Cimbasso – clarity for Verdi's low brass

Next to the trombones on the COG stage you will sometimes see a large slightly outlandish instrument that is rarely seen by an audience. This reflects Verdi's choice for his preferred low brass bass sound.

The COG trombone section with David Young and his Cimbasso

For most of Verdi's career there was innovation for the brass bass, as the developing valve gave opportunities for better consistency and increased low range compared to the preceding keyed instruments. There were a number of different inventions, and a variety of names they went by, which through the 1850s were becoming interchangeable. In this confusion all a composer could do was refer to the bass horn, Italian 'corno in basso', abbreviated to 'c. in basso', and subsequently 'cimbasso'.

Verdi used these instruments enthusiastically, but did not like the continuing increase in size (width of tubing) and weight made possible by further improvements in the valve.There may have been a geo-political element for Verdi, as the emerging bass tuba was invented in Berlin, enlarged in Bohemia which was part of the Austrian empire, and embraced by Verdi's German contemporary and rival Richard Wagner. Verdi wanted a more homogeneous team of low brass, distinct from the sounds of the Austrian oppressors of Lombardy-Venetia and their allies. When referring to Aida in 1872 he wrote that he preferred a bass trombone or even an ophicleide (a narrow, keyed instrument) but not 'quel diavolo di Bombardone'. In 1881 he chose a contrabass trombone as his preferred instrument (lower pitch than the bass trombone, and with valves rather than a slide which would have been too unwieldy). Thereafter, for his four remaining pieces with large orchestra, he specified trombone basso for the lowest brass instrument. The maker marketed it as 'trombone basso Verdi', although Verdi never referred to it as such. Furthermore Verdi successfully lobbied the Milan music authorities to supplant the bass tuba with trombone basso in the orchestra, and for 40 years it was the default Italian brass bass before succumbing to the tuba in line with the rest of the Western World.

In the second half of the twentieth century, with tubas (and trombones) further increasing in weight of sound, opera houses again were looking for a more distinct, clearer sound in the bass. This led to the development of an instrument based on Verdi's trombone basso, but with the larger initial bore and key of the standard F bass tuba so the incumbent tuba player could easily switch. As the trombone basso had only been specified for a handful of pieces, this new instrument was marketed as the cimbasso to promote its use in most of 19 th century Italian opera.

The modern cimbasso therefore is not authentic to what Verdi would have expected when he composed most of his operas, but more so to Italian practice around the turn of the 20 th Century, and although he did not comment on the use of the trombone basso in his early works it is likely Verdi generally approved.

The instrument normally used as cimbasso in COG is a little closer to Verdi's trombone basso, a 5 valve instrument in F but with the bore of a large bass trombone, made in latter day Bohemia.

Copyright © David Young 2015

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