The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
©1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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Part Three: Contemporaneous Accounts
We have seen some examples of how the tromba marina was played and what music was played on it. The final aspect of performance practice may be termed "audience reaction." The ultimate goal of any musical practice is music as the experience of sound. Our previous discussions have mentioned the fact that the tromba marina rarely been heard in an authenticated public performance since about 1750. This represents an obvious problem to the modern student. While a great deal of information can be known about an instrument and the music it plays, without the first-hand experience of its actual sound a major gap in our understanding of that instrument will remain. In order to fill that gap, we must either find such an instrument and learn to play it, or at least rely on historical accounts by those people who were there to hear it when it was played.
Circumstances force this author to rely on the latter alternative. There is not a plethora of detailed commentary in the historical sources in this respect. But of the few items currently available, it may be said that there are basically two categories of opinion: the enthusiastic and the ridiculous. While a fair majority is of the former camp, there are enough of the latter to merit consideration. What follows is an annotated collection of audience reactions to the sound experience of the tromba marina.
Glareanus said, "I had to laugh at this device of men. The instrument produces a more nearly agreeable tone at a distance than it does close at hand." Glareanus' comments are not entirely derogatory. Upon personal inspection of one of the street musicians' instruments, he discovered that the main defect lay in the players rather than in the instrument. "At length I found that they had difficulty partly because of inexperience in musical matters, since they do not know how to divide the spaces with other than a thick finger." Furthermore, one would not necessarily find it insulting to say that a natural trumpet, because of its volume, also sounds better at a distance. And in this respect Mersenne says, "It imitates the tones and the songs of the ordinary trumpet so well that there is almost no means of distinguishing the one from the other." And Randle Holmes tells us: "Those that are skilled in playing upon it, they will counterfeit the sound of any kind of music, whether wind or stringed Instruments; principally all sorts of the sounding of a Trumpett."
The trumpet tone is the most common reference to the sound of the tromba marina. In addition to those mentioned, Praetorius says: "And when this instrument is heard from a distance it sounds no other than as four trumpets were blowing together in lovely concord," while Leopold Mozart expresses the more dubious impression, "thus causing the string when bowed to give forth a harsh, rattling tone like that of a trumpet." In more precise terms, Grassineau says in his Dictionary, "It is the trembling of the bridge when struck that makes it imitate the sound of the trumpet, which it does to that perfection, that it is scarce possible to distinguish one from the other."
The use of sympathetic strings on the tromba marina raised further comment. Randle Holmes says, "The [three] .wiers give an echo to the great string when it is played on, to great admiration," while we have seen Samuel Pepys's admiring reaction, though he was not shown how it was done, to the echoing sounds of Prin's instrument.
There are two significant references to the tromba marina in the dramatic literature. The English dramatist and poet Thomas Shadwell (ca.1642 - 1692) wrote a scene in The Miser (1672) in which the title-character includes in his security for an advance to a needy client "a Bolonia lute, a Roman archlute, two gittars, a cremona violin, one lyra viol, one viol de gambo and a trump marin." Whether the last item is intended to praise its worthiness to stand among such a fine collection of instruments, or to show the greediness of the Miser in demanding even the least of his client's possessions, is not clear. The other reference is from Moliére's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, written just two years earlier. At the beginning of Act II we find M. Jourdain in the process of being convinced by the Music Master that he should part with a portion of his newfound wealth so that he might appear highly cultured among the upper class. As usual, Moliére's comic character is a gullible fool, which fact is expressed by the following excerpt:
Music Master: Incidentally, sir, you should go farther. A person like you, doing things in a big way, and with a taste for the finer things in life, should have a musicale at home every Wednesday or Thursday.
M. Jourdain: Do people of quality have that?
M.M.: Yes, sir.
M.J.: I'll have it, then. It will be nice, will it?
M.M.: Certainly. You will need three voices: a soprano, a countertenor, and a basso; they will be accompanied by a bass viol, a theorbo or archlute, and a harpsichord for the sustained bass, with two violins to play the refrains.
M.J.: You ought to put in a tromba marina, too. The tromba marina is an instrument I like; it's harmonious.
M.M.: Just let us arrange things.
In response to Moliére, Prin wrote in his Memoire:
Pardonnes amour propre, if the instrument had been generally as well played as I, it would not have been abandoned, and if M. de Moliére had heard me holding my part with the best orchestral players in France he would have acknowledged that he was "le bourgeois gentilhomme" in ridiculing it.
The older type of tromba marina was pronounced "nazard" (snarling) by Prin, though his own master must have played on such an instrument. Much earlier, Virdung and Agricola both called it "unnutz" (useless), and later Dr. Frykeland would suggest "Kratsscheit" (scraping log) as an opprobrious name for it. And as seen in the absurd example of tablature in the musical examples, there was no lack of imagination among those who found the tromba marina a humorous curiosity.
Prin understood such comments and worked diligently to prove that the tromba marina could be a serious orchestral and solo instrument.
His musical soul naturally rebelled against the 'knockings' and 'scrapings' which the listeners had to endure, so .he immediately set himself to find a remedy and, in the end, claimed perfection 'puisque j'ai trouve le moyen de luy donner la force d'une trompette de bouche, le douceur d'une flute et l'harmonie d'un clavecin.
There is only one recent source that deals with the actual sound of the tromba marina. Nicholas Bessaraboff in his excellent and massive catalog of the instrument collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts describes his experiments with the Museum's tromba marina, which was once a treasured part of Galpin's own collection.
When the bridge is properly placed and the string tension is delicately balanced with respect to the mass of the bridge, the sounds become surprisingly clear and loud; the timbre becomes so similar to that of the trumpet and the whole effect is so startling that it must be heard to be believed.
The tones playable on our tromba marina and having an acceptable "trumpety" quality of tone, with the string tuned to C, are as follows: C,c,g,c',e',g' (b' flat), c", (d"; e", f", g"). The open string sounds with a snarling resonance; the b' flat, as on the trumpet or horn, is out of tune with the tempered scales; the safe limit on the Museum's instrument is c": above that the nodal points come too close together and the sound loses its force and its trumpety quality.
We can conclude from these various comments about the sound of the tromba marina that the tone quality depended about equally upon the player and the instrument. It may be possible that Bessaraboff could have produced a better tone in the upper range had he spent more time with the instrument or perhaps modified the bridge in some way. Prin's works for the instrument clearly indicate that the higher notes were attainable. But he was a master of the instrument, and his own tromba marina (see Fig.16) had a string length of 173.2 cm. as compared to the Boston Museum's instrument's 150cm. The longer string would undoubtedly make the playing of the higher harmonics more certain. And, as was shown in the part of this chapter dealing with technique, the thickness of the player's thumb and fingers in relation to the length of the string may have a bearing on the upper limit of a given instrument's range.
We have also seen the various social contexts in which the tromba marina was heard. Its common usage seems to have moved from the street, to the royal court, to the concert hall, back to the street (probably in an altered form), and finally into oblivion. And its brief moments of glory were almost entirely the result of the genius, dedication, and ego of a single virtuoso.