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 six piston or rotary valves, a predominantly cylindrical bore, and is usually pitched in C, F or E♭. 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, though only in Le Villi, though the word also appears in the score of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, which premiered in 1831. In addition to opera orchestras, the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi included the instrument in his scoring of the symphonic poem Pines of Rome and it can also 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 was extended to a range of instruments including the ophicleide. In general, after the advent of the more conical bass tuba, 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. Giuseppe 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. In most of Verdi's operas the cimbasso used nowadays are the common types of the 'bucino' form: mouthpipe and middle section in front of the player, and bell section forward pointed, in a downward angle. This causes a very direct, concentrated sound to be projected towards conductor and audience.
The cimbasso (its name derived from 'Corno Basso' Contra-basso ) in its original form had a bell pointed upwards like the wider-bored tuba, the FF EEb and BBb basses. Verdi disliked the wide-bore "damned Bombardoni Austriche!", not only because of the hoarse, broad tone, but also because of the Austrian origin of those wide-bore 'Bombardone-tubas'. This attitude was inspired by the hated Austrian occupation of northern Italy in the years before the Risorgimento. These instruments were, however, well appreciated in the military brass and 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 were derived from 'Basson Russe' until the tuba formed 'Trombone Basso' as used after 1867 until Otello/Falstaff (1884). Another challenge is, following the initiative of John Eliot 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. This includes the most discussed instruments of that era, 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 Pelitti, 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 19th-century Italy" (JSTOR platform)
- Video of the instrument starting about 1 min 18 sec.