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The Fretted Blasthorn Revisited

The puzzling lack of any iconographic evidence for the existence of the fretted blasthorn has stimulated much debate but a recent discovery in the library of the Univerity of Bratislava has provided an insight into the true nature of the instrument. It clearly derives in part from the tromba marina, a stringed instrument with a strident sound produced by a bridge which balances on one foot (1) whilst the other rattles against the body of the instrument. Its other ancestor is obviously some kind of trumpet or horn which provides the unique possibility for a single player to perform brass and string music simultaneously.

Henricus Glareanus, a Swiss monk, devoted much time to the study of the tromba marina. In his treatise the "Dodecachordon" of 1547 he makes the interesting observation that the instrument produces a more nearly agreeable tone at a distance than it does close at hand (2). The fretted blasthorn, or tromba supermarina, as it is sometimes called, rarely deserves such a charitable assesment, owing to the difficulty of tuning the natural harmonics of the horn or "tromba" to the strings. It was in an effort to overcome this problem that the frets were added, resulting in the instrument that is depicted in the recently discovered drawing. The frets of course enhance the attack of the bowed notes to more nearly match the agressive sound of the tromba but do nothing for the basic tuning. There had been wild speculation as to the range of the fretted blasthorn, but modern calculations have resulted in an estimate of a little over two miles in still air. Still air is unfortunately a necessity, since any change in temperature affects the strings and the tromba in opposite directions, thus exacerbating the tuning difficulties. All things considered, it seems unlikely that the instrument will enjoy a modern revival unless the Building Regulations are made significantly more demanding in respect of sound-proofing.

D Arrowsmith 1/4/96

1) Poor linguistic ability on the part of one enthusiast resulted in a fruitless search for competent one-legged string players in the misguided quest for authenticity.

2) See David Munrow "Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance" OUP 1976 ISBN 0 19 321321 4

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