Belcke, Duo Concertant for two trombones

Friedrich-August Belcke. Duo Concertant for two trombones, Op. 55. Edited by Raymond Lapie. Vuarmarens, Switzerland: The Brass Press (Editions BIM), 1999. Catalogue no. TB 50. Ca. $17.00

Friedrich-August Belcke (1795-1874) was one of the most celebrated trombone virtuosos of the first half of the nineteenth century. A member of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1815-16) and the royal court orchestra in Berlin (1816-58), he undertook many concert tours as a soloist through Germany, to Scandinavia, Holland, the Austrian Empire, and France. The Duo Concertant op. 55 is one of a number of works Belcke composed for trombone.

Belcke's Duo Concertant is in three movements: Allegro moderato, Adagio, and Rondo-Allegro. Like most of the solo trombone literature of the first half of the nineteenth century, the Duo, too, was composed for "bass" trombones, the German bass trombone of the time actually being a large-bore tenor trombone in B-flat with a mouthpiece somewhat larger than that used on tenor. This is reflected here in the ranges of the parts: F to c2 in the first trombone, F to b-flat1 in the second (with one optional E-flat). The two trombones are treated equally for the most part, with lively eighth-note triplet and sixteenth-note passages as well as the melody line being traded off between the two instruments throughout the piece. The only appreciable difference is the presence of several trills only in the first trombone part.

From the historical point of view, the Duo Concertant helps fill a gap in our knowledge of the early nineteenth-century trombone literature. While etude collections (for example, by Anton Slama, the first professor of trombone at the Vienna Conservatory) and a part of the concerto repertoire (primarily Ferdinand David's Concertino, Op. 4) have been known and available for a long time, we still know very little about small-scale ensemble works with trombone from this era. Above all, the Duo Concertant was undoubtedly intended, as its title indicates, to be played in concert. According to Fétis (Biographie Universal, s.v. "Belcke"), Belcke and a certain M. Schweizer performed an "adagio et rondeau pour deux trombones" in 1832. Conceivably, these might have been the second and third movements of the Duo Concertant.

Unfortunately, the edition of Belcke's Duo Concertante by Raymond Lapie has a number of problems. The introduction, for example, is rather a muddle; this is compounded by poor English and German translations of Lapie's French text (for example, "une édition antérieure" ["an earlier edition"] is translated as "a later edition"). Moreover, an important source for the dating of the work, the Gazette musicale de Paris vol. 1, no. 38, from 21 September 1834, is incorrectly cited as "Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris," the title that was first employed starting with the 1 November 1835 issue. This source—actually a list contained in it of "Musique nouvelle" published by Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig, and distributed by the Gazette's publisher, Schlesinger—is all the more important since it offers the earliest evidence of the intended instrumentation of "deux trombonnes de basse ou deux bassons" as well as providing the latest possible date of composition. Since the Breitkopf edition itself appears not to have survived, Lapie's source for the present edition was presumably a reprint by Richault, Paris, which specifies merely "pour deux bassons" on its title page and that was published "before 1841," a date that Lapie illogically assigns to the work as a whole.

The introduction states that "The original score ['partition originale']. . . . Though originally published as separate parts, both have been brought together ['réunies,' lit. 'reunited'] for this edition." This is of course nonsense! First, there is no "original score." Second, what is meant is merely that the Richault edition consists of two individual parts, and that the present edition made from those parts is in score form. With which we arrive at the next shortcoming of this edition: the choice of score form. Printing this piece in score has made necessary a number of mid-movement page turns: two in the first movement, a nearly impossible one for the second trombone in the slow movement, and two more in the third movement. For a practical edition this is rather impractical. The publisher would have been better advised to offer a score and two separate parts. (The parts of the Richault edition make do with just one page turn each in the first movement.)

The transcription of the source also leaves much to be desired. Particularly annoying are the many accents, printed both above and below the notes in the original, that have been transcribed as decrescendo marks. The theme of the first movement, for instance, is an assertive forte phrase that recurs a number of times and is almost inevitably followed by a "dolce" passage. By misinterpreting the accent on the first (half) note of the theme as a decrescendo, the editor has each time effectively negated the intended contrast between the "forte" and "dolce." Moreover, many original crescendo and decrescendo marks are incorrectly placed and often elongated (it is not unusual, for example, to find a small crescendo-decrescendo under two eight notes stretched out here over two or three quarter notes). The placement of performance markings in general is haphazard, with those from the second trombone part sometimes being inexplicitly placed under the first trombone part, between the two staves. There are also a number of engraving issues, including slurs colliding with and obliterating other markings, an incorrectly notated pick-up eighth note (written in a full bar otherwise filled with rests) at the opening of the last movement, incorrectly notated first and second repeats in the last movement, etc.

While not a great work of art, Belcke's Duo Concertant is certainly an effective composition of moderate difficulty and, at the very least, of historical interest. Lapie's edition does not do justice to it and cannot be recommended.

---Howard Weiner