David’s Concertino

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Every instrument has its “calling card” solos that are asked on every audition. Violinists play the Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius. Trumpet players have the Haydn and the Hummel. Trombonists have the David and the Grondahl. Most trombone solo literature is relatively recent, due to the trombone’s historical role as an ensemble instrument. Grondahl’s Concerto, composed in 1924, is similar to the bulk of the repertoire in this way, and is for that reason more approachable by modern trombonists. David’s Concertino was composed nearly a century earlier (in 1837), and while the harmonic language is much simpler, many trombonists have less experience with this style and often find it more difficult to interpret in a historically appropriate and musically convincing way.

To me, the fundamental challenge seems to be deciding on the correct musicological context for this work. It is often described as the most important (or one of the only) trombone solos from the Romantic era. This is, of course, true, but the Romantic era was long and incorporated many important developments. When we think of trombone music from the period, we usually think of Mahler, Wagner, and Brahms — all of whom composed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. David’s Concertino, on the other hand, is the chronological midpoint between Rimsky-Korsakov’s Concerto and Albrechtberger’s.

Often, the David is compared to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and that’s an apt reference. David premiered the Mendelssohn, and the two were good friends. However, Mendelssohn did not finish the Violin Concerto until 1845, and the Romantic trends of larger orchestration and emotional excess had established themselves further than they had a decade earlier. For a closer frame of reference, I listen to Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto, which was completed in the same year as the Concertino. Like the David, it’s clearly a Romantic work — but it is firmly grounded in Classical elegance. These pieces are expressive without indulging in undue subjectivity. They are built with Galant vocabulary and look back more than they look forward.

For that reason, I take Mozart’s horn concertos as my foundation for the David. Mozart was, of course, much earlier than David. But, he was forward-looking, and he was the greatest Galant composer to ever live. From a practical standpoint, the popularity of these works means that every prominent horn player has performed an exquisite example of what Galant-style brass playing should sound like. If a Mozart horn concerto was played with a little more “Schubertian” freedom, it would sound very much like the David should.

David’s Concertino is a textbook example of Galant-style writing, with all the hallmarks of the Classical era. While it tests the waters of Romantic expression, it doesn’t push any boundaries so far that it would have been unrecognizable in 1790. The piece cannot support the weight of a full Romantic interpretation, but it sparkles with the grace and sophistication of 18th century nuance.