CONCERTO FOR TROMBONE AND ORCHESTRA
Though the Trombone Concerto, written for Christian Lindberg between February and September 1995, is my fourth concerto (Concerto for Soprano Saxophone - Where the Bee Dances (1991) for John Harle; The Piano Concerto (1992), for Kathryn Stott; two-piano version for Katia and Marielle Labèque; Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings (1995) for Elisabeth Chojnacka), it is the first where it is possible to perceive the relationship between soloist and orchestra as a dramatic narrative.
The background to the concerto - apart from Christian Lindberg's virtuosity and welcome sense of showmanship - is a long essay by the Marxist historian, the late E.P. Thompson entitled 'Rough Music', which has been haunting me for some years and which the Trombone Concerto has partially helped to exorcise. Thompson defines Rough Music as 'the term which has been generally used in England since the end of the 17th century to denote a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery against individuals who offended against certain community norms'. This cacophony was usually produced by 'a band of motley musicians, beating a fearsome tattoo on old buckets, frying pans, kettles and tin cans.
The Concerto draws on the imagery of such practices in a confrontation of metal and wood versus metal and wood: the trombonist/offender has his constant support system of the brass and string sections which are persistently and vigorously opposed by metal percussion and woodwind, who always hunt in packs (apart from the rare occasions when the bassoons attempt to invade the trombonist's space). Initially the metal percussion are tuned and benign but become increasingly hostile and untuned.
The Concerto proceeds through a series of short musical cul-de-sacs in which the soloist may get trapped or from which he may escape (and which lay down thematic, rhythmic or harmonic 'trails' that are pursued erratically throughout the work) until the trombonist asserts his authority with a longer jig-like sequence (most keeping with the 'country' rather than 'city' context of Rough Music).
This Concerto was commissioned by the BBC for the 300th Anniversary of the death of Purcell. In homage to the composer whose music first found its way into my scores with THE DRAUGHTSMAN'S CONTRACT in 1983, it seemed appropriate in a concerto for trombone to quote from Purcell's brass music. Accordingly, the five cadences from the Funeral Music for Queen Mary appear three times: first backed by gongs and tamtams on pulsing woodwind 'attacking' a trombone solo; second, on trumpets and trombones which the pulsing woodwind attempt to (chromatically) annihilate, and finally as the backing to potent string scales over which the soloist is melodically triumphant. This mood of triumphalism is immediately broken by the three percussionists beating out a football-derived chant (QPR v Newcastle, 1994-95 season - "COME - ON - YOU - Rs") on metal filing cabinets. This pulse (usually at odds rhythmically from the rest of the orchestra) drives the final minutes of the Concerto till the trombonist finds himself in the same sentimental corner he was in at the beginning - a brief moment of respite before another session of pursuit perhaps…but the woodwind are still stalking, and the steel drums have infiltrated his tune….
© Michael Nyman