In our upcoming production of Madame Butterfly, you may hear some sounds you don’t recognize coming from the pit. More likely than not, Ralph Hepola on his cimbasso is the culprit! Most often played by the orchestra’s tubist or bass trombonist, the cimbasso was invented in the 1800′s and was favored most famously by Giuseppe Verdi.
“The Cimbasso is an Italian contrabass trombone in F with valves. Typically, the orchestra tuba player plays it on all Italian operas which have four low brass parts: 3 trombones and 1 Cimbasso.”Ralph Hepola on the Cimbasso
“Italy was somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe, by the Alps & the distance, so Italian musicians developed a few of their own ideas; the Cimbasso being one of them. Verdi utilized the Cimbasso the most of all Italian composers.”
Here’s a little background from Oxford Music Online:
Term used in Italy since the early 19th century for various bass and double bass lip-reed aerophones.
(1) A type of upright wooden serpent with a large flared bell of brass and between one and four keys. The instrument is peculiar to Italy, differing from the French basson russe (see Russian bassoon) in both bell shape and in the arrangement of keys. Its name may be derived from the abbreviated form of ‘corno in basso’ (‘c. in basso’); variants are encountered, such as simbasso, gimbasso, and even gibas. Produced by makers such as Magazari, Piana and Papalini, the wooden cimbasso replaced the serpent as the lowest member of the brass family in about 1816, making its first appearance at La Scala where it was noticed by Spohr. Paganini was perhaps the first composer to adopt the instrument, in his Violin Concerto no.1 in E (1816); he was followed by many Italian composers, including Donizetti, Bellini and Giovani Pacini. It cannot be stated with certainty that these parts were always played on a true cimbasso; where the instrument was unavailable, the part could have been played on a keyed ophicleide, an instrument known to have been in use at this time despite its absence from contemporary Italian scores. The wooden cimbasso remained popular until at least the mid-1830s.
Renato Meucci. “Cimbasso.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Mar. 2012 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/05789>.
You can also check out this link to an amateur demonstration by two friends that demonstrates the difference in timbre and color between the Cimbasso and Tuba:
Make sure to listen for it when you see Madame Butterfly, which opens on April 14th! Get your tickets online at www.mnopera.org