Tromba Da Gamba

Thread Title: It's arrived and it's unique!

Poster: Virgilanti
It finally arrived! 
It cleared customs on Thursday. Now there's no time for much else at all. I've got to learn to play it.
Here it is. It's a tromba da gamba (literally "knee trumpet").

If you've never heard of one of these, I'm not surprised. I started searching for one in 1998 and faced brick walls on almost every line of enquiry. However, a lack of information never deters a well financed fanatic. In April 2001 I got a message from a fellow collector of baroque instruments. He had heard there was a plate in the archives of the National History Museum of Reykjavik (Þjóðminjasafn Reykjavíkur). The plate, dated around 1603, was of a group of chamber musicians. One of them was seated and appeared to be bowing a stringed brass instrument that he held between his knees.
I contacted the museum. This was my lucky break. I found, to my joy, that the curator knew of a horn from a tromba da gamba tucked away in storage at the Accademia in Venice. It was in poor condition but still had the tuning head mounted.
What could I do? A flight to Italy later in 2001 got me a chance to look at it, to hold it, but not to play it. It had no mouthpiece, no slide, no fingerboard, no strings, but it was this collectors dream.
The museum was adamant that I could not buy the instrument from them at any price. Restoring it was not an option. I took a bucket-load of photo's and measurements and began to contact instrument makers.
It has taken the best part of a year and more money than I care to count, but I finally have it - my own tromba da gamba - and AFAIK the only one in working condition in the world!

There is a historical reason why this antiquated instrument is so obscure. It was gaining a lot in popularity by the start of the 17th century but encountered a bit of a PR problem in 1619 when, according to the story, the pope (presumably Pope Paul V) saw the instrument being played by a woman. He was shocked at the suggestiveness of the performance and made his displeasure very apparent. It wasn't long before most of the upper class throughout Europe regarded the instrument as crude and vulgar. What had previously been looked on as a beautiful instrument now could not even be mentioned without snickering. The historians and writers of the time knew where their patronage came from, so most of the pictures and descriptions of the tromba da gamba were quietly dropped from their manuscripts.
The cost of the instrument (needing both a trumpet maker and a skilled luthier) and difficulty to master (requiring simultaneous agility of embouchure and both hands) prevented its adoption among the common folk. It seems a shame that such a beautiful instrument, whose shape inspired the treble clef, should fall into obscurity because of one man's dirty mind.

I'll let you know what it sounds like once I can play a bit.

Warning: The above message may contain traces of inaccuracy. Seek musical advice before swallowing.

Poster: Respondent1
thats awesome

\m/ rock

Poster: Virgilanti
I just had to post some sound. The resonances of strings and horn give it a natural reverb even recorded in a dry room.
Have a listen:

tromba da gamba sounds 265kb

Back to practise some more. 

Warning: The above message may contain traces of inaccuracy. Seek musical advice before swallowing.

Poster: Respondent2
That's utterly intriguing.. I've never heard of it.

Poster: Respondent3
that's is one of the more lovely sounds i've witnessed in folkinstruments.

can you PLEASE tell/show us more about it?
how is it played, where do you control the tone, and how excactly do the strings work?


Poster: Virgilanti
Respondent3: You should know better than to ask a fanatic about his pet subject. 

It's a large instrument, but holding it is easy and surprisingly comfortable. The bottom loop of the horn (where the tailpiece of the strings is attached) is held between your knees, while the calf braces (to the left of the picture) tuck in behind your knees to prevent the instrument sliding forward off your lap. Generally you would hold a normal violin bow with your right hand. Left hand is used on the fingerboard. The mouthpiece/neck needs to be adjusted so that a player in a sitting position doesn't have to stretch. (Since this instrument was custom made for me, it fits perfectly.) The seat you use must be exactly level and at the correct height so that the player's thighs are horizontal while their feet are flat on the floor.

To achieve the full capability of the tromba da gamba, one must be an accomplished string player and have the lip control to exploit the natural harmonic series of the horn. The best known performers of its time could manage 3 part polyphonic inventions (one part on the horn, two either bowed or plucked on the strings). The difficulty of playing the instrument properly cannot be underestimated, but there are several simpler modes available. Here are two that are worthy of mention.

Easier styles.

Tromba con risonanza:
The instrument is played as a trombone while allowing the strings to resonate sympathetically. Since only the right hand is required to move the slide, the left hand can be used on the fingerboard to set the pitch of the resonances. This style of playing can produce very haunting, echoing sounds. (However it is difficult to play fast because of the awkward position of the slide.)

Viola da gamba:
The instrument is played as a normal stringed instrument. Setting the slide position allows the horn to be tuned to the desired key, adding a surprising richness of tone.

A harder style.

The tromba da gamba has another playing style that is even more difficult to master, called "ragno". In this mode, one finger of the left hand presses a string to the fingerboard while another finger of the left hand is used to pluck the string. The right hand moves the slide to tune the horn to the notes being plucked (or possibly to a harmonic of the notes). The sound produced is reminiscent of the plink of water dripping in a cave and is useful for playing delicate ostinatos (or should that be ostinati?).

In a couple more days of intensive practice I hope to be able to record myself playing some simple tunes so you can hear the beauty of this instrument. Don't expect too much. Bags of money can buy gorgeous instruments, but not talent.

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Poster: Respondent4
I'd like to see a pic of you playing it (or at least in the correct position). That'd be great.

Poster: Virgilanti
No tripod, sorry. The best I can do for the moment is balance the camera on the computer and trigger a remote capture.
*triggers the capture and tries to get hands back away from the computer*

*groans at the lighting*

I'll try to get some better shots when I have an extra pair of hands around to help.

Warning: The above message may contain traces of inaccuracy. Seek musical advice before swallowing.

Poster: Respondent4
Do you play any other brass instruments?

Poster: Respondent5
Oh, it was that big. 0.o Thought all the time that it'd be something of a size of a violin. Oh, well, I was wondering how on earth that can be played.

Cool thing.

Now we need an audio track of what it sounds like.

Poster: Virgilanti
Respondent4: That depends on what you mean by "play".
I hadn't touched the trumpet for years. Then about a week ago my son encouraged me to play along with him.
My lips have forgotten much. It is said that loose lips sink ships, but mine are still quite suitable for a foghorn. 

Respondent5: I'm practising hard. It's lunch time here now. I'd like to have something recorded by about midnight tonight.

For those that are interested, I have found some more references to the tromba da gamba in the literature. An instrument that achieves such a high level of popularity cannot completely disappear, even when it falls so dramatically from favour.

Here is a song "A Beauteous Maiden Did I Spy" attributed to Feargal Anthee (1559-1603).
We can easily deduce that Feargal was a tromba da gamba player from the reference to it in his songs.

A beauteous maiden did I spy
And caught the twinkling of her eye.
Though I was young and she was shy
That need not last forever.

A winsome lass fain would I please
As softly blows the summer breeze
I'd place my tromba 'twixt her knees
And music make together.

Her hair, a bowstring, slowly drawn
So gently o'er my trembling horn
My raptured soul to heav'n is borne
As lightly as a feather.

Warning: This whole thread may contain traces of humour. Seek musical advice before swallowing.

Poster: Virgilanti
Ok folks. Finally a recording for you.
Here is an excerpt from a 2 part invention by Keyes:

Two Part Invention

Warning: This whole thread may contain traces of humour. Seek musical advice before swallowing.