The Tromba Marina
A Study in Organology
1978 / 2002 by Dwight Newton
Tromba Marina Home
  |  Musical Instruments Home  |  Oriscus Home



The author has found the experience of compiling this study to be extremely valuable in many ways. He has not only drawn from all aspects of his undergraduate education and more, he has been able to make a useful, however modest, contribution to the field of musical organology. While some apologies must be made in the areas of style and bibliography, the ultimate worth of the study must be determined by the new information that has been deduced from critical comparison of the sources.

While this study is as thorough as is presently possible, it does lack many of the significant resource materials that are known, but are presently not within the author's grasp. Perhaps the most important of these are the manuscripts of Jean-Baptiste Prin. His Memoire includes not only the autobiography of a most interesting personality, but also our best description of the performance practice surrounding the tromba marina. In this latter respect, it may be compared to C.P. E. Bach's Versuch (1753) or Leopold Mozart's Violinschule (1756), in that it represents the definitive work on correct contemporary practice, and is intended as a tutor for the serious student.

Galpin regretfully reports that Prin's sonatas and concertos for tromba marina are now lost, and truly states: "We are therefore not in a position to estimate his full powers or to judge the capabilities of the instrument under the hand of a skilled performer." While the Royal Music Book and the forty-four pages of melodies and duets in Prin's Memoire constitute his complete repetoire for tromba marina known to have survived, the several collections of music for trumpet may, upon examination, give us a fair picture of Prin's idiomatic music for this similar type of instrument.

Three studies concerning Prin and the musical life of Lyon are cited by Galpin. They are: 

  • La Musique a Lyon au XVIIIe siècle, 1908; and 
  • Les Lyonnais dignes de Memoire J.-B. Prin, Lyon, 1912, by Leon Vallas
  • Paul Garnault's La Trompette Marine, Nice, 1926. 

Of these, the author possesses no copies. However, there is available a reference to the use of the tromba marina in some of the operas of Lully in Vallas' Un Siècle de Musique et de Theatre a Lyon (1688 - 1789), 1932. This source also includes a schematic drawing of a tromba marina from Prin's Memoire (see fig.20). The text has yet to be translated from the French.

Fig. 20 (click for larger view)

There are two manuscripts in the British Museum that would be valuable to peruse. 

  • Harl. Ms. No. 3181 shows, according to Galpin, one of the earliest clear illustrations of the tromba marina with the trembling bridge. 
  • No. 2034, fol. 207 verso is Randle Holmes' Academy of Armory (17th century) which describes the instrument in crude terms but in detail.

In addition to the few compositions known to have been written for the tromba marina, anything at all before 1650 would be welcome. While a systematic search for heretofore undiscovered materials would be difficult and time-consuming at best, further research may disclose some hints as to where to look for such materials.

It is somewhat disturbing that there is little agreement concerning the correct etymologies for the various names of the tromba marina. Further study of early use in Poland, in the nunneries, and elsewhere, should either explode or confirm speculation in this area. It seems to be a subject rich with possibilities for both linguist and musicologist. Any confirmation of etymology would most certainly result in new information regarding performance practice.

The use of the tromba marina in the eighteenth century, outside of Prin's direct influence, presents some problems. There are only two specific references to the instrument in use after Prin's death. First is the possible indication in some works by Vivaldi. The publication of Vivaldi's Complete Works by Ricordi cannot be relied upon for authenticity because of the ambiguity surrounding the indication "due violini in tromba marina," which parts are not playable on the tromba marina. A careful perusal of the several catalogues of Vivaldi's works, and ultimately of the original manuscripts or early editions, should clarify this manner.

In order to grasp the total picture of the spread of the tromba marina in Europe, it would be helpful to pinpoint the authenticated accounts in chronological order on a map. It may be deduced from such a graphic representation, not only the origin of the instrument, but also the possible route it took in its spread and the extent of its use at any given time. The interesting, though casual, reference given by Galpin concerning Dr. Kretzschmar's conversation with Ruhlmann would certainly merit further consideration. This is the only indication that the tromba marina may have survived after 1750. It is especially interesting because of the late date of the account (1882) and because of the fairly close proximity of Marienthal to the areas near the Rhine from which Glareanus' early account was written.

Finally, the possible derivation of the modern "machine head" tuning mechanism from the tromba marina's ratchet-wheel (as claimed by Bessaraboff), though perhaps a bit farfetched, may be verifiable from other sources. And his statement concerning the relationship between the "thumb technique" of the violoncello and that of our tromba marina, certainly warrants further investigation.

Apart from the musicological aspects of history, etymology, geography, sociology, and performance practice surrounding our subject, this author is very interested in the modern practical potential of the instrument. While it is probably too much to expect any great number of luthiers and musicians to begin making and playing tromba marinas instead of, or even in addition to, the more pleasant and lucrative viols, lutes, and keyboard instruments, it seems reasonable to hope that the tromba marina will merit at least as much attention as, say, the sackbut, racket, or viola bastarda. 


1. See list on p.38.

2. Galpin. Music and Letters, p.28.

3. Ibid., pp.28-29.

4. Ibid., p.18fn.

5. See Hayes, pp.226-227.

6. See Appendix III, no.4.

7. Galpin, Music and Letters, p,25.

8. Bessaraboff. Ancient European Musical Instruments, p.319.