The Tenor Trombone: Four Robust Relatives

We continue today with excerpts from the unpublished "Chris White's Virtuous Method for Trombone and Guide to Robust Living."

The Buccina (3rd Century)

No ancestor in the blood-drenched history of the trombone was more martial than the buccina. As employed by Roman legionnaires, the buccina's primary purpose was battlefield communication: a 12-foot U-shaped pipe with a flared, backward facing bell, the raspy horn could be heard easily over the din of battle. Two blasts signaled advance, three retreat; one blast followed by a wet slurping sound indicated that the buccinast's throat was impaled with a missile mid-command.

Given their tactical value and vulnerability, buccinasts were equipped with a 15 foot spear, attached to the instrument with eyelets to facilitate one-handed thrusting while playing. The coordination and posture required for playing and eviscerating the unwashed Barbarian masses simultaneously would seem precursors to modern trombonery, but the Buccina was officially banned throughout the civilized world when Celtic barbarians in 403 fashioned a reasonable replica and tricked 5,000 crack imperial troops into running backwards over the cliffs of Dover.

The Valquera: 14th Century

As Europe emerged from the Black Death, the courtly music known as ostacatta, built on unsanitary percussion instruments made from the bones of disbelievers, fell into disfavor. Courtesans and foppish dandies alike turned to the brass-based peasant melodies of Andorran goat farmers driven eastward by the Great Goat Scabies of 1342. The superior volume of the brass instruments (designed for signaling goat herds at vast distances) was suited for the gavrorkna, a newly popular and sanitary dance demanding 500 yards between partners at all times.

With a shortage of skilled makers, musicians improvised instruments from herding tools, and hence the valquera, a two-foot goat catheter attached to a rough wooden mouthpiece. Sounds were produced by vibrations of the lips against the mouthpiece; changes in pitch were achieved by a second, traditionally blindfolded musician cleaving the metal catheter with a polearm.

Composers were hesitant to write melodies that could only ascend in pitch, though Lazarus Calvagio's 'The Reluctant Castrati' is recognized as a masterpiece of the etude form; and few valquera virtuosos flourished, given the instrument's mortality rate. But the use of variable-length tubing and the absence of valves make the valquera the earliest modern relative of the tenor trombone.

The Sackbutt: 15th Century

Derived from the French for "push" (sacquer and) and "pull" (bouter), the sackbutt (or buttsack) appeared in 1450s France as composers integrated the dulcet (yet penetrating) sound of the valquera into chamber ensembles without substantially increasing the average number of gaping head wounds. A telescoping slide divorced the instrument from polearms, while a gradually widening bore produced a more pleasing sound, likened by Count Doumarch to "a cat being sawn in two with a piece of cheese, but while sleeping."

Whether the instrument (with its agrarian/martial roots) itself attracted the robust, or in fact nurtured robustness in the players, science has yet to determine. But bold virtuosos such as Alfredd de le Marin (1462-1512) were noted not only for their skill, but for general hirsuteness and rakish charm. Highly in demand early in his career, le Marin's insistence on vigorous coupling with the spouse of his employer, male or female, often in public and as an encore, undercut bookings and the ultimately sackbutt's exposure to an affluent audience. Continued unsanctioned le Marin performances and their resulting domestic unrest led to banishment from most European courts; a private concert in 1503 for the Holy Roman Empress resulted in the banishment of all known sackbuttoirs to a prison colony in Italy's Apennine Mountains. Le Marin perished in 1512, bludgeoned with a sack of pomegranates by a cuckolded jailer.

The Buccin: 19th Century

Popularized by French military bands from 1810-1845, the modern variant of the buccina had all the properties of a modern tenor trombone, but with a stylized bell in the shape of a dragon's head. They were never produced in numbers great enough to sway France's military fortunes and were expressely banned at the Peace of Westphalia.

You Always Get Hurt By the Ones You Love

Nationals 5, Phillies 4, 13 innings. Ryan Howard may have hurt his leg. I accept full responsibility for the loss, as I attended the game, and apparently me seeing the Phillies play in D.C. means a guaranteed gut-wrenching defeat. At first I thought this was coincidence, but applying Scientific Theory to a chart of Phils/Nats games I have attended, it is now confirmed law.

One thing I enjoy at the Nationals games is the presidential races -- four guys in large foam costumes of the Mount Rushmore presidents race down the first base line. Last night we saw the first ever game featuring TWO presidential races (a special treat for those sticking around for extra innings). Washington won the first race and Jefferson took the second.

If they ever have the guts to put FDR out there on a motorized scooter, the Nationals will become my new #2 team.

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One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White