'Sackbut': the early trombone

Herbert, T. (1997) 'Sackbut': the early trombone. In: The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge Companions to Music . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 68-83. ISBN 9780521565226 (paper back) 9781139002035 (e-book)


On 20 November 1906, Francis Galpin, the Anglican cleric and pioneering organologist, delivered a paper to members of The Musical Association in London. His paper, ‘The Sackbut: Its Evolution and History’, was one of the great contributions to musicology. In it Galpin explained the story of the exotic-sounding ‘sackbut’. His narrative was clear, straightforward and based on the systematic evaluation of diverse primary-source evidence. Before that evening, it was believed by some, even perhaps by some members of his distinguished audience, that the sackbut was an instrument of deep antiquity, and that its citation in the Book of Daniel (‘That at what time you hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut…’) was no less than a literal testimony of musical practice at the time when the Old Testament was written. The unarguable truth that Galpin placed before them was that ‘sackbut’ was no more than a word by which one of the most familiar musical instruments – the trombone – was once known. Furthermore, he showed that it could be dated no earlier than the fifteenth century, and that a comparison of an early example (Galpin owned an instrument made in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century) with a modern trombone revealed, on the face of it, more similarities than differences. In the twentieth century, research has improved our knowledge of the early trombone and the way in which its idiom and repertory changed over the years. We know more now than Galpin knew at that time. It is not just that we have more information about instruments, their players, their music and the cultural contexts into which music fitted and to which it conformed. We now also have evidence drawn from sophisticated musical experiments by performers on period instruments.

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