At Last, the Sackbutt Gets Its Due

Just when a parent might be fearing that his pre-teen daughter will bring home an infatuation with Britney Spears’ “Greatest Hits” and the chart-topping “3”—a mewling disquisition on the joys of threesomes, or, as the lyric puts it, “love in the extreme”—she (the pre-teen not the high-maintenance pop diva) turns up after school with a fascination for the sackbut in tow.

Sackbut? Let me refresh your memory: the sackbut is an early trombone, one of the most beautiful and evocative members of the Western instrumentarium and called upon by composers for some of the most unforgettable moments of 17th-century music.

The sackbut, my daughter informed me, comes from the middle French sacquer (to push) and bouter (to pull) hence sackbut, corrupted in one of its various English forms to shagbolt, certainly the raunchiest name for a musical tool, especially for one whose characteristic physical gesture is the in and out motion of its protruding slide. Indeed, in an earlier usage it was the hooked pike that infantrymen pushed out, to pull knights off their steeds.

Energized by my daughter’s wholesome enthusiasms, I offer this quick look at three relatively recent moments of recorded sackbut bliss that the Musical Patriots of this household surveyed this past week. We begin with the glamour boy of the instrument, Jörgen van Rijen whose “Sackbutt: Trombone in the 17th and 18th Century” is available on the Channel Classics and was released in 2008.

(Van Rijen uses the more picturesque two Ts in his spelling, in contrast to Microsoft Word’s spell checker that industrial cleanser of color from the language; so from here on out, I do too.) The rarity of van Rijen’s talent is perhaps reflected in the price of the recording, which is just shy of thirty bucks for a single disc, the thinking apparently being that connoisseurs of the sackbutt will pay top dollar for this celestial presentation of a rarely heard repertoire. But in this difficult economic times, I recommend what all those seeking cheap entertainment do for a good time: Youtube.

Here you can hear, albeit in far-from-ideal aural circumstances, van Rijen hold his own against that fleetest of instrument, the violin in a Sonata by the Italian Antonio Bertali, who became director of music to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna.

As de Rijen explains in the liner notes, these early trombones were ideal for playing fast: “Although you need a lot of breath to play a modern trombone, you don’t need much more than a sigh to make the baroque instrument sound. That means that you can play all kinds of very intricate figuration and curlicues.” But I suspect that this also means that the finesse required in executing those runs, and preventing the tone from cracking are that much more demanding. These attributes were sacrificed for the sake of the full sonority demanded by the 19th-century orchestral repertoire, leaving behind precisely the combination of fragility and liveliness that had make the Sackbutt in the hands and at the lips of van Rijen such a revelation. The music on the disc ranges from the rapid-fire figuration of early 17th century Venice, where the florid potential of the instrument was fully unleashed, to buoyant demonstrations of classical grace in works such as Leopold Mozart’s Concerto in D. Though this concerto lacks the fantastical exuberance of the earlier Italian music, the later 18th-century made up for their obsessions with decorum with an optimistic music, often predictable but enlivened by shapely melodies and arabesques. Where the early stuff is wonderfully earthy, the classical is all fresh sheets billowing in a spring breeze, only—thank goodness—to be ripped from their clothesline and across the meadow by Rijen’s ambitious, free-range cadenzas. And my daughters loved the cover, — the dashing musician caught in chiaroscuro with two sackbutts with tooled bells (i.e., decoration around the flared end of the instrument) crossed in front of him.

Lest one be tempted to chuckle at what some irrelevant, fusty antiquarians get up to when they start foraging in old libraries and museums, pulling out musty manuscripts and forgotten instruments, I’ll note that van Rijen is also a master of the modern trombone and occupies the principal’s chair at the Concertgebouw, one of the world’s greatest of symphonies. Van Rijen’s most recent release (also pricey) on Channel Classics from 2009 ranges from the 18th-century to the present and includes a provocative piece of contemporary the CD for trombone and soundtrack which gives its title to the disc: “I was like Wow!”  The work, which can also be previewed on Youtube, uses sound recordings of wounded American soldiers in Iraq against powerful commentary from the trombone. The war footage  that opens the video shows that the a bazooka and trombone require a similar firing stance, used in van Rijen’s case to launch a powerful critique of the war.

From the solo sackbutt and the Middle East, let us return to the early 17th century and first to Northern Italy for that celebrated passage in the third act of Claudio Moneverdi’s seminal opera, “L’Orfeo” of 1607.  Orfeo has come to the River Styx and attempts to persuade the grouchy ferryman Charon to let him cross to Hades to rescue his beloved but dead Eurydice. After Charon has blown off some steam (“O you who dare to approach these shores”), Orpheus makes his famous plea, “Possente spirto, e formidabil nume” (Mighty spirit and formidable god). His decisive oration is introduced by a dirge for five trombones, their music pitched to the shadows and sadness of underworld as they seem to pace funereally all in step to Monteverdi’s harmonies, majestic and lugubrious.  2007 was a big Orfeo year, as it marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of opera as perhaps the most important European musical of the modern age. 2010 will bring in tow Monteverdi’s commemorations of his Vespers of 1610. (Both the vespers and the opera share the same orchestral introduction founded on a phalanx of sackbutts.) Capitalizing on the commemorations, Italian baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini brought out with his Concerto italiano a new recording of Monteverdi’s opera on the Naïve label in 2007.

The mournful perfection of the huddled sackbuts before Orfeo begins his noble speech to Charon, not to mention the fabulously expressive singing throughout, makes up for some of the extremes of tempo that the Italians like to indulge themselves with when leafing through their musical patrimony.  Never mind, this is a sackbutt choir for the ages, even now darkening the shadows along the Styx with their dirge.

The German Protestant composer Heinrich Schütz was already a famous musician and in his forties, when he went to learn from Monteverdi in Venice in 1628.  The following year Schütz published his first book of Symphoniae sacrae in that city. Among this proud collection is one of the most moving pieces of music ever written: Fili mi, Absolon!, the lament of King David at the death on the battlefield of his rebellious son. Schütz treats the repetitive text — “O my son Absolom, O Absalom, my son, my son! Who shall me die for you? O Absalom , my, my son! — in a setting that extends to more than six minutes, in which the bereft plaint of the bass voice is introduced and then enshrouded by Monteverdian quartet of sackbutts. Out of the depths the sackbutt chorus rises up, like human hands grasping one over the other at a rope leading up not towards light but more darkness. The piece is all the more devastating for its simplicity, and for the realization it brings that the gravest of human emotions can inspire such beauty.  Schütz was himself no stranger to such loss himself. My pick for this enduring piece and related repertoire is that of the Cappella Augustana, an international group with players from across Europe, and led the Italian, Matteo Messori.

On his return to his native country, the Thirty Years enveloped the Saxon Court of Dresden where Schütz was director of music. The performance of such elaborate music as Fili mi, Absolon! became impossible given the massive disruptions brought on by the conflict and the diversion of budgets  away from the arts to the military. Because of what Schütz and Monteverdi  were able to do with it, the sackbutt will always be marked for me, in spite its capacity for velocity and uplift, as the instrument of mourning and loss. But for my daughter it was still just plain fun.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at