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A research and concert project reinventing forgotten sounds: the tromba marina and the violino in tromba marina.

This project is about the reinvention and application of two forgotten Western historical instruments and ancient tuning systems to new music. The instruments in question are the tromba marina and the violino in tromba marina. The composers in focus are Annegret Mayer-Lindenberg and Sara Cubarsi. A new tromba marina was built by Annegret Mayer-Lindenberg. This project started with a stipendium from the Ministeriums für Kultur und Wissenschaft des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen and continued with the generous support of the Kunststiftung NRW. 



Annegret Mayer-Lindenberg – Keine Zeit für Nachtigallen (2023) world premiere for tromba marina and percussion Commissioned by Sara Cubarsi with the support of Kunststiftung NRW, for the project Die Trompete der Nonnen

Dirk Rothburst, percussion

Sara Cubarsi, tromba marina (built by Annegret Mayer-Lindenberg)


About the tromba marina and the violino in tromba marina


The tromba marina only plays notes from the overtone series (although it is possible to get tones outside of it by adding left finger pressure to the string). Its tuning does not align with the standard tuning of the piano. Therefore, tromba marinas came into disuse, as temperaments, and later equal temperament, were more divulged. The instrument is about 2 meters long and usually has only one long string. Its monochord nature connects it to the history of ancient Greek music theory. By the late Renaissance, this large monochord had a clear musical function in ensemble music and a characteristic timbre. The notes played on the string, near the scroll-end where the tuning peg lies, are played as harmonics of the fundamental string length, i.e. corresponding to its overtones. In this way, it functions like a natural trumpet which plays notes from the harmonic series of its key. Its brassy sound comes from the lifted vibrating bridge. The string passes over one foot of the bridge, leaving the other foot to vibrate freely on a plate of glass or metal, with the help of a guidon, creating a buzz that makes it sound like a trumpet. It’s sound has also been described as drum-like, tremble-like, scratch-like or tympany-like.


The history of its names is a history of mistranslations and misunderstandings. Cecil Adkins & Alis Dickinson make the most informed up-to-date account in their book A trumpet by any other name (1991). Some of its names include: Trumscheit, trompette marine, Drumschyt, tympanischyza, Nonnengeige and tuba manualis. 


The first time that a tromba marina appeared in a text reference was in 1511 with the name Trumscheit, but statues and paintings clearly display an early Trumscheit since the early 1100s. Some claim that it was used by sailors, but evidence is largely missing. Others claim that the word “marine” is a mistranslation from Marientrompette. Out of all histories and stories, the names that make more sense according to its use, are those with the stem Nonnen-. The instrument was used in convents, surely in replacement of brass instruments, since it was inappropriate for the nuns to play on trumpets. In fact, Vivaldi wrote four concertos that include the violino in tromba marina for the Ospedale della Pietá, a convent, orphanage and music school in Venice which was famous for their musical performances given by their female musicians. Although much research is missing on the subject, it is probably not by chance that the repertoire for violino in tromba marina by Vivaldi was written for the female musicians of the convent. Perhaps Vivaldi wrote for a violin in tromba marina what otherwise might have been a trumpet part. 


There is no substantial evidence on what was exactly different in a violin in tromba marina. Based on the surviving information about Vivald’s work and historical documents from Ospedale della Pietà, Adrian Chandler, David Rattray, and Michael Talbot developed a model version in 2015. It implements metal disks screwed through the violin bridge, which vibrate creating the same kind of buzz made by the tromba marina bridge. Unfortunately, there is almost no other repertoire for this unique form of a violin. The only other two musical instances with a violino in tromba marina are: a work that Nicola Porpora wrote while he was the choir director also at the Ospedale de la Pietá in 1741-42; and a setting of Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus in one movement. 


In both cases, the violin in tromba marina and the tromba marina produce a sound very rich in overtones. Vivaldi’s Concerto RV. 311 for violino in tromba marina, strings and continuo, makes extensive use of double stops. With the vibrating bridge, these produce much louder difference tones than what we are used to hearing on a normal violin, and its timbre cuts sharply across the ensemble. When such overtone-rich sounds are overlapped, not only they produce strong difference tones, but also loud summation tones, the effect of which resembles a distortion-effect, but acoustically achieved. 


The artistic application of these acoustical phenomena is of central importance to composers working in branches that have partially evolved from the spectral movement. The project also resonates with the pioneering work of Harry Partch, whose music in just intonation uses instruments developed to fit the underpinning theory.

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