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

The cornett, cornetto, or zink is an early wind instrument that dates from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods, popular from 1500 to 1650.[1] It was used in what are now called alta capellas or wind ensembles. It is not to be confused with the trumpet-like cornet.

The sound of the cornett is produced by lip vibrations against a cup mouthpiece, similar to modern brass instruments. A cornett consists of a conical wooden pipe covered in leather, is about 24 inches (60 cm) long, and has finger holes and a small horn, ivory, or bone mouthpiece. The range is from A3 to A5, however the bottom note can be lipped as far as G3 and a good player can get up to E6. (C4 is middle C)


The ordinary treble cornett is made by splitting a length of wood and gouging out the two halves to make the gently conical, curved bore. The halves are then glued together, and the outside planed to an octagonal cross section, the whole being bound in thin black leather. Six front finger holes and a thumb hole on the back (like on the recorder) are bored in the instrument, and are slightly undercut. The socket for the mouthpiece at the narrow end is reinforced with a brass with pp collar, concealed by an ornamental silver or brass mount. The separate cup mouthpiece is usually made of horn, ivory, or bone, with a thin rim and thread-wrapped shank. Because it lacks a little-finger hole at the bottom, its lowest note is the A below middle C, though another tone lower could be produced by slackening the lips to flatten the note.[2]

At least three existing specimens of bass cornett reside in the collection of the Musée de la Musique, Paris.

Music for the cornett[edit]

Historically, two cornetts were frequently used in consort with three 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 a virtuoso early player of the cornett, and Giovanni Gabrieli wrote much of his polychoral music with Bassano 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 cornetts 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.


16th and 17th century cornetts

The cornett in its current form was developed in the late 15th or early 16th centuries, as an improvement over earlier designs of horn that had been around since at least the medieval era. These early instruments were played with one hand covering four or fewer fingerholes and the other stopping the bell to create additional tones, much like on a French horn. In Northern Europe, these horns, referred to in Scandinavian languages as bukkehorns, were made from natural animal horns, whereas similar instruments from central Europe were made from wood turned on a lathe; the fusion of these two instrument-building traditions as the cornett advanced in melodic capability explains the coexistence of the straight and curved cornetts, with the form of the latter most likely being a skeuomorphic trait derived from animal horns.[3]

Playing the cornett[edit]

The cornetto, played by Ben Skála

The cornett is generally regarded to be a difficult instrument to play, requiring a lot of practice. The instrument is similar in design to the Russian Vladimir horn or rozhok. The main tube of the cornett is around the length of a modern clarinet or oboe, but the mouthpiece is that of a brass instrument, 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.

Unlike modern brass instruments, which are considerably longer, the cornett does not have the capacity to use slides or valves to produce harmonics, meaning that the range of pitches it can play is limited. Baroque theorist Marin Mersenne described the sound of the cornett as "a ray of sunshine piercing the shadows". The instrument's upper register sounds somewhat like a modern trumpet or cornet, the lower register more closely resembling a trombone. Cornett intonation is flexible, which enables it to be played perfectly in tune in a range of tonalities and temperaments.[citation needed]

As a result of its design, the cornett requires a specialized embouchure that is, initially, tiring to play for any length of time. Violins often replaced cornetts in consort music, and cornetts similarly substituted for violins in consort music and sacred music. Like its successor, the serpent, the cornett was also used to reinforce the human voice in choirs. Due to their similarities, cornettists frequently also play trumpets or recorders.[citation needed]

The cornett and authentic performance[edit]

As a result of the recent historically informed performance movement the cornett has been rediscovered, and modern works for the instrument have been written.[4]

See also[edit]

Cornettino, Tenor cornett, Mute Cornett, Alto Cornett, Bass Cornett, Sackbut.


  1. ^ "Zink". Retrieved 2012-05-26.
  2. ^ Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments and Their History, with a foreword by Sir Adrian Boult (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1957): 259–60.
  3. ^ Knock, Jarratt. "THE 'CORNETT': DIVERSITY OF FORM, FUNCTION AND USAGE AS PORTRAYED IN ORGANOLOGICAL AND ICONOGRAPHICAL SOURCES, c.1500- c.1800" (PDF). Birmingham University. Retrieved 22 June 2020.
  4. ^ Carter, Stewart; Kite-Powell, Jeffery, eds. (2012). "6: Cornett and Sackbut". A performer's guide to seventeenth-century music (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 100–118. ISBN 978-0253357069.

External links[edit]

Extant cornetts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Modern performance[edit]