Friday, August 24, 2012

Cimbasso - a comeback that’s here to stay

Actually, there are two historical instruments close the hearts of tubists in the midst of a comeback into this 21st century musical world; the cimbasso and the ophiclide. The ophiclide will have a difficult future. Quite simply, it was the best thing available to fill a certain orchestral need of a bass brass instrument during the time of Mendelssohn, Berlioz and even early Wagner. When the tuba arrived just before the beginning of the 20th century it replaced the ophiclide because of one simple reason; it was a better instrument for its purpose, much better.

For a very different reason, the cimbasso just barely survived through the 20th century. Quite simply, most cimbassos of the passed century were not very good instruments, but the idea of a cylindrical bass instrument to the brass family was a good idea, which survived and grew.

The etymology of ‘cimbasso’ is a little illogical and a little awkward. A bass instrument in the cornetto family (The Italian name to a family of wooden instruments from the 17th played with a mouthpiece) was developed in the 19th century, it was called “Cornetto in Basso”. Composers notated the instrument simply as C. in Basso; the copyists of the time didn’t know what it was and wrote it as cinbasso, finally by mistake the N changed to M and CIMBASSO became the name that survived. 
Through most of the 20th century, tubists would see “Cimbasso” written on the music, mostly Italian music, and simply play the part on tuba; that seemed to work well enough. But it was clear, because of the orchestration, that these cimbasso parts were really more of a 4th trombone part, or a contrabass trombone part than a tuba part.

In the early days of Italian band music the trombones were valve trombones, and even now one can find valve trombones played in some of the many village bands found all over Italy. These valve trombones were the instruments that Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini heard in their mind’s ear when they composed their music, and what they heard was quite different than the orchestrational perceptions of their counterparts in Germany. First of all, because these instruments were valve instead of slide instruments, they were capable of greater velocity. This is evident when we compare the virtuoso trombone parts of Rossini to the linier choral writing of Schumann for example.

But another difference, and one that pertains specifically to cimbasso, is the fact that these Italian valve trombones had a brighter timbre because they were smaller bore and because of the turbulence caused by the irregular tubing passing through the valve section. Not so long ago, eighteen years to be exact, I was fortunate to hear a section of valve trombones with cimbasso in the Teatro Communale in Florence when the Maggio Musicale Orchestra was playing an opera by Verdi. The conductor was a man well into his 80s and he wanted the sound he knew best. The sound was special and unique, evident in rhythmic passages reminiscent of the Italian band era. What was most apparent is that cimbasso was the clearly the correct instrument in that setting.

Wagner, in the 19th century, was in the process of forming essentially two brass sections for a single orchestra, one conical, which included horns, Wagner tubas, basstuba and contrabasstuba and the other a section of cylindrical instruments, which included trumpets, basstrumpet, trombones, basstrombone and contrabasstrombone. Through the same period, Verdi and Puccini simply used the their indigenous instruments.

Through the past twenty years a phenomenon has taken place among many tubists, mine went like this: Because I was deeply curious about the possible advantages of the cimbasso and because I was seeking a cylindrical instrument, I had Larry Minick, the extraordinary Los Angeles based brass instrument designer, build me a cimbasso, and the result was superb. For several years I played a few Verdi and Puccini arias during operatic programs but never anything major. The opportunity came when Italian conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of the Verdi Requiem and I decided to use the cimbasso. Suddenly, it became clear that cimbasso was the correct instrument, it just sounded right. And it was especially apparent in the Tuba Mirum; what had always been a task to make tuba work well in this very high-energy part with trumpets and trombones playing their fanfaristic passages on stage and off stage in all directions, became the exact right thing, suddenly and easily. That was the moment I understood why this was such a valuable and characteristic instrument.

Unfortunately, I was approaching the end of my orchestral career and had very few chances to play cimbasso after that, just a few times in the Maggio Musicale Orchestra in Florence. I could not help thinking, though, of the potential this instrument had, in brass quintet, larger brass ensembles, and as a solo instrument. I can only imagine how appropriate cimbasso would sound on the Galliard sonatas or Tom Stevens’s Variations in Olden Style.

Today we are fortunate to have several instrument makers who build very fine cimbassos and it seems inevitable that cimbasso will become a part of the tubist’s required tool kit. I look forward to watching how this instrument develops in the future and I’m a little envious of the younger players of today who will help guide that development.

Tokyo, Japan, September 29, 2007
Revised August 24, 2012, Tokyo, Japan