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The tromba marina, or trumpet marine, can be over two metres tall, and has one long, thick playing string which is bowed, and a host of sympathetic (resonating) strings. Melodies are produced by touching the harmonic nodes of the playing string with the thumb. It makes the most extraordinary sounds, which range from a loud trumpet-like buzz to a soft and fuzzy flutey tone. And it’s beautiful to look at. So why did this majestic instrument become obsolete?

Iconographical evidence dates back to the 12
th century. Back then the tromba marina 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 17
th century the tromba marina had grown in size and had acquired a buzzing foot-like bridge and sympathetic strings. Many surviving instruments were found in convents. It seems that tromba marinas were a staple of the Northern European nun’s musical instrument box. Wind instruments would have been off-limits for women so it’s possible that tromba marinas were used as substitutes for trumpets. As the 17th century wore on, the tromba marina began to appear in secular public music-making. The late 17th century virtuoso, Jean-Baptiste Prin made a career of it, entertaining English audiences with his huge collection of tromba marinas and producing a treatise on how to play the instrument. His father also played it 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 1675, 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.’

Like a trumpet, the tromba marina has a limited number of ‘good’ harmonic notes. Unlike a trumpet the harmonics on a tromba marina can’t be adjusted which leads to a scale at odds with the various tuning temperaments of the day. It is perhaps this feature 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. In fact, maybe it only survived as long as it did because of its magical sonic and visual qualities.

Reviving this spectacular instrument 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 to 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.

My instrument is a copy of a mid-18th century tromba marina in the V&A musical instrument collection, made by master luthier, Shem Mackey. It has a string made from 70 to 80 sheep gut strands (made from a small flock of 9-10 sheep), a buzzing foot, 42 sympathetic strings and is nearly two metres tall. I plan to have three more tromba marinas made over the next few years and performance plans for The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments include a reconstruction of that ‘rare concert’ given in 1675. The notes produced by the harmonic nodes and the resultant idiosyncratic tuning alongside the extraordinary sonic textures produced by this magical instrument provide a rich source of creative material, both for reconstructing old music and making new music. Long live the tromba marina!

Clare Salaman 2016