The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
©1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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It is generally assumed, though with little conclusive evidence, that the tromba marina was a direct descendant of the ancient theoretical monochord used by musical scientists for ascertaining and illustrating the correct divisions of the scale. The basis for this assumption is more logical than historical. It seems possible that an inventive amateur musician, whilst fiddling with his fiddle, could certainly have discovered the harmonic scale quite independently of any theoretical understanding, and being a practical fellow, built an instrument to make use of his discovery.
The tromba marina most probably did develop from a non-theoretical monochord that was used as a bass instrument to accompany the minstrels' songs in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. This was a plucked instrument made of three thin laths of the same general appearance as the early tromba marina, but was shorter and was stopped in the normal manner. The string was attached to the base of the instrument and reached over a conventional bridge to the tuning peg inserted into a square plate at the top (see fig.1). It was frequently fitted with two or more strings, but this did not usually alter the common name "monochord."
It appears that from the first application of a bow to this instrument in the fifteenth century, the practice of using the harmonic scale became standard (see Performance Practice).
It is unknown just when the peculiar trembling bridge was first introduced. It is clearly shown by Hans Memling (1480) in his painting of angelic musicians and in other fifteenth century sources, so it must have been in fairly common use by the end of that century. This common usage implies that the bridge must have been invented by about mid-century.
The earliest technical description we have of the tromba marina is by Glareanus. In his Dodecachordon (1530), he described the tromba marina as an instrument of the German and French street musicians dwelling near the Rhine and ascribed its invention to them. Their instrument was about five feet long and each of the three boards measured three and one half inches across at the broad end and one and a half at the top. Glareanus also mentions the addition of a single sympathetic string one half the length of the main string, "so that in endings [it] may sound the octave more strongly." In describing the trembling bridge, he says, "They have created the rattling sound by means of a certain curved bridge, whose one wider and thicker foot supports the string at the triangular base, and whose other shortened foot, to which they have affixed a solid substance made of ebony or another hard and shining material, causes this vibrating sound."
The next later description of significance is found in the Syntagma Musicum (1618), Vol, II, Plate XXI, by Praetorius. After quoting Glareanus extensively, Praetorius tells of the tromba marina as he knew it. Although he personally owned one, there is no indication that he was in the habit of playing it often, nor did he, apparently, ever instruct that it should be played in any of his musical compositions. The instrument in his possession was seven feet, three inches long, seven inches wide at the base, but hardly two inches wide at the top (see fig.2). It was spanned by four strings, turned C,c,g,c'. Praetorius states, "The upper three strings are used as drones, always sounding c,g,c'; but the actual melody is produced on the lowest string by contact with the thumb. And when this instrument is heard from a distance it sounds no other than as if four trumpets were blowing together in lovely concord. Otherwise in all respects it is the same as was indicated above by Glareanus." In this translation of Praetorius it appears possible that either the word "drones" was incorrectly translated, or that Praetorius played the additional strings as drones when they should have, or at least could have, been allowed to ring as sympathetic strings. Either way, though drones may occasionally have been used on the tromba marina, it was quite the exception to the rule.
In 1636, Marin Mersenne published in Paris his encyclopedic work, Harmonie Universelle, In it he depicts two tromba marinas. One "represents its older shape, [the other] shows the new form that has been found more comfortable and better for resounding." The only visible difference in the overall construction between the figures is that the three laths constituting the "new form" are slightly rounded on their outer surfaces. The only other major difference is that the older form carries two strings instead of one. This figure is especially significant because the second shorter string is, in this case, clearly intended to be played in the same manner as the longer string, such as whenever certain notes are required that are either not available or sound out of tune on the longer string. The shorter string is two-thirds the length of the long one, thus sounding a pitch a fifth higher. Assuming an open pitch of C,G, the slightly flat b, being the seventh degree of the C scale, is corrected by playing it as the third degree of the G scale. This brilliantly simple idea was apparently so difficult to accurately realize that it just never caught on. Mersenne is the only available source that ever mentions it.
The early sources often describe the great difficulty involved in manipulating the bridge so that it will produce just the right trumpet-like tone. If allowed too much movement, a brash rattling or snarling sound will result. Too little movement causes it to act in the manner of any conventional bridge, thereby losing all of its characteristic tone. As Mersenne expresses the frustration of all players of the tromba marina: "Thus one is often many hours in finding the point of perfection he desires." One obvious reason for much of this difficulty is the sheer distance of the bridge from the hands of the player. It was therefore impossible to adjust and bow simultaneously.
Mersenne also described the nature of the string itself: "The string imitates the tone of the military trumpet more perfectly as it is more extended, and it ought to be neither too thick nor too thin. The thickest racquet strings, that is to say those which are made of a dozen sheep guts are of good thickness."
Sometime between Mersenne's account in 1634 and a certain painting by David Teniers the Younger in 1649 (see Plate I), a major alteration in the shape of the body took place. The old triangular pyramidal structure was superceded by a large, outward-flaring body of five to seven sides, topped by a long, distinct neck. By the end of the seventeenth century, this new model of the tromba marina was brought to its ultimate point of perfection through the efforts of the instrument's last and greatest virtuoso -- Jean-Baptiste Prin.
Upon experiencing the sizable problem of trying to adjust the bridge properly, Prin applied a small amount of powdered rosin to the stable foot to prevent slippage. He then invented a remote regulator for the bridge so that it could be easily adjusted from a second peg inserted in the head.
A further innovation ascribed to Prin was the addition of a large number of wire sympathetic strings mounted within the interior of the body. In Prin's own instrument there were twenty-four such strings. Though the precise number of sympathetics varied from instrument to instrument, there were generally between eighteen and thirty, with one example carrying as many as fifty. These were made of heavy brass wire and were all tuned in unison to the great monochord. The tromba marina with this addition was differentiated by Prin by the adjective "organisée."
In his description of the tromba marina from Galpin's collection, Bessaraboff speaks of the tuning mechanism on that instrument:
Later he states:
It is unfortunate that he does not amplify this latter statement as the unusual mechanism may be seen on several late seventeenth century tromba marinas, but no other writer has apparently seen fit to mention it as developmentally important. In any case, its resemblance to the modern machine head (actually a more refined worm-gear arrangement) is only superficial.
While the usual sort of friction peg as found on the viols and lutes was more common, a relatively rare and even stranger system was occasionally used on the tromba marina. This was a vertical screw that operated in the same manner as the screw-and-eye system commonly used on modern bows. Other instruments on which this type of mechanism is normally employed are the English and Portuguese guitars (both cittern-shaped instruments, the latter presently used in the playing of fados). The major disadvantage of the vertical screw is that there is a specific point beyond which the screw can no longer be tightened. With the relatively short metal strings of the Portuguese guitar this is no great problem, But with such a long gut string as is found on the tromba marina, a great deal of stretching could be anticipated for which such a mechanism would be most unsuitable.
Thus, we have seen the development of the tromba marina from its origins as a street-musician's instrument that, as Glareanus said, "producers a more nearly agreeable tone at a distance than it does close at hand," to an instrument, though still limited by its very nature, of refinement and quality; one that would have its place at court and in the concert hall.
5. Mersenne, Marin. Harmonie Universelle, 1636, The Fourth Book of String Instruments, Proposition XII, p.277. Translated by Roger E, Chapman, 1957 (see Fig. 3).
8. See "Performance Practice, II"