Fake news is in the news. Unless you believe it isn’t. Fake news has been around for a very long time. Sometimes it’s a mistake borne out of ignorance, such as the early belief that the earth was flat. If nobody knows it’s round, it’s flat. But it’s not flat; it’s round. So the flat earth assertion is fake news. Sometimes fake news is known to be false but is spread with malicious intent. Say something enough times and people will think it’s true. It’s important to develop a good filter when information comes your way. It may be true; it may be fake.
The trombone has not been immune to its own fake news stories, especially regarding its history. I’ve been doing some research into this for one of the books that I’m writing and thought I’d share several items that have led many people to believe that the trombone was invented in antiquity, in Roman and early Biblical times. These myths – this trombone fake news – continue to the surface now and then as proof of an ancient origin of the trombone. Let’s set the record straight.
The Trumpets, Sackbuts, Psalteries, and Fifes,
Tabors, and Cymbals, and the shouting Romans,
Make the Sun dance. Hark you. (A shout within)
Men: This is good news!
Above, in the 1623 published edition of Shakespeare’s play and in a transcription in modern English, are several lines from Act V of William Shakespeare’s 1605 play, Coriolanus. The play is based on the life of the legendary–most scholars now believe that he never existed–Roman general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.
Here, Shakespeare includes the sackbut, an English name for the early trombone, among the list of instruments that were being played as Volumnia triumphantly enters the city. We know that trombones were part of the stage prop inventory for the “Admiral’s Men,” a theatrical company that was contemporary with Shakespeare. But in Coriolanus, Shakespeare takes an instrument with which he was familiar–the trombone, or sackbut–and places it in ancient Rome. Fake news.
Trombones at Pompeii and Herculaneum
The destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum due to the explosion of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, has led to many legends about what actually was found during the excavation of the cities that began in 1599. One of the most fanciful tales is that “two Roman Sackbuts” were found in the ruins of Herculaneum. This report first circulated in the 1700s but was, fortunately, debunked in the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music (1910):
The instruments that actually WERE found in the ruins of Herculaneum were Roman cornu. Here is a photo of one of the Herculaneum cornu and more photos and commentary about these instruments may be found by clicking HERE.
The trombone in Roman times? Fake news.
Longfellow: Tales of a Wayside Inn
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s collection of poems, Tales of a Wayside Inn, is a classic of English literature. Written in 1863, the book relates fictional stories and tall tales told by a group of guests at the Wayside Inn, a real Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Early in the book, Longfellow introduces “A Spanish Jew from Alicant.” As Canon Francis Galpin wrote in his essay, The Sackbut, Its Evolution and History (1906), “Longfellow (Tales of a Wayside Inn, Prelude), has unfortunately added popularity to this idea of the antiquity of the instrument [sackbut/trombone] by the following reference to ancient history.” At which point he quotes the closing lines of this excerpt from Longfellow’s poem (two scanned files since they appear over two pages in my copy of the 1913 edition):
Trombones in the ancient Middle East? Fake news.
Sackbut in the Bible: The 1611 King James Version
I have a high view of the authority of the Bible and believe that it is the inspired, inerrant word of God. But there is a problem with the idea of Biblical inerrancy. The Bible was originally – and inerrantly – written in ancient languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic. Those who have translated the Bible into other languages have often had trouble knowing what words in the original languages actually meant/mean.
In the famous 1611 translation of the Bible into English, the so-called “Authorized King James Version,” we find this verse from the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3, verse 5:
That at what time yee heare the sound of the cornet, flute, harpe, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, yee fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the King hath set up:
This passage goes on to reference the Prophet, Daniel, who, because he would not bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, was thrown into a den of lions where God preserved his life.
The problem with Nebuchadnezzar’s little band is that the sackbut wasn’t part of the jam session. Translators of the King James Version were stumped. They came across an Aramaic word in the passage and did not know what instrument was being described. Jeremy Montague describes the problem:
The reason for [the sackbut’s] use in the Authorized Version is that the word in the Aramaic is sabb-cha, and King James’s translators had no idea of what it meant but just picked something familiar that sounded similar. The Septuagint has sambyke each time (Vulgate, sambuca), and it is probably that it is the word that the author of Daniel was aiming at. Jeremy Montagu, Musical Instruments of the Bible (London: Scarecrow Press, 2002), p. 98.
So what WAS the instrument, the sambuca, that was rendered as sackbut, that was played in Nebuchadnezzar’s band? It was a type of small harp, a bow harp, that looked something like this example found in the Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments:
Since the King James Version was published, Biblical scholars know much more about ancient languages and ancient musical instruments, and the sambuca is now usually translated as psaltery or lyre. In fact, the New King James Version translates it as lyre. Not sackbut. Not trombone.
The trombone in ancient, Biblical times? Fake news.
It is important to keep in mind that apart from the fanciful report of the discovery of trombones in the excavation of Herculaneum, none of these “fake news” reports about the trombone were malicious or intended to deceive. Shakespeare and Longfellow were using poetic license to place the trombone in ancient times, putting an instrument with which they were familiar into an historical setting. They also may just have liked the sound of the name of the instrument and how it rolls off the tongue. The translators of the King James Version did the very best they could with the knowledge they had when they translated sambuca as sackbut. Over time, scholars gained a better understanding of the meaning of the word and they corrected it in subsequent translations of the Bible. The problem occurs when people today don’t understand that these references that place the trombone in ancient times are false. The assertion that the trombone was found in antiquity still comes up in books, articles, and student papers today. The trombone has a long and noble history that dates from the fifteenth century. We continue to learn more about this rich history including when things previously thought to be true are now known to be false. Check your sources when you write about the trombone. You’ll be doing your part to stop trombone fake news.