tromba marina


The tromba marina is a bowed, mostly one-stringed instrument that was played in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, from the 15th until the middle of the 18th century.  It is often depicted in paintings and prints from that time, in the hands of musician angels or in representations of the dance of death. These images tell us a lot about the history and the organological evolution of this intriguing instrument, whose name has been explained in different ways. Probably the most convincing explanation is that 'tromba' refers to the characteristic trumpet like sound of the instrument. 'Marina' would then refer to the Virgin Mary, as the tromba marina was often played in churches and monasteries. However, the instrument was also used in other contexts, such as the opera and court music. About three hundred works for  it have been listed. Most were composed between the late 17th century and the middle of the 18th century.

An unusual feature of the tromba marina is the movable bridge. The string passes over one foot of the bridge, leaving the other side of the bridge to vibrate freely on the soundboard, when the string is bowed. In order to adjust the vibrations and to keep the bridge in position, some tromba marinas have a string attached below the bridge to the playing string. The tension of this string can be regulated with a screw. It is this particular bridge that gives the tromba marina its trumpet-like sound. A similar loose bridge is also found on most West European hurdy-gurdies. Its string is meaningfully called a trumpet string.  

Apart from its sound, the tromba marina has other features in common with brass wind instruments. Just like with valve-less, natural horns and trumpets, only harmonics (natural tones) are played on the tromba marina. They are produced by lightly touching the string with the fingers of the left hand, most often the thumb, at certain points, indicated on the neck. Hence it comes that, apart from a drone, you can also play a melody on the tromba marina.

To an important extent the sound can also be enhanced by sympathetic strings within the soundbox. Not only do they amplify the sound, they also  lengthen it. Their number is variable, and quite often they are even lacking. Moreover, tromba marinas come in different designs, with very distinct organological features. There are both small tromba marinas measuring less than a metre, and big ones, measuring  more than two metres. The shape of the soundbox and the decoration - from rudimentary to abundant - can also vary a lot.

The tromba marina on display in the mim measures 202 cm. Within the soundbox it bears the handwritten inscription F. Houyet me fit à Namur en 1680 ('F. Houyet made me in Namur in 1680'). The soundbox has a hexagonal shape and an open bottom end. The eight marks on the neck indicate the nodal points where the string has to be touched to produce the harmonics.

The instrument belonged to François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871). After his death it was transferred to the Brussels Conservatory by his sons Édouard and Adolphe. In 1877 it went to the new musical instruments museum, together with the rest of the Fétis collection.

tromba marina
tromba marina
Hans Holbein, Dance of death (1525)