The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
©1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
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Part One: Technique
The practical aspects of performance technique are, for any instrument, a complex set of variable interactions between the musician and his instrument. A horn player must continually alter his embouchure, lung pressure, and finger positions as the music demands different pitches, dynamics, and attacks. A violinist must hold his instrument in such a position that he can draw the how at different speeds, pressures, and angles while simultaneously allowing the freedom in the left hand to stop the strings accurately anywhere throughout the instrument's range. And in both eases enough flexibility must be allowed for artistic expression and interpretation. It is, therefore, impossible to isolate the subject of performance technique under a single heading. Rather it is necessary to describe as many of the different aspects of technique as are known, in order to grasp a complete picture of the whole experience.
The tromba marina presents an interesting array of technical oddities. Some of these items are of musicological interest only, in that they are unique to this instrument and have never developed into anything of lasting practice. Others are of significant permanent importance owing to their influence on the technique of other instruments and, ultimately, their influence upon musical composition and performance as a whole.
Throughout this discussion little or no emphasis is given to the subject of interpretive expression on the tromba marina. Since its scale lies within the precise limitations of the mathematical divisions of the string, no variations in intonation, as are essential to a pitch vibrato or portamento, are possible. Thus, most expressive actions must be performed by the bow. The only variables available to the tromba marina are, therefore, dynamics, sonority and tempo. And the amount of information regarding the bowing technique of the tromba marina is restricted to the basic matters of position and tone production. It may fairly be inferred from historical accounts and compositions that expression on the instrument must have occurred within similar limitations to those of the natural trumpet. It would be a worthy endeavor to go into a comparative discussion of ornamentation and expression on these instruments, but for now we must confine our study to the matters at hand.
In order to illustrate clearly the performance technique of the tromba marina it is useful to look upon it as a tripartite process. Before the instrument can be played properly, certain adjustments must be made on the string and bridge. Next, the instrument must be positioned in some relation to the player's body to allow appropriate access and support. Finally, of course, the musician must act upon the instrument in such a way as to produce the tone. This discussion is divided into three sections: Adjustment, Position, and Action. It is hoped that such a format will illustrate the performance technique as a process from the musician's vantage-point.
There are two adjustments that must be made on the tromba marina before it may be played. First is the tuning of the string (or strings) to the proper pitch and/or tension. Second is the precise placement of the bridge so that it will give the trumpet tone that is characteristic of the instrument. While these adjustments are closely related, it is the latter that is far more critical and difficult to attain.
As has been previously stated, the bridge will produce its optimum trumpet-like effect only when placed at a particular position. The string tension must be carefully balanced to the mass and shape of the bridge, The quality of fit between the contacting surfaces of bridge and soundboard has a substantial influence on the intensity of sound and the richness of the tone color. This quality also has a direct bearing on the number and the ease of production of higher partials, thus affecting the instrument's range.
The difficulty of attaining a fine adjustment of the bridge has historically led to a great deal of frustration. One finds accounts of musicians spending literally hours trying to locate a perfect balance. And since there is an enormous amount of movement in the bridge because of its trembling action as compared to a conventional bridge, there is a consequent tendency for it to fall quickly out of adjustment again.
There have been several attempts to both intensify and stabilize the trembling action. Glareanus expressed his amusement at a thin nail that was driven into the free foot in order to increase its percussive effect. There are also accounts of inlaying various hard substances such as ebony, glass, or metal under that foot for the same purpose. Under the stable foot was often placed powdered rosin to prevent slippage. While this had a stabilizing effect, it, of course, did nothing to aid in the initial placement of the bridge. Mersenne shows a simple device for this purpose and describes it as follows (see fig.3):
While this seems to be a perfectly simple and useful device, it apparently never caught on, as Mersenne is the only available source in which it is found.
Several years later another device was designed for this purpose-- "le guidon," so termed by its inventor, J.-B. Prin:
This mechanism brought precise control of the bridge position within the immediate reach of the performer. With it one could alter the vibrations to any desired intensity while playing and without removing the bow from the string. Prin's own instrument was fitted with such a device. It is interesting to note that, while Prin personally supervised the construction of some one hundred and fifty tromba marinas, only one known example that has survived carried "un guidon", and that example may well be the master's own performing instrument.
As far as tuning is concerned, it is known from the scales used in music written for tromba marina that it was almost invariably tuned to C. Though Praetorius adheres to this tuning, Mersenne, some twenty years later, gives G ut as the open tone. This latter is perhaps explained by Mersenne's tendency toward the difficult and the theoretical. In describing the scale he presents the harmonic scale of Guido d'Arezzo who relies upon the ancient Greek treatises for much of his method. This is not especially relevant to actual performance, but is used to explain the instrument's acoustical phenomena.
Later, Prin tuned his tromba marina to C, but noted that a greater brilliance made be had by increasing the tension to D, or, with a thinner string, even to E, though he expresses the feeling that a fine string tends to make a sound more like a "bad flageolet" than a trumpet as it should.
The placement of the instrument in relation to the body has varied somewhat throughout its history, This is largely the result of the various shapes and sizes of the individual examples. The earliest illustration of a true tromba marina being played (see Plate III) shows the most common position for the older, light-weight instruments. The head of this instrument rests on the breast while the rest is held by the left hand in an upward pointing position. The reason for such an apparently awkward position may have been to allow the sound to project out of the open base in much the same manner as would a natural trumpet.
The most obvious problem with such a position is that of support, The left hand cannot fully grasp the instrument because of the need to allow freedom of movement in the thumb, and must therefore act as a sort of fulcrum with most of the weight beyond that point and the breast preventing it from tipping over. In this position it is impossible to alter the placement of the left hand. This allows a total range of thumb movement within a space of about six inches. While this space is certainly enough room to perform a full octave in the higher range, several of the lower notes available to the instrument are well out of reach and the precision and delicacy with which one must touch the strings is substantially hampered.
The only realistic solutions to retaining this general position while freeing up the left hand have been either to place the far end in the upper corner of a door jamb (see fig.4) or against a wall, or to rest it on some stationary object such as a chair-back or a tolerant friend. In any case, as tromba marinas began to be made larger and heavier the upward pointing position became impractical.
Mersenne allowed the option of leaning the lower end of the instrument either "against some wall or against the ground."9 Indeed, virtually all illustrations and accounts until Prin presenting the larger instruments show them with the open ends resting on the ground.
The placement of the upper ends is a matter of some variance among different sources. A large dichord of the fifteenth century actually towers about two feet over the head of the player (see fig.5). Mersenne states that the head of the instrument should rest upon the breast. Kretzschmar (1882) is quoted by Ruhlmann4 as saying the instruments still in use at Marienthal, near Ostritz, in Saxony, were rested upon the shoulder, and Galpin played his tromba marina with the head above the shoulder and the upper nut at about chin level (see Plate 'lV). Prin recommends that the lower end be placed upon a chair or table with the head against the player's stomach with just sufficient pressure to hold it firm and with the left leg advanced "as for firing a gun."5
The actual position of the head may not be as important as the accessibility of the hands to the string. Since most tromba marinas are of somewhat different sizes the position would have to vary accordingly.
The proper position and technique of moving the hands in order to elicit tones from the tromba marina are inherently peculiar to the instrument. Actually, since the string is geometrically symmetrical, so that all the notes available on one end of it are equally available on the other; and since the whole length of the string is in symmetrical vibration, thus technically allowing the possibility of applying the bow equally well at either end, it is somewhat surprising that there are no accounts of the tromba marina being played in an inverted position. Indeed, the actual application of the hands to the string was quite consistent in its methodology throughout the history of the instrument.
The most significant aspect of fingering the tromba marina is the almost exclusive use of the left thumb for the purpose. The smaller instruments that were held in the upward pointing position required the use of the rest of the hand for support. Since the earliest instruments were held in that manner, it may be inferred that the "thumb technique" was most likely born of necessity. What is most peculiar is that the technique remained when the larger instruments, which were supported between the player's body and the ground or same other object, freed the left hand and fingers from the supportive role.
The technique of fingering, or perhaps more appropriately "thumbing" the string is simple in concept, but quite difficult in execution. As may be seen from the chart below, the divisions of the string lay in a linear succession from the largest at the center, representing the lower pitches, to the nut, representing the higher pitches.
Between 1/8 and 1/16 one finds the natural major scale (plus an additional flat seventh which is not used). The thumb need only touch the string lightly at the appropriate nodal point. It is imperative to touch the exact points of division in order to achieve a clear tone. This cannot be approximated -- the physics demand precision. The entire first complete octave (1/8 to 1/16) lies within a space of only 12.5 cm of string length.
In addition to the closeness of the notes in the higher range, the player must also deal with the relatively long spaces between the lower notes. On the 200 cm. string, the distance between 1/2 and 1/3 (an interval of a fifth) is 33 cm., and between 4 and 5, 10 cm. Mersenne addresses the problem (see fig.3):
On the necks of some of the later tromba marinas, markings were often made under the string to aid the player in his positions.
One may well wonder why we have dwelled so heavily upon the use of the thumb when Mersenne so clearly indicates that other fingers may be used. But since he specifies a singular "or another finger," it is believed that there is little difference in the actual problems at hand and that the use of some finger other than the thumb was considered exceptional. Even J.-B. Prin indicated the normal thumb technique. However, he also used other fingers in conjunction with it, as in playing scale runs or trills.
Of the right-hand technique very little can be said. The bow itself is stated by Glareanus, Mersenne, and Prin as being similar or identical to that used on the viol. This was normally shorter and heavier than the modern bow and the grip resembled that of the modern German double-bass bow.
In practice, the bow was placed on the string near the nut, between it and the left hand. Prin recommends positioning the bow at the nodal point immediately above the one being played. However, this would not only be impractical at the lower divisions and cause too much vertical movement of the right hand, but would also cover the string with sticky rosin, thus impairing fluid movement of the left hand.
As far as the actual stroke is concerned, nothing is said. The position of the instrument would determine the angle of the thrust, but in all other matters we must assume that the technique was similar to contemporary viol practice so as not to warrant specific mention.