This is a concert weekend for us. The Greenville Chorale is performing a selection of works by Leonard Bernistein and Giuseppi Verdi. The first performance last night went very well (more on that in a later post).
The repertoire called for some unusual instruments, including two brake drums hit by standard hammers for Verdi’s Anvil Chorus, and a sheet of metal struck to simulate thunder in Verdi’s Witches Chorus from Macbeth.
However, the instrument that really puzzled us and caught our attention was the cimbasso. As shown in the photo at the top of this post, it looks like a cross between a trombone and a tuba. It turns out that is pretty much it’s function, too. It fills a niche by providing an instrument in the bass range of a tuba, but with more of the tonal qualities of a trombone.
None of my fellow singers seemed to know what this odd instrument was. We started calling it a “Dr. Seuss-o-phone” because of it’s strange appearance. Tubist Don Strand was tasked with playing the instrument, and he gave us it’s real name.
The cimbasso is now seen most often in large operatic works. It’s used during large bombastic sections, such as triumphal entries, etc. It’s used to provide the lower notes of a trombone chorus during these passages because it blends better with the trombones than a tuba would. However, cimbassos are rare, if a one isn’t available, the notes are usually played on a tuba.
…which kind of begs the question, if this is so rare, where does one find a cimbasso, or someone to play the blasted thing? Also, why bother? Why not just go ahead and use a tuba or a bass trombone?
As to the second question, instruments come and go and changes are made as technology and materials improve. You usually don’t hear about orchestral pieces scored for sackbutt (a forerunner of the trombone) or the shawm (and early oboe.) When Verdi and other composers were writing the cimbasso was more common, and the piece was written with that specific tonal coloration in mind. The sound more closely approaches the composer’s conception of the the music if the appropriate instruments can be found.
In some cases, the technique required is significantly different. For example, a slide trombone couldn’t respond as quickly as an instrument with valves. However, the piping required for valves introduce harmonics into the instrument that tend to make the tone brighter.
As to the first question, and where one finds a cimbasso, just a quick online search seems to indicate that most of these are custom made. That means these aren’t cheap. Ferguson Music is also known as “The Horn Guys”, making “custom brass instruments for the discerning musician.” They have three cimbassos in their inventory, ranging in price from $7600 to $16,000.
Given the cost, and since it’s used in such limited repertoire, I’m guessing that this is an instrument one would rent rather than own. A capable tuba player should be able to handle it, but probably wouldn’t want the expense of keeping one of these beasts.
But, if you’re curious about the sound of the cimbasso, I did find Mattis Cederberg, who goes by the moniker The Cimbassonista on YouTube. Here he is playing “The Nearness of You” on solo cimbasso…