The Trombone as Sacred Signifier in the Operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
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The trombone was understood during the eighteenth century and earlier in Germany as an instrument with important sacred significance. This association developed because of its appearance in German translations of the Bible by Martin Luther and Catholic theologians and its presence in encyclopedias and treatises of the period. This, along with the trombone’s vast use in church music of the period, helped it to be understood as an instrument of sacred significance by the German musical public. It was this social understanding of the sacerdotal qualities of the trombone that propelled Mozart to use the instrument in his operas Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte to enhance some of the most important sacred elements of each work. The trombone’s use by German composers in opera began with Gluck, who used the instrument mainly to double the voices of the choir and other instruments. Mozart, however, used the trombone in more innovative ways, which included borrowing compositional ideas from German church music (including his own) and incorporating them into his operatic use of the instrument. Mozart used the trombone to enhance certain moments of drama within Idomeneo, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte with specific harmonic treatment of sacerdotal sections of the text, certain dynamic and expression markings, and an emphasis on creating moments of tension and release through the harmonies used. These, along with the trombone’s understood sacred significance, aurally aided the audience in associating the moments the instrument was used in each opera as having spiritual implications in the drama.