The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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Part One: Technique

Part Two: Context

Part Three: Contemporaneous Accounts

The next step on this diversion from the gradus ad Parnassum is the consideration of musical context. While the above discussion of technique showed what could be performed upon the tromba marina and in what manner, there are here seen some examples of what music actually was performed and the social context in which it was heard.

In addition to a critical listing of works known, or at least suspected, to have been written specifically for the tromba marina, a certain amount of historical information is presented in order that the reader understand the works, not only as musical compositions, but also as social events. An excellent example of this dual viewpoint in respect to the tromba marina is found in Canon Galpin's marvelous article in Music and Letters entitled Monsieur Prin and his tromba marina. This is by far the best paper written regarding the instrument as played by history's only virtuoso who is known by name. Prin was a master performer and a fairly prolific composer. It is for these reasons that Galpin's article is relied upon as the primary source regarding the ultimate performance context of the instrument.

It has been a daunting task for musicologists to determine what musical instruments may have been used for what compositions before the eighteenth century. In many cases works were written for a given number of "voices" (treble, alto, tenor, bass, etc.) and could be played by any instrument whose range, matched the music. This was especially common among the various "consort" groups such as the viols, recorders, crummhorns, and so on. Other instrumentation is occasionally deducible by idiom. Thus it is possible to differentiate between a piece for organ and one for virginal, though not always between one for virginal and one for clavichord. Since the tromba marina is idiomatically quite similar to the natural trumpet, it is conceivable that certain fanfares and other idiomatic trumpet pieces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may have been performed on the tromba marina. Unfortunately, there has been so little scholarly research done in this respect that there are virtually no specific examples from this period of time with which such speculation has been made. 

A curious statement in the Harvard Dictionary of Music represents the earliest work in which the tromba marina is said to appear. It is there stated, "The tenor marked 'Trompette' in Pierre Fontaine's chanson J'ayme bien celui (c. 1400) was probably written for the tromba marina." Aside from the fact that the trembling bridge had probably not yet been invented (that being the one factor causing the trumpet-like tone), in studying Aubrey's article, the part in question is actually marked "Contra Tenor Trompette" and is transcribed in the bass clef in the key of d minor with a diatonic range from D to d". It may be clearly seen, based on information given previously, that in order to obtain a full two octaves in the minor mode by equal divisions on a single string, one would be approaching the fiftieth division. For the piece to be playable, then, the instrument would require a string-length of roughly ten times that of our previous example, or, about 50 feet. Even assuming an instrument with two strings tuned an octave apart, the lower pitched string would require a mass of more than 4.5 times that of our example, because of the part's bass range. In any case, the tromba marina was almost certainly not in a stage of development nearly equal to the task. It is not known how the author of the Harvard article made his assumption. In his discussion of the chanson, Aubry indicates that the "Contra Tenor Trompette" part may actually have been intended for a stringed instrument, citing Agricola's "bass Geige da braccio" and a curious reference to Praetorius' "tuba minor."

From this rather disappointing start, we jump abruptly into the seventeenth century during which two verifiable examples were produced. The first is given by Galpin and is no less than a sonata for tromba marina (originally in D) by Don Lorenzo de Castro. Galpin transcribes the four movement sonata in C without comment. No source is given, no date other than "seventeenth century" nor any other background information is presently available. This author would find it eminently reassuring to find a single reference in any source to the name de Castro. All the standard sources and biographical dictionaries have been consulted to no avail. We must, for now, take Canon Galpin's word that it is authentic and study it from a purely musical standpoint.

The first movement is a three-part "toccata" (presumably in the sense of a brass fanfare) marked adagio-allegro-adagio. In keeping with the extreme brevity of the entire piece, this movement is a mere eight-and-one-half measures in length. The second movement allegro is fourteen measures, including the repeat of the first five measures, The third movement aria takes up a full thirty measures, including repeats, and uses the available f# in its harmonic alternations between tonic and dominant. The last movement is a minuet of thirty-two measures consisting of two repeated eight-bar phrases. This piece is schematically represented: I. aba, II. aab, III, aab, IV. aabb.

The major interest this piece holds is the strict adherence to the pitches clearly available on a tromba marina tuned to C (in transcription), Its range encompasses the entire comfortable range of the instrument: c' to a". The confinement to the major triad between c' and c" and the rare use or large intervals above c" are idiomatic to the tromba marina. While not especially unusual musically, the sonata represents the best example available of the kind and quality of music written during the period when the tromba marina reached its apex of development and formal usage.

The first work for which a fair amount of detail is known concerning the social context of performance is found in Francois Cavalli's Xerxes. The opera was first performed near Venice in 1654 and later in Paris. The Paris performance took place in the high gallery of the Louvre on 29 November 1660, on the occasion of the marriage of Louis XIV. All that is presently known of the opera is that there was a musical entree in five parts with two solo tromba marinas. Since it is a nautical scene "for sailors playing tromba marinas," it is clear that Cavalli associated the name with the sea, as was fairly common in those days (see appendix III, no.2).

Around the turn of the eighteenth century the tromba marina became common in England, possibly the direct result of J.B. Prin's efforts. In 1699 an advertisement in a publisher's list promoted:

A Second Book for the new instrument called the Mock Trumpet: containing a variety of Trumpet tunes, ayres, marches, and minuets, made purposely for that instrument with Instructions for Learners; also several first and second Trebles for two Trumpets.

No copies of this or any "first book" has yet been found. Such home-tutors were quite common for many instruments, such as the viol, lute, and virginal. The English people were devoted music-lovers, and such recreation constituted a major activity among the burgeoning leisure class. Virtually any new musical item could be easily marketed, It is therefore surprising that few more details can be found of the place of the tromba marina among the English amateurs.

There are, however, two significant items in this respect. First, is an entry in Samuel Pepys's diary for 24 October 1667, upon meeting by chance the young J.-B. Prin:

To Charing Cross, there to see Polichinelli, But it being begun, we in to see a Frenchman at the house where my wife's father last lodged, one Monsieur Prin, play on the trump-marine, which he do beyond belief: and the truth is it do so far out-do a trumpet as nothing more, and he do play anything very true; and it is most admirable and at first was a mystery to me that I should hear a whole concert of chords together at the end of a pause; but he showed me that it was only when the last notes were 5ths or 3rds, one to another and then their sounds, like an Echo, did last so as they seemed to sound altogether, The instrument is open at the end I discovered; but he would not let me look into it; but I was mightily pleased with it and he did take great pains to show me all he could do on it, which was very much and would make an excellent concert, two or three of them, better than trumpets can ever do, because of their want of compass.

The other item which, considering the dates, is in some conflict with Pepys's account, is an advertisement in the London Gazette dated 4 February 1674.

A rare concert of four Trumpets Marine, never heard of before in England. If any persons desire to come and hear it, they may repair to the Fleece tavern near St. James's, about two of the clock in the afternoon, every day in the week except Sundays. Every concert shall continue one hour, and so begin again. The best places are one shilling, and the other sixpence.

The statement "never heard of before in England" may be accounted for as a simple advertising ploy. In any case, Galpin indicates the Fleece tavern concerts may well have been arranged by Prin.

In the same year as these concerts, a German collection of music was published under the title Musica genialis latino-germanica (Augsbourg, 1674) in which a Swiss musician, Johann M. Gletle (1626 - 1684) presented thirty-six small compositions for two tromba marinas.

Jean-Baptiste Prin.

At this point, it is appropriate to describe in some detail the life and work of Jean-Baptist Prin, often mentioned in our previous discussions, and described by Galpin as 

...the greatest exponent of his peculiar art..., for what Paganini was to the violin, Dragonetti and Bottesini to the double-bass, Prin was to the tromba marina, honoured and esteemed as its last but greatest virtuoso.

Prin was born in England ca. 1650. His father, a bookseller, only recently immigrated there, however, and in both speech and appearance Jean-Baptiste was a Frenchman. According to his Memoire Prin received his first instruction on the tromba marina from an Englishman, though the instrument was little known there at the time. Prin was about seventeen years of age when he played so expertly for Pepys.

He was also a dancer and comedian, and is found residing in Lyon when the opera was founded there (1688). At what must have been the high point of his career, Prin appeared at the Concert des Princes on 15 Julv 1702, held in the Trianon at Versailles. For his performance there he was presented with a richly bound music book, decorated with fleurs-de-lis and containing a portrait of Louis XIV, by the princess Adelaide, Duchess of Burgundy. The volume contains arrangements of operatic airs for the tromba marina. Still preserved at the city library in Lyon, it includes a contre-danse entitled "Milord Biron," in honor of one of the poet's ancestors.

In 1715 Prin is found in the orchestra of the Academie du Concert which had been established in Lyon two years earlier by amateurs for the purpose of giving choral and instrumental concerts. Jean-Philippe Rameau, then organist of the Jacobin Convent, was also a member at that time.

At the age of 92, Prin handed over his manuscripts and his instrument to the Academie des Beaux Arts at Lyons. The books were transferred to the Palais des Arts fifty years later and sat untouched from 1792 until 1908, when they were discovered by M. Vallas. These manuscripts, now preserved in the City Library at Lyon include:

  • (No, 133670) Memoire sur la Trompette Marine avec l'art d'apprendre ajouer de cet instrument sans maitre, par le St. Jean-Baptiste Prin, maitre a dancer de Paris et musicien de la Ville de Strasbourg. Dedie a Messieurs lee Academiciens du celebre Concert de la Ville de Lion. It also contains 44 pages of melodies and duets arranged for his pupils.
  • (Mo. 133964) Airs de Tmropette et Viollons; 1718~ Two volumes.
  • (Mo. 133671) Concerts de Trompette, Haubois et Viollons; 1723-24, Four volumes, with original compositions.
  • (Mo. 133654) The Royal Music Book,

The following manuscripts are unfortunately missing:

  • Livre d'Airs de Trompette de 9 Operas de Lully
  • Trois parties de Concerto

In his old age Prin sensed the ultimate disappearance of the tromba marina. His final written words were: "I tenderly love this instrument and it is with sorrow that I see it die with me."

Prin's music for the tromba marina was written in the French violin clef.


This choice of clef is appropriate considering that the bulk of the music for an instrument in C would occur above c". Galpin gives two examples of "the simpler tunes played by Prin with so much acceptance, transcribed in modern notation in the key of C.

Prin's comments concerning the "tremblement" or "cadence-pleine" (marked +) indicate that the thumb slur the notes of the trill by sliding on the string from Ut to Re and back with swiftness during a single stroke of the bow.

This march was played with an accompaniment of hautbois and violons, in three parts.

J.-B. Prin, by all accounts, was a master of his instrument. He was responsible for raising the tromba marina from the level of street music to that of serious art music. Louis XIV must have looked upon the instrument with favor, as records indicate its presence in the orchestra of the Grande Ecurie of France. Though Prin's own connection with that group is doubtful, he certainly influenced the performance practice of that instrument for all musicians with whom he came in contact.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a tablature for the tromba marina was occasionally used as was common for both lute and viol, The open string, according to French practice, was marked "a," the first harmonic "b," the second "c," and so on, the sixth, "b flat," being omitted. Galpin has transcribed a portion of this tablature (see fig.5).

The final work, for which we have conflicting evidence, is a concerto for diverse instruments by Antonio Vivaldi. The frontispiece to the original edition indicates the following orchestration: 

Concerto con due Flauti, due Tiorbe, due Mandolini, due Salmó, due Violini in tromba marina et un Violoncello

and was written during his tenure at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice. Regarding the circumstances of its first performance and some of the controversy surrounding the indication "due Violini in tromba marina," we can do no better than to quote Charles Purr from his liner notes for the recording of this piece by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. 23

The extinct items are particularly on hand in the scoring for the C Major Concerto for Diverse Instruments that was performed by Vivaldi in the presence of Friedrich Christian, Prince of the realm of Poland and Elector of Saxony in 1740. This royal presence perhaps accounted for the unusual display of varied talents...

The notation Due Violini in Tromba Marina was taken by [the arranger] to mean two violins in unison, or sounding as if playing on [the tromba marina]. In the present reading it is assumed--since Vivaldi elsewhere wrote quite literally for this "marine trumpet," sometimes for more than one--that a copyist somewhere along the line transcribed "in Tromba Marina" for "un Tromba Marina" and that use of one of the actual instruments was intended. This part, since the tromba marina was evidently capable of producing an astonishing powerful sound, has been divided between trumpets and violins.

The statement that Vivaldi wrote other pieces including the tromba marina can not yet be confirmed by this author's perusal of the various catalogs of his works. This is by no means conclusive, since those catalogs are confusing at best. If Burr's information can be confirmed, it would do much to substantiate the assumption that an authentic tromba marina was intended for the concerto. Otherwise, there is too much evidence to the contrary. David Boyden, in his History of Violin Playing says the term "violino in tromba marina" refers to a technique of playing harmonics on the violin. If this is the case here, the part does not appear idiomatically realistic. Unfortunately, neither is it idiomatically realistic for an authentic tromba marina. The part spans a complete diatonic range (including B naturals) from b to g". On an instrument tuned to C, the b and b' would be flat and d', f', and a', would be nonexistent, Thus, either the Ricordi transcription is in error, the instrument used had two strings pitched a fifth apart (highly unlikely for so late a period), or the tromba marina could not have played it. The concerto is a beautiful example of "potentially" idiomatic music for the tromba marina. Perhaps examination of the original edition will reveal the truth.

It has been said25 that Paganini was able to produce some of his effects in harmonics by temporarily converting his violin into a miniature tromba marina. He placed his single G string on the treble side of the bridge, screwing it up to a very high pitch and leaving the bass foot of the bridge relatively loose. He thus produced a powerful reedy tone with the harmonics.

Aside from the possible use of the tromba marina by Vivaldi, it died out completely as far as serious art music was concerned with the passing of Prin. However, a certain Dr. Kretzschmar described it to Ruhlmann as still being in use in 1882 at Marienthal, near Ostritz in Saxony. It may have survived in some degenerate form such as a stick-bass or bladder and string, thus reverting to its earlier position as a street instrument.


  1. upon which the musicologist may be seen as a surveyor mapping the ancient pathways.
  2. Galpin, F. W. Monsieur Prin and His tromba marina, Music and Letters; vol, XIV, no, 1. January 1933·
  3. Willi Apel. Harvard Dictionary of Music, p.869. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969.
  4. It. Pierre Aubry. "Iter Hispanicum II." Sammelbande der internationalen Musikgesellschaft, viii, p.525f.
  5. See p.28.
  6. Aubry's bibliographic reference to the Syntagma Musicum (Book II, part 1, chapter V) of Praetorius, reveals no mention of the "tuba minor" or any similar term; nor could such a name be found in the list of instruments discussed. Sibyl Marcuse (Musical Instruments. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975) defines "tuba minor" as a tenor trombone,
  7. See Appendix III; no.l.
  8. Francis Galpin; Old English Instruments of Music, p.97. 1911
  9. Quoted by Galpin; Music and Letters, p.18
  10. Sir John Hawkins. A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, (1776). (Reprint in facsimile) New York: Dover Pubs, 1963. P.763.
  11. This collection, discovered by L. Grillet, was reprinted in a new edition in A. Stern and W. Schuh, Schweizer Sing- und Spielmusik, vi.
  12. Galpin, Music and Letters, p.18.
  13. J,-B, Prin, MS. (Mo,133670) City Library at Lyon. Memoire sur la Trompette Marine, 1742.
  14. Galpin. Music and Letters, p.20
  15. Ibid. Translated by P.H. Newton.
  16. Ibid, P.27
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, Pp.27-28,
  19. Ibid. P.28.
  20. Additional tunes from Prin's manuscripts may be found in Paul Garnault, La Trompette Marine, Nice, 1926.
  21. From an engraving by Nicolas de L'Armessin, c.1700, satirizing a musician holding a tromba marina, and holding a page of tablature for this instrument draped over his right arm, Appendix III, no.2, represents Galpin's transcription of this tablature into standard notation. The intended effect of the music, as Galpin says, "was evidently asinine." (Music and Letters, p.26)
  22. Ricordi F.XII, no.37. Tome 318. See Appendix III, no.3.
  23. Columbia Records, No.MS 6131. The orchestration has, of course, been substantially altered to conform to modern instruments.
  24. David O. Boyden. The History of Violin Playing. London: Oxford University Press, 1965:: P.337·
  25. "tromba marina" Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed.,1954: P.574.
  26. According to Galpin, Music and Letters, P.25.