by Douglas Yeo
I don’t have a lot of things from my childhood. All of my toys and stuffed animals went away a long time ago. Even my first trombone is gone, given away to a young player whose name I don’t remember any more.
But I do have one thing, a postcard, that I purchased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City around 1965. I was on a school field trip to the Museum – I grew up in New York City (Queens) and Long Island (Valley Stream) – and my class had just entered the musical instrument gallery. And there, in a display case overlooking the Museum’s collection of suits of armor (another very cool thing, I might add), I saw a display that had these instruments:
As a young trombone player, I was entranced. What is this!? I learned that this instrument is a form of trombone made in France in the early 19th century. Its name? The buccin. Nobody really knows how to pronounce it. I’ve heard it called “boo-cheen” and “boo-sahn” although most scholars agree on “book-sahn.” But, truly, nobody knows. These instruments were very popular in France in the first half of the 19th century; players of the buccin played trombone parts in bands and in parades, they made a spectacular sight. Buccins were usually painted in gold, red and green and some had a tongue of metal that would wag when it was played. At that moment, when I was all of 10 years old, I knew I had to have one of these remarkable instruments someday. At the time, all I could do was buy the postcard. I’m glad I did, since the Museum no longer has these instruments on display, or at least that was case a few years ago when I last paid the Museum a visit. However, the museum’s musical instrument gallery is closed for renovation at this moment and perhaps these wonderful instruments will be able to be seen once again when it reopens soon.
In time, though, I was able to purchase a buccin bell. It’s difficult to find one for sale with a workable slide. So I decided to purchase a bell (made by Sautermeister in Lyon, France) and have it restored, and a new slide constructed. Jim Becker (pictured with me, above) of Osmun Music in Massachusetts did the restoration and made the slide based on an historical model in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Jim did a fantastic job and the buccin has pride of place in my personal collection of musical instruments; it hangs on the wall in my home studio amidst photos and historical drawings of serpents, sackbuts, trombones, and other instruments, as well as a letter by Hector Berlioz.
Historically, there is not much music written specifically for the buccin. As I mentioned, it often doubled the trombone part in bands, particularly military bands. But we do have one piece that was specifically composed for buccin. There is a part for buccin in Hector Berlioz’s Messe solennelle, in the Kyrie. I played the Messe when I was in the Boston Symphony but I was playing the serpent at that time; the buccin part is doubled by the serpent and trombones so with only enough hands to play one instrument and with no buccin at my disposal at that time, the serpent kept my hands full.
The buccin plays like a normal, modern trombone. Sort of. First of all, the seven positions of the modern trombone are rather flexible on the buccin. The zoomorphic bell does quite a job of disrupting the smooth flow of air through the instrument. So one must make significant adjustments with the slide to get many notes in tune. But then there is this: if you are a trombone player, pick up your trombone and close your eyes. Then play a melody you know. In the key of D major. Having a little trouble finding the right slide positions? Welcome to the world of the buccin. With no bell in front of you to provide a visual guide to slide positions, playing buccin is a bit like playing the trombone in the dark. It’s when you play buccin that you find out how well you REALLY know your trombone. By the way, the photo above was taken at Symphony Hall in Boston, in front of a display case that has several serpents. But that’s another story. . .
There aren’t many people in the world who play the buccin, so because of my keen interest in the instrument and the research I’ve done to learn more about it, I was asked, a few years ago, to write the entry for the instrument for the new edition of The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. I also wrote most of the Wikipedia entry for the buccin. Two years ago, I gave a recital in the Hamamatsu (Japan) Museum of Musical Instruments and got to demonstrate and talk about the museum’s fine buccin. The photo below tells the story – look at all of the cell phone cameras that went up when I picked up the buccin. The buccin was easily the hit of my recital.
In 2012, I recorded a short video on a buccin owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Their buccin was made by Tabard in Lyon around 1830 and still has most of its original paint as well as a metal tongue.
The MFA has now posted that video on their YouTube channel and you can view it by clicking HERE (to go to the page in YouTube) or just click the video image below. I am playing the buccin part from Berlioz’s Messe solennelle. It will give you an up close look at the buccin and its sound. And its wagging tongue.
That’s the buccin. The coolest trombone. Ever.