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Cimbasso in f.jpg
A modern cimbasso in F
Brass instrument
Hornbostel–Sachs classification423.233
(Valved aerophone sounded by lip vibration with cylindrical bore)
Developedearly 19th century, in Italian opera orchestras; modern design emerged mid 20th century
Playing range

      \new Staff \with { \remove "Time_signature_engraver" }
      \clef bass \key c \major \cadenzaOn
      \ottava #-1 c,,1 f,,1  \glissando \ottava #0 c'1 f'1
Related instruments
  • Haag
  • Meinl Weston
  • Rudolf Meinl
  • Thein
  • Wessex

The cimbasso is a low brass instrument that developed from the upright serpent over the course of the 19th century in Italian opera orchestras, to cover the same range as a tuba or contrabass trombone. The modern instrument has four to six rotary valves (or occasionally piston valves), a forward-facing bell, and a predominantly cylindrical bore. These features lend its sound to the bass of the trombone family rather than the tuba, and its valves allow for more agility than a contrabass trombone.[1] Like the modern contrabass trombone, it is most often pitched in F, although models are made in E♭, and occasionally low CC or BB♭.[2]


The Italian word cimbasso, first appearing in the early 19th century, is thought to be a contraction used by musicians of the term corno basso or corno di basso (lit.'bass horn'), sometimes appearing in scores as c. basso or c. in basso. The term was used loosely to refer to the lowest bass instrument available in the brass family, which changed over the course of the 19th century.[3]


An early 19th century basson russe, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first uses of a cimbasso in Italian opera scores from the early 19th century referred to a narrow-bore upright serpent similar to the basson russe (lit.'Russian bassoon'), which were in common use in military bands of the time.[4]: 81  These instruments were constructed from wooden sections like a bassoon, with a trombone-like brass bell, sometimes in the shape of a buccin-style dragon's head.[5] Fingering charts published in 1830 indicate these early cimbassi were most likely to have been pitched in C.[6]

Later, the term cimbasso was extended to a range of instruments, including the ophicleide and early valved instruments, such as the Pelittone and other early forms of the more conical bass tuba. As this progressed, the term cimbasso was used to refer to a more blending voice than the "basso tuba" or "bombardone", and began to imply the lowest trombone.[3]

Cimbasso in B♭ (after the trombone basso Verdi) by Stowasser, early 20th century.

By 1872, Verdi expressed his displeasure about "that devilish bombardone" (referring to the tuba) as the bass of the trombone section for his La Scala première of Aida, preferring a "trombone basso".[4]: 406–13  By the time of his opera Otello in 1887, Milan instrument maker Pelitti had produced the trombone basso Verdi (sometimes called the trombone contrabbasso Verdi), a contrabass trombone in low 18-foot B wrapped in a compact form and configured with 4 rotary valves. Verdi and Puccini both wrote for this instrument in their later operas, although confusingly, they often referred to it as the trombone basso, to distinguish it from the tenor trombones.[4]: 414  This instrument blended with the usual Italian trombone section of the time—three tenor valve trombones in B—and became the prototype for the modern cimbasso.[3]


The modern cimbasso emerged in Germany in the early 20th century, its design ultimately descended from the Pelitti design preferred by Verdi. In the 1960s, Thein took the modern contrabass trombone in F and fitted it with the same valves and fingering as the modern F tuba, and named this new instrument the "cimbasso".[7] The mouthpiece and leadpipe are positioned in front of the player, the valve tubing section is arranged vertically between the player's knees and rests on the floor with a cello-style endpin, and the bell is arranged over the player's left shoulder to point horizontally forward, similar to a trombone. This design accommodates the instrument in cramped orchestra pits and allows a direct, concentrated sound to be projected towards the conductor and audience.[3]

In 2004 Swiss brass instrument manufacturer Haag released a cimbasso in F built with five Hagmann valves. This instrument is used by several operas and orchestras, including Badische Staatskapelle, Hungarian State Opera, and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.[8]

Repertoire and performance[edit]

Although the cimbasso in its modern form is most commonly used for performances of late Romantic Italian operas by Verdi and Puccini, since the mid 20th century it has found increased and more diverse use. In the late 1960s Mexican jazz musician Raul Batista Romero began featuring cimbasso in his albums.[9] Along with the contrabass trombone, it has increasingly been called for in film and video game soundtracks since the late 1990s.[10] British composer Brian Ferneyhough calls for cimbasso in his large 2006 orchestral work Plötzlichkeit, and nu metal rock band Korn used two cimbassos in the live backing orchestra for their acoustic MTV Unplugged album.[11]

Historically informed performance of early cimbasso parts presents particular challenges. Unless proficient with period instruments such as serpent or ophicleide, it is difficult for orchestral low-brass players to perform on instruments that resemble the early cimbassi in form or timbre. It is also challenging for instrument builders to find good surviving examples to replicate or adapt.[3] Although there is still a lack of consensus from conductors and orchestras, using a large-bore modern orchestral C tuba to play cimbasso parts is considered inappropriate by some writers and players. Meucci recommends using only a small, narrow-bore F tuba, or a bass trombone.[3] James Gourlay, conductor and former tubist with BBC Symphony Orchestra and Zürich Opera, recommends playing most cimbasso repertoire on the modern F cimbasso, as a compromise between the larger B♭ trombone contrabbasso Verdi instrument and the bass trombone. He also recommends using a euphonium for early cimbasso parts, which is closer to the sound of the serpent or ophicleide that would have been used before 1860.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meucci, Renato (2001). "Cimbasso". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.05789. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
  2. ^ "Cimbasso". Haag Brass. Retrieved 9 July 2022. "Cimbasso". Melton Meinl Weston. Retrieved 9 July 2022. "Cimbasso". Rudolf Meinl Metalblasinstrumente. Retrieved 9 July 2022. "Cimbasso". Thein Brass (in German). Retrieved 9 July 2022. "Cimbassos". Wessex Tubas. Retrieved 9 July 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Renato Meucci (March 1996). Translated by William Waterhouse. "The Cimbasso and Related Instruments in 19th-Century Italy". The Galpin Society Journal. 49: 143–179. doi:10.2307/842397. ISSN 0072-0127. JSTOR 842397. Wikidata Q111077162.
  4. ^ a b c Bevan, Clifford (2000). The Tuba Family (2nd ed.). Winchester: Piccolo Press. ISBN 1-872203-30-2. OCLC 993463927. OL 19533420M. Wikidata Q111040769.
  5. ^ "Instruments: basson russe". Berlioz Historical Brass. Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
  6. ^ Myers, Arnold (September 1986). "Fingering Charts for the Cimbasso and Other Instruments". The Galpin Society Journal. Galpin Society. 39: 134–136. doi:10.2307/842143. JSTOR 842143.
  7. ^ a b Gourlay, James (2001). "The Cimbasso: Perspectives on Low Brass performance practise in Verdi's music" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 August 2007.
  8. ^ "Haag Cimbasso Trombone C45HV". Haag Trombones. Musik Haag AG. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013.
  9. ^ "Raul Batista Romero". Jazz Musicians. All About Jazz. 18 June 2014. Retrieved 4 August 2022.
  10. ^ Kifer, Shelby Alan (May 2020). The Contrabass Trombone: Into the Twenty-First Century (DMA thesis). University of Iowa. doi:10.17077/etd.005304. Retrieved 21 April 2022.
  11. ^ Korn (2007). "MTV Unplugged". AllMusic. Retrieved 3 August 2022.