The glass trumpet of the Magi

Every year now, the thre Magi pay their respects on their holiday here on the blog. This time, they are signing in from Mallorca, where they arrived last night on their fancy caravel, and then with their richly loaded camels and their luxurious entourage, they marched around the old town of Palma, distributing blessings and gifts, exactly along the route that the demons will march with their fiery chariots in two weeks.

These days, the procession of the Magi is accompanied by a brass band that fills the streets with rumor commensurate with the importance of the procession. In the nineteenth century, however, the chaotic musical background was provided by the population itself, and its typical instruments were the conch horn and the glass trumpet. The Mallorcan ethnomusicologist Amadeu Corbera Jaume recently devoted a special study to the latter. In this, he pointed out that the glass instruments were prepared by the glass factory workers in the Santa Catalina district of Palma for fun, inbetween real jobs.

“Our joy reached its height when the shouts and screams of the crowd, mingling with the shrill sound of the apocalyptic glass trumpets and the deep bleat of the conch horns, filled the street, announcing that the Magi were here.
«The Holy Magi!» we shouted. And we run out onto the balcony, watching the chaos, the children and lads waving burning torches, among them a figure with blackened face, dressed in dirty and ragged clothes, with a turban made of two different colors on his head, on top of a two-pronged ladder, which was carried by half a dozen street children on their shoulders, in the midst of a huge noise.” (Miquel Binimelis, La Tradición 1897)

The glass trumpets were mostly blown by unruly youngsters, into the faces of the passers-by, also engaging them in other ways. The procession of the Magi in Palma was also a more or less tolerated ritual occasion for street violence, like today’s fans’ parades before and after soccer matches.

“It is with the greatest indignation that we take up our pen to-day to condemn certain acts committed the night before yesterday by bands of boys who, without any consideration, provided with glass trumpets, conch horns and other various dissonant instruments, went about the streets of the city, brandishing torches in their hands, and throwing sparks to right and left, thereby causing considerable harm to the poor passers-by, whose bodies and clothing were in constant danger of damage.” (Diario de Palma Jan. 7, 1863)

However, the traditional objects of violence were not random passers-by, but certain well-established target groups. The Moors disappeared a long time ago, but the Jews were still there. It is true that the Mallorcan Jews, the Xuetas already converted to Christianity in 1391, as I wrote. But once a Jew, forever a Jew.

“I still remember that during the feast of the Magi, the suburban urchins marched up and down the city blowing their glass trumpets. And I also remember the rampage they had every year on Silversmiths’ Street [the main street of the Xueta neighborhood], breaking shop windows and damaging furniture. Fortunately, this came to an end during the time of Mayor Rubert, thanks to the measures of the silversmiths’ committee, whose president, Senyor Felicindo, as tall and fat as St. Paul, I even knew myself.” (From the memoirs of poet Miquel Forteza (1888-1968))

It is no wonder that in Palma the “old Christian” and the Xueta families did not intermarry, no matter how devoutly Catholic the latter were. So much so that even today the Israeli rabbinate recognizes the Xuetas as pure-blooded Jews, who only need to return to the Jewish faith in order to be readmitted to the People. And in the vestibule of the church of St. Eulàlia on Silversmiths Street, one of the three known medieval synagogues, there is still a marble plaque with the names of the Xueta families “who come here to Mass,” since traditionally no other local Catholic ever set foot there.

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But times change, and with them the means of noise making. The glass trumpet as an instrument of the poor has disappeared from Mallorca, just as I think that not one of the New Year’s Eve paper trumpets of my childhood can be still found anywhere. It was such a common and cheap item that none were ever kept around. Where it survived, writes Amadeu Corbera Jaume, is in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels. The museum, located in the Art Nouveau style building of the former Old England department store in the museum district of Brussels, was developed by its first curator, Victor-Charles Mahillon, into one of the largest musical instrument collections in the world at the end of the 19th century. He corresponded with folk music collectors worldwide, including Antoni Noguera i Balaguer (1869-1904) from Mallorca, who sent him three glass trumpets among several other Mallorcan folk instruments. They are still in the museum’s collection and are listed as number 1316 in the Mahillon catalogue.

When I got this far in reading the article, I got up and walked to the Museum of Musical Instruments, not far from my place, to see with my own eyes and capture with my own lens the famous noisemakers. But I had no luck. Only a fraction of the nearly four thousand musical instruments collected by Mahillon are exhibited, and they do not include the glass trumpets.

However, it is not pointless to visit the three floors of the Museum of Musical Instruments. You can see wonderful pieces from all over the world. And like the desert of the Little Prince, the collection is also beautiful because it includes three Mallorcan glass trumpets in one of its storerooms. Three items whose story is almost more interesting and important than the items themselves.

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