Three different cornetts: mute cornett, curved cornett and tenor cornett

The cornett, cornetto or zink is an early wind instrument, dating from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. It was used in what are now called alta capellas or wind ensembles. It is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument cornet.



There are three basic types of treble cornett: curved, straight and mute. The curved (Ger. krummer Zink, schwarzer Zink; It. cornetto curvo, cornetto alto (i.e. ‘tall’), cornetto nero) is the most common type, with over 140 extant examples. It is about 60 cm long and made of a single block of wood (plum, pear, maple etc.) cut into a curved shape and split lengthwise. A conical bore is carved out of each half and the pieces are then glued back together, the exterior planed to an octagonal profile, and the longitudinal joints secured by a series of bindings and a covering of black leather or parchment. The socket for the mouthpiece, which is slightly tapered, was sometimes strengthened by an external brass ferrule, and both the upper and lower ends of the instrument were occasionally adorned with silver mounts. There are six finger-holes and a thumb-hole (nearest to the mouthpiece). The instrument is often curved to the right, and the player’s right hand is placed lowermost, but many specimens are ‘left-handed’, curving the opposite way. Mouthpieces are made of ebony, ivory, or horn, but it is difficult to ascertain which extant examples are original; many are known to be replacements.

One of the specimens generally accepted as original is that of the late 16th-century curved cornett from Ambras. It is turned from horn, 14 mm wide, and is similar to a small trumpet mouthpiece in the deep curvature of the cup, but the rim is very sharp, resembling an acorn cup. Many pictures of cornett players show just such a small mouthpiece, and these depictions, together with instructions in several treatises, suggest that the small cup mouthpiece was usually placed in the corner of the mouth, the centre position being occasionally employed as an alternative.

The straight treble cornett (Ger. gerader Zink; It. cornetto diritto) is made of wood – usually yellow boxwood – with a conical bore as in the curved cornett, but turned on the outside to a circular cross-section, usually without ornamentation. Finger-holes and mouthpiece are as in the curved cornett. This was evidently the least common type, with only 13 extant instruments, although it seems to have been widely used before 1550 especially in Germany.

The mute cornett (Ger. stiller Zink; It. cornetto muto) is made like the straight cornett, but its mouthpiece is not detachable, being turned in the wood at the top end of the instrument instead. The conical cup merges into the bore, usually without a sharp break, causing a softening and veiling of the tone quality. Many fine boxwood specimens are in the Brussels Conservatory museum; most of these are from late 16th-century Venice, where Vincenzo Galilei (Dialogo, 1581) said that the best cornetts of his day were made.

The tenor cornett (Fr. taille des cornets; Ger. grosser Zink; It. corno torto, cornone) was pitched a 5th lower than the treble cornett, and was usually provided with an additional finger-hole, covered by a key, for the little finger of the lower hand. Because of its length (75 to 105 cm) the instrument was generally made with a double curve, having the finger-holes on the inside facet of the lower bend; thus in playing position the bell points downwards to the front, not outwards to the side as in the treble. Its main period of use was, like the treble cornett, about 1550 to 1650, although it gained favor in England only after the beginning of the 17th century; in 1622 the celebrated Norwich Waits possessed at least two. Praetorius did not care for it, describing its sound as ‘most unlovely and bullocky’. Nevertheless, it was widely used. Some 35 specimens survive in museum collections and many parts in alto and tenor clefs specifying ‘cornetto’ are only playable on the tenor-sized instrument. A tenor cornett in serpentine form is in the Paris Conservatoire collection. A straight tenor cornett, of ivory, ascribed to the late 17th century, is in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

The bass cornett (Fr. basse des cornets; Ger. Basszink) pitched a 4th or 5th below the tenor, is described only by Mersenne, but it was also known in Germany, where it is listed in many inventories from the last decades of the 16th century.


The compass of the curved treble cornett was from g to a″ until the 17th century, when parts were taken up to d‴ or even to e‴. But the lowest proper note is a (the thumb-hole and all six finger-holes covered), the g being obtained by slackening the lip. A few treble cornetts seem to have been pitched a whole tone lower, and there is evidence that mute cornetts were normally built so, at least around 1600 (see Weber). It has been widely speculated that such low treble cornetts may have been used as alto instruments. Although little direct confirmation of the theory exists, a Stuttgart inventory from 1589 mentions two cornetts pitched ‘two tones lower than the treble cornett’ (see Spielmann), and the civic ensemble of Bologna had positions for both cornetto di soprano and cornetto di contralto (see Gambassi).

Cornett fingering resembles that of other woodwind instruments of the period, although it becomes highly idiosyncratic in the upper octave. Only a few fingering charts survive, and most of them, such as that in Speer’s Grund-richtiger … Unterricht der Musicalischen Kunst (Ulm, 1687, enlarged 2/1697/R) are from the last century of the instrument’s use. Dalla Casa (1584) states that the cornett, like the voice, can be played piano or forte and in every key (tuono). Similarly Mersenne (1636–7) wrote that it can be sounded as softly as a recorder and can play a scale beginning on any note as ut: the point of these observations was that most other woodwind instruments of the period (shawms, flutes etc.) were, in varying degrees, deficient in those respects. The most sympathetic scales on the cornett are G, C and F major, as they introduce the best cross-fingerings.

In its heyday (c. 1550–1650) the treble cornett was used more than other wind instruments for virtuoso display, resulting in spectacular divisions (or diminutions) as extravagant as those produced on the violin or bass viol, or by the voice. Mersenne went so far as to say that the cornett should almost always be played in diminution. anni Gabrieli’s works, and sometimes in those of his followers (e.g. Praetorius’s Wachet auf! in the Polyhymnia). For the execution of these divisions tonguing reached a high degree of complexity. Instructions were set down in a series of Italian tutors from Ganassi dal Fontego (1535) to Bismantova (1677). They embraced two considerations, force and speed, and with only minor differences, set forth a highly developed and remarkably consistent Italian ‘school’ of articulation. For the fastest divisions the liquid lingua riversa, usually expressed as le-re-le-re, de-re-le-re te-re-le-re, was prescribed. Also recommended for moderately fast passages was the harsher dental te-re-te-re, which, it was said, is easier to hold back in semiquaver runs. Te-che-te-che (the ordinary modern ‘double tonguing’ on flutes and trumpets) was deemed ‘crude and terrifying’, in addition to being difficult to hold back. Te-te-te-te(ordinary single tonguing) was described as good up to quaver speed but too sluggish for anything faster. The model of articulation on the cornett was the human voice, especially the extravagant vocal ornaments known as gorgie, and thus the lingua riversa was sometimes known as the lingua di gorgia. Although the cornett can technically be played legato (i.e. without any lingual articulation), all notes were normally tongued, except in the execution of trills and some cadential ornaments (see Tonguing).

The cornett’s tone quality was often described as being close to the human voice, particularly that of a boy soprano. Mersenne eloquently described it as ‘like a ray of sunshine piercing the shadows, when heard with the choir voices in the cathedrals or chapels’. By modern standards the instrument is not loud, its forte being less strong than a clarinet’s. The mute cornett has a uniquely soft and velvety quality. Roger North (1695) said ‘Nothing comes so near or rather imitates so much an excellent voice as a cornett pipe; but the labour of the lips is too great and it is seldom well sounded’ (see Wilson, 1959). The difficulty of producing and controlling the sound of the cornett undoubtedly became more evident once the instrument began to be pushed aside (in the late 17th century) in favour of the more fashionable stringed instruments. As the number of players decreased, standards began to slip; that they did so precipitously is confirmed by a mid-18th century Bolognese source which complained that the instrument’s daily appearances in the town square had become ‘a public scandal’ (see Gambassi).

Music for the cornett

Historically, the cornett was frequently used in consort with sackbuts (2 cornetts, 3 sackbuts), often to double a church choir. This was particularly popular in Venetian churches such as the Basilica San Marco, where extensive instrumental accompaniment was encouraged, particularly in use with antiphonal choirs. Giovanni Bassano was an example of a virtuoso early player of the cornett, and Giovanni Gabrieli wrote much of his resplendent polychoral music with him in mind. Heinrich Schütz also used the instrument extensively, especially in his earlier work; he had studied in Venice with Gabrieli and was acquainted with Bassano's playing.

The cornett was, like almost all Renaissance and Baroque instruments, made in a complete family; the different sizes being the high cornettino, the cornett (or curved cornett), the tenor cornett (or lizard) and the rare bass cornett. The serpent largely supplanted the bass cornett in the 17th century. Other versions include the Mute Cornett, which is a straight narrow-bore instrument with integrated mouthpiece, quiet enough to be used in a consort of viols or even recorders.

The cornett was also used as a virtuoso solo instrument, and a relatively large amount of solo music for the cornetto (and/or violin) survives. The use of the instrument had declined by 1700, although the instrument was still common in Europe until the late 18th century. Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and their German contemporaries used both the cornett and cornettino in cantatas to play in unison with the soprano voices of the choir. Occasionally, these composers allocated a solo part to the cornetto (see Bach's cantata O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, BWV 118). Alessandro Scarlatti used the cornetto or pairs of cornetti in a number of his operas. Johann Joseph Fux used a pair of mute cornetts in a Requiem. It was scored for by Gluck, in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice (he suggested the soprano trombone as an alternative) and features in the TV theme music Testament by Nigel Hess, released in 1983.


The word ‘cornet’, literally ‘little horn’, suggests an animal-horn ancestry for the instrument. Of the numerous cow-horn-shaped instruments in medieval pictures some are shown with finger-holes, resembling horns still used by Scandinavian herdsmen. In Sweden such instruments go back to at least the 10th century, according to the date determined for a 22 cm ox-horn with four holes, now in the Dalarnas Museum, Falun (no.7279). There are fairly clear 11th- and early 12th-century illustrations (mostly English) of such instruments (see Galpin); further examples were depicted in the next two centuries and contemporary French romances contain expressions such as cor à doigts, which presumably refer to them. The octagonal exterior form is seen in a carving from about 1260 in Lincoln Cathedral, showing an angel apparently playing two instruments at once (see Gardner). One of the Angers Tapestries (1373–82) shows a curved cornett with the lowest hole duplicated so that either hand could be placed uppermost (see Harrison and Rimmer). This feature, known on recorders from the earliest examples (although rare on subsequent cornetts), suggests that the cornett at that time was made by professional instrument makers. The classic curved model is seen from the mid-15th century, for instance in a Spanish breviary (GB-Lbl Add.18851; fig.1 [not available online]), and by the end of that century references to cornett players are fairly numerous in most European countries. The Germans, however, seem at first to have preferred the straight cornett. In a letter of 1541 the Nuremberg maker Georg Stengel ‘genannt Neuschel’ referred to ‘welsche krumme Zincken’ (see Eitner, 1877), as if the curved form were considered French or Italian in origin. Virdung’s Musica getutscht (1511), the title-page of Arnold Schlick’s Spiegel der Orgelmacher und Organisten (Speyer, 1511) and Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession by Burgkmair and others (begun 1516) all show the straight form, in the latter two instances accompanying choristers.

Earlier evidence of straight cornetts may exist in a number of 11th- to 13th-century pictures showing small straight instruments (with finger-holes) that terminate in the carved head of a dog or wolf. Most of the sources are German or Swiss; two less clear examples are French (see Hammerstein). Whether the medieval instruments in fact represent forms of cornett is impossible to prove, but a number of extant 16th-century Italian curved cornetts which end in a beast’s head might be considered supporting evidence. Mute and tenor cornetts were both known by 1550 in Italy and Flanders, and no doubt also in other countries.

Cornetts with trombones, bass shawms and strings, accompanying choral music. The cornett appeared along with trombones and organ as support for choral music throughout its main period of use. In England cornetts and trombones doubled the voices of the choir in the Chapel Royal, in the cathedrals at such places as Canterbury, York and Durham, and in provincial and collegiate churches until at least the time of the Commonwealth. In Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Latin America the cornett was widely used to double voices in cathedrals until well into the 18th century. When the cornett did not double voices it either substituted for them or, especially after 1600, played instrumental lines, often together with or in place of the violin or with an ensemble of trombones. Giovanni Gabrieli was a pioneer and master of elaborate obbligato writing for the cornett, but his example was followed more in Germany than in Italy, where obbligato use of the instrumental after 1650 is rare. The cornett was given leading parts in Schütz’s early works, and continued to hold an important position in German and Austrian sacred music through the end of the 17th century. At the Imperial Court in Vienna cornetts and cornettini were given obbligato parts, of sometimes awe-inspiring difficulty in their exploitation of the high register, by such composers as Bertali, Biber, Georg Muffat and Schmelzer. Cornetts and trombones also formed an independent ensemble of five to eight parts for ceremonial music: in France they were used thus up to Mersenne’s time; in England for such music as John Adson’s Courtly Masquing Ayres (1621), and Matthew Locke’s music for ‘His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts’ (1661); in Germany for Turmmusik by J.C. Pezel (e.g. Fünff-stimmigte blasende Music, 1685) and by Gottfried Reiche; and in Italy in most important cities until the mid-18th century, including Bologna, where the Concerto Palatino was active until 1779 and Rome, where the Concerto Capitolino survived until 1789. In Germany the cornett-trombone ensemble continued to play Turmmusik into the 19th century; and it is in this ancient and humble duty that it is last heard of (see Kastner). Examples of cornetts (and trombones) used by the American Moravians are in the Moravian Museum, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The decline of the cornett as an orchestral instrument can be followed in the published scores of the Leipzig Kantors from Schein to Bach. Although Bach wrote for the cornett he used it, except in the motet O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht BWV118 merely to reinforce the trebles of the choir. Handel’s cornett parts in Tamerlano (1724) and Gluck’s in Orfeo (1762) had eventually to be performed on other instruments. In the 1880s V.-C. Mahillon made the first attempt to restore the cornett for use in such music. For a performance of Orfeo in Brussels he constructed a straight cornett on modern lines, with flute keywork (now in the Brussels Conservatory museum).

The pioneering work in reviving the cornett was done in the 1950s, in Britain by Christopher Monk and in Germany by Otto Steinkopf, one of the first to perform publicly on a reconstructed instrument.

Folk Cornetts

Various wooden instruments that are sounded like cornetts are found in the Baltic countries and parts of Russia. They are bound in birch bark, have four or more finger-holes, and may generally be seen as variants of the cow-horn with finger-holes (see §2 above). The rozhok (‘little horn’) of the Vladimir and Tver (Kalinin) districts, however, may be a rural offshoot of the straight cornett; it has a separate mouthpiece (which some players place to the side of the lips) and is made in two or more sizes for playing music in parts. This playing tradition may go back only two centuries, to judge by estimates of the age of Russian improvised part-singing in rural areas.

Playing the cornett

"At every stage of its development the cornett was an instrument of professional musicians"[1]

The cornett is generally agreed to be a difficult instrument to play — it requires a lot of practice. It embodies a design that survives in no modern instrument; that is, the main tube has only the length of a typical woodwind, but the mouthpiece is of the brass type, relying on a combination of the player's lips and the alteration of the length of the sound column via the opening and closing of the finger holes to alter the pitch of the musical sound. Most modern brass instruments are considerably longer than the cornett, which permits the use of harmonics, the sound being altered by slides or valves to control the pitch.

The Baroque era was relatively tolerant of bright or extroverted tonal quality, as the surviving pipe organs of the time attest. Thus the Baroque theorist Marin Mersenne described the sound of the cornett as "a ray of sunshine piercing the shadows". Yet there is also evidence that the cornett was sometimes badly played, although it also seems to have been played much more expertly than any other woodwind instrument. Its upper register sounded somewhat like a trumpet or modern cornet, the lower register resembling the sackbutts that often accompanied it. Cornett intonation is flexible, which enabled it to be played perfectly in tune in a range of tonalities and temperaments.

As a result of its design, the cornett requires a specialized embouchure which is, initially, very tiring to play for any length of time. Cornetts were often replaced by violins in consort music and cornetts could be similarly used as substitutes for violins in consort music and sacred music. The cornett and the violin were considered interchangeable; and a good cornettist doubled between either cornetti and trumpets or cornetti and recorders.

Cornetts were used to reinforce the human voice in choirs, and many commentators suggested that the sound of a well played cornett, heard at a distance, could be mistaken for a "choice castrato". The place of the cornett was never really filled by any other instrument and it was not until the second half of the 20th century that the cornett revival gave music lovers a chance to hear the sound of this instrument again in its proper context.

The cornett and authentic performance

As a result of the recent historically informed performance movement, the cornett has been rediscovered, and as before attracts the finest players. In many pieces (particularly those of early to mid Baroque composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli, Francesco Cavalli, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Giovanni Battista Riccio, Dario Castello, Antonio Bertali, Pavel Josef Vejvanovský, Jan Křtitel Tolar, Michael Praetorius, Johann Hermann Schein, Samuel Scheidt, Sebastian Knüpfer, Johann Schelle, Johann Andreas Pachelbel, Giovanni Felice Sances, Johann Joseph Fux, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Andreas Hofer, Alessandro Stradella, Matthew Locke, John Adson and Heinrich Schütz) the cornett is indispensable in performance, and the music suffers if other instruments substitute for them. The violin was the usual substitute for the cornetto in historical music. The recorder, modern B-flat trumpet, oboe, and soprano saxophone have all been used as substitutes for the cornetto in modern performances.

See also

External links

Extant cornetts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Modern Performance

  • The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, a performance group that makes use of the cornett
  • City of Lincoln Waites (The Mayor of Lincoln's own Band of Musick)
  • Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble, a performance group directed by the German cornetto player Arno Paduch
  • Ensemble La Fenice, A French period performance group directed by cornettist Jean Tubery.
  • L'Arpeggiata with Christina Pluhar as conductor, (winner of the 2010 Dutch Edison) makes excellent use of one or two cornetts!
  • His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts, an ensemble based out of London, recording and performing on their own, but also along other period instrument ensembles


  1. ^ Dickey, Bruce (1997). "The cornett". In Herbert, Trevor; Wallace, John. The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge University Press. p. 62. 

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