Notes from composer John Stevens

It was indeed an honor to be commissioned by such an august consortium of bass trombonists, led by my friend and colleague Alan Carr, to compose the Sonata for Bass Trombone and Piano.  Having already composed and published sonatas with piano for tenor trombone, trumpet and horn, as well as concertos for tuba and euphonium with piano versions, the opportunity to add the bass trombone to this group and complete my cycle of works for the major orchestral and wind band brass instruments with piano was an exciting prospect. 

The launch of the project coincided with the passing of one of the great icons of the low brass world, longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist Edward Kleinhammer.  The members of the consortium and I were in complete agreement that it would be most appropriate to dedicate this work to him.  I only met Ed once, but like all low brass players of my generation, I grew up revering his playing and all he did to raise the profile of the bass trombone as an important instrument in its own right.  I consider it to be a particularly special honor to be asked to compose a work in his memory.

The bass trombone has been a very important instrument to me since my undergraduate days at the Eastman School of Music.  I began my studies as a tubist there with bass trombonist Donald Knaub, and I also had the good fortune to spend my entire four years at Eastman sitting next to bass trombonist Art Linsner in orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, studio orchestra and a very active brass quintet.  Developing ourselves into a cohesive, low brass unit on a daily basis in so many diverse musical contexts was a musical and personal joy, as well as being an invaluable educational experience.  I happily recalled those days often as I was composing this work.

As with my earlier sonatas, this work is in the classic fast-slow-fast, three movement form, and is very much a chamber work for bass trombone and piano, rather than being a solo with piano accompaniment.  The goal of all my brass sonatas is to portray the capabilities of power, beauty, agility and musicality of the brass instrument in dialogue with a piano part that is interesting and meaningful to the mood of the work beyond just an accompanying role.  Music for me is about color, texture, mood, motion, emotion, direction, and, above all, the energy created through the creation and release of tension.  There is one particular element of writing for the bass trombone that separates this work form the others.  While the other brass instruments, even the tuba, often create their most climactic moments by soaring into the upper register, a bass trombonist (like a bass vocalist) is anxious to show off the low end of the idiomatic range.  I endeavored to keep that in mind as I created the moods and energies of this work.

The first movement has a slow introduction that serves to introduce the sound and color of the bass trombone in juxtaposition with the high end of the piano.  This leads to an Allegro with a great deal of rhythmic drive (typical of my music) that features primarily the power and agility of the bass trombone.  The energy continues to build until the pace slows to a solo trombone cadenza (like a monologue in a play) that precedes the most energetic (perhaps even manic) section of the movement.  A return to some of the opening material brings the movement to a slow and soft conclusion that serves as a bridge to the next movement.

The second movement is the portion of the piece most directly associated with the dedication to Edward Kleinhammer.  I was made aware that one of his very favorite orchestral works was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (The Resurrection), so I elected to use material from that work for this memorial part of the sonata.  In the short, fourth movement of his symphony, Mahler employed an alto vocalist singing a beautiful song from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, the text of which illuminates the longing for relief from worldly woes.  It seemed appropriate to use this vocal line, with a number of small rhythmic alterations, as the basis for this movement.  I even kept it in the original, somber key of Db major.  Using original keys is rarely a concern for me, but in this case it seemed ideally suited to the right sound and mood for the bass trombone.  The piano “accompaniment” is completely different, and very unlike, the Mahler, resulting in a kind of “fantasy” on the Wunderhorn song.  It is my hope that the music is perceived as having a simple reverence and recollective nature with a solemn quality to honor Ed’s passing, yet a beauty to celebrate his life.

The third movement is intended to create an energetic, agile, fast-paced finale that relentlessly brings the work home in exciting fashion.  Once again, there is a pause for a trombone cadenza prior to the last hurrah.  This solo passage reiterates the opening material of the first movement.  In addition to that being a structural component of the work, it is also intended as a reminder of the cyclical nature of life.  Though Ed Kleinhammer is no longer with us, his personal and musical legacy lives on.

-John Stevens




The Kleinhammer Sonata was made possible by the generous support of a consortium of bass trombonists. The following bass trombonists are contributing members of the commissioning consortium, the first of its kind:

Alan Carr (lead), Bates College

Zachary Bond, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra

Dennis Bubert, Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra and University of Texas-Arlington

John Engelkes, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Matthew Guilford, National Symphony Orchestra

Randall Hawes, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Brian Hecht, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Gabriel Langfur, Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Boston University

James Markey, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Steve Norrell, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

Gerry Pagano, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

Nick Schwartz, New York City Ballet Orchestra


The Kleinhammer Sonata is published by Potenza Music and is available for purchase through their website HERE.