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Sound Qualities of the Early Trombone: 20 Primary Sources

Intro & Summary

A few years ago I applied for funding to purchase a set of sackbuts, or early trombones, for my university. I decided at the time to do some research, in the form of both recordings and primary sources, into exactly how these instruments should sound. The information from the primary sources may be of note to readers interested in the history of the trombone. What follows is a brief summary of my findings, then quotations from 20 of the sources. For greater historical context and full citations of all sources, see the Trombone History Timeline. Here are some of the noteworthy characteristics that I see from the below descriptions.

First, the ability to imitate and blend with human voices is highly valued by authors (1580, 1636, 1700). Without question, the idea of the trombone as an instrument closely allied with voices is widespread; for example, writers of treatises (e.g., Galilei, Praetorius, Mersenne, Speer) almost always mention the trombone's connection with voice. This, of course, is closely linked with the trombone’s use as a sacred instrument.

Second, the idea that the trombone is a quiet instrument is not only implied through its association with voices, but often discussed directly as an important trait (1607, 1619, 1697). One is also struck by repeated use of descriptive words such as delicate (1524), light (1567, 1594), graceful (1567, 1594), and sweet (1524, 1619). These are not words that are frequently associated with modern trombone playing.

Third, there is a concept in some historical sources that the trombone sounds mournful (1650) or doleful (1684), perhaps reflecting a combination of the instrument's slow note values, low pitch range, and association with vocal/religious settings.

Fourth, there are some recorded contradictions to the quiet, subdued ideal of early trombone performance; at times the trombone is reportedly used as a loud instrument to add to the general mass of sound (1581, 1619, 1784–both Burney and Neville). In addition, there are negative comments from some eyewitnesses about the existence of loud trombone playing (often from writers with an apparent axe to grind); e.g., Galilei’s anti-wind descriptions (1581) and Peter Smart’s puritan religious writings (1628).

Conclusion? According to this little collection of sources, the ideal early trombone sound was probably, in general, softer and more mellow than today's trombones. However, there were also times that it was used as a loud instrument as well. In other words, as historian Trevor Herbert has remarked, “By the sixteenth century the trombone was both a loud and a quiet instrument…” (Herbert, The Trombone, 97).


The Quotations

c. 1487—Naples, Italy: Johannes Tinctoris discusses several sizes of shawms, then writes, “However, for the lowest contratenor parts, and often for any contratenor part, to the shawm players one adds trumpet players [tubicines ] who play very melodiously [melodiosissime ] upon the type of trumpet [tuba ] which is called trompone in Italy, sacque-boute in France. When all these instruments are employed together it is called alta (Tinctoris 37).


c. 1524—Rome, Italy: The famous artist-musician Benvenuto Cellini performs before Pope Clement VII with a trio consisting of cornetto, shawm, and trombone. Cellini records the following in his autobiography: “It happened at this time that a certain Gianiacomo, a piffero from Cesena and a most admirable musician who was in the Pope’s service, let me know through Lorenzo, a trombonist from Lucca [Lorenzo Trombone Lucchese] who today is in the service of our Duke, that if I wanted to I could help them by playing on my cornetto that same day the soprano part of some beautiful motets they had chosen for the Pope’s celebration of Ferragosto…I was happy to keep them company, and eight days before Ferragosto we spent two hours a day together practicing, so that on the first day of August we went to the Belvedere [the Pope’s gardens and courtyard], and while Pope Clement dined, we played these motets with such precision that the Pope had to admit he had never heard music played more delicately or harmoniously” (Cellini-Bondanella 35; Cellini 52). The word trombone in this passage is sometimes rendered by English translators as trumpet (see Symonds, Hope, Bull); however, not only does the original Italian specify trombone (Lorenzo Trombone Lucchese), but the musician specifically named, Lorenzo da Lucca, is a well-documented trombonist of the region and time period (Kirkendale, Court Musicians in Florence, 61). The first adverb (soavemente) in the Pope’s description of the performance is variously translated as “delicately” (Bondanella), “exquisitely” (Bull), “sweetly” (Symonds), and “charmingly” (Cust).

1567—Venice, Italy: Piero da Ricasoli, discussing instrumental virtuosi in Cosimo Bartoli’s Ragionamenti accademici, names 3 specific trombonists: Bartolomeo, Zaccheria da Bologna, and Lorenzo da Lucca. Ricasoli then praises Lorenzo da Lucca, observing that he “has in his playing a certain grace and lightness [grazia et una leggiadria] with a manner so pleasing as to make me dumbstruck” (In Haar, Cosimo Bartoli). 

1580—Italy: In a passage in a letter from Italian writer and composer Giovanni de’ Bardi to Giulio Caccini, Bardi says, “Wind instruments, as more nearly imitating the human voice, are given preference over the others by Aristotle in his Problems….We shall simply say that among the wind instruments there are some for playing compositions that are low pitched and somnolent—these are the trombone, others opt for playing those that are high-pitched and lively, such as the cornetti…” (Bardi 106).

1581—Florence, Italy: Lute player and theorist Vincenzo Galilei writes “concerning those who play the trombone, the cornet, the viola d’arco and the violone,” admonishing them against showing off: “I say that each one of these professors deserves to be reputed whenever his work is of that excellent standard which it is desirable to establish. I warn you, however, that those who have need of this sole particular, in order to show the disposition of the lips, the agility of the tongue, and the speed of their fingers, believing that knowledge consists of these, will thus detract from the true being, air, semblance, effigy, and natural beauty of any composition which they may have in hand, enveloping it from head to foot in the confused fog of their ‘winged’ passages, or tirades, as they are called.” He then addresses the purpose of cornetts and trombones: “The cornets and trombones were invented and introduced into musical concerts rather through the need for [vocal] sopranos and basses, or let us say in order to provide more substance and noise in these concerts, or else for both reasons, than because of some good, necessary effect which they make there. In order to prove that this is true, observe that these instruments are not ordinarily heard elsewhere except where it is necessary for such voices….They will indeed be heard many times in masquerades, in the theaters, upon the balconies of the public squares for the satisfaction of the plebians and common people, and, against every propriety, in choruses and in organ lofts of sacred temples for the solemn feasts…Such instruments as these are never heard in the private chambers of judicious gentlemen, lords, and princes where those who indeed possess refined judgment, taste, and hearing reside, because they are totally banished from these chambers.” Galilei then proposes an alternate use for trombones: “Since the trombone possesses a sound quite similar to the bellowing of bulls—in order not to say buffaloes—and since it is consequently formidable, it would be very appropriate in forests in order to chase the wild beasts from their homes and lairs and frighten them like Astolfo Galigorante used to frighten them with the horn.” Galilei, a lute player himself, then compares the trombone with the lute: “One could not or should not, for various reasons, compare such professors as these to any of the reputed players of the lute and of keyboard instruments, first because of the great facility of the latter and the great difficulty of the former, and also because [trombones] play only one part, ordinarily [using] the [music]. In addition, only one of these is not worth a thing in the world, since four to six are needed—according to the usage of today—for the perfection of the harmony…” (Galilei 874-880).


1594—Ferrara, Italy: Ercole Bottrigari reports that nuns at Santa Vito convent play “cornetts and trombones, which are the most difficult of musical instruments….with such grace, and with such a gentle manner [con tanta gratia, & con si gentil maniera], and such sonorous and just intonation of the notes that even people who are esteemed most excellent in the profession confess that it is incredible to anyone who does not actually see and hear it. And their passagework is not of the kind that is chopped up, furious, and continuous, such that it spoils and distorts the principal air, which the skillful composer worked ingeniously to give to the cantilena; but at times and in certain places there are such light, vivacious [leggiadra vivacita] embellishments that they enhance the music and give it the greatest spirit “ (Bottrigari-MacClintock 59; Bottrigari 49).

1599—London, England: Tailboys Dymoke includes the following passage in his poem, Caltha poetarum: “And now Diana doth present the man, with learned Lutes, & finest Virginals: With deepe Bandoras Diapasan, and with the cleare well sounding Clarigals, With subtle Sagbut, and the loud Cimbals…” (Dymoke 45).


1607—Siena, Italy: Agostino Agazzari writes the treatise, Del sonare sopra il basso. He includes trombone in the category of “ornamenting” instruments, responsible for embellishing the bass line with interpolated notes (passagi) and devising counterpoint. Agazzari also explains, “Sometimes in small consorts, when there are organetti in the octave above, the trombone replaces the double bass, but it must be well and softly played” (Agazzari 65).


1619—Germany: Michael Praetorius, in his Syntagma Musicum III, discusses various instrumental configurations. About a mixed consort he calls the “English Consort,” he says, “Several people with assorted instruments, such as harpsichord [Clavicymbeln] or double harpsichord [Gross spinet], large lyra viol, double harp, lutes, theorbos, pandoras, penorcon, cittern, violas da gamba, small discant violin [Geig], transverse flute or recorder, sometimes also a soft trombone or recorder, play harmoniously together, softly and sweetly in a charming ensemble (Praetorius-Kite-Powell III 19). Elsewhere he mentions using the trombone for "greater weight and a fuller, more pleasing sound": “In the instrumental choir it is only instruments such as trombones, cornetts, curtals, flutes, or violins [Geigen] that perform; it is added to the vocal choir; that is, to the concertato voices, for the sake of greater weight and a fuller, more pleasing sound” (Praetorius-Kite-Powell III 126). Discussing the Italian style of vocal soloists with accompaniment, he mentions using a four-part consort of trombones "that could play at all times" to avoid sounding "too sparse": “They [Italians] do not like this style as they believe it is too sparse, and that it has no particular attraction or harm for those who have no understanding of music. Therefore I had to come up with the solution of adding a four-part choir or consort of either trombones or violins [Geigen] that could play along at all times. And because such a sound is somewhat more pleasing to the ear when arranged in this fashion in the church, I have earned the public’s approbation” (Praetorius-Kite-Powell III 126).

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1626—London, England: Francis Bacon, contrasting the sound of the recorder or flute with that of other instruments, writes the following in his Sylva Sylvarum: “All instruments that have either return as trumpets or flexions as cornets, or are drawn up and put from as sackbuts, have a purling [murmuring] sound; but the recorder or flute, that have none of these inequalities, give a clear sound” (Bacon 50).


1628—Durham, England: Peter Smart, Prebendary of Durham Cathedral, brings a lawsuit against John Cosin, fellow-Prebendary and Bishop of Durham, complaining about several “Popish” activities. Among the specific complaints are the following: “Article 7: He has divided the morning service into two parts; the six o’clock service which used to be read only and not sung, he chants with organs, sackbuts and cornetts, which yield a hideous noise….Article 8: He enjoins all the people to stand up at the Nicene Creed…which he commands to be sung with organs, sackbuts and cornetts…” (Buttrey). The following year, Smart publishes A Short Treatise of Altars, Altar-furniture, Altar-cringing, and Musick of all the Quire, Singing-men and Choristers, wherein he asks, “Can such paltry toyes bring to our memory Christ and his blood-shedding? Crosses, Crucifixes, Tapers, Candlesticks…sumptuous Organs, with Sackbuts & Cornets piping so loud at the Communion table, that they may be heard halfe a mile from the Church?” (Smart, Altar 19).


1636—Paris, France: Marin Mersenne writes, “If another method is not used to play the trombone [sacquebutethan to play the trumpet, it imitates the tone of the aforesaid trumpet, which is considered vicious and unsuited for concerts (Mersenne 272; Mersenne-Chapman 343). Speaking of the trombone’s technical abilities, he remarks, “Those who use it [the trombone] well perform diminutions of sixteen notes to the measure” (Mersenne 272; Mersenne-Chapman 343). Mersenne also observes, “Musicians have invented many instruments to mingle with voices, and to make up for the defect of those who perform the bass and treble, since singers who have low bass voices are very rare. That is why the bassoon is used, and the sackbut and the serpent, just as the cornett is used to supplement those of the treble which are not usually good” (Mersenne-Chapman, 348).

1650—Florence, Italy: Severo Bonini’s Discorsi e Regole mentions trombones: “Many other wind instruments came from the pipe such as flutes (which were introduced into Italy by the Gauls) and transverse flutes (which were introduced by the Swiss). Later, the more artful and difficult cornetts and trombones were invented. The Saxons invented trombones, and in Nuremberg they fashion them perfectly” (Bonini 34). Speaking of funeral music, Bonini says, “Even today this practice is maintained, particularly in the Romagna, where they accompany [the dead] with mournful songs and the playing of trombones” (Bonini 79).


1681—Genoa, Italy: Alessandro Stradella composes Inventione per un barcheggio for the wedding celebrations of Signori Carlo Spinola and Paula Brignole, members of two noble families. In Stradella’s work, trombone is specified as part of the continuo. Precise instructions include the following: “All the basses with one trombone, but the trombone must play very staccato and with little breath” (Gianturco).


1684—England: John Bunyan mentions the sound of the sackbut as "more doleful than notes of other music" in his famous Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress: “But what should be the reason that such a good man should be all his days so much in the dark?...He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than notes of other music are: though indeed, some say, the bass is the ground of music” (Bunyan 361).

1697—Ulm, Germany: Daniel Speer describes several aspects of trombone technique in his treatise, Vierfaches Musikalisches Kleeblatt: “Because the alto, tenor, and bass parts can be played on the tenor trombone, it should be described first…As mentioned with the trumpets, trills are made with the chin. Some slur the trombone’s sound with the breath, but it comes out better and livelier when it is cleanly articulated with the tongue. Control in loud and soft [playing] is made with the breath, as in all wind instruments. This instrument requires no special physical vigor. It can be learned quite soundly by a boy eight, nine, or ten years old, because he has enough physical strength to play a tenor trombone—especially on a bass part, as this requires only a normal amount of air” (Speer 174-7). In a separate section of the treatise, Speer discusses how to organize music performances in a small town, saying, “Since the middle voices (alto, tenor, and bass) are most commonly played on viols or trombones in the churches, the guild musicians suffer only the slightest disadvantage in their accustomed wages by the students playing these parts, though the guild musicians make many idle complaints” (Speer 204).


1700—Leipzig, Germany: Johann Kuhnau , J. S. Bach’s predecessor at St. Thomas, writes a novel (Der musikalische Quacksalber), in which he includes several passages about trombone. In the first, a character boasts, “I played the trombone. Most recently in a town I did the city pipers the honor of composing for them for the second Sunday of Advent a spiritual song using nothing but trombones and helped them perform it from the tower. For this I used the discant trombone and the people were so delighted by my playing some even thought Judgment Day had arrived and the Angel was sounding the trumpet” (Kuhnau 26-27). Later, a different character says, “Rather, I only want to talk about those instruments that must be blown by the mouth. What do the angels, those heavenly and most perfect musicanti play other than these? For if we encounter something about music in the Scriptures, we hear either of a trumpet or a trombone” (Kuhnau 28). Finally, a third character, arguing before Apollo and the muses that wind instruments are superior to string instruments, explains, “Nothing comes so close to the human voice as do the wind instruments. Just listen to a well-played trombone, cornet, or oboe; if words were spoken to it, one might well swear that he was hearing the most beautiful castrato or other vocalist. On the other hand, with zithers, violins, lutes, and the like and with even ten voices joining in, no one would ever think of a vocalist, much less of an equivalent to the human voice. One notes this all the more if one hears a choir of wind instruments from afar. Experience shows that when, say, our municipal pipers play a church song on trombones only from the tower, we are moved beyond all measure and imagine we are hearing the angels sing” (Kuhnau 133-134).


1739—Hamburg, Germany: Johann Mattheson asks, “Why then do the good cornetts and trombones, which were formerly closely related and were highly esteemed as staples by the expert fifers as well as the composers, seem to be banished now so completely from the churches, at least from the ones here, as if they had been discovered to be incompetent? For the former instrument is still very penetrating, with all its harshness; whereas the other sounds very majestic, and fills a large church beautifully” (Mattheson Capellmeister 846).


1784—London, England: At the Handel Festival, Charles Burney comments specifically on the trombones, instruments newly re-introduced to England, describing “tuneful blasts of trumpets and sacbuts in the Dead March” from Saul (Burney Westminster 33).

1784—London, England: Dr. Sylas Neville, another eyewitness at the Handel Festival, is impressed by “so many voices, such prodigious kettle drums, that most powerful instrument the trombone & the loftiness of the place so well adapted to give the highest effect to musical sound” (Neville 321).

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