Cimbassi

In two places I’ve referred to Cimbassi (plus of Cimbasso).  I’ve included it in both the sections on the trumpets and the trombones.  I can find equal reasoning to include this instrument in both families.  As the only significant difference between a trombone and a trumpet is the valves versus the slide, I tend to see Cimbassi as large mega-trumpets.

The historical term Cimbasso has caused much confusion and consternation.  Bellini and Verdi used it in their early works, but the exact instrument they wanted is unknown.  It is possible that the instrument in mind was an Ophicleide or a Russian Bassoon.

Original Cimbasso

However, as Verdi grew older, it is clear that the instrument he had in mind changed.  He envisioned a narrow bore valved brass instrument that was definitively not a tuba.  The instrument we know today as a Cimbasso was only definitively used in Verdi’s last 3 works.  All other works used either the instrument mentioned previously or a Bass Trombone.

Verdi on Cimbasso

Historical notes aside, the modern Cimbasso is experiencing a sort of renaissance.  Hollywood composers have fallen in love with its brash, blatty sound.  There is a fearful presence in the new Cimbasso sound.  Listen to any modern movie with a fully orchestrated music score, and more than likely there will be a Cimbasso.  I’ve seen several behind the scenes documentaries on DVD extras that show Cimbassi in use.

In general, the Cimbasso is played by tuba players.  In Hollywood orchestras, they are a doubling instrument.  Sometimes the player will use a Cimbasso, sometimes they will use a Tuba.  It seems that both the tuba and the Cimbasso are used together rarely

There are two versions on the Cimbasso: the instrument in F and the instrument in B-flat.  These correspond roughly to the Bass and Contrabass Trombones.  Usually composers only specify one and don’t make any distinction between the two instruments.

I can see the Cimbasso (or Cimbassi) as the bottom members of the trumpet ensemble.  They are powerful instruments that should only be used rarely at moments of a huge climax.

I see no reason not to specify the use of F or B-flat Cimbasso.  The F will obviously have a slightly higher tessiture than the B-flat.  Adding one or both to a score can add a lot of weight to the bottom of the brass ensemble.

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5 thoughts on “Cimbassi

  1. The cimbasso today is a modern version of the valved contrabass trombone. Just as the tuba was often used to play cimbasso and ophicleide parts, so too can a modern “contrabass” trombone. Many of the modern cimbassi are essentially “tubas on a stick” and are played by tuba players.

    1. I would never put the Cimbasso and the tuba in the same family. They’re about as distant from one another as it comes. Yes, they have the same pitch range, but aside from that, that’s all. Brass players tend to think differently about their instruments. Many will look at the instruments in a single pitch class (soprano, tenor, bass, etc.) as being similar because those instruments (say trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn) are the natural doubles for a player. For a composer/orchestrator/organologist, a flugelhorn has far more in common with a tuba than a cimbasso has in common with a tuba no matter who plays in the instrument.

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