The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
©1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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Hans Memling, Antwerp: Kon. Museum von Schone Kunsten
DWIGHT A. NEWTON
Revised, but resources not updated, April, 2002
Copyright © 1978, 2002
This study was written as an undergraduate thesis as part of the requirements of my B. A. degree in Music History from New College in Sarasota, Florida, 1978. A lot of has changed in the intervening 23 years. The advent of digital technology has resulted in an explosion of information available to anyone from anywhere in the world. The resources I had available to me then were those of the College library and other similar brick-and-mortar repositories. Many of the statements contained herein have proven or since become incorrect. I make no apologies for this. I did the best I could under the circumstances.
I have freely edited the text of the first edition, but I have not updated the resources. For current research on this topic I refer the reader to the most recent edition of Grove's New Dictionary of Music and Musicians, now available by subscription online. The most comprehensive publication on the subject is:
PREFACE TO THE 1978 EDITION
It may safely be said that what follows is the most complete study of the tromba marina that has ever been written. This statement is necessarily qualified by the fact that no all-encompassing work of this nature has even been attempted before.
It may well be asked: Why study in such breadth and in so many words a musical instrument of so little current interest or practical significance? The answer lies in its historical significance and its current potential. The tromba marina was an important element in the development of Western music, not because of its longevity or general acceptance, but because of its influence on music and performance practice as a whole. And with the revival of early music and musical instruments, it is particularly appropriate that a thorough study of the tromba marina be made at this time.
My own interest in the instrument began around 1968 as I was leafing through Bessaraboff's massive catalog of the instruments in the collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and came across entry No.292 showing a remarkable example of a tromba marina with a concise yet thorough description thereof. As my interest in music as a whole, and musical instruments in particular, developed over the ensuing years, I was continually reminded of this reference by various insights into musical acoustics, performance problems on other instruments, and other vague connections with some of the more conventional instruments with which I had been working. Finally, after boring all my friends by telling them everything I knew about this weird instrument, I was convinced to do some serious amateur research an the subject. Since I was by then living within a short walk to the excellent music library at Northwestern University, it was a fairly simple matter to gain access to a great deal of information from both primary and secondary sources. Upon discovering some of the limitations of that library, I managed to make a short trip to the library at the University of Illinois in Urbana for further research.
At this point I felt it necessary to formalize my studies and to broaden my musical background, so I moved to Florida in order to earn a degree in music history at New College. From the moment I heard about the thesis requirement there was no question as to the subject matter I would use. This paper represents the ultimate goal I had in coming to New College.
I would like to express my appreciation to those people who patiently encouraged, or at least put up with me while engaged in this endeavor. Of special significance are [the late] Dr. Ronald Riddle, from whom I received the best possible undergraduate music education and who has been a friend as well as a mentor; Ms. Marjorie Bram, who has kindly consented to act as a consultant on my baccalaureate committee and who was so encouraging during my lumbering studies on the viola da gamba; the other committee members, Dr. Lee Snyder and Ms. Magdelena Carrasco; and my parents, without whose help I would still be hustling paperbacks in Chicago.
The tromba marina has had a long history of abuse, even while commonly in use. And following the death of its only significant virtuoso (M. Jean-Baptiste Prin, 1650-1742) it was relegated to the indignities of obscurity, finally to come to rest in storage in Cheshire farm houses and among museum curiosities.
The justification for such abuse is well documented. As with so many "obsolete" musical instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque, the musical styles became more complex than was practical to learn on an instrument of limited response -- in either expression, range, or volume. Thus the wide range of expression available on the clavichord was surpassed by the desire for added volume, the serpent and ophicleide were surpassed by the desire for wider range and further expression, and the viola da gamba was surpassed by the desire for all three. It is not meant here to imply that such changes were not wholly necessary to the development of music. It is, however, somewhat dismaying in this age of the popularization of early music and its resultant surge of scholarly study and performance, that there are few luthiers building tromba marinas, few musicians playing them, and strangest of all, few musicologists researching them.
As for this last item it must be said that there has never been a shortage of information. Indeed, no scholar of European organology worth reading is unaware of the tromba marina. The historical sources from Agricola and Virdung through Sachs and Galpin always mention it in passing.
Basically, the tromba marina is a long (four to seven feet), bowed monochord. The body of the instrument is of two general types, the earlier being of three slats of wood joined to form an elongated triangular pyramid with a pegbox at the apex. The later, and usually longer, type has a multifaceted body (normally three to six ribs), frontal soundboard, and a long, distinct neck. The bottom end on either type is open, eliminating the need, though not necessarily the use, of carved soundholes. The string passes over a nut from the pegbox and runs the entire length of the instrument, to be fastened in some manner at the open bottom end.
A bridge is set under the string near the base. This bridge is peculiar in that the string rests on only one of its two feet while the other is allowed to vibrate freely against the soundboard (see figure below). Precise adjustment of the bridge is highly critical to ensure even vibration throughout the range of the instrument.
The position for holding the tromba marina must be such that the musician can draw the bow just below the top nut (that is, opposite the bridge) and simultaneously touch the string lightly with the thumb or other fingers at the necessary points below the bow to cause equal divisions of the string. The resultant scale is, therefore, a natural harmonic scale. This natural scale, coupled with the blaring tone caused by the vibrating bridge, produces a sound very similar to that of a natural trumpet.