A Little Background on the Cimbasso,
or: “What’s that thing next to the trombones?”

Johannes Debus | Orchestra Members | Audio Interviews


by Scott Irvine

“I wish to insist again on a fourth trombone. I would prefer a trombone basso which is one of the same family as the others. If this turns out to be too much trouble and is too difficult to play, then get again one of those ordinary ophicleides that go down to the low B. In fact, use anything you like, but not that devil of a tuba which does not blend with the others!”

Giuseppe Verdi, in response to a question regarding his instrument preference for the lowest brass part in his opera orchestra.

Yes, this is all Verdi’s fault! However, it is somewhat understandable. Verdi lived and worked at the time of the Industrial Revolution which had a positive effect on the invention and manufacture of musical instruments in centres all over Europe.

As a result, Verdi’s lowest brass instrument parts would have been played by the various “instruments du jour”—serpent, ophicleide, Russian bassoon, bass horn, bombardone—whatever happened to be in vogue or available. One of these early instruments, unique to Italy, was a serpent-like bass horn made of copper and wood called a cimbasso.

There is some mystery surrounding the derivation of this term, but one plausible explanation is that the Italian term for bass horn, “corno in basso” was abbreviated in the conductor’s score to “c. in basso,” which over time became “cimbasso.” In any event, in 19th-century Italian opera orchestras, “cimbasso” became the generic designation for “the low instrument beside the trombones.”

Verdi put up with this situation for some 40 years until 1881, when he visited the Milan instrument maker Pelitti (possibly as a result of hearing that Wagner, his rival, had commissioned the building of a contrabass trombone for the Ring of the Nibelung), and requested that a valve bass trombone in Bb (an octave below the tenor trombone) be produced. He was quite pleased with the result, and wrote specifically for this instrument in his last two operas, Otello and Falstaff.

Verdi’s fervent and longstanding desire for a homogeneous low brass quartet (i.e. no tuba) was finally realized, and today this is the instrument we now call the modern cimbasso. Other composers working at the same time as Verdi such as Wagner, Brahms and Berlioz, didn’t have this problem, as they were quick to utilize the newly developed tuba in their works, and in the process, helped to establish it as a regular member of the orchestra. Fellow countryman Puccini was quick to follow Verdi’s example, labeling his lowest brass part; trombone basso, or in the case of Turandot; trombone contrabasso. 

But it has been only recently that there has been a move to “render unto Verdi that which is Verdi’s.” Traditionally, because there is usually a tuba player on the opera company’s payroll, Verdi’s cimbasso parts would be played on the tuba.

I saw the handwriting on the wall about 25 years ago when I was “bumped” from a production of a Verdi opera that normally I would have been playing. Apparently, the visiting conductor (a purist) wanted four trombones in the pit. The same thing happened the next season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly—four trombones, no tuba!

Concerned, I phoned a tuba player friend in England (it was the late John Fletcher of the LSO/Philip Jones Brass), and asked him if this was happening in Europe as well. John informed me that several German tuba artisans were now making cimbassi, and that the opera tuba players were now using them for Verdi and Puccini when required.

Fortunately, the German manufacturers, with their hundreds of years of brass instrument making know-how, fixed many of the “bugs” and intonation problems that had plagued the old Italian-made cimbassi. Almost immediately, I ordered one from Rudolf Meinl, the maker of one of my favourite tubas. I began using the cimbasso in the COC back in 1987, and I haven’t looked back! Some opera seasons, I have played the cimbasso more than I have played the tuba.

It does take some getting used to in order to get the right sound. Although it fingers like a tuba, it doesn’t blow like one. I’ve always considered the tuba a “warm air stream” instrument, whereas the cimbasso requires a cool air stream. Imagine the difference in the air you would use to fog up a window or your eyeglasses, versus the air you would use to cool off your soup.

Today, most, if not all, major opera companies have a cimbasso available, and it is now quite common to see European tuba jobs advertised with “the ability to play cimbasso as required” in the listing.

Not that opera tuba players are the only ones called upon to play cimbasso nowadays. In Hollywood, and other major film music recording centres, it is not uncommon for tuba players to double on cimbasso in the soundtracks of some of the bigger budget movies, and I know of at least one guy in Germany who’s using it quite successfully in jazz.

Suffice it to say that the cimbasso is here to stay, and it is rapidly becoming an important part of the modern tubist’s arsenal, and I would like to take this opportunity to apologize publicly to our magnificent viola section who are quite often the ones in my “line of fire” when things get exciting!

Scott Irvine is a tuba/cimbasso player in the COC Orchestra. Article originally appeared in Prelude Winter 2010.


Music Director Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2009