Sackbut Instrument: Music & Facts

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The sackbut, the forefather of the trombone, is a brass instrument dating from the Renaissance period. In this lesson we will examine the use of the sackbut in the music of its day.

76 Sackbuts Led the Big Parade!

You are back in the 5th grade and your parents are demanding you choose an instrument and sign up for the school band. You protest mightily. You'd rather play soccer. 'But music is important,' your parents insist. 'It looks good on your college application.' Carefully, you research your options. Then you enjoy the look on your parents' faces when you announce, 'I'm playing the sackbut!'

Sackbut Origins
A 17th century engraving of musicians. Note the sackbut on the right end.
Baroque engraving of musicians with a sackbut

The sackbut, also spelled sacbut, was a brass instrument that arrived on the music scene sometime in the 14th-15th centuries. Its origins are murky, partly because there are so many different names in early manuscripts that could refer to the sackbut. For example, in Italy, there were references to the trompone, and in England, the shagbolt. We don't know who gets the credit for inventing the instrument, but its brilliant use of a double slide for changing pitch was a welcomed, new idea. It gave the horn greater flexibility and agility and better intonation. This slide technique apparently impressed the French who coined the name sackbut from the French words for 'push' and 'pull.'

The sackbut family
Photo of sackbuts

Whatever its provenance, the sackbut was clearly popular by 1495 when Henry VII, King of England, claimed four shakbusshes in his instrumental ensemble. The brilliant composer Michael Praetorious praised the sackbut by calling it the 'wind instrument par excellence in concerted music of any kind.' Soon the sackbut was heard in churches and courts throughout Europe.

Sackbut Music
Heinrich Schutz
Portrait of Heinrich Schutz

There were four sizes of sackbuts: alto, tenor, bass, and great bass. This choir of sackbuts became a natural choice for accompanying voices in church worship services. The sackbuts were capable of playing very softly, something not many brass instruments could achieve. A soft, yet full, sound was perfect for supporting the church choirs. The 16th century composer Giovanni Gabrieli wrote many pieces for sackbut and choir for his church, San Marco in Venice. Heinrich Schütz, an important German composer of the 17th century, also liked the sackbut's warm sound. His collection of church music, Psalmen Davids, contains several sackbut compositions.

There was even a composer writing solo, virtuosic music for sackbut. Dario Castello, an early 17th century Venetian composer, wrote ten sonatas featuring the sackbut. These pieces are some of the earliest existing solo sackbut music. They are still performed and recorded today.

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