Tubae mirae sonus: Mozart & Latin, Gesture & Enargeia

The wondrous trumpet – not!

It’s the most famous solo of all time for this instrument, representing the Last Trumpet on the Day of Judgement, and Mozart’s autograph score gives the short title by which we all know it: Tuba mirum, the wondrous trumpet. 

Unfortunately, that’s quite wrong.



The well-known fact that Mozart wrote this sombre fanfare for trombone, not for trumpet, is not the only problem. Tuba mirum simply does not mean “wondrous trumpet”.

In Latin, tuba (nominative case) is a feminine noun meaning trumpet. But mirum is the masculine-accusative form of the adjective ‘wondrous’. Gramatically, the two words do not agree. It is not the trumpet that is wondrous.

When we compare another famous solo, representing the very same Biblical scene, we have to ask two questions. Why did Mozart choose a trombone, and why does his fanfare go downwards?

Handel’s trumpet

Handel’s well-known setting of The Trumpet shall sound in Messiah features an actual trumpet playing upward-directed fanfares, with a thrilling ascent to high A in the second phrase. That’s more like it, isn’t it?

The expressivity of 18th-century music is rooted in the ancient Greek concept of Enargeia, the emotional power of detailed description. Read more about Enargeia. Enargeia employs Rhetorical language to describe a scene so vividly, that the audience feel they can almost see it with their own eyes. The visions in their imagination send the energia – the energetic spirit of emotional communication – from the mind to the body, producing the physical and emotional responses, the physiological and psychological manifestations of Affekt.

Composers aligned their music as closely as possible to the detailed imagery of the text, creating aural Enargeia, like the sound effects in a stage or cinematic drama. These Effects were intended to induce emotional response, to instill Affekt amongst listeners. So rhetorical Enargeia creates embodied Energia, sound Effects create emotional Affekt.

The power of Enargeia is in the detail. So when we hear the words ‘The Trumpet shall sound’, the emotional communication is reinforced when we indeed hear the sound of a trumpet. And when the dead are ‘raised’, the vocal and instrumental sounds are also raised in pitch. The powerful connection created by this Word-Painting (also known as Madrigalism) is further reinforced by the gestures with which a singer (in the theatre, or in concert) or a preacher (in church) would accompany the text.

At ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ the right hand would be extended from its resting position at the waist, probably to shoulder height. Since ‘Dead’ were still in their graves, the gesture on this word would be downward, perhaps even with the left hand. And then both hands ‘shall be raised’ (the right hand leading), and (the text repeats) raised again, perhaps beyond the normal limit of shoulder-height, lifting eyes and hands towards heaven. The crucial word ‘incorruptible’ might be pointed out with the gesture for ‘pay attention’. 

Every detail of text, each baroque gesture of the hand, is paralleled in Handel’s music. Enargeia will have its effect. 

The biblical text itself is from Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians, powerfully declaring the Gospel which he preaches (verse 1). The sound of the trumpet (verse 52) is introduced by the recitative ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’ (verse 51). ‘Behold’ – look! – is the defining signal that Enargeia is about to be employed. The audience is literally commanded to see the ‘mystery’ that they are told by the words and music.

Mozart’s trombone

Mozart’s tuba provides sound effects for a scene described in the Sequence Dies irae, part of the Requiem Mass. ‘The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes’. The context is not the good news of Paul’s declaration of the Gospel, but a dark prophecy from Zephania 1, verse 15.

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness; a day of the trumpet and alarm…

The third stanza of the Requiem Sequence describes how the trumpet’s sound is heard in the graves all around, to summon everyone to the Final Judgement. When we consider the image in detail, as if we could see it in front of our own eyes, it becomes evident [the Latin term for Enargeia is Evidentia] that this Last Trumpet sounds below, in the graves, even in Hell itself.

Whereas the Baroque Trumpet is associated with glorious majesty, heraldry and heaven, the Trombone (in English, Sackbut) was associated with solemnity and the underworld. Trombones accompany the lower voices in Monteverdi’s settings of liturgical psalms, and set the scene in Hell for Act III of Orfeo (1607). Trombones represent the Furies of Hell in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and the supernatural power of the statue of the Commandatore in the cemetery scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787).

The blast of this solemn instrument is appropriately directed downwards in Mozart’s Requiem (1791, incomplete), to resound per sepulchra regionum – throughout the regions’ graves. So whilst we hear the word Tuba, we simultaneously hear that ‘dread Trumpet’ sustaining a low note – as if down amongst the graves. 

Whilst the Gesture for these words might commence medium-high for tuba, it will inevitably descend (and probably leftwards) towards sepulchra regionum. So Mozart’s choice of Trombone and a downward-directed fanfare are perfectly in keeping with the principles of Enargeia.

Two bars later, listeners find themselves down in the graves with the singer on low Bb, whilst the dread sound is diffuse, scattered from way above, solemn even mournful with expressive Ab and even Gb. The picture is complete and detailed, and the emotional effect for the vision-imagining listener is very different from that of Handel’s trumpet.

Handel’s listeners are triumphant, given the promise of eternal life: “… and we shall be changed. We shall … be changed!”. Mozart’s congregation are called to be judged for their sins, whilst they reflect on death.

Every detail of the texts, each baroque gesture of the hand, two contrasting imagined visions are paralleled in Handel’s and Mozart’s musics. Enargeia will have its effects. 


Enargeia is all about detail, and there still remains one niggling difficulty with Mozart’s setting. Tuba mirum does not mean ‘wondrous Trumpet’, or even ‘dread Trumpet’. The adjective mirum is gramatically attached to the noun sonum, the object of the verb (present participle) spargens. The trumpet, scattering its dread sound throughout the regions’ graves, calls everyone before the Throne [of Judgement].

It is not the trumpet itself, but its sound, that is wondrous. In terms of Enargeia, the effect of sound is to create Affekt. The instrument itself is a real-world 18th-century trombone, but the Enargeia of its sound creates the emotional effect of the Day of Judgement.

Why does this nit-picking of Latin grammar matter? In a word, punctuation. In music, that means phrasing.

The English word-order makes it clear that a comma needs to be understood, between ‘The trumpet’ and ‘scattering its dread sound’. Latin allows spargens sonum mirum to be re-ordered as mirum spargens sonum (for the sake of the rhymed verse), but that comma still needs to be understood after tuba.

But ever since 1791, the well-known short title has encouraged us to think of the text as Tuba mirum. Whoops! The sense of the text suggests rather the musical phrasing Tuba // mirum spargens so………num with the word for ‘sound’ extended for great Enargeatic effect. If that phrasing sounds strange to your ears, that’s entirely the point of this article.


A frequently-encountered 18th-century principle of phrasing [see Quantz for example] is that notes which move by step tend to be legato, jumps suggest staccato or a break in the phrase. At first glance, the sound of Mozart’s wondrous trumpet [in Latin, that would be Tubae mirae sonus] seems to be all jumps, there is no step-wise movement at all. But if we consider that the trombone is representing a trumpet, then (in the 18th century) adjacent notes in the harmonic series could count as ‘steps’, not jumps.

In this sense, Tuba is linked as two adjacent notes, and there is a marked jump upwards (wondrously: the gesture to open the hands palms upwards and raise the eyes to heaven in awe, admiratio) for mirum, from where the harmonics continue smoothly downwards.

(OK, the harmonic series more-or-less continues: depending on which octave you imagine has the fundamental Bb, the descending phrase either includes a low D which is not strictly in the series, or wondrously avoids middle C. But poetic imagery does allow some poetic license!)

Every detail of text, each historical gesture of the hand, is paralleled in Mozart’s music. Enargeia will have its effect. 

Tactus and Tempo


In the 18th-century, tempo defines not just speed, but the emotional quality of the movement, conveyed not by modern conducting, but by Tactus-beating. The dramatic timing of the Enargeatic visions depends on musical rhythm. As many period writers expressed it: Tactus is the Soul of Music.

Although Mozart clearly wrote C-slash, Andante, many printed editions show the time-signature C. See this article by Douglas Yeo on the wondrously-named blog The Last Trombone for more. 

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