Historical Instrument Section (Craig Kridel and Clifford Bevan, editors)
Final Thoughts on the Cimbasso, Part II by Clifford Bevan
(Editor’s Note: This article is the second portion of a presentation by Mr. Bevan that began in the Spring 1999 issue of the Journal.)
Three Steps Towards the Authentic Sound
The cimbasso, the modem version of the valved contrabass trombone heard and approved by Verdi in Pelitti’s Milan workshop in August 1881, is now familiar to all readers of the TUBA Journal, not least through the striking photograph of Michael Bunn with his Meinl-Weston instmment on the front cover of the Winter 1996 issue.
Step 1. Historical
There is no doubt of Verdi’s opinion of a tuba in the opera pit. He vigorously reiterated his feelings during the deliberations of various organizations concerned with the development of the Italian orchestra, strongly opposing the Congresso dei Musicisti Italiani when in 1881 they recommended that the serpentone should be replaced by contrabass tuba.
However, the Italian musicologist Renato Meucci has identified parts for cimbasso as early as Paganini’s first violin concerto of 1815-16. At this time neither the ophicleide nor the tuba had been invented, so the serpent was the only instrument available to play the lowest brass part. The first upright serpent, in the shape of a bassoon, had appeared in 1789, built by J.J. Regibo, a musician at the College of S. Pierre in Lille, France. A similar instrument, the serpent miUtaire, was built by Piffault of Paris in 1806. The most widespread European upright serpent was the Basson msse, or Russian Bassoon, in which the bell was normally either flared, made from brass, or a painted snake’s head with a wagging red tongue. It also differed firom the serpent ordinaire in having a greater proportion of the total tube-length taken up by the crook or bocal. Instruments of this type were immensely popular, made in centres as far apart as London and Milan.
The composer Spontini noted the presence of one at La Scala, Milan in 1816, where it would have been known by the Italian term cimbasso. A plan of the orchestra there dating firom 1825 also indicates a serpent, and Lichtenthal’s music dictionary, published in Milan the following year, devoted one and a half pages to the entry for serpentone. It made logistic and acoustic sense to use an upright serpent in the pit. Its stmcture is confirmed by the description of the cimbasso published by the Italian bandmaster Alessandro Vessella in 1897, which states that it was made of wood in the shape of a bassoon with six finger-holes, two keys, a metal bell, and an “S” terminating in a mouthpiece like that of a trombone. There are extant examples of instmments of this type made in Milan, one in the Yale Collection by Garignani Brothers dating from about 1820, and another, by P. Piani, in The Shrine to Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota.
Around the time of the Garignani Brothers’ instmment and Spontini’s sighting there were many scores by composers like Rossini, Donizetti, and a host of others which specified either ‘cimbasso’ or ‘serpentone.’ With the arrival of the ophicleide, the tuba and then the cimbasso of Verdi, this instmment was superseded, just as the serpent was elsewhere.
Step 2. Technical
Nicholas Perry is an early music wind player and instmment-maker from St. Albans, a cathedral city about twenty miles north of London. Amongst other activities, he is involved with Keith Rogers of the Christopher Monk Workshops in developing and making various wind instmments, work which led him in 1997 to spend some time on the Continent researching, measuring and photographing. In one particular museum he became intrigued by a door on which was chalked ‘A. Sax.’ Eventually, his curiosity could be restrained no longer, but on opening the door he found not brass instruments made by the esteemed Parisian maker, but sections of wood and metal which had clearly at some previous time formed parts of bass homs or cimbassi. I had the good fortune to be present when he arrived back at the Christopher Monk Workshops with photographs of his discoveries.
It was 1998 before Nick had made enough sense of the bits and pieces to enable him to draw accurate plans of the instrument and begin work on construction. The completed instrument was played by Stephen Wick, Professor of Serpent and Ophicleide at the Royal Academy of Music, before I had the opportunity to try it out. The first note, low C, was an unforgettable experience, because its firmness and clarity totally surpassed all I had expected. Here, and throughout the range, the overwhelming impression was that of an instrument with qualities of resonance and incisiveness that would allow it to hold its own in a large orchestra or wind band.
There is no doubt that the considerable proportion of narrow-bore tubing in the metal crook is mainly responsible for this cutting edge. Out of a total tube-length of 2510 millimeters, 810 mm, or very nearly one-third, is taken up by the crook which expands from a diameter of 12 mm at the point where the mouthpiece enters to 26 mm at the entry to the body of the instrument. At the other end, the metal bell expands from 55 mm diameter where it leaves the wooden body to a flare diameter of 247 mm. Despite the bassoon-like appearance of the instrument below the bell, it actually possesses some trombone characteristics, marked by the relatively narrow internal profile of the wooden section and making it eminently suitable for its position alongside the trombones.
There are three well-known cimbasso fingering charts in existence. Two are reproduced in Meucci’s Galpin Society Journal (GSJ) article (vol.xlix, pages 167 and 168): for single-keyed cimbasso by Asiloi of Milan in 1825, and a three-keyed cimbasso from an anonymous Italian source, about 1830; and the other is in Arnold Myers’s GSJ article (vol. xxxix, page 135): for three keyed cimbasso by Bertini, intriguingly published in London in 1830. Using these as the basis it was possible to calculate the best fingerings for Nick Perry’s particular instrument.
Although its six finger-holes and three keys are familiar to serpent players, the fingering system differs somewhat from that of the military or church serpent, particularly in relation to the fiinction of the keys. The fingerings giving the clearest and most consistent tone are not particularly logical as fig.2 shows, but they allow notes to be centred and played loudly without distortion of tone. The finger-holes themselves have a diameter of approximately 10 mm, not round, but bored at varying angles so as to allow the fingers to lie comfortably on the outside of the tube while being placed close to the acoustically correct positions on the inside.
Step 3. Performing
The proving exercise had indicated that the instrument was likely to provide a good, strong foundation to the trio of narrow-bore tenor trombones, normally with rotary-valves, found in early nineteenth century Italian orchestras. But would there be more opportunities to use the instrument, not in strictly ‘period’ orchestras, but rather in a setting where the players adopted the kind of informed attitude outlined by Stephen Wick in the TUBA Journal, Summer 1998?
It was decided to try out the instrument alongside three medium-bore modem trombones at the Lacock Serpentarium, due a few weeks later, to see if it was viable in some of the works where it was specified. London Serpent Trio serpentist Andrew van der Beek volunteered to master the cimbasso in the short space of time available and three of those attending the Serpentarium, Phil Humphries, Michde Lomas, and myself, played the trombones. We were unable to trace a copy of Paganini’s second concerto, but we prepared extracts from his third, dating from 1826. We also had the wonderful low brass opening chorale of the Sinfonia to Verdi’s Naucodonor (Nabucco) of 1842 and the rombustious Introduzione to Act 1, No. 2 of La Traviata dating from 1853. It would have been impossible to use any instrument other than the early cimbasso for the Paganini at the time the concerto was composed, and it was still to be found in Italian opera houses at the time of the two Verdi operas (Rome had a cimbasso in 1853).
The Paganini concerto was in the key of E major, beloved by fiddlers, but posing insuperable demands on our combined expertise in the time available, so we decided to concentrate on the Verdi extracts, and on the final day of the Serpentarium we performed to the assembled. The realization that these works were being played using this particular instrumentation both for the first (and last!) time in the twentieth century and also for the first time in over a hundred years gave us strong feelings that we couldn’t describe, but could easily identify. It wasn’t quite the first step on the moon, but not far from it for mere mortals. Later we recorded the pieces and found that our hopes were totally vindicated (fig.3). The demands on balance and expressive powers in the Nabucco overture tested blend to the ultimate degree and nothing was found wanting, while the Traviata Allegro brilliantissimo e molto vivace was as exciting as the composer had obviously wished. (Maybe even a bit more so…)
When and where, then, should the early cimbasso be used? Well, in the case of orchestras using historic instruments, certainly in any performance of Italian operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Mercadante, Rossini, or early Verdi where either ‘cimbasso,’ ‘serpentone,’ or ‘bombardone’ is specified. (A more complete list will be found in the Italian original of Meucci’s article in Studi Verdiani, V, Parma 1988-89, pages 109- 162, although this does not include my personal favourite, Bellini’s II Pirata of 1827.) From about 1845, Italian performing practice became more varied and the nomenclature of the lowest brass instrument grew ludicrously ambiguous, with the tuba being called ‘serpentone’ in some theatres and ‘bombardone’ being used elsewhere for the early cimbasso, tuba or ophicleide (keyed or valved). It is possible in some cases to discover a clue to the appropriate instrument by reference to the introduc tory notes to each opera in the Verdi Complete Edition or the chapter on Nineteenth- century Low Brass Sections in the forthcoming second edition of The Tuba Family. It is likely that the more isolated provincial Italian opera houses will have used the early cimbasso to a later date than the leading theatres, but here again it is difficult to be certain. Official archives indicate that there was a ‘serpentone’ at La Scala, Milan as late as 1860, for example, but the term could have been used to mean any low brass instrument, just as at the time ‘bombardone’ was used when referring to the lowest brass instrument of any type at La Fenice, Venice. In relation to the premiere of Rigoletto at this theatre in 1851, the composer used the word ‘cimbasso,’ the publisher’s ‘serpan’ and the theatre management ‘bombardone.’ Verdi began to use ‘Trombone Basso’ for the lowest brass instrument only with Otello, premiered in 1887.
What instrument should provide the lowest brass part in performances with modem wide-bore orchestral trombones? Since ‘cimbasso’ implied an instrument suitable for use with three narrow-bore tenor trombones, still present when Verdi began to specify ‘Trombone Basso’ for the lowest parts (which, incidentally, lie comfortably on a B-flat/F/E-flat bass trombone) and continuing into the twentieth century, every effort should be made to match the tone of the four low brasses in performances by modem orchestras: in other words, the valved cimbasso should be used alongside the bass trombone and two tenors normally found today. Nicholas Perry’s early cimbasso, the Italian bass hom, enhances our ability to present more fiilly authentic performances while at the same time providing a benchmark by which we can measure approaches to performing early nineteenth-century Italian low brass parts in the modem orchestra.
Those interested in discovering more about Nicholas Perry’s early cimbasso can contact the maker at 20 Queen Street, St. Albans, AL3 4PJ (telephone +44 1727 866080). The valved cimbasso described in the TUBA Journal, Vol.26, No.3, Spring 1999, is made by Derek Famell, 81 Crumpsall Lane, Manchester, M8 5SG (telephone +44 161 740 7778).