The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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The term "tromba marina" is used by the author throughout this paper, not because that is the precise and correct name for the instrument, but because it is the one most widely used in the English language. "Trumpet marine" is the anglicized version of the French "trompette marine," According to the rules of French grammar "marine" is an adjective characterizing the noun, "trompette." Why the usual reversal of adjective and noun, thus making it "marine trumpet" in English, was not generally adopted, is unknown.

The earliest illustrations of the tromba marina are found in S. Virdung's Musica Getutscht (1511), Agricola's Musica instrumentalis deudsch (1528, 1529), and in precise detail in Glareanus' Dodecachordon (1530). The earlier two, writing in German, called the instrument "Trumscheit," which term is used in that language to this day; and Glareanus apparently latinized it as "Tympanischiza." This last is explained by the assumption that the first syllable of "Trumscheit" was derived from an old German form of the word "Trommel," meaning  drum, while "-schiza" was as close to "-scheit" as Glareanus' imagination could attain. The more accurate etymology of "Trumscheit" (or "Trumbscheit") is probably from the word "Tromba," or "Trumba"-- a trumpet (compare the old German "Trummete" for "Trompete" and "krumhorn" for "krumbhorn"). The suffix "-scheit" may simply refer to the fact that the instrument is made of wood. The word is translated in the Harvard Dictionary of Music as "drum-log," apparently derived, as with Glareanus, from "Trommel" because of the percussive action of the vibrating bridge. In German, "Trumscheit" was occasionally also known as '"Trompetengeige" meaning trumpet-fiddle.

From this earliest evidence of the tromba marina it may be concluded that the instrument probably originated in Germany or France, for Glareanus states that it was used by the common folk dwelling near the Rhine. However, there is evidence that it may have been brought there from Slavic regions. Since it was a fairly common instrument in Glareanus' time, and was then in its completely developed early form, it may be assumed that it must have been invented sometime earlier -- probably by the late fifteenth century.

As with the English horn, which is neither English nor a horn, the tromba marina is neither a trumpet nor marine in any nautical sense. While the term "trumpet" is easily understood when applied to the instrument because of its remarkably trumpet-like tone, there is much speculation as to the descriptive term "marine." One explanation is that it was used by sailors as a signaling instrument, or, more likely, that it resembled a large speaking trumpet used aboard Italian vessels, which is of similar length and shape and bears that name (Ital. "tromba marina"). The prime evidence for this latter conclusion is presented in P. Bonanni's Descrizione degl' Instrumenti Armonici (Rome, 1776) which shows (Plate 99) an illustration of the signaling instrument and is labeled "Tromba marina." Within the same volume is illustrated our own tromba marina with an identical caption.

In his Memoire, Prin attributes the spread of the tromba marina

…to the Dutch and English pupils at the German universities who had taken it into use in their own countries, playing it upon their ships and making it heard in the different harbours in which they anchored. The French sailors, surpassing their neighbours in execution, the name "marine" was given to it; but they did not confine it to the sea: on the rivers, in forests castles, country houses and often in towns it was played.

Most other sources agree, however, that there is little substantial supporting evidence to indicate any direct relationship of the instrument to any nautical matters whatsoever.

Another explanation, of obscure origin, is the apparently unsubstantiated claim that the tromba marina was once used in certain convents in which male trumpeters would not be allowed. It is said by some that the term "tromba marina" is a corruption of "tromba mariana," or "trumpet of the Virgin Mary," whence it is sometimes called in German "Nonnengeige," or "Nun's fiddle." Galpin offers this explanation among others without further comment, though his discussion is accompanied by a photograph7 of a man in clerical garb playing upon a tromba marina and bearing the caption: "An Ecclesiastical Instrument." Since the instrument shown is obviously the one from Galpin's own collection, and since Galpin was himself a cleric, it may be assumed that the photograph is, indeed, Galpin. However, it seems the publisher caught the casual reference to the use of the instrument in convents, saw the photograph of a cleric playing it, and assumed that it was used specifically for church music. There is no indication that Galpin agreed with that assumption, and elsewhere he calls the argument "most improbable."

Other opinion in this matter is fairly split. Carl Engel, G. Kinsky, and the Harvard Dictionary all state matter-of-factly that the tromba marina was used by nuns, and H. Panum says the instrument "was retained longest in the German nunneries, where it was still being used in the nineteenth century to replace the real trumpet." Gerald Hayes, on the other hand, states firmly, "But there are only shadowy grounds for supposing that it was used in convents." Without specific evidence to support such a conclusion, it is here presented as a possibility to be investigated further.

Galpin's favorite explanation for the term "marine" is that it may well have been named for a famous French trumpeter from the latter half of the fifteenth century whose name was Marin or Maurin and who, says Galpin, either designed or inspired the invention of the trembling bridge. This conclusion is completely undocumented and this author has yet to find any other reference to the name Marin.

Panum quotes Sachs when he said, "The 'Trompet marin' in Poland was called "Tub maryna,' and that 'maryna' in the modern colloquial Polish language means a bass viol. As 'Tub' means trumpet, the Polish name thus corresponds to the German 'Trompetengeige'" The possibility that the name "tromba marina" originated in Poland is further supported by the use of the term "Tubalcana" around 1460 by Paulus Paulinus, who was then teaching in Cracow, to describe the instrument.

The other names given the tromba marina are mostly English corruptions of the usual term. When, in the mid-seventeenth century, a certain popularity was given the instrument in England, instruction books were written (of which no authentic examples are known to be extant) for the "mock trumpet" or "molk trumpet." Variations of "trump marin" and "trompet marin" are also found,


1. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Fifth edition, 1954. Entry: "tromba marina," p 572.

2. Ibid.

3. Apel, Willi; Harvard Dictionary of Music; second edition, 1969. Entry: "Tromba marina," p. 869.

4. See L. Mozart's A Treatise on the Fundamental principles of Violin Playing

5, See H. Pantun's Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages, trans. by Jeffrey Pulver, 1939.

6. Prin, J.-B.; Memoire sur la trompette marine, Lyon, 1742. Quoted by F. W. Galpin, in article, Monsieur Prin and his tromba marina, Music and Letters, vol.XIV, no. 1, January 1933.

7. Galpin, F.W.; Old English Instruments of Music,l9ll. (See Pl.IV).

8. See Bessaraboff, no, 292, end Plate IV.

9. Galpin, F. W.; Music and Letters, vol. XIV, no.1, p.22.

10. Panum, H.; Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages, p. 260.

11. Hayes, Gerald R.; Musical Instruments and their Music. vol. II, p. 225fn., London, 1930.