Tromba Marina

Tromba Marina engraving Kate playing the tromba marina

Overview

A tromba marina (or trumpet marine) is probably one of the more unusual instruments that was ever invented. Fantastic as it may seem, it is a legitimate instrument, and enjoyed a brief Golden Age in the first half of the eighteenth century. The tromba marina's innocent ancestor was the monochord, a single stringed instrument used in medieval monasteries to rediscover the physics of sound, and later to find pitches (the functional precursor to the piano, in that respect). At some point, the monochord acquired the tromba marina's most distinctive feature: a vibrating bridge. When played with a bow, the vibration of the string causes one foot of the bridge to vibrate against the soundboard, creating a brassy buzz. Add to this the fact that you play high harmonics on the long string, and you've got yourself a trumpet. Almost. It truly has to be heard to be believed.

This instrument is a copy of an extant trumpet marine made by Johann Ulrich Fischer in 1720. The original came from the Seligenthal Cistercian Convent, and is now kept in the Landshut Stadt- und Kreismuseum. The total length is 2 meters and the vibrating length is 1.9 meters. The body has a seven-stave back of maple, and a two-piece spruce soundboard.

The plans for this instrument, as well as frequent troubleshooting help, were provided by Dr. Cecil Adkins, who has written the definitive book about the trumpet marine: A Trumpet by any other Name: A History of the Trumpet Marine (Buren, Netherlands: Frits Knuf Publishers, 1991).

Back view of tromba marina Front view of tromba marina

How does it work?

The trumpet marine has one playing string, typically tuned to the C three octaves below middle C. It is played entirely with harmonics which are produced by lightly touching one's thumb to the string at nodal points. When the string is divided into eighths, for instance, a note three octaves above the open string is produced. The practical playing range of this instrument is the 6th through 12th partials, creating a major triad in the lower octave and a scale in the upper octave. This concept of playing in the harmonic series is identical to playing a bugle or a natural trumpet, hence part of this instrument's similarity to a trumpet.

The other part of its similarity to a trumpet comes from its sound. Before the string attaches to the soundboard, it passes over a loosely-fitting bridge. The string is balanced over one foot of the bridge, and the other foot of the bridge vibrates against the soundboard. This amplifies the sound, transmitting it into the conical shaped body and out the soundhole at the base of the instrument. The result is a brassy buzz.

A critical part to maintaining a consistent buzz is an adjusting string called a guidon. This is a string which ties loosely around the playing string right below the vibrating bridge, is pulled out to the edge of the soundboard, then goes up the instrument to the pegbox, where it is wrapped around a peg. The guidon adjusts the balance of the bridge by pulling the main string from side to side. Having an extra peg for the guidon conveniently allows the player to 'tune' the bridge while the instrument is in playing position.

Pricing

Standard instrument: $4200

Copy of Johann Ulrich Fischer: 2 meters long, seven-stave back, one playing string and a guidon system.

Options:

Internal sympathetic strings (21), add $800

Removable neck, add $600

Case, add $300-$600

For more information, see Ordering Instruments

What does it sound like?

In the spring of 2001 I was able to work with the 7th grade orchestra at Chippewa Middle School, and perform a few movements of "Suite d' Air" by Prin. Here is an audio clip.

Here is another audio clip of the solo trumpet marine.