The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
©1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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The tromba marina presents several problems to the contemporary musicologist in discussing performance practice. Not the least of these is, naturally, a lack of contemporary performers with firsthand experience who can answer specific questions regarding technique. And since there was at least one radical change in the form of the instrument (and, for that matter, few known examples have ever been found to be quite like any other), the performance technique would have to have been adapted to the individual instruments and according to the experience of the individual performer.
Moreover, while it is always helpful to refer to specific musical compositions that indicate a certain instrument, such compositions are decidedly, though not completely, lacking in this case. By placing an instrument within the context of a known musical style, certain inferences can be made from the evidence at hand. This method of showing "probable cause" due to circumstance has, in some cases, proved extremely valuable. But generalization tends to be dangerous and is occasionally absurd. To avoid such pitfalls this author will present the information as it appears from his research, and will suggest some of the logical possibilities that can be derived from it. Pure speculation, tempting though it may be, will be kept to a minimum.
A question arises here as it does with many early instruments: How do we know if it sounds the same to our ears as it did to those who knew it as a part of their lives? The answer is, of course, that it can't. Our musical sensibilities have been conditioned over the years to tempered scales and chromatic harmonies. Certain intervals in the natural harmonic scale sound out of tune to the modern Western ear. Complete accuracy in the performance of early music may sometimes be possible, but the experience of that music can never be entirely duplicated.
The closest we can come to such an experience is through the study of contemporary accounts. These, in conjunction with an awareness of the type of music played and the manner and circumstances in which it was performed, will give us the greatest understanding of the tromba marina and its role in the musical lives of our ancestors.
The following discussion of performance practice is, therefore, divided into three major parts. First is a presentation of the physical technique involved in producing tones on the tromba marina. Second is a consideration of some of the available musical compositions in which the tromba marina is specifically indicated and the circumstances in which they were performed. Third is a collection of contemporary accounts which describe the subjective experience of the sounds produced by the tromba marina. These areas of study are combined in a general way so that a reasonable understanding may be had of the complete experience.