bout the Cornetto
The cornetto is an instrument that does not fit neatly into the modern classification scheme of woodwind or brass. It is played like a brass instrument by buzzing your lips in a mouthpiece. However, it is made out of hardwood, such as boxwood, and not in brass. Like woodwinds, it has fingerholes, six on the front of the instrument and a thumbhole on the back. Some people classify it as a brass instrument because of its means of sound production and association with sackbutts, while others classify as a woodwind because of its timbre and construction.
The cornetto is an instrument with a long history. There is an extant instrument dating from 10th century Sweden. It is reasonable to assume that such instruments had existed for many centuries prior to that date. The central features of the early instruments, a conical bore, and finger holes, have not changed to this day. There are numerous depictions of cornetts in artwork from all periods of the middle ages and renaissance. This gives us insight into the evolution of the instrument and its dissemination across Europe. Cornet means little horn, and early instruments were made from animal horns rather than from wood. 11th century manuscripts from England and Germany show instruments made from animal horn. 12th and 13th century illustrations and carvings depict instruments made from wood. Some of these instruments were ornamented by terminating the instrument with the shape of an animal head. Although these instruments were not typical, such ornaments continued to be used into the seventeenth century. A carving in the Lincoln Cathedral from the mid 13th century has an octagonal exterior cross section, a feature that was retained in the renaissance cornetto curvo. The Angers Tapestry, circa 1380, depicts a curved wooden instrument.
By the sixteenth century there were three main types of cornetts:
- Curved cornetti
- Mute cornetti
- Straight cornetti
Curved cornetts, or cornetto curvo as they are called in Italian, are the most common. They are also known as cornetto nero in Italian, or schwarzer zink in German, meaning black cornett. This refers to the color of the leather in which the instrument is wrapped. Curved cornetti usually bend towards the player's right hand, although some instruments were designed for left handed players and bend in the opposite direction. Reaming a conical bore in a curved instrument is quite difficult. Rather than attempt this feat, the instrument is constructed from two pieces of wood which have the bore chiseled out prior to being glued together. The fingerholes are drilled after the instrument has been assembled. Curved cornetti are unique in that the exterior of the instrument has an octagonal cross section. Like modern brass instruments curved cornetti have detachable mouthpieces. These were made from one of several materials, including ivory, ebony, and bone. The mouthpieces have a narrow rim in comparison to modern brass instruments. Some modern makers have created mouthpieces with wider rims to accommodate people who are used to playing other brass instruments.
Mute cornetts are the second most common type of cornett. Unlike their curved cousins, they are straight. This makes them slightly less ergonomic than curved cornetts, as the finger-holes require a greater stretch. The model in F that is pictured has about the same stretch as a tenor recorder without keys. However, their straight form allows the conical bore to be reamed out of a solid piece of wood. Their exterior cross section is round, rather than octagonal like the curved cornett. They are not covered in leather. The most significant acoustic difference between the mute cornett and other cornetts is the mouthpiece and its junction to the instrument. Mute cornetts have an integrated mouthpiece that merges seamlessly with the bore of the instrument. This gives the instrument a quieter, more veiled tone than other cornetts. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that the mouthpiece on a mute cornett can not be changed.
Straight cornetts, which are also called cornetto diritto, and cornetto bianco, are similar to mute cornetts in all respects but one. The difference is that they have an interchangeable mouthpiece like a curved cornett. Thus they sound very much like curved cornetts. Presumably the curved instruments were preferred because of their ergonomic shape.
Curved treble cornetti have a range from g through d'''. The cornettino, is a smaller version of the curved treble cornetto. Its usable range is from d' through d''', although a skilled player can play up to a'''.
Cornetti were instruments for a professional virtuoso. 16th century cornetto treatises document divisions, elaborations, of a melody that require great skill to perform.
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, cornetti were used in ensembles along with sackbuts to perform instrumental works. Examples include works by Giovanni Gabrielli. They were also commonly used to accompany choral music. Cornetti were also included in larger instrumental ensembles.
The late baroque was a period of great change in instrumental fashions. Many instruments, such as the recorder, lost favor in musical circles. The cornetto was one such instrument. Its decline is rather surprising. The instrument did not lack the range or expressive nature of other instruments. Nor was it succeeded by a 'superior' instrument, as it had no successor at all. Bach only used cornetti to support the treble line. The mast major works to include cornetti were Handel's Tamerlano and Gluck's Orfeo. Despite its decline in general orchestral and liturgical use, the cornetto and trombone ensemble played Turmmusik in Germany into the 19th century.
The cornetto is related to serpent, which is essentially a tenor cornetto. The serpent takes the form of an S, to facilitate reaching the finger holes. It was used in English military bands into the 19th century. Serpents have been used in various films including Chattahooche, and Time Bandits. Larger instruments have been dubbed anacona.
Page Design Copyright 2010 Michael Berger
Clip Art Copyright 2002 Dover Publications