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The Tromba Marine Project | Commission by EMS

The Trumpet Marine Project 

The trumpet marine, or tromba marina, can be over two metres tall. It has one long, thick playing string, which is supported by a foot-like bridge. When bowed vigorously, the vibrating string causes the bridge to tremble against the table of the instrument. This produces its trumpet-like sound. In fact, the trumpet marine is the only instrument designed to sound like another instrument, and its main use was as a trumpet substitute. Some trumpet marines also feature a host of sympathetic (resonating) strings. Melodies are produced by touching the harmonic nodes of the playing string with the thumb. The trumpet marine can produce the most extraordinary sounds, ranging from its characteristic, loud trumpet-like buzz to a soft and fuzzy flutey tone. It’s also beautiful to look at. So why did this majestic instrument become obsolete?

Iconographical evidence dates back to the 12th century. At that time, the trumpet marine was simpler. It was also smaller and was often held horizontally or vertically in front of the player, and it regularly appeared as a member of mixed instrumental ensembles. By the 17th century the trumpet marine had grown in size, towering above all but the tallest humans. Many surviving instruments were found in convents. It seems that trumpet marines were a staple of the Northern European nun’s musical instrument collection. Maybe wind instruments were off-limits to nuns, or perhaps the trumpet was the domain of the professional soldier. Whatever the reason, the sound was needed in liturgical works and ceremonial music and the trumpet marine provided a solution.

As the 17th century wore on, the trumpet marine began to appear in secular public music-making. The late 17th century virtuoso, Jean-Baptiste Prin made a career of it, entertaining French and English audiences with his huge collection of trumpet marines and producing a treatise on how to play the instrument. His father also played the instrument and famously amused Pepys on the 24th of October, 1667: ‘it doth so far out-do a Trumpet as nothing more, and he doth play anything very true and it is most remarkable; and at first was a mystery to me that I should hear a whole concert of chords together at the end of the pause… [this was the effect of the sympathetic strings] And

[these instruments] would make an excellent consort, two or three of them, better than trumpets can ever do because of their want of compass.’ And sure enough, in 1674, the London Gazette advertised the following concert:

‘A Rare Concert of four Trumpets Marine, never heard 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 an hour and so begin again.’

If the young Bach sought respite in taverns on his journey from Arnstadt to Lübeck, perhaps he would have stumbled upon such an entertainment. While today we aim to conjure the curious sights and compelling sounds that might have been heard in the Fleece tavern in London, we imagine that something similar to this mixture of refined instrumental music and raucous traditional tunes could have provided Bach with welcome, light entertainment at the end of an arduous day of walking.

We will also present the world premiere of a new work by Orlando Gough, which reveals the instrument in new and exploratory ways, introducing the trumpet marine to the 21st century. We hope that a revival of this glorious instrument might establish it in the heart of today’s composers and audiences. Reviving the trumpet marine is an important piece in the jigsaw of reconstructing the more eccentric instruments of years gone by, like the viola bastarda, keyed fiddle, bray harp and hurdy gurdy. Its history reveals a general fascination for the obscure and curious no different from that which is held by many people today and it provides further proof that music in the 17th and 18th centuries included sounds that seem bizarre to modern ears – buzzes, resonating strings, and in the case of the tromba marina, notes that don’t conform to the expectations of harmonic structure in music.

The harmonics on the trumpet marine result in an untempered scale that sounds idiosyncratic to the modern ear. Perhaps it is this feature in particular that provides the answer to our question about the tromba marina’s obsolescence – the instrument simply didn’t ‘fit’ with most other 18th century instruments and the harmonic constraints of late-18th century music. In fact, maybe it only survived as long as it did because of its magical sonic and visual qualities. However, times have changed and maybe, just maybe, the trumpet marine will have its day again.

Clare Salaman, September 2021

C-DanCe by Orlando Gough, commissioned for The Society of Strange & Ancient Instruments by Chris Butler on behalf of The Early Music Shop 

Ah, the tromba marina. An instrument, named after the Virgin Mary, invented so that women, who were discouraged (forbidden?) from playing wind instruments, could play an

instrument that sounded like a trumpet, well, almost like a trumpet, an extraordinary other-world sound where the dislocation between what you hear and what you see makes your brain jump. An instrument which immediately became associated with Death, and the Dance of Death. It’s difficult to imagine the Grim Reaper playing the tromba marina. He (surely always a he?) wouldn’t have a hand free to grab you.

Now here we are in the midst of a vicious C-pandemic. The Grim Reaper has been working overtime. So I’ve written a little piece that is a Dance of Life, a Dance of Defiance, intending that the beautiful strange natural harmonic palette and honky fire-fighting sound of the tromba marina express the fact that in times of trouble people are capable of extraordinary acts of strength.

Orlando Gough, July 202

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