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How to Hold a Sackbut: The Grip of the Early Trombone in Pictures

Iconography and the Grip of the Trombone in the Renaissance and Baroque

Occasionally there is discussion about how the sackbut, or early trombone, should be held. In contrast to the modern trombone, the stays on these early trombones were flat, so the left-hand grip of the overall instrument could not be quite the same as that of the modern trombone. This change in grip could affect aspects of performance such as the physical balance of the instrument and how much pressure was applied to the embouchure. Some also assert that the slide was held in such a way as to preclude bringing the slide all the way in for first position. (See, for example, Keith McGowan, "The World of the Early Sackbut Player: Flat or Round?" Early Music, August 1994).

These 58 artistic renderings may shed some light on the issue, although, as always with iconography, one has to consider the possibility that the renderings are not literal. There are some very awkward-looking grips, not to mention depictions of the instrument (see, for example, images by Pagan and Saftleven, below). For the left-hand grip, the ratio of "overhand" to "underhand" grips is roughly equal, with slightly more overhand examples in the instrument's earliest history, through the 16th century. The way the slide is held appears to be all over the map. For both left-hand grip and slide grip, there is significant variety to make the case that the way the instrument was held may not have been as consistent as such things are today.

Most of the images appear in "detail" form, necessarily cropping out other parts of the picture; for full images of most of the examples, as well as greater historical context and full bibliographic citations for each item, see the Trombone History Timeline.

The Images

1488-93—Rome, Italy: In the Carafa Chapel of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the earliest reliable visual depiction of a trombone is painted: a fresco by Filippino Lippi entitled The Assumption of the Virgin (see below detail; public domain) (Kurtzman, Trombe; Herbert, Susato 118; Partridge 118; Goldner 73).

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1494-97—Italy: Benedetto da Maiano’s marble sculpture, The Coronation of Alfonso II, features what are probably 3 trombone players. Although the sculpture is badly damaged, a full trombone is visible in the hands of one of the brass players, and the embouchure and grip of another player are clearly visible. Regarding the way the instruments are held, notice the non-underhand left-hand grip of both the players. Also observe the non-underhand slide grip (see 2 details below; public domain images) (Carl, Benedetto da Maiano 1:359). The sculpture is now held in Florence’s Museo Nazionale Bargello.

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See all 58 photos

1496—Venice, Italy: In Gentile Bellini’s painting, Procession in Piazza San Marco, a lengthy procession includes a wind band with at least one trombone. The player appears to be using an overhand grip (see below detail; public domain) (Venice, Accademia).

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c. 1503—Siena, Italy: Bernardino Pinturicchio includes a trombonist in his painting, Coronation of Pius III, a fresco decorating the exterior of the Piccolomini Library in the cathedral of Siena. The trombonist is part of a trio of wind players seen performing at center-right (only the detail is shown below; public domain) (Jenkens 159; Cecchi 19). This is the earliest work of a trombone in art, to my knowledge, in which the grip of both hands is clearly shown. The left-hand grip is clearly overhand.

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1508—Gonesse, France: In what may constitute the earliest non-Italian visual depiction of the trombone, a painted panel on the organ balcony at Abbey Eglise Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul features an angel-trombonist. The player is clearly using an overhand grip for the left hand (see below detail; public domain) (Fischer, Organology; Luri, Les Anges).

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1516—Freiburg, Germany: Hans Baldung’s painting, Coronation of the Virgin, the central panel of an altarpiece located in the Freiburg Cathedral, includes an angel-trombonist among a group of angels playing wind instruments above and to the left of the Virgin. The left-hand grip appears to be overhand and the slide grip is unusual (see below detail; public domain) (Burkhard pl. 2).

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c. 1520—Spain: The Engagement of St. Ursula and Prince Etherius, sometimes also titled St. Ursula and Prince Etherius Making a Solemn Vow, a panel painting from the Master of Saint Auta Altarpiece, depicts a trombonist with a wind band performing from a loft or window. The painting may represent the earliest visual depiction of a black trombonist. The left-hand grip of the player is clearly overhand but is unusual in that it does not appear to line up correctly with the stay (see below detail; public domain) (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Inv. No. 597) (Bowles, Musikleben 30-31).

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c. 1522-23—Munich, Germany: Albrecht Altdorfer’s Mary and Child in Glory  includes a depiction of an angel trombonist among several other angel musicians. It is difficult to see, but the left-hand grip appears to be overhand rather than underhand (see detail below; public domain; Winzinger 45) (thanks to Stewart Carter and Herbert Myers for help identifying this painting).

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c. 1520—Nuremberg, Germany: A mural attributed to Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer depicts two trombonists as members of the town wind band playing from a balcony. Both trombonists appear to be using an overhand grip in the left hand. The trombonist in front has an extension handle on his slide (see below detail; public domain) (Hindley, 113; Lang, Pictorial History 17).

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c. 1520—Rome, Italy: Polidoro da Caravaggio (the less-famous Caravaggio, sometimes known as Polidoro Caldara) paints Apollo with the Muses on a chest or panel. The depiction includes one of the muses playing trombone. The left-hand grip appears to be underhand (see below detail) (Fürst Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Inv. GE207) (Paul Schubring, Cassoni, Leipzig, 1915, Pl. 847).

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1526—Austria: In series of woodcuts titled The Triumph of Maximilian, plate 77 features a group of trombonists on horseback. The instructions for the engravings on plates 77 and 78 read, “After them shall come on horseback Burgundian fifers in the Burgundian colors with bombardons, shawms, and rauschpfeiffen. And they shall all be wearing laurel wreaths.” See below image (Burgkmair, Triumph 9, plate 77; public domain image).

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1526—Austria: In the same series of woodcuts as above, The Triumph of Maximilian, another image (Plate 20, below) depicts Hans Neuschel, a famous trombonist and leader of the court wind band, playing in a wagon along with two shawms and two crumhorns. His left-hand grip is unusual (but see also the plate above), with two fingers above and the others below (see detail below; Burgkmair, Triumph 4, plate 20; public domain image).

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c. 1530—Portugal: Musical Angels, a detail from Frei Carlos's Assumption of the Virgin, depicts angels playing trombone, trumpet, shawm, and pipe (or recorder) (see below detail; public domain) (Lisbon, National Museum of Ancient Art). The bell of the trombone, by the way, appears to have been retouched, resulting in an unlikely bell flare. If you look closely you can see a hint of what appears to be the original bell flare under the dark gray-green paint. The left-hand grip is overhand.

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1538—Germany: Heinrich Aldegrever portrays a trio of trombone and two trumpets in a woodcut entitled The Brass Players (Die Posaunisten) from the series The Great Wedding Dances. The trombonist's grip on the instrument (which is with the right hand rather than the left) is underhand (see below image; public domain) (Duffin, Trompette des Menestrels).

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1540—Southwest Germany: An anonymous oil painting entitled Der Castalische Brunn depicts a trombonist playing with an outdoor ensemble. A detail of the image, below, shows that the trombonist has an overhand grip in the left hand (see below detail; public domain) (Historisches Museum Basel, Inv. No. 1906.2901).

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1549—Munich, Germany: Outdoor Feast, a painting by Hans Mielich (Müelich), court painter for Duke Albrecht V, depicts an outdoor wedding banquet. The music ensemble includes two trombone players, one of whom appears to have multiple instruments in his hands and is apparently in the act of switching from one trombone to another. The left-hand grip of the trombonist who is actually playing appears to be overhand (see detail below; Kenton plate 14; Buchner plate 95).

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1556-59—Venice, Italy: Matteo Pagan’s Procession in St. Mark’s Square on Palm Sunday includes what appears to be an awkwardly-rendered (and awkwardly-held) trombone, labeled trombe piffari, among the members of the wind band (see below detail; public domain) (Landon 36; Fenlon, Magnificence 34; Venice, Museo Correr).

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c. 1562-68—Germany: An embroidered tablecloth depicts an aristocratic woman playing trombone. The left-hand grip is difficult to see but appears to be overhand (see below image; public domain) (Herbert, Trombone 79).

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1568—Germany: An engraving by Jost Amman called A Bridge for Adultery Built by King Arthur includes a trombonist performing outdoors with a quartet of three wind instruments and a viol. The left-hand grip of the trombonist is underhand (see below detail; public domain) (Buchner 26; Naylor 35).

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c. 1570—An engraving by Franz Ignaz Brun from the Nine Muses series features an angel-musician playing trombone. The left-hand grip is underhand (see below image; public domain) (British Museum).

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1581—Dresden, Germany: A quartet of 3 strings and a trombone is depicted by artist Friedrich Bercht as part of celebrations surrounding the visit of Archduke Charles of Austria to Dresden (see below image; public domain) (Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek). The left-hand grip of the trombonist appears to be more overhand than underhand.

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1589-1598—When the Morning Stars Sang Together, an engraving by Adriaen Collaert, after an image by Jan van der Straeten, includes an angel-trombonist among a number of angel-musicians. Although the trombonist is partially obscured and the hands are reversed (probably due to the reversal inherent in printmaking), the position and angle of the arm holding the instrument would seem to suggest an overhand grip rather than an underhand one (see below detail; public domain) (Goodfriend, pl. 16).

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1592-9—Germany: An anonymous painting from the Album of Hieremias Buroner of Augsburg depicts a consort that includes a trombonist who appears to be using an overhand grip (see below image; public domain) (Remnant, Musical Instruments of the West 202; London, British Library).

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1593—Landsberg am Lech, Germany: Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Pieter de Witte (also known as Pietro Candido and Peter Candid) located at the Marienaltar of the Heilig Kreuzkirche, includes and angel playing trombone. The player's slide grip is out of view, but the left-hand grip is clearly underhand (see below detail; public domain) (Burresi 73-74; painting now located at Landsberg am Lech Neues Stadtmuseum).

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1598-1606—Valencia, Spain: Bartolomé Matarana paints a fresco of angel musicians in the the church of Real Colegio–Seminario de Corpus Christi that includes what are probably two trombones. Only the slide portions are obvious, although possible bell flares can be seen upon close inspection (see below 2 details) (Olson, Angel Musicians).

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See all 58 photos

17th century––Thaleia, Muse of Comic Poetry, an anonymous engraving, includes the following caption: "If our story is great, or if it is a comedy of life, Our story, even after it has been told does not satisfy God, It does not create the eternal well-being which pleases us; And expressed it does not include the praises of God" (see below image; public domain) (Naylor 96).

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17th century—Malvaglia, Switzerland: A fresco in the parish church of San Martino features a concert of angel musicians with a trombonist. The grip is a somewhat awkward-looking underhand one (see below detail; public domain).

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1609—Rome, Italy: Guido Reni’s Gloria d’angeli, a fresco located in S. Gregorio Magno, Cappella di S. Silvia, includes two trombones (see 2nd and 3rd details, below) (Cavalli, pl. 28 and 32; Pepper, pl. 30). An anonymous drawing (shown first below), almost certainly either a preparatory sketch for or a copy of Reni’s fresco, shows the grip in even better detail (Paris, Louvre; Wangermée vol. 1 287).

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See all 58 photos

c. 1610—Piacenza, Italy: A fresco by Lorenzo Garbieri in the tribuna of the Duomo di Piacenza includes a depiction of an angel playing trombone with a diverse instrumental ensemble of other angel-musicians (see detail below; public domain) (Brogi plate 203).

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1615-16—Brussels, Belgium: Archduchess Isabella visits Brussels and subsequently commissions several paintings to portray the related celebrations. Denis van Alsloot, painter for the archdukes of Brussels, depicts a “procession of guilds.” The “loud” instruments pictured, which include a trombone, cornett, curtal, and three shawms, presumably constitute the civic wind band of Brussels. They occupy a place of honor between the relics and the statue (Denis van Alsloot, Procession en l’honneur de Notre-Dame du Sablon a Bruxelles le 31 mai, Museo Prado, Madrid) (see below detail of trombonist; Lesure 94-95; Forney, Antwerp 363; Whitwell, Baroque 181; Wangermée, vol. 1 241).

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1615—Reggio Emilia, Italy: Lionello Spada’s fresco in the cupola of the Chiesa della Ghiara includes depictions of numerous angel-musicians, including an angel playing trombone. The other instruments include harp, recorder, triangle, tambourine, cornetto, lute, and violin (see below detail of trombonist; public domain) (Quintavelle, plate 81; Monducci 130; Artioli, plates 8 and 12).

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1616—Bologna, Italy: Ludovico Carracci’s Paradise, an altarpiece painting located in the Church of San Paolo Maggiore, features an angel-trombonist situated prominently among a group of angel-musicians (see below detail; public domain) (Komma 109; Emiliana 167).

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1617—Stuttgart, Germany: Esaias von Hulsen illustrates a festival book, published in 1618, that portrays the festivals of 1617 surrounding the christening of Ulrich of Württemberg and the marriage of Ludwig Friedrich of Württemberg to Elisabeth Magdalena of Hesse-Darmstadt. There are two different plates from the book that feature four different trombonists, and the grip is similar for all four. Below is a detail of one of the players (sources: Komma 128, Festkultur online).

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1618—Pieter Lastmann’s altar scene, David in the Temple, portrays a trombone performing with voices, tamborine, pommer, and two string instruments (see detail below; public domain) (Kinsky 177; Buchner 254).

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1618-1624—Christof Angermair’s ivory carving from the coin cabinet of Elizabeth of Lorraine includes a trombonist. The player's left-hand grip is in the underhand style (see below detail) (Munich: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung; Salmen, Gartenmusik 75; Hindley 164).

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c. 1625—Ascona, Italy: Giovanni Serodine paints Coronation of the Virgin with Saints in Ascona’s parish church. The image features a consort of angel-musicians playing two viols, cornetto, and trombone (see below detail; public domain).

c. 1629—Venice, Italy: Veronese artist Fra Semplice da Verona includes a depiction of a cherub playing trombone in Infant Jesus and Musical Angels, an image framing a pre-existing Madonna in the Convento del Redentore. Other instruments being played include cornetto, viol, violin, and lute (see below detail; public domain) (Portogruaro, plate 37).

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c. 1635—Copenhagen, Denmark: A ceiling painting in the Rosenburg Castle depicts musicians of the court of Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648), including 3 trombonsits. The players appear to be using an overhand grip, and the player on the right is using a slide extension handle (see below 2 details; public domain) (Hindley plate 17).

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See all 58 photos

1637—Netherlands: A drawing by Cornelis Saftleven depicts a seated trombonist holding the instrument in what would appear to be a somewhat unorthodox manner (see below image) (Naylor 97).

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1644—Florence, Italy: Il Volterrano (also known variously as Baldassare Franceschini and Franceschini Baldassare detto Volterrano) is commissioned to paint a lunette fresco in Florence’s Santissima Annunziata. The image features angels playing violin, trombone, and lute (see bottom of below 2 images; public domain) (Strozzi 332; Falletti 76). One of the preparatory drawings features the trombone player, with apparent emphasis on the grip of the instrument (see upper of below 2 images; public domain) (Cooney, Drawings by Il Volterrano).

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See all 58 photos

1646-47—Sassuolo, Italy: Artists Angelo Michele Colonna (sometimes known as Michelangelo Colonna) and Agostino Mitelli collaborate on a mural in the Palazzo Ducale di Sassuolo that depicts a trombone and three other instruments playing in a balcony (see below detail; public domain) (Southorn, front jacket; Sala della Guardia, Palazzo Ducale, Sassuolo).

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c. 1650—German artist Joachim von Sandrart draws a red chalk “angel concert” that includes a trombonist with a left-hand grip that appears to be overhand (see below image; public domain) (source: Deutsche Fotothek).

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1651—Modena, Italy: Mattia Preti’s fresco, Gloria di Angeli Musicanti, located in the apse of San Biagio, includes a depiction of an angel playing trombone among many other angel musicians (see below detail; public domain) (Adani; Quintavalle plate 95).

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1668-93—Passau, Germany: Carpoforo Tencalla’s fresco in St. Stephan’s Cathedral includes depictions of many angel-musicians, including a trombonist (see detail below; public domain) (Crombie 50). For a larger version, see here.

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1674-80—Cuzco, Peru: An anonymous painting, Confraternities of Saint Rose and La Linda, part of a group of paintings called The Procession of Corpus Christi, depicts an Andean trombonist among several other wind players. The musicians accompany the statue of Saint Rose as part of a long procession through the streets of Cuzco. The trombonist has what appears to be a decorative red bow tied to the end of the slide, as well as a white cord around the rear portion of tubing (see detail below; public domain) (Cuzco, Museo del Arzobispo) (Wuffarden pl. 14; Baker, Imposing Harmony 38; Baker, Music at Corpus Christi).

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1693—Cuzco, Peru: Francisco Chihuantito’s painting, The Virgin of Monserrat, located in the parochial church of Chichero, Cuzco, includes a depiction of a trombonist in a prominent position near the center of the painting. A cornetto player stands to the right of the trombonist, while two other similarly-dressed musicians, probably shawm players, stand behind (see below detail of trombonist; public domain image) (Velarde 82; Rosas 384).

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1700s—The Netherlands: An anonymous eighteenth-century Dutch etching features trombone and cornetto, seemingly dancing as they perform (see below detail of trombonist; public domain) (Naylor 63).

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1704—Tönning, Germany: A painted ceiling by Barthold Conrath at the Church of St. Lawrence depicts a group of angels playing wind instruments and percussion, including a jubilant angel-trombonist (see below detail; public domain) (Bowles, The Timpani 167).

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1710—Verona, Italy: Artist Felice Torelli, younger brother of well-known composer Giuseppe Torelli, depicts an angel playing trombone in Immacolata Concezione, painted for the church of Sant’Orsola dei Mendicati shortly after the proclamation of the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. The image is noteworthy because no other musical instruments are depicted in the painting. The artist includes the usual flat stays found on trombones of the time, but the slide appears to be somewhat longer than usual and the player’s grip on the instrument’s back tubing somewhat unorthodox (see below detail; public domain image; Verona, Museo di Castelvecchio) (Chiodini; Oxford Art Online).

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c. 1720—Nuremberg, Germany: Johann Christoph Weigel depicts a trombonist in an engraving in Musicalishes Theatrum. The caption below the engraving reads, “Posaune: I am searching for glory in every place, In antiquity, as well as in effect, One can see what I can do in both Testaments, I destroyed walls when spoken to in a proper manner, No offering or feast could be properly conducted without me, And nowadays I adorn a large instrumental choir” (Weigel pl. 6; translation from Naylor 197) (see below image; public domain).

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1714—Lüneburg, Germany: A major rebuild of the organ in Johanniskirche is completed by Matthias Dropa. One of several rebuilds and renovations after the organ’s original installation in 1551-53, it is probably this early 18th-century rebuild that adds the sculptures of what appear to be two angel-trombonists perched atop the organ pipes (see below detail; public domain).

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1723—Rome, Italy: Filippo Bonanni publishes the complete version of his Gabinetto Armonico, which contains a number of illustrations of musical instruments. Among the engravings is a separate plate, titled Trombone Spezzata, of a man playing trombone (see below image; public domain) (Bonanni 5). The artist is Arnolt van Westerhout (Guion, Trombone 29).

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1725-30—Vienna, Austria: A fresco by Johann Michael Rottmayr in Karlskirche features a trombone-playing angel (see below image; public domain).

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 Last updated on July 7, 2014

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Comments 2 comments

David Wilken 3 years ago

Interesting article. Something similar that I've wondered about is how many pieces of art depict brass players as having puffed cheeks. As you commented here, they should probably not be taken too literally. Do you have any thoughts about the cheek puff in art work?

Dave

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kimballtrombone 3 years ago Hub Author

David,

Yes, I've noticed the same thing about puffed cheeks in a lot of these depictions--most of them do show puffed cheeks. That seems to continue even into contemporary art. Not sure what to make of it, other than the fact that audiences tend to notice when brass players puff their cheeks. Of course, early writers mentioned that people in the upper class should avoid playing brass instruments because playing distorts your face!

Will

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