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.

14 thoughts on “Trumpets Part 3 – The Tromba and Instrument Choice

  1. I have an F alto trumpet (Bach Strad) that is fairly rare these days and I often play the F horn parts in our community band because we cannot find F horn players. Love playing the thing but the mouthpiece that came with it and the only mouthpiece available for it is the Bach AT9 which is about halfway in size between a conventional trumpet mouthpiece and a modern trombone mouthpiece. I have found nothing but the AT9 that will fit the receiver (also half way between a trumpet and a trombone), I also use the alto in small brass ensembles.

  2. Pingback: C and B-flat Trumpets | Bandestration

  3. Pingback: Alto Trumpet | Bandestration

  4. Pingback: Trumpet vs. Cornet vs. Flugelhorn | Bandestration

  5. Another Matt

    Thank you so much for this. This is a huge problem in orchestral music, too. Think of all those high passages F-trumpet in Mahler that come out sounding piercing rather than large and forceful.

  6. Pingback: Episode 6 – The Bass Trumpet – Bandestration

  7. Ellery Lawson

    As an orchestral composer, I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in the low F trumpet for many of the reasons stated here, namely the more robust and powerful timbre and the potential for an extended lower range. In looking into the instruments, however, I have found them to be somewhat enigmatic, with information very hard to come by, which is why I greatly appreciate the articles written here. In further exploring these instruments, though, I decided to go into the modern manufacturing world and see what kinds of low F trumpets were being made today, and again the results were somewhat confusing. Thein Brass, for example, offers a low F trumpet, which they identify as being modeled after the 19th century instruments which evolved from the natural trumpets (link:, and I was curious, would this be a modern-made example of the F Tromba you are talking about here? If so, I was wondering then about the relationship/differences between this instrument and another offered by Melton Meinl Weston, which is identified as an F Bass Trumpet (link: This second instrument seems to be more in line with the Alto Trumpet you discuss in the eponymous article, but that raises the question to me: if both are pitched in low F, what are the key differences between the instruments, especially for a composer seeking to utilize them?

    1. Clayton Young

      After the tromba was gone, Rimsky-Korsakov essentially reinvented it but with valves. At least that’s what I think from this passage of principles of Orchestration:
      “Alto trumpet (in F). An instrument of my own invention, first used by me in the opera-ballet Mlada. In the deep register (notes 2 to 3 in the trumpet scale) it possesses a fuller, clearer, and finer tone. Two ordinary trumpets with an alto trumpet produce greater smoothness and equality in resonance than three ordinary trumpets. Satisfied with the beauty and usefulness of the alto trumpet, I have consistently written for it in my later works, combined with wood-wind in three’s.”

      So he was a fan of the low trumpet.

  8. Clayton Young

    I have a question. Rimsky-Korsakov refers to an F alto trumpet of his own invention in “principles of Orchestration”. Is this similar to the tromba? I think I might have a score that calls for B-flat and E-flat cornets and the F trumpet/tromba.

  9. Clayton Young

    According to Cecil Forsyth in 1914, there were two trumpets regularly employed in the orchestra: one with crooks for C, B\>, and A, The other in F.
    This is part of the F trumpet section of his book “Orchestration”:
    The F-Trumpet has been alternately praised for its noble and
    powerful tone and reviled as a “razor-edged antique” and “an out-
    door instrument borrowed from the military band.” One must
    acknowledge that in actual breadth of tone-colour, especially in its lower notes and in the p, it is without a rival. No one who has heard
    two of these instruments enter pp at the 346th bar of Beethoven’s
    Violin Concerto can have any doubt on this point. Magical passages like this lose half their intention when played on
    the small-bore instrument.
    It is, however, rather in the f and the ff that one feels its undoubted
    brilliance and force to be something of a survival from the days when
    it was not thought necessary to assimilate the various tone-qualities
    of the orchestra. Even in the most unimportant passages it appears
    to be always playing Solos. A certain inflexibility too, due perhaps
    to the size of its tube, gives the audience additional cause for anxiety.
    In the old days its main business was to reiterate single notes f
    and to blare out somewhat conventional flourishes and fanfares ” in
    the tutti.” On these points there was never any charge against it on
    the score of ineffectiveness. On the contrary, the objection was then,
    and is now, that to all its phrases it lends a prominence that sometimes
    induces almost a sense of physical pain. We must remember too
    that the difliculties of mastering the instrument are great. It is the
    undoubted heir of the classical tradition, but our regret at its restricted use is tempered by the reflection that at most one or two players in a generation can make it bearable.

  10. Tim

    I do a lot of practicing and doodling around with a baroque trumpet mouthpiece on a Bass Trumpet. Not really historically accurate to anything, but still fun and relevant to this idea. The sound is very triumphant and packed to the brim with overtones without losing the flexibility that makes the Bb Trumpet popular. It’s also a great exercise tool being a really easy way to increase playing range. Unfortunately, even with the most playable mouthpiece I could get, it’s impractical for professional use.

    Long Trumpet is a temperamental beast. Drastically more difficult than French Horn. The slotting is very suspect. False tones occur as early as middle G on the scale. The intonation is typically good for only one fingering per pitch with some alternate fingerings being close to a half-tone off. I think a good player could command a massive range and maybe do it without clamming. Is it worth the effort? I don’t know about that part.

    I want to test the idea of Eb Long Trumpet at some point. It’s not hard to find suitable candidate horns or mouthpieces. I don’t expect to be blown away by it, though.

Comments are closed.