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The cimbasso is a brass instrument in the trombone family, with a sound ranging from warm and mellow to bright and menacing. It has three to five piston or rotary valves, a predominantly cylindrical bore, and is usually pitched in F or B♭. It is in the same range as a tuba or a contrabass trombone.
The modern instrument can be played by a tubist or a bass trombonist.
The modern cimbasso is most commonly used in opera scores by Giuseppe Verdi from Oberto to Aida, and by Giacomo Puccini in Le Villi only, though the word also appears in the score of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, which premiered in 1831. In addition to opera orchestras, the cimbasso can be commonly heard in motion picture soundtracks.
The early use of "cimbasso" referred to an upright serpent of a narrower bore than the "basson russe", usually made of wood with a brass bell. Later, this term had a more generic meaning referring to a range of instruments including the ophicleide, valved ophicleide, and other instruments. In general, after the advent of the more conical bass tuba, the term was more used to refer to a more blending voice than the "basso tuba" or "bombardone," and began to imply the lowest trombone. Verdi, who at times specified a preference for the blending timbre of a low trombone over the heavier sounding tuba, developed an instrument with the firm Pelliti, which was a contrabass trombone in BB♭ wrapped in tuba form. (Loek van der Heide Harlingen Fryslan, The Netherlands): In most of Verdi's operas the Cimbasso used nowadays are the common forms of the 'bucino' form: mouthpipe and middle section in front of the player, bell section forward pointed, in a downward angle pointed bell. This causes a very direct, concentrated projected sound towards conductor and audience.
The Cimbasso (its name derived out from 'Corno Basso' Contra-basso ) in its original form had a bell pointed upwards like the broader-mensured tuba, the FF EEb and BBb basses. Verdi disliked the 'wide-mensured' "Damned Bombardoni Austriche!", not only because of the hoarse, broad tone, but also because of the Austrian origin of those wide mensured 'Bombardone-tubas'. This, of course from the hatred Austrian occupation of Italy in the years before the 'rissorgimento', Italy's unification as a sovereign state under King Victor Emmanuel II. These instruments were however, well appreciated in the military Brass & Reed bands, playing the bass-role of the string basses.
It is a challenge for instrument builders and players of low-brass, to get copies of the cimbassos Verdi really used. To begin with the 'Bas-valve' horns derived from Basson Russe' until the Tuba formed 'Trombone Basso' as used after 1867 till Otello/Fallstaff (1884). Also a challenge is, following the initiative of John Elliott Gardiner, to accompany 19th century operas including Verdi's juvenilia and early period pieces until his mid-life period, to perform with a 'Period' orchestra, including the most discussed instruments of those days, also used by Verdi, the Cimbasso / low brass instruments, and the 3-string contrabasses described by musicologist Bonifazio Asioli in about 1820s. The Cimbasso in its original form as developed by Verdi and atelier peletti, included the diapason a' on 430 Hz instead of the norm around 1848, 435 Hz.
The instrument had also been featured on Korn's Unplugged concert with MTV.
Renato Meucci the Cimbasso and related instruments in 19-th century Italy (JSTOR platform)
- Video of the instrument starting about 1 min 18 sec.