Michael Rath, founder of Rath Trombones, explains to Kate Green why the powerful, sonorous trombone is both tricky to play and to create. Photographs by Richard Cannon.
‘The trumpet shall sound,’ begins the spine-chilling aria in Messiah, but when Mozart rewrote the orchestral parts of Handel’s masterwork, he decided that the powerful, sonorous trombone – or sackbut, as it was known until the 1700s – should be more prominent, a move that’s been debated by musicologists ever since.
The trombone is neither easy to play – it requires ‘much wind’, wrote Thomas Elyot in 1534 – nor, according to Britain’s only trombone maker, Michael Rath, easy to create, as getting the frictionless slide right is surprisingly hard.
Mr Rath, 54, played the tuba in military bands, studied musical-instrument technology and was apprenticed to the Paxman French Horn company. He set up in business in West Yorkshire repairing musical instruments and, in 1995, jazz soloist Mark Nightingale suggested he tried making them.
‘Our goal was an instrument with excellent playing characteristics, great intonation and a superior function,’ Mr Rath explains.
‘The first prototype took nearly two years; there’s been a lot of trial, error and scrap and we had tough times with cashflow, but, after about 10 years’ hard work, we got there.’
Rath Trombones – from small-bore jazz to large-bore symphonic, bass, tenor, contra-bass and alto – are handmade to individual specifications on the advice of professional musicians from as far afield as China and Canada.
Each element – bell, valves, slide, ferrules, the lathing and lacquering – is done by individual staff, many of whom play in bands, and the finished articles are heard all over the world, from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band to Berlin Opera.