Friday, January 8, 2021

German Symphony Trombone by Holton 1915

Here is a rare bird, a "German" trombone made by an American firm, Holton, in 1915.  Some orchestra conductors in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century were asking for bigger trombone sounds to suit their tastes and literature, and nothing makes big sounds like big instruments.  German-made trombones of the time, often having a wider bore and larger bell than equivalents from French, English, and American makers, thus came into use.  At first, these instruments were carried to the U.S. by immigrants and copied in small numbers (ie: Lehnert, Moennig, Martin).  Later, as demand increased, they were imported, branded by the maker (ie: Penzel, Heckel, Schopper) or by the distributor (Wunderlich).  Without a doubt there was a growing call for this instrument, and Frank Holton Co. of Chicago would offer the type as a domestically-produced option.

Looks like business

Holton "Special" trombones were produced in multiple sizes, the largest, #6 "large" bore with 8-1/2 inch bell, being offered as early as 1904 (Holton Harmony Hints 1/1).  These instruments were recommended as "especially well-adapted for bass trombone in band."  Endorsements by members of Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony are printed in Holton literature as early as 1911 (H.H.H. 8/8), encompassing tenor and bass trombonists and conductors.  At that time it was claimed "The Holton German Symphony Model is the only American-made trombone that has made good in the principal symphony orchestras."  L.S. Kenfield, bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony, endorses this instrument built with "F" attachment.  In a 1924 Holton catalog the F attachment is listed as an option for $25.

In Exposition Year Catalog of Holton Band Instruments (1915), the "Special Symphony Model" is listed as having a #6 bore and sold for $48 in brass finish without a case.  It is presumed that the present instrument is that model or a variation thereof.  It is unknown what relation the "German Symphony Model" of 1911 has to this "Special Symphony Model" of 1915, but one could surmise that anti-German sentiment in the years running up to WW1 had been considered by the marketing department.

BSO members around 1920.  Carl Hampe's instrument is clearly visible;
it has a wide slide, and his right hand is resting on the tuning slide brace.

This horn was made in Chicago, Illinois, USA.  It plays in Bb, modern pitch, is built with a dual .530/.559-inch bore, and has a 9-inch lightweight bell.  Abandoned from the traditional German model are the wide, floating slide, and cork barrels with springs (it is interesting to note that modern orchestral trombones have wide slides with cork barrels, and sometimes springs).  A wide nickel garland on the bell is occasionally added by German makers; this horn does not have one.  Also, the often-outrageous nickel snake decorations on the bell and slide bows have been dropped in favor of small knobs.  Additions to the traditional model include a tuneable slide, a lead pipe/receiver, and a spit valve (in all fairness, some of these features were also appearing on German-made instruments of the time).  There is no bell nut or slide lock; you must hold the horn together with your left hand at all times.

no snakes


The mouthpiece is not original; it is a (fairly) modern Mirafone E56 with a medium shank.  This is not the "euro" shank as found on British and Willson euphoniums; it is slightly smaller and longer, for Mirafone eufoniums.  Fortunately, it seems a good match for this instrument; besides having the correct taper, it is reasonably wide and deep like you would expect of a orchestral mouthpiece.

The slide goes in-and-out alright, I guess, for an old horn, maybe I would rate it a 5/10 for playability, and of course it could be improved with a slide job, but even then it will have one main, glaring, terrifying, fatal, flaw:  it doesn't stay connected to the bell.  The huge, tall, heavy, bell, with no nut, and no counterweight, and a taper that only overlaps about an inch, will. not. stay. attached. to. the. slide.  You put the horn together, and it seems tight, but it's not, it slips.  You screw it on tighter next time and you think it might be OK, and it comes loose.  Surprise!  Right before your big entrance.  You have to keep your thumb on the bell brace at all times, or it falls off your shoulder KLANG onto the floor.  It waggles loose while you're maneuvering the slide back in from long positions.  Pick it up off your trombone stand and it closes KLINK on the slide and leaves a dent.  Indeed, as I look at the slide closely I see a bunch of parallel dents, some ironed-out, extending along the top of the outer slide, from bell-position back, from this fun folding action.  

left:  period German slide (.551/.551); wide and long, with a generous tenon
right:  Holton slide (.530/.559); narrow, with a dinky tenon

But there's more; the slide is narrow, so you have little leverage over that big bell.  It hurts your entire left arm to hold the instrument; it's tipping over, pulling forward, falling apart, and hurting your wrist, and your shoulder is tired, and your thumb is going to sleep, and your fingers are cramped together so they don't get bitten, and that slide, arg.  KLANK.  This may be how the horn has survived for one hundred and five years; it's barely playable, really.  Only by the slimmest chance it hasn't been thrown out a window.

Two 1915 Holton trombones

How does it play?  The sound, it has it; heroic, wide, projecting, prone to over-volume.  A full, robust, tenor voice.  High notes are playable but precarious.  Soft passages have a miraculous, airy sound when you can get the notes to speak; despite the thinness of the brass and light bracing, the huge bell seems to take a moment to start up, so it is not the most "responsive."  You have to think a little ahead to play in time.  And there is a panicky quality to the sound as you play louder; the instrument is resistant, so you have to play super-focused otherwise the sound get chiffy and every third note splits.  It improves with practice, as usual, and certainly a more-refined mouthpiece would also help.  I like to play some Wagner excerpts on a horn like this, also Mahler.  When playing the Mahler 3d Symphony "sentimental" solo on a period horn (this and ACTUAL German instruments), I discovered: playing the final notes (B-b-F) you can't get the slide from seventh to fourth and then back to sixth, Etwas Drangend, without completely disrupting your face and turning it into a splat-chiff-claaaaaaam.  We in 2020 are accustomed to perfect slides, but with an instrument of the time the maneuver is barely possible, mechanically; once you are in seventh you have to stay in seventh until there is a space to move.  The passage must be played in positions 7-7-6.  Mahler likely knew these three notes had to be played a certain way, which gave the passage a certain sound: terror, desperation, abandon, finality?  What are those three notes, what do they mean?  Try it this way with your modern horn (7-7-6), and you'll know something new about how it can sound.  The low range is very nice on this horn, big and round, with pedal notes that are easy to fake.

This promising but rather clumsy first effort showed the way for manufacturers of post-WWI years, as Holton, Olds, King, York, Martin, and others offered large USA-built tenor instruments.  Evolution took its course, and with refinements to tuning, ergonomics, and mechanics, ultimately there developed a modern American type of orchestral tenor, typified by Conn 8H and Bach 42.

left: German tenor trombone, anonymous ca. 1900
center: Holton Symphony, 1915
right: Bach/Shires 42, 1983

left:  Holton Symphony
right: Bach 42

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