by Stanley Curtis
Why is the cornett (or, as it is more commonly referred to in its Italianate form, the “cornetto”) languishing in one of the narrowest of niches of music performance today? It is true that the instrument suffers from a few flaws. It does not play well chromatically-speaking: at the maximum, three accidentals, sharp or flat, are as far afield as the Renaissance instrument can comfortably adapt. Of course, that was enough for the music of the 16th and early 17th Centuries.
In spite of trying to wrap string around the shank of the mouthpiece in an effort to lower its pitch, the cornett’s overall tuning is not easily altered. Add to these problems the overall fact that the instrument is very difficult to learn: it is a hybrid instrument, having a mouthpiece for the lips to buzz in and fingerholes like a woodwind instrument. it requires the lip control and endurance of a great brass player as well as the finger dexterity of a masterful recorder player.
To find a trumpeter willing to learn the fingerings of the cornett or a woodwind player willing to learn how to control a brass embouchure is very difficult. Nevertheless, the cornett has some of the most amazing qualities.
The instrument is light and relatively small (sympathies to my sackbut-toting friends).
The cornett is incredibly simple in its design: there are no moving parts. It doesn’t even have as many holes as a typical recorder (the cornett has seven, while the recorder has eight).
The range is generous for a Renaissance wind instrument (a to d2), and it can play loudly and softly.
The cornett was also noted for its ability to extravagantly ornament a line of music (these ornaments were called diminutions).
But the most important quality of the cornett was, and is, its expressiveness. The cornett’s tone was praised by contemporaries as sounding closer to the human voice than any other instrument. In fact, the cornett was often used to double vocal lines in church music.
Girolamo dalla Casa, in his treatise on how to ornament the music of his day, said,
Of all the wind instruments, the most excellent is the cornett for it imitates the human voice more than the others. This instrument is played piano and forte and in every sort of tonality, just like the voice. –from Il vero modo di diminuir, 1584
French mathematician, philosopher, and music theorist Marin Mersenne described the cornett in this way:
the brilliance of a shaft of sunlight appearing in the shadow or in darkness, when one hears it among the voices in cathedrals or in chapels… -- Harmonie universelle, 1636
The cornett was prized as an instrument during its heyday, but many writers acknowledged that it was often not played well. In late 17th-century England, Roger North writes that “nothing comes so near or rather imitates so much an excellent voice as a cornett pipe, but the labor of the lips is too great and it is seldom well sounded.” The impression that the cornett sounded labored and difficult was echoed by other writers. The cornett began to disappear in Italy by mid-17th Century, while hanging on in Northern Europe a few decades longer. As the instrument began to decline in favor, fewer young musicians devoted their energy to mastering the instrument. This left the cornett in the hands of modestly-skilled church musicians in only a few German locations (like Stuttgart) by the 19th Century.
Long live the cornett. The cornett is dead.
But it is revived.
Its status is similar to a dead language like Latin: no longer a vital language of new writings and discourse, Latin is, nevertheless, a language that is studied and admired, and some Latinists are quite gifted. There are perhaps a few hundred cornettists in the world today. Most of these musicians do not play the instrument exclusively, nor do they make a living from playing the cornett. A few dozens of these cornettists play extremely well, and this is good news for music lovers, because we can hear beautiful examples of its expressiveness in concerts all over the world.
And right here in the Washington, D.C. area.