Trumpets Part 3 – The Tromba and Instrument Choice

The Tromba and Instrument Choice

F Tromba

The trumpet of today is a different instrument from the trumpet of yesterday.  The old trumpet was a large instrument with a forceful sound.  The old trumpet is so different in usage and notation, that I now refer to it as the Tromba and not the trumpet.  Trumpet literally means “small tromba,” and the modern trumpet is a tiny version of what we used to have.  It was usually pitched in F a 5th below to modern C Trumpet, but it played in exactly the same range.  The normal “modern” trumpet usually plays up to the 8th harmonic (a written C above the treble clef), but the Tromba played regularly up to the 12th harmonic.  Occasionally, the Tromba will also be pitched in E-flat a major second below the normal instrument.  Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is a good example of the use of the E-flat Tromba.

Something interesting to remember, the high clarino part in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 2 is meant for the low F Tromba – an instrument bigger than the modern B-flat/C Trumpet!

Notation for the Tromba was considerably different than we are used to.  What a modern trumpeter plays as a written middle C would be written an octave lower as the C below the treble clef.  This means that the bottom note of a Tromba would be written as an F-sharp at the bottom of the bass clef (sounding a B-natural in the middle of the bass clef).  However, these low notes were never written.  The lowest note it seems that was ever written for the Tromba was the low C.  Players might have had a hard time playing these lower notes, and the intonation and stability was never great.

Playing the Tromba is considerably more difficult than playing the modern trumpet.  Modern players shy away from this “beast” of an instrument, and very few will even touch it.  However, the sound quality is different.  Considerably different.  The sound of the old instrument is described as heroic and noble.  This is due to producing the sound through a much longer tube.  The longer the tube the more resonate the sound.

Finding recordings of the Tromba has been difficult.  Players refuse to play the instrument that composers intended.  And herein lies my biggest problem with trumpet players.

Trumpet players blatantly refuse composers’ intentions.

If a composer requests an A Cornet – the player uses a C Trumpet.

If a composer requests a B-flat Trumpet – the player uses a C Trumpet

If a composer requests a D Trumpet – the player uses a B-flat Piccolo Trumpet.

If the composer requests a B-flat Posthorn – the player uses a C Trumpet.

If the composer requests an F Tromba – the player uses a C Trumpet.


Wake up trumpet world, composers have specific sounds in their heads and specific reasons for choosing an instrument.  If I, as an orchestrator/bandestrator, specify a specific instrument, the the player is obliged to play it on that instrument.

Exceptions to this rule in order of importance:

1. The instrument does not exist (F Sopranino Saxophone from Bolero, A Contrabass Clarinet from 5 Orchestral Pieces, and instances of B Trumpet or Horn, etc.)

2. Instrument requested cannot play the passage. For example, the passage contains notes not playable in the instrument (E-flat Bass Trumpet in The Rite of Spring)

3. Instrument is not available.  Best instance of this is the sarrusophone.  The instrument is so rarely seen and so rarely played, that most times it is replaced by a Contrabassoon.  Not a perfect scenario, but mostly acceptable.  When possible, the accurate instrument needs to be acquired.

4. Player/Organization does not own the said instrument.  This is low down on the totem pole.  If you are playing a piece that requires a specific instrument, say the Wagner Tuba, you are required to make every effort to use that specific instrument.

Back to the Tromba.  To all my trumpet player friends.  Stop your cheatin’ ways.  Trombas are available.  Trumpets are cheap (relatively. Hey, I’m a Bassoonist, anything is cheap after that).  A large organization should own 3 Trombas and require the players to use them when the composer calls for it.  The results of using the correct instrument are huge.

In the band, I want to see the Tromba make a reappearance.  I truly do.  The use of the Tromba will even further distance the sound of the trumpet (senso lato) from that of the cornet.  Remember that the modern small trumpet is really a modified cornet.  Having two Trombas in a trumpet section can drastically change the sound of the entire band.

It is just one more color in a huge palette of sound and one that needs to be saved from extinction.