The sack . . . what? Is that kind of a joke? Can you imagine your kid coming home from school and saying, “Mom and dad, I’m going to play the sackbut!” Someone even said, “What a dumb name for an instrument!”
By now, many people have received the Early Music Hawaii postcard announcing the Musica Poetica concert on September 19, 7:30 pm at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu. If you look on the back of the postcard, it says “Guest Director Dana Marsh leads the local EMH performers and guest artists from Indiana on sackbuts and cornetto in works by Schütz, Scheidt, Kittel and more.” It occurred to me that many people these days do not know what a sackbut is, so here’s your music lesson for the day.
If you look at this picture of sackbuts to the right, you might say that they look like a kind of trombone, and you’re right, they are the forerunner of the trombone, and they come in different sizes.
“Unlike the earlier slide trumpet from which it evolved, the sackbut possesses a double slide, which makes it capable of playing fully chromatic scales, and allows for easy and accurate doubling of voices. Sackbuts adjust tuning at the joint between the bell and slide. The sackbut differs from modern trombones by its smaller bore, its less-flared bell, and in the lack of a water key, slide lock, and tuning slide on the bell curve.” (Wikipedia)
I also learned that the instrument has been called different names in different countries: France sacqueboute, Spain sacabuche, Scotland draucht trumpet, Italy trombone, and Germany Posaune — remember that term from my last post about Pau Hana Posaune?
The sackbut can be played either loudly or softly, and their sound is more delicate than the modern trombone — which is why, when Early Music Hawaii Choir and Orchestra plays polychoral music — there will actually be four separate ensembles in some of the pieces: two separate singing choirs, a string choir, and a brass choir, the last of which will consist of three sackbuts and also a cornetto. And believe me, the brass choir should not drown out the other choirs, as modern instruments might. These are period instruments, which are more intimate in sound than their modern counterparts.
Those of you who attended our Monteverdi Vespers performance in 2010 may remember the sweet sound of the cornettos, and in fact, one of the players from that performance is returning to Hawaii for this concert, Stephen Escher.
I liked this explanation of these early brass instruments in an article called “The Great Debate: Sackbut or Trombone?” from Kile Smith’s blog.
Why use sackbuts? In other words: a hammer’s great for pounding nails, but don’t paint your house with it. So the right answer to the early/modern question is this: Both the trombone and sackbut are better. As with every question about music, the answer depends on the music. Why use sackbuts . . . ? I can think of many reasons, but I’ll give just one. No other brass instrument can play full out, deep into its ruddy sound, and still blend quite so well with voices. Sackbuts blend with soft and loud instruments, with recorders or flutes or organs or shawms. A gang of them perfectly balances one singer. Try that with trombones and you’ll always be shushing them (trombones can play gorgeously quiet of course, but trombonists are forever being shushed). Or you’ll need to increase the number of singers or instruments, or introduce microphones, all to rejigger the balance. Which means you’ll alter the tone, definition of attack, and a dozen other qualities.
Tickets for the concert may be purchased at the door or online at www.earlymusichawaii.com.
P.S. Guess who is playing in every single piece in the program? Yup, you guessed it — Moi!