1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sackbut

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SACKBUT, Shakbusshe, Sagbut, Draw or Drawing Trumpet (Scotland, draucht trumpet) or Flat Trumpet (Fr. saquebute, saqueboute, cacbouc, trompette harmonique; Ger. Posaune, Busaun, Pusin, Zug-Trommet; Ital. tromba da tirarsi or tromba spezzata; Span, sacabuche; Dutch bazuin Schuijftrompette), the earliest form of slide trumpet, which afterwards developed into the trombone. As soon as the effect of the slide in lengthening the main tube and therefore proportionally deepening the pitch of the instrument was understood, and its capabilities had been fully realized, the development of a family of powerful tenor and bass instruments followed as a matter of course. It is not known exactly in what country the principle of the slide was first discovered and applied to musical instruments; if it be not an Oriental device, then the credit is probably due to the Netherlands or to South Germany before or during the 13th century.

The early history of the sackbut is among the most interesting of all instruments. Various attempts have been made to fix the etymology of the word as derived from Span, sacabuche through French. The Rev. F. W. Galpin[1] suggests a derivation from sacar, to draw out, and buche, identical with bucha (Lat. buxus), used in the sense of a tube or pipe originally of boxwood. To accept this etymology would be to lose sight of the fact that all the technical names applied to the sackbut in various languages directly acknowledge its descent from the buccina (q.v.), with the exception of Italian, in which the recognition is indirectly made through the synonym tromba. A clue to the etymology of sacabuche is afforded by the well-known fact that not only did the Arabs after the conquest introduce oriental musical instruments by way of Spain to western Europe, but the Arabic names also clung to the instruments in many cases. The Arabs had a military trumpet they called Buk or Buque, a word they had borrowed from the Christians,[2] and it is mentioned in a musical treatise of the 14th century (Escorial MS. 69) among the musical instruments then in use in Spain. It has been claimed on philological grounds that England derived her knowledge of the sackbut from France, but the oldest known form of the word in English is shakbusshe, which occurs in the accounts of Henry VII. for the 3rd of May 1495,[3] and is obviously of Spanish origin. Sackbut appears early in the 16th century.

The word sacabuche was at some time applied in Spain to the ship's pump; and the questions naturally arise, Which came first, and Was the musical instrument named after the pump from the great resemblance in their respective actions as well as in outward form?[4] It is certainly significant that the Ital. tromba, from which sprang “trumpet” and “trombone,” means a pump as well as a trumpet and the trunk of an elephant. Even if it could be proved beyond doubt that the slide had been applied to the trumpet before the word tromba was used for it, there would still remain several difficulties to be disposed of. (1) The word trumba, trumbin, trompe, already general in the romances of the 12th and 13th centuries, was at first applied to the tubas and curved horns, probably from the similar curve of the elephant's trunk (2) If tromba referred to the pump, it must have been applied to the slide trumpet, and tromba da tirarsi for “sackbut” is senseless tautology. (3) The etymology given above from buk or buque, trumpet, supported by similarly compounded words in English, Scotch, Dutch, Italian, would have to be regarded as a strange but not unparalleled philological coincidence. The earliest instance yet discovered of the use of sacabuche as a musical instrument seems to be in the 14th century.[5]

Britannica Sackbut Busine Player.png
Fig. 1.

The transformation of the busine (buccina) into the sackbut involved two or three processes, the addition of the slide being accomplished in at least two stages. It was applied first to the straight busine made in three or four sections having rings or knobs at the joints. The sliding portions or joints here doubtless served much as in our modern wood wind instruments for tuning purposes or for changing the key. The long slide, added for the purpose of obtaining a diatonic compass, denoted a further step in the evolution. When applied to the straight busine it differed materially from the slide of the sackbut or trombone, for the normal position of the instrument was with the slide fully drawn out, so that the knobs were equidistant; on the slide being gradually closed the pitch was proportionally raised in order to fill in the gaps of the first fifth by new fundamentals, upon each of which the harmonic series would be obtainable. An example of this early use of the slide is to be found in a miniature from a psalterium executed in the south of France during the 13th century, now preserved in the library of the university of Munich (MS. 24, 4to fol. 96b). Here (fig. 1) the performer is represented playing on a busine in which two of the knobs or rings denoting the joints or sections are shown touching each other. The hand is grasping the instrument just under the lower ring in the act of pushing it up to close the slide, as is indicated by the position of the wrist. This is the earliest indication of the existence of the slide yet found by the writer, and the instrument, although straight, is one of the earliest sackbuts. The manipulation of the slide on the long straight busine must have been exceedingly difficult, requiring not only skill, but a long arm. This led to the next step in the evolution, i.e. the bending of the tube in three parallel branches like a flattened S, an example of which, also of the 13th century, is found on some carved woodwork from the abbey of Cluny.[6]

Britannica Sackbut Folded Busine Player.png
Fig. 2.

The folding of the busine marks the advent of the new double slide, like a U, made to draw out and lower the pitch. This radical change did not come all at once, the intermediate step being the folding of the busine, with the old single slide, the whole S being drawn up and down, as the slide closed and opened again. This interesting development is shown (fig. 2) in a miniature by Taddeo Crivelli in the Borso Bible[7] (1450-1471). The two upper joints defined by rings are clearly drawn of larger calibre than the lower folded portion, which has been drawn out to what would approximately correspond to the third position on the trombone lowering the pitch one tone. A single slide would require to be extended about twice the distance of the double or folded tube on the trombone to produce any given effect. This drawing of the sackbut must not be taken as showing the instrument in use in Crivelli's day; it is clearly retrospective, for sackbuts in a more advanced stage are not uncommon in works of art of the same century. In a MS.[8] preserved in the library of the Arsenal in Paris, executed for the dukes of Burgundy in the middle of the 15th century, is seen a trumpet of the cavalry type with a single straight slide drawn out so far that the bell rests on the performer's foot (fig. 3).

Britannica Sackbut Trumpet Player.png
Fig. 3.

The last transition immediately preceding the change into the trombone consisted in folding the tube to form two U-shaped bends, one of which pointed downwards and the other over the shoulder, reaching to the level of the back of the head; the third branch was bent over between the other two, but in a plane almost at right angles above them, the bell extending downwards beyond the first bend. Sackbuts of this type are to be seen in Dürer's picture in the Nuremberg town hall, and in others by artists of the 15th century, as, for instance, in Gentile Bellini's Processione in piazza S. Marco among the band to the right of the picture.

The further history and development of the sackbut are given under Trombone. See also Trumpet and Buccina. (K. S.)


  1. “The Sackbut, its Evolution and History,” in Proc. Mus. Assoc. London (1906-1007).
  2. See Edw. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (London, 1863), bk. i. pt. i. p. 276.
  3. See W. H. Black, Sir N. H. Nicolas, etc., Excerpta historica (London, 1833), p. 102.
  4. This question has been thoroughly investigated by the late Professor George Case in his work on the trombone.
  5. See Felipe Pedrell, Organographia musical, antigua española, p. 116.
  6. Illustration in Du Sommerard, Les Arts au moyen âge, Atlas pl. i, ch. xii.
  7. See Hermann Julius Hermann, “Zur Gesch. d. Miniaturmalerei am Hofe der Este in Ferrara,” in Jahrb. d. Kunstsamml. d. allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses (Vienna, 1900), bd. xxi. pl. xiii.
  8. Illustration in Du Sommerard, op. cit., album, 4e série, pl. xvii.