Principal Trombone Jeremy Moeller holds a trombone
and Principal Tuba Andy Smith holds a...wait, what is that?!!!
Next time you’re at the opera, sitting in your velvety seat and counting down the moments until your next mind-blowing grand opera experience, look for the page in the program with the orchestra roster. Not only can you brush up on the musicians’ names in your all-time favorite orchestra, but if you look really closely – we know, the print seems to be getting smaller and smaller – you may occasionally find an odd instrument name you’ve never heard of before. For instance, what the heck is a “violin”? But that’s for another issue.
Today, we are featuring the cimbasso (“chim-BAS-so”; plural cimbassos or cimbassi). So, what the heck is a “cimbasso”?
While musical instruments nowadays seem fairly standardized, their backstory and evolution – and, as the case may be, their descent into obscurity – is often complicated and non-linear: throughout history, musicians and composers have always been tinkering with instruments in their quest to realize their musical visions. For example, J.S. Bach collaborated with a violin maker on developing an instrument with five strings, somewhere between the viola and cello in size – depending on the source, you might call it viola pomposa or violoncello piccolo (among many other fun names…). Giuseppe Verdi, being as much of a tinkerer as Bach, strove to combine the more blending timbre of the trombone with the depth of the heavier-sounding tuba, and thus developed a new instrument with the brass instrument firm Pelliti. Several outgrowths of the bass brass experimentation lab of the time survive in the history books, all with varying degrees of creativity in their nomenclature and varying degrees of irrelevance in today’s performance practice.
Suffice it to say that when there’s a cimbasso in the pit, it’s the lowest – though certainly not the basest – thing you will hear all night. Today, it is used primarily in operas by Verdi, such as Il Trovatore and La Traviata. The cimbasso is technically a member of the trombone family, but is played at Lyric by our tuba player extraordinaire, Andrew Smith. (Because our trombone players are busy, well, playing trombone.) Here’s what Andy has to say:
Andy, you're our tuba player. How did you end up playing cimbasso for Il Trovatore?
That's a good question. Verdi was not a fan of the tuba. In fact, none of his operas actually call for tuba. They all have four parts for the low brass. The lowest brass part (my part) in Verdi operas is written for anything from bass trombone to serpent to ophicleide to cimbasso! The serpent and the ophicleide are predecessors of the modern day tuba and are not used anymore. They would be considered more "period instruments". The tradition in Lyric has been to play all of the fourth low brass parts in Italian opera on cimbasso.
When did you first start playing cimbasso? How did you discover it?
I started playing cimbasso when the audition for the tuba position in the Lyric Opera Orchestra was announced in 2011! Cimbasso is somewhat of a specialty instrument for tuba players. It is becoming more and more popular, but it is still very uncommon outside of opera and film scores. I was very lucky that Indiana University owned two cimbassi when I was studying there and I got the opportunity to spend several months becoming familiar with the instrument before the audition at Lyric.
How often do you get to play cimbasso? Do you have one of your own?
It depends on the season. I generally play all of the Italian repertoire with four low brass parts. That usually means all the Verdi, Puccini, and Bellini. So this season I will play La Bohème, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata on cimbasso. There have also been instances where maestro Davis has requested cimbasso in place of tuba in certain Berlioz operas. I do not own my own cimbasso. Lyric purchased a new one several years ago and that's what I play in the pit.
How does playing cimbasso compare to playing the tuba? Do you enjoy it more or less?
I play a cimbasso keyed in F, which means that the fingerings are the same as my F tuba. The main difference is that the size of the tubing on the cimbasso stays essentially the same throughout the length of the instrument (like a trombone or trumpet), whereas the main tubing on a tuba gradually gets larger from the valves all the way to the bell (like a french horn). It just means that I have to adjust how I play slightly from tuba to cimbasso to get a clear sound. It also took me a while to get used to the sound coming out in front of me instead of above me. I enjoy them both equally for different reasons! Tuba is my main instrument and I love getting to play big opera parts like Siegfried! On the other hand, the Verdi repertoire is much more virtuosic and involved than a lot of the tuba repertoire. I like having the challenge of both.
What's the best question or comment you've ever gotten about any of your instruments?
I can't think of just one! The cimbasso (and the tuba for that matter!) is a great conversation starter. I love it when our patrons come up to the pit and say hi. The cimbasso is an instrument that a lot of people have never seen before and I love being able to interact and present a little taste of what we do in the pit!
Watch this video to hear the cimbasso in action!