Chitarrone, Viola da Gamba, Tromba Marina
by Gregg Miner, as part of

Angels We Have Heard On High
(19th century French carol with English text)



14-Course Theorbo or Chitarrone in A (Italian tiorba) - John Rollins, 1993 - after M. Dieffopruchar, Venice, 1610

Viola da Gamba
- Vitale tenor-bass - Germany, 1964

Tromba Marina
(Trumpet Marine)

Close up...



Disclaimer to Internet readers: 
The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

One would require vastly more time and money than I have at my disposal to pursue the rich and fascinating world of "early music" (15th - 17th century) instruments. Despite attempts at building a diverse collection, I've barely managed to scratch the surface. Happily, I can offer you these tidbits:

The first is an instrument evidently built for a lutenist who forgot to say "when" - the spectacular chitarrone - an eye-popping archlute so ridiculously long that it's not safe to take out of its case while indoors. Surprisingly, this unique instrument evolved in Italy prior to the more "normal-looking" Baroque lutes and German theorbos (discussed in Volume 1 of the CD). Yet it shared the same impetus - namely, the demand for a greater range in the lute's lower register. Luthiers of the period began by simply adding more bass courses to the lute - which sounded too "tubby" -so they solved the problem by lengthening the bass strings. Ultimately, these reached up to twice the length of the fingerboard strings (on my instrument, the eight single-course open bass strings are lengths of gut nearly six feet long!). Unwilling to leave well enough alone, they also decided to increase the scale-length and overall size of the instrument. Consequently, due to string breakage from the increased tension required to tune the highest strings, they were forced to lower the pitch of the first two courses an octave. This "re-entrant" tuning (the third course was now the highest pitched) created unusual chord voicings, and thus, new playing and compositional techniques (and, incidentally, confused the heck out of me). For over  a century, chitarrones (also known as Italian tiorbas) were required ensemble instruments for playing bass and chords in the new continuo style of music (this term would be difficult to explain to a layperson, especially since I don't even play it myself). A small number of chitarrone virtuous also composed solo music music for it. This wonderful music is all too infrequently heard because there are very few practitioners reviving it today, and fewer still who build authentic "working" reproductions. Commissioning this stupendous custom  instrument (based on a surviving museum specimen) from Washington luthier John Rollins was a veritable dream come true.

The viol or viola da gamba (in Italian, "on [or between] the legs") was a contemporary of the lute, which shared the lute's tuning, gut strings, and tied gut frets, but was played with a bow (my initial reaction was, great - a cello with frets! but this was inaccurate). Originally six strings were standard - later seven, and occasionally five. Viols (rhymes with "dial") come in three general sizes - treble, tenor, and bass - and all are played upright, the treble resting on the lap. The bow is held underhand, unlike that of the modern violin family. Incidentally, while viols pre-dated the cello and viola, they were not actually forerunners but cousins - and, at the time, the most highly respected instruments of the aristocracy. If you were a sophisticate back in the sixteenth century, you played the viol, not the "crude" violin. This lasted until the late 1600s, when Stradivarius, in essence, said, Oh yeah, well take this! As the violin family developed greater volume, range and expressiveness, the viol went the way of the lute and other "period" instruments - but, happily, today it has been widely resurrected for it's unique charm and rich musical heritage.

On the other hand, no one seems to be resurrecting the fabled tromba marina, a strange instrument with one string that nevertheless survived from the twelfth to the nineteenth century! Experts eventually translated "tromba marina" (or trumpet marine) to mean, literally, a "trumpet played by nuns". It seems the use of brass instruments in convents was frowned upon - so the nuns turned to this bizarre one-stringed bowed instrument which approximated the "blare" of a trumpet. This effect was heightened by a second partially attached bridge which vibrated against the soundboard, producing a buzzing sound (missing from my reproduction, and perhaps just as well). The one thick gut string, about five feet long and tuned to a low note, was not fretted and bowed in a normal manner. Instead, one hand lightly touched the harmonic "nodal points" while the other bowed the string above the other, sounding only the overtones in the harmonic series (like a bugle playing "Taps"). My specimen also has the optional sympathetic wire strings (over forty) strung inside the body - these are presumably to vibrate in resonance to the bowed notes, though I didn't really notice them pitching in much.

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