Fake histories of the trombone, or, where was Snopes?

Book of the dead. trombone history

Book of the Dead’, Papyrus of Ani (sheet 3). Did these people invent the trombone?

Widely copied misinformation did not begin with the Internet. Reliable historical writings about the trombone in English begin with a 1906 article by Francis Galpin, for example.

Before that? Fake histories abounded. In fact, likely as not, they appeared in encyclopedia articles.

They frequently name sources, but except for the Bible, not with enough precision that interested readers could actually find them. Or else they name current secondary sources that refer only to bibliographic fog.

Trombone in the Bible

I have always thought Salpinx would be a great name for a Christian-oriented brass quintet.

  • In the New Testament, most English versions translate it “trumpet.”
  • Luther’s German translation translates it “Posaune” (trombone).
  • The “Dies irae” of Latin requiem mass warns of its sounding with the word “tuba.”
  • In colloquial English, it’s Gabriel’s horn.

Hebrew trumpets -- history of the trombone

Blowing the Trumpet at the Feast of the New Moon — illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible

A whole brass section expressed in a single Greek word!

Luther’s translation of a verse in 1 Corinthians says that the trombone shall sound and the dead shall be raised. He also used Posaune to translate a Hebrew word in the Old Testament.

The King James Version mistranslates a stringed instrument mentioned in Daniel as “sackbut” (trombone). Therefore, it’s only natural that before modern scholarship, many authorities attributed the origin of the trombone to the ancient Hebrews. Some say the Hebrews got it from the Egyptians, however.

Between 1732 and 1750, Johann Heinrich Zedler issued one of the most important encyclopedias of the eighteenth century.

It included four substantial unsigned articles on the trombone:

  • “Posaune”
  • “Posaune Gottes” (God’s trombone)
  • “Posaunen” (trombones)
  • “Posaunen-Feste,” a description of the new moon festival in the Old Testament.

The first two paragraphs of the first-named article contain useful contemporary information about the trombone. The rest of the article and the other articles, however, largely comprise substantial scriptural references.

The author also cites such later Jewish and Christian writers as Philo, Chrysostom, and Luther, as well as commentators less well-known to modern readers of English.

The invention of the trombone by various other ancients

Zedler’s erudite author also cites a commentary on Homer by Eustathius, a 12th-century bishop of Thessalonica. The bishop supposedly described six types of ancient trombones:

  • Straight trombones of the Argives, which the Greeks claimed was invented by Minerva. (Minerva was the Latin name of the goddess Athena. Zedler’s author must have chosen the Latin form since Eustathius wrote in Greek.)
  • Curved trombones of the Libyans and Egyptians attributed to the god Osiris
  • A Celtic trumpet (sic) with the mouth of an ox or some other creature
  • A Paphlagonian trumpet, also with an ox head, with a rougher sound than the previous
  • A reed pipe of the Medes that made a horrible noise
  • A Tyrrhenian type of Phrygian whistle with a very light sound

Clearly Zedler’s author took the word Posaune to mean something other than the familiar brass instrument. That is, he didn’t assume it had a slide in ancient times. Other authors, however, didn’t understand the distinction.

Here are some other ancients who supposedly invented, or at least described a slide trombone:


Marin Mersenne, a 17th-century polymath, cited a passage from Apuleus’ Metamorphoses that describes musicians “with the right hand drawing out or pulling back the tubes of the trumpet, whereby musical sounds were given forth.” At first glance it certainly appears to describe a slide trombone.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the 18th-century Italian librarian Filippo Buonanni both cite Mersenne. Buonanni also found a citation in a book published in 1629 by Fortunatus Scacchi, which may have been Mersenne’s source.

Galpin carefully examined both Apuleus and Scacchi and concluded that Scacchi made an unfounded assumption.  In fact, Apuleus had in mind a Phrygian flute with only three finger holes, played with the right hand.

Tyrtaeus et al.

Tyrtaeus. trombone history

Is this the inventor of the trombone? Is it even Tyrtaeus? It’s the face the turned up in a Google Image search for the Spartan poet.

According to several respectable sources, an ancient Spartan poet named Tyrtaeus invented the trombone in 685 B.C. These include Grove, a 19th-century method book by Otto Langey, the minor German author Heinrich Welker von Gontershausen, and a French music encyclopedia.

Welker mentions other possible candidates: Piseus the son of Hercules, Archondas, and the god Pan.

He may have been familiar with Zedler’s encyclopedia, since he mentions a similar variety of ancient trombones.

Like Zedler’s author, he recognized that our current trumpets and trombones differ greatly from the ancient ones. But it’s unclear whether he realized how recently the slide was invented.

Citing Scripture, Welker says that the trumpet, trombone, and horn were once the same instrument and gradually became different enough to justify different names.

Welker cites no specific documents for his jumble of suggestions about the history of the trombone. I can’t also can’t find any intermediary, like Scacchi, who could have misinterpreted an ancient reference to Tyrtaeus or any of the others.

A rare archeological find?

Fresco from Herculaneum. history of the trombone

Roman fresco from Herculaneum. Cupids playing with a lyre

Numerous writers of the 19th- and early 20th centuries described actual physical evidence of the antiquity of the trombone. It seems to be traceable to an article in the Encyclopaedia londiniensis.

Galpin quotes this extract from the article on “Music”:

The ancient instrument called the Sackbut was discovered among the ruins of Herculanaeum or Pompeii. The lower part is made of bronze, the upper part of solid gold. The King of Naples made of present of it to His present Majesty, and from this antique the instruments now called Trombones have been fashioned. In quality of tone it has not been equaled by any of modern make.

According to WorldCat, that encyclopedia appeared in 24 volumes between 1810 and 1829. It is one of numerous English encyclopedias of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Not even Wikipedia has an entry that describes it.

The Grove article cites Neumann’s Tutor for Trombone both for the attribution to Tyrtaeus and a description from “several sources” of

. . . a circumstantial account of the finding of one or even two such instruments [slide trombones] at Pompeii in the year 1738. Neumann states that the mouthpieces were of gold and the other of bronze. “The king of Naples,” he continues, “gave this instrument to king George III or England,” who was present at the digging. Mr. William Chappell, in a note made by him more than fifty years ago, confirms this statement, and adds that the instrument is found in the collection at Windsor. The present librarian, however, denies all knowledge of it. Nor is it in the British Museum.

The archeological find lost

Beyond the apparent disappearance of this remarkable find, these accounts have some additional oddities:

  • Grove‘s source also seems to have disappeared. At least I find no sign of a trombone tutor by Neumann in WorldCat, even supposing it to have been a German book.
  • It is impossible to trace corroborating evidence by Mr. Chappell, since the article lacks any useful citation of the note.
  • George III did not become king until 1760. He was born in 1738, in fact. Galpin dryly notes that if he was present at the dig and received the instrument, he would not have been much interested.
  • There was no archeological dig at Pompeii in 1738. Excavations did take place at Herculaneum that year.
  • The government of Naples issued findings of the dig in eight volumes, the first of which appeared in 1757. It contains not a word about finding an ancient trombone.

Welker von Gontershausen likewise passes on the story, without attribution. M. G. Flandrin also described it, correcting the English king to George II, in a French music encyclopedia published in 1927. The article mentions both Neumann and Chappell. My guess is he cribbed from Grove.

It seems impossible to kill rumors and fake news floating around the Internet. Have we seen the last of this fake history?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Edward Kleinhammer’s first trombone textbook (1963) attributed the invention of the trombone to Tyrtaeus. If he found it in an encyclopedia, it has to be true. Doesn’t it?

Buonanni, Filippo. Gabinetto armonico. Rome: Giorgio Plancho, 1722.
Flandrin, M. G. “Le trombone” in Encyclopédie de la musique et dictionnaire du
Conservatoire. Part II. Technique, esthétique, pédagogie: 3. Technique instrumentale,
1659-51. Paris: Librarie Delagrave, 1927.
Galpin, Francis W. “The Sackbut: Its Evolution and History,” Proceedings of the Musical
Association 33 (1906): 1-25.
Grove, George (ed.). A Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 4 vols. London: Macmillan,
1879-89, s.v. “Trombone” by William Stone.
Guion, David. The Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697-1811. New York: Gordon and
Breach, 1988.
Kleinhammer, Edward. The Art of Trombone Playing. Evanston, Ill.: Summy-Birchard,
Welcker von Gontershausen, Heinrich. Neu eröffnetes Magazin musikalischer
Tonwerkzeuge. Frankfurt: Author, 1855.
Zedler, Johann Heinrich. Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon, 64 vols. Leipzig:
Zedler, 1732-50. s.v. “Posaune,” “Posaune Gottes,” “Posaunen,” “Posaunen-Feste.”

Photo credits:
Book of the Dead. Public domain from the British Museum
Blowing the Trumpets. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Tyrtaeus. This is Sparta
Roman fresco from Herculaneum. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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