last update 9/15/15
Moravian Trombone Choir Music: Frequently-Asked Questions
This page was originally published as part of a website for the Glenwood Moravian Trombone Choir, a group I directed in Madison WI, from 1983-2006. (I still play occasionally in the GMTC, which has been directed since 2006 by Steve Ash.) I have moved this FAQ page here. Your comments and additional questions are welcome: just drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though trombone-only groups are relatively rare these days, nearly every congregation has an instrumental ensemble of some kind, even if it is a mixed band that meets once a year to play for the Easter sunrise service. The backbone of traditional Moravian instrumental music is a huge body of four-part chorales: many of them shared with other, younger Protestant denominations (especially the Lutherans and Methodists), but a large number of the traditional chorales are uniquely Moravian in origin and usage. In addition to the burial service and several of the Advent and Lenten hymns, there are several distintive tunes:
One beloved Moravian tradition is the antiphonal Hosanna by Christian Gregor (1723-1801). This tune, which is used during the Advent season and on Palm Sunday, is traditionally sung in antiphonal call-and-response between sides of a congregation or between men and women. The Hosanna is available in the "Green Book" though in a different key (A-flat Major) than in the hymnal (A Major)--church bands beware! I recall a memorable--and embarrrassing--Advent concert when the organ and trombone choir were set to accompany the Hosanna antiphonally. Our organist forgot that we agreed to play it in A-flat, rather than A...with results that Charles Ives would have loved. There is also a similar 19th-century setting of the Hosanna by Edward Leinbach (1823-1901) that is not as frequently used.return to top
The hymn Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord (sung to the tune 159D "Bechler") is affectionately referred to as the "Moravian National Anthem." (A longstanding traditional joke in our group is to whisper "Play ball!" after the final "Amen."). This one positively cries out for brass instruments: a nice forthright and joyous shoutin' hymn with the soprano part in the very high range. The traditional performance of this two-verse hymn among most congregations involves a big ritard in the last phrase with a fermata on the highest note and a very slow tempo on the last six pitches: i.e., "For us, for us, the Lamb was slaaaaaaaaaaaaaain, [big breath] praise ye the Lord, Amen." A footnote: the otherwise wonderful recording Lost Music of Early America, by Martin Perlman and the Boston Baroque, concludes a set of Lovefeast hymns with a performance of Sing Hallelujah that just barrels through that second verse: pretty jarring to anyone raised in this particular tradition!
One further unique hymn is Morning Star, O Cheering Sight (310B "Hagen"). This 19th-century gem is sung at the traditional Moravian candlelight service during Advent, as beeswax candles are lit by the whole congregation. This is also an antiphonal hymn -- in this case between a single child's voice or small group of children and the congregation. The musical form of this one, and the necessity of balancing with a child's voice probably make accompaniment by a trombone choir inappropriate.
Our tradition at Glenwood is probably fairly typical for an active trombone choir. We usually play at a Sunday service about once a month, and when we're involved in a church service, we typically give the organist a break, and play pieces for the Prelude, Offertory and Postlude, and also an additional piece that substitures for the choir anthem. We try to put together things that are appropriate to the season and service, but one of the nice things about playing instruments rather than singing is that don't have to worry about a text, but merely the character of the music. (I'll have to admit that we once used an arrangement of Frank Zappa's Sofa No.2 during a service--albeit with a different title and composer listed in the bulletin--and I got all sorts of nice comments afterwards about that pretty Offertory piece!) We also play hymn accompaniments, usually combining with the organist and working out some kind of alternation on verses. I usually let our organist introduce the hymn, since the congregation is most used to that, but then we'll trade verses, combining on the last verse. This is a nice way to put a little variety in the accompaniment, and the congregation always enjoys it.
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Sopranos, pitched in B-flat, are essentially identical to slide trumpets. Any tuning problems associated with the normal tenor/bass trombone can be multiplied several times here, and finding a "good" soprano is tough. Bach and Conn manufactured slide trumpets decades ago--if you can latch on to one of these old instruments, it will probably be serviceable. The German maker Mirafone still manufactures a "high end" soprano as well. The American makers LA Horn and Jupiter also manufacture slide trumpets which are fairly cheap (see, for example the Brasswind), but you pretty much get what you pay for: these are instruments cobbled together with components from various drum corps and marching band horns. They can certainly be made to work, though, if you have a trumpet player with a good ear and a lot of patience. There is also a recently-issued soprano by Weril, a Brazilian maker (distributed by DEG), but I can't really comment on this horn as yet.
Altos are, of course, much more common, and there are several modern makers. You can also buy altos on the cheap from Jupiter--see comments above. Most altos are pitched in E-flat, though it's also fairly common to find instruments in F. My preference is for an E-flat Alto, which seems to blend a bit better with the B-flat instruments that make up the rest of the group, and which seems to have fewer intonation problems in general than the F Altos.
Tenors should be no problem at all: we're talking about your normal garden-variety B-flat trombone here.
In the early Moravian settlements, the bass voice was taken by a "true" bass pitched in F or E-flat--the sort of instrument that--like bass sackbuts--needed a hinged stick to reach the lower positions. These are virtually unknown today (though a few of the older Moravian congregations still own examples) and a modern bass trombone is perfectly appropriate. Where a large-bore bass is unavailable, try at the very least to have the larger tenors on the bass line. If you're lucky enough to have access to a contrabass trombone and someone who can play it, it can effectively double the bass voice 8ba. One of my fondest musical memories is playing in a 40-piece Posaunenchor that included two contras. The same effect can be approximated if you have a decent bass trombonist who can take the bass line down, but make sure he/she balances with the rest of the ensemble.
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Jeffrey Reynolds published several useful arrangements of
Moravian brass music through Frederick Music in the late 1970s:
- Gregor, Hosanna (antiphonal, SATB+SATB)
- Leinbach, Hosanna (antiphonal, SATB+SATB)
- To Us a Child is Born (antiphonal, SATB+SATB)
- Huss's Communion Hymn (SATBB arrangement of the oldest Moravian hymn)
- Moravian Chorale Cycle (SATB suite of several standard Moravian hymns -- note that your alto and tenor players need to have some high chops to negotiate this one!) At present, only the Moravian Chorale Cycle is available through Robert King Music (the standard outlet for brass music).
If you're playing with a brass quintet, or an SSATB trombone choir, there is of course a vast amount of appropriate music available. I won't try here to make suggestions.
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The above-mentioned Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians by the Boston Baroque (Telarc CD-80482, issued 1998) includes a couple of trombone choir pieces, played by members of the Boston Shawm and Sackbut Ensemble. Very nice performances, done on period instruments. It doesn't say on the disk, but it sounds as if they are playing on small-bore SATB trombones (typical of late 18th- and early 19th-century Moravian congregations) rather than sackbuts. The two trombone choir chorales are a kind of appendix to the main series of performances, which comprises a series of three lovefeasts (see below). As a bonus, Lost Music includes a second disc, a 20-minute lecture by the Boston Baroque's director, Martin Pearlman, which is a fine introduction to Moravian musical traditions.
Probably the most important recordings of Moravian trombone choir music are a pair of LPs supervised by Jeffrey Reynolds over 30 years ago: Music of the Moravian Trombone Choir (Crystal Records, Stereo S222, issued 1976), and Music for Two Seasons (Crystal Records, Stereo S225, issued 1981). I have already discussed Reynolds's contribution to the tradition above -- these LPs document not only traditional Moravian trombone style but also the works composed and arranged by Reynolds and others for the Moravian Trombone Choir of Downey. Music of the Moravian Trombone Choir is played by a small group of LA Philharmonic players and a couple of LA freelancers. This recording focuses primarily on the traditional chorales, but also includes a set of three 18th-century sonatas for SATB Posaunenchor by Cruse. Music for Two Seasons is played by an ensemble of twelve players from the Downey Trombone Choir. The two seasons are, of course, Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter, and the LP brings together some traditional Moravian repertoire (e.g., both the Leinbach and Gregor Hosannas, and a few chorales) with several pieces written by Reynolds and other for the Downey group. In 1995, Crystal Records reissued both recordings together on a single CD, titled Music for All Seasons (Crystal Records, CD220). This reissue replicates all of the useful liner notes from the original LPs as well. You can purchase this disk directly from Crystal Records, and it is widely available through the usual online outlets.
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There are probably as many recipes for lovefeast buns as there are Moravian congregations--easy to find these in a Google search.
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soprano trombone or trumpet: These instruments will work well on the soprano and alto parts of most Protestant hymns. Experienced trumpet players will be perfectly happy in C (concert key), reading directly from the hymnal or a part copied directly from the hymnal. However, the majority of players will probably need a B-flat part. To do this, you need to do two things: 1) Change the key signature on the transposed part: add two sharps or subtract two flats. So a hymn in the key of D Major (two sharps) will be presented in E Major (four sharps), B-flat Major (two flats) becomes C Major (no flats or sharps), etc. 2) Write the entire line a whole step higher. Be aware that accidentals may change. So, for example, an E-natural in the key of B-flat Major will become an F-sharp in the transposed part.If you're interested in something more sophisticated than just writing out parts there are several books and online guides to arranging -- here's one of them.
alto trombone or horn: These instruments are most appropriate for the alto part, but can also be substituted in on the tenor part as well. Experienced alto trombonists or hornists will probably be comfortable reading in C, and trombonists will usually be able to read a part written in alto clef, but it is much more common for players to read F parts. To do this, you need to do two things: 1) Change the key signature on the transposed part: add one sharp or subtract one flat. So a hymn in the key of F Major (one flat) will be presented in C Major (no flats or sharps), and a Hymn in C Major will be presented in G Major (one sharp), etc. 2) Write the entire line a perfect fifth higher.
E-flat parts: Not very common these days, but if you have older players, or someone with an alto horn, you may need to produce an E-flat part. To do this, you need to do two things: 1) Change the key signature on the transposed part: add three sharps or subtract three flats. So a hymn in the key of B-flat Major (two flats) will be presented in G Major (one sharp), and a Hymn in C Major (no flats or sharps) will be presented in A Major (three sharps), etc. 2) Write the entire line a major sixth higher.
tenor and bass trombone or baritone/euphonium: These instruments are most appropriate for the tenor and bass parts, and for the most part can read bass clef parts copied directly from the hymnal. If you are copying something from a choral score, the tenor part will usually be presented in treble clef, written an octave higher than the sounding pitch. Experienced players will be able to read this, but usually you'll need to copy such parts out in bass clef. It is common in trombone music to put higher parts in tenor clef, avoiding all those ledger lines, but this will be a problem for the majority of church band trombonists, so better stick with bass clef. You may occasionally have a baritone player who needs a B-flat part. In this case, transpose the part up an octave into treble clef, and follow the instructions given above for "soprano trombone or trumpet."
contrabass trombone or tuba: These instruments are appropriate for the bass line, and if you have someone else on the bass line, are most effective doubling the bass part an octave lower. You may need to write out thse 8ba parts for less experienced tuba players.
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