Alto Clef Trombones

Is anyone here on the forum knowledgeable about late 19th century trombone usage?

Late Romantic composers such as Dvorak and Elgar often wrote for three trombones, of which two were notated in Alto Clef and the other one in Bass Clef. Amateur Orchestras in the US tend to perform these on two tenor trombones for the two alto-clef parts, and one F-attachment instrument for the bass trombone part.

I have two questions: 1. Would professional orchestras in the late 1800s have done the same thing, or would they have performed the two upper trombone parts on actual Alto Trombones?, and 2. Do most modern day tenor trombonists also read Alto Clef fluently?

Thanks for any feedback you can give. (I used to be a trombonist myself, about 60 years ago, but not a good one, and with no knowledge of classical instrumentation practices.)

The parts would have been written to be performed on an Eb pitched Alto.
However, in the early 1900s, it was already common to play alto parts on the tenor.

It is not usual for a modern trombonist to read alto clef, but a pro would certainly manage it.

Another aspect is that Dvorak was probably writing for a valve trombone…

In my unfortunate experience, there is nothing much worse than hearing someone trying to play the first trombone part of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on a modern tenor trombone, and failing to reach the top f!

Alban Berg required the alto instrument in his Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6; but an editor who “knew better” changed the part to tenor clef in the published version, while admtting in the foreword to the score that the alto instrument might be needed for the “exorbitantly” high notes…


Actually, the first would be notated in alto clef, the second in tenor clef (which looks the same but has the “belt” on another line), and the third in bass clef. This would also mean that the first would have been played on an alto trombone, the second on a tenor trombone, and the third on a tenorbass trombone (a tenor trombone with F attachment), nowadays on a bass trombone.

While it might be somewhat common for today’s trombone players to be able to read tenor clef (if they are classically trained) it’s pretty uncommon except for professionals to read alto clef. But even tenor clef is quite an exception nowadays and you can’t expect regular amateurs to sight-read stuff written in tenor clef. (However, it’s a matter of practice, so people will get used to it if they just have to read it. :smiley:)

For those that are interested, here’s some interesting historical information on trombones in the orchestra:

In most professional orchestras (at least in the US), the part will be played on an alto trombone. Not only is it more idiomatic, but it makes the player eligible to receive doubling pay!

Also, see Mozart’s Requiem, which uses three trombones in three different clefs (and absolutely requires an alto trombone for the top part).


In Elgar’s Enigma Variations and in Dvorak’s 7th Symphony the first two trombones are BOTH notated in alto clef. The third is in bass clef. As I stated in my original post.

All Mozart’s masses are written that way, since conventionally, absent an independent part, the instruments double/reinforce the choral altos, tenors and basses, who were also written in the same clefs by Mozart. Even when there are no trombone parts in the score, the instruments were expected to play along with the lower choral voices. (Perhaps a rather unsubtle way of keeping an under-rehearsed choir on track!)

In those days, the trombone was exclusively associated with religious (or at least spiritual) music. Note Mozart’s employment of the instrument in Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte.