic text in this way?
After I published my earlier article in which I posed this question, I continued researching in hopes of answering my own question. I had conversations with my friend, Howard Weiner, one of the most respected scholars of the trombone who is also co-editor of the Historic Brass Society Journal, and consulted dozens of books about Mozart and the Requiem. As I looked more carefully at this, some important information came to light and I think I am beginning to understand why Mozart called for the trombone solo to be played in a gentle rather than dramatic style.
As I was researching this, the Boston Symphony Orchestra contacted me. They were planning performances of the Requiem on April 20, 21 and 22 and asked if I would be interested in contributing an article about the Tuba mirum for the BSO program book. The timing was perfect. While I was planning to write a long article on the subject for a scholarly journal, the offer to write a shorter, 1000 word piece was very appealing to me. It allowed me to concisely present my argument to an audience that was preparing to hear the Requiem in performance. And so, last week, my article about the trombone solo in Mozart’s Tuba mirum was published in the Boston Symphony program book.
For the benefit of readers of The Last Trombone, I am reprinting my article below. What you see below is identical to what appeared in the article except the quotations from various authors are fully cited below. If you would like to read or download the article as it appeared in the Boston Symphony program (PDF file), click HERE.
As you will see, I think Mozart knew what he was doing. Of course, there is much room for discussion and further research, and I hope we will all keep asking questions. Still, I think this is a plausible theory to answer a question that has vexed not only trombonists, but, as you will read below, Mozart scholars for over two centuries. I close this article in a way that is similar to my conclusion to my earlier article on this subject:
I am posing an idea, a theory; I am not presenting this as a settled thought in need of adoption. Certainly more research and study needs to be done. Let’s keep thinking.
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Reprinted from the Boston Symphony Orchestra Program Book, April 20, 21, 22, 2017.
“Tuba mirum” or “Tuba dirum”: Mozart’s Requiem and the Trombone
by Douglas Yeo (© 2017, Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.)
Written in the last months of his life, Mozart’s Requiem has achieved almost mythic status as one of classical music’s greatest works, despite the fact that he did not live to see it to completion. Today we take for granted the near universal praise of the Requiem, and any criticism is usually reserved for discussion about the perceived inadequacies of those who completed the work from Mozart’s sketches. Trombone players have special reason to be grateful to Mozart, since he has provided them with one of the orchestral repertoire’s finest trombone solos, one that stands alongside those found in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Yet Mozart’s trombone solo in the Tuba mirum has been a subject of controversy since its first performances and has not always been held in high esteem.
Mozart’s manuscript for the Tuba mirum contains only the most basic of outlines, containing parts for the vocal soloists, solo trombone, and cellos/basses. He wrote no dynamic marking for the opening solo, and he offered only scant articulation markings to guide performers stylistically. Mozart’s trombone solo extends to the end of the opening text that is sung by the bass soloist; the trombone’s music staff continues throughout the entire movement but those measures were never filled by the composer’s pen.
It is the trombone, rather than the trumpet, that introduces the sound of the Biblical “last trumpet,” a quite logical decision when one understands that the word “trombone” literally means “large trumpet.” Banish any thought that the Latin word “tuba” has anything to do with today’s large brass instrument of that name. Unlike the trombone, the natural (valveless) trumpet of Mozart’s time was not capable of playing fully chromatically. Mozart, at age eleven, had written an exceptional trombone solo in his Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebotes (The Obligation of the First Commandment), K.35, and was well acquainted with the instrument’s capabilities. After the Tuba mirum’s opening measures, the trombone writing changes character, and it accompanies the bass soloist with florid lines and arpeggios until the tenor soloist enters (Mors stupebit) with a minor-key version of the trombone’s opening motif. This is all well and good until one considers whether Mozart’s trombone writing actually reflects the character of the vocal text.
After the drama of the Dies irae, the Tuba mirum text continues with an evocative image of the dead rising from their graves to face the judgment of God. While Hector Berlioz (1834) famously complained that Mozart’s single trombone was inadequate to the task— “Why just one trombone to sound the terrible blast that should echo round the world and raise the dead from the grave? Why keep the other two trombones silent when not three, not thirty, not three hundred would be enough?” (1) —other commentators have objected to the character of the solo. Many have echoed Alfred Einstein’s assessment (1945) that “one cannot shake off the impression that the heavenly [trombone] player is exhibiting his prowess instead of announcing terribly the terrible moment of the Last Judgment.” (2) More recently, John Rosselli, in The Life of Mozart (1998), opines that the trombone solo “strains after majesty and fails.” (3) Perhaps the harshest cut came from Cecil Forsyth in his Orchestration (1914) where he wrote, sardonically, “Only the first three bars appear to have been written by one who understood the instrument. The rest might be better described as Tuba dirum spargens sonum.” The text’s reference to the amazing (“mirum”) sound of the last trumpet became, in Mozart’s allegedly inept hands, simply “awful” (“dirum”). (4)
Yet missing from all of this harsh commentary is an understanding of not only the use of the trombone in late-18th-century Vienna, but also how composers at that time and place addressed the subject of death. It is true that many of Mozart’s contemporaries, including Antonio Salieri, Michael Haydn, and Luigi Cherubini, treated the Tuba mirum in dramatic fashion with loud brass and timpani. But others, like Georg Reutter and Franz Joseph Aumann, wrote gentle trombone solos (and trombone duets) in the Tuba mirum movement of their Requiems. Why did some composers treat this text with dramatic effect while others, like Mozart, took a more gentle approach? We do well to note that in Vienna from the mid-18th century, the idea of “eine schöne Leich” (“a beautiful funeral”) was very much in play. Hermann Abert, in his early biography of Mozart (1855), explains “that Mozart pictures the Lord not as a strict and implacable judge but as a lenient, albeit just and serious, God.” (5) Edward Young’s poem “Night Thoughts” (1742), which was translated and widely distributed in Austria, also encouraged this view of “a good death.” If one has led a life according to God’s commands, what, then, is there to fear when the trumpet of God calls one to account?
If we accept that Mozart was fully aware of the implications of using the trombone to reflect a more gentle view of the judgment of God, today’s musicians still need to address other important issues of performance practice. While Mozart’s manuscript clearly shows the meter of Tuba mirum as cut time (2/2), the first published edition (1800) changed that to common time (4/4). This confusion led to a host of conductors leading the movement at an exceptionally slow tempo despite the Andante tempo marking. Many editions, starting with the first edition, gave some or all of the trombone solo over to a bassoon, or even viola and cello, a concession to the lack of competent trombone players in many countries in the 19th century. But Mozart’s trombone solo in the Tuba mirum is a superb example of late 18th-century Viennese writing for the instrument. Its character is consistent with Mozart’s view of death, a view he shared with his father, Leopold, in a letter from 1787:
As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but it is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity…to learn that death is the key which unlocks the door to our happiness. (6)
(1) Hugh MacDonald, Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise: A Translation and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2002), 220.
(2) Alfred Einstein, Mozart: His Character, His Work. New York: Oxford University Press (1945), 354.
(3) John Rosselli, The Life of Mozart. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1998), 160.
(4) Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration. London: Macmillan and Company (1914), 149.
(5) Hermann Abert, translated by Stewart Spencer, edited by Cliff Eisen, W. A. Mozart. New Haven: Yale University Press (2007), 1323-1324.
(6) Christoph Wolff, Mozart’s Requiem: Historical and Analytical Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press (1994), 84.
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DOUGLAS YEO (www.thelasttrombone.com and www.yeodoug.com) was bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 2012 and was Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University from 2012 to 2016; his latest book is The One Hundred: Essential Works for the Symphonic Bass Trombonist (Encore Music Publishers). He lives in the foothills of Arizona’s Sierra Estrella and is currently writing The Trombone Book (Oxford University Press) and Homer Rodeheaver: Gospel Music’s ‘Reverend Trombone’ (University of Illinois Press).