The Cornett, Cornetto, or Zink: An Early Music Wind Instrument
A Historical Instrument That Is Played Today
The cornett is a wind instrument that was very popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The instrument is made by artisans today and is valued by early music musicians and enthusiasts. It produces a beautiful sound that often resembles the human voice. Although it looks like a wind instrument, the cornett has a trumpet-like mouthpiece.
The term “early music” applies to works from the Medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque periods. The music often sounds very different from that of today, especially in the older compositions. That’s part of its charm, however. I enjoy listening to early music and often find it intriguing as well as lovely. I’ve chosen to discuss the cornett in this article because I love the sound that it makes.
Jeremy West is a notable cornett player. He's a founder of an early music group known as "His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts". The group spells the second word in its name without an apostrophe. A sagbutt (also known as a sagbut, sackbutt, or sackbut) is a trombone dating from the Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
The Cornett, Cornetto, or Zink
The cornett is a curved wind instrument made of wood and covered by leather. Its name was originally spelled with one t. Today it's spelled with a double t to distinguish it from "cornet", which is the name of an instrument played in brass bands. It was referred to as the cornetto in Italy and the zink in Germany. These names are sometimes used instead of cornett today in order to avoid confusion due to the pronunciation of the instrument's name.
The cornett's wooden construction and finger holes cause it to be classified as a woodwind. The instrument has six finger holes on the front and one thumb hole on the back. Its cup mouthpiece resembles one from a trumpet, however, although it's smaller in size. The mouthpiece on historical instruments was made of horn, ivory, or bone and was usually detachable.
In the video above, Jeremy West says that a cornett player covers finger holes as in playing a recorder but produces a sound as in playing a trumpet. He says that the cornett is really a hybrid instrument. The player uses lip vibrations to produce the sound, which makes the cornett a type of "lip reed" instrument like brass instruments. Some people prefer to classify the cornett as a member of the brass group instead of the wind instrument group even though it's made of wood instead of metal and doesn't have valves.
Murray Campbell is a cornett player and researcher from the University of Edinburgh. In the video above, he plays part of the "Deposuit" from the Magnificat in Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610.
Uses of the Instrument
The cornett is said to be difficult to play and hard to keep in tune, but the sound that's produced was loved by listeners in the past and is enjoyed by cornett fans today. The fact that the instrument could emulate the human voice was considered a wonderful feature in the past. Virtuoso players of the instrument were once much admired by the public.
According to Iowa State University, the cornett was played in churches and at court, in town bands and squares, and at dances. The instrument was often used to accompany choirs.
Today the cornett is played by people interested in reviving early music traditions and by people who simply like its sound. Iowa State University's web page about the zink says that a good player can create a sound as loud as a trumpet or as quiet as a recorder.
It seems like 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.— Marin Marsenne, 1636, with reference to the cornett
Mille Regretz is a melancholy but popular French chanson that is often attributed to Josquin des Prez. The song describes the singer's sadness and regret after he has deserted his loved one and his feeling that he won't live long without her. Bruce Dickey is a leading cornett player, teacher, and researcher.
Types of Cornetts
Like most early wind instruments, the cornett existed in different sizes that were capable of different pitches. The smallest instrument known today is the cornettino or the soprano cornett. Next in size is the treble or alto cornett. The s-shaped tenor cornett is the largest version of the instrument that is sold today (as far as I know). The soprano, treble, and tenor cornetts are the three vertical instruments on the left in the first photo in this article. A base version of the instrument once existed, but it was replaced by the serpent in the seventeenth century. This instrument is described below.
The most common type of cornett that is currently played is the treble version, usually referred to as simply "the cornett". The instrument often—but not always—curves to the right. Some historical instruments curved to the left and some were straight.
The range of the treble cornett is two to two-and-a-half octaves. It starts at G3 in scientific pitch notation (the first G below middle C or C4 on the piano) and may reach as high as D6 or E6. Special techniques are needed to reach the extremes of the range.
Some historical cornetts had interesting curves and ornamentation. The serpent was (and is) an extreme example of an instrument with curves. It's descended from the cornetts but isn't classified as one. Like its ancestors, it's made of wood, has finger holes (but no thumb hole), and has a mouthpiece like a trumpet. Some people play the serpent in early music groups.
Bruce Dickey and soprano Hana Blazikova perform together in Prague in the video above, creating a beautiful effect.
Construction of the Instrument
A cornett is traditionally made by first shaping a piece of wood into a curve and then splitting the wood lengthwise. Each of the two sections is hollowed out. The pieces are then joined with glue and the surfaces planed so that the instrument has an octagonal cross section. A diamond pattern is often carved on the upper portion of the instrument. Finger and thumb holes are created. The two halves of the instrument are bound with leather to help keep them together and to prevent air from leaking out of the instrument.
Creating a reconstruction of an early instrument or a replica that sounds like the original instrument can be a difficult task. If none of the original instruments have survived, we don't know what they sounded like. In this case we have to reconstruct an instrument from descriptions and illustrations found in old documents. If original instruments have survived, as in the case of the cornett, researchers may be able to play them and also study them to see how they're made. Recreating exactly the same sound in today's versions of the instruments using modern materials and methods may sometimes be challenging, however.
Instead of striving for historical authenticity, at least one instrument maker of today creates resin cornetts (as well as traditional wooden ones). The resin versions have the advantage of being relatively cheap. They may encourage more people to experiment with the instrument and to explore music in general. They could be thought of as a cornett for the modern age. Some teachers suggest that a student starts with a resin instrument and then switches to a wooden one at a more advanced stage in their studies. I don't know how the sound of a resin cornett compares to that of a wooden one, though. This is an important consideration for me.
Andrew Hallock is a cornett maker and a countertenor. The video above summarizes his creation of a wooden cornett.
Why Did the Cornett Die Out?
The cornett and skilled players of the instrument were once very popular. The cornett apparently died out in the eighteenth century, however. A few suggestions have been made as to why this happened. There may have been several factors involved in the instument's demise.
- The cornett was difficult to play and required lots of practice. Newer wind and brass instruments that were easier to play appeared, including the oboe. These displaced the cornett.
- Though the cornett sounded impressive when played by an expert, it probably didn't sound so good when played by less skilled people. This may have set the scene for the cornett's replacement in people's affections when newer instruments appeared.
- The instrument needs to be made carefully in order to provide the best chance of providing pleasant sounds that are in tune. If poorly-made instruments appeared on the market, they could have harmed the cornett's reputation.
- The role of the virtuoso player was transferred to violinists, decreasing the attention paid to cornett players.
- Some prominent cornett teachers are said to have died in the Italian plague of 1630.
Interest in the cornett was rekindled in the early music revival of the twentieth century. The interest in the instrument and the manufacture of new cornetts continue today.
In the video above, Murray Campbell gives an interesting description of an original and playable cornett from the seventeenth century.
Beautiful and Interesting Music
Instruments from the past are interesting to study. The exploration can give us information about the history and culture in an area or in a specific group of people. The study of old musical instruments and music can also give us new ways to enjoy the present.
I enjoy listening to professional cornett players and reading about their research. The cornett can be very expressive when played well. Its music sometimes has a haunting quality. It can be a wonderful solo instrument as well as a great member of an ensemble.
"Cornett,” Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection, accessed February 3, 2018, https://omeka1.grinnell.edu/MusicalInstruments/items/show/61.
The Renaissance cornetto from cornetto.org.uk
Information about the zink from Iowa State University
Why the cornetto died out from Bruce Dickey's website
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton