From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Three cornetts.jpg
Three different cornetts: mute cornett, curved cornett and tenor cornett.
Brass instrument
Classification Brass instrument Horn
Hornbostel–Sachs classification423.212
(Keyed trumpets, Irregular bore). An aerophone, the vibrating air is enclosed within the instrument, the player's lips cause the air to vibrate directly, the pitch of the instrument can be altered mechanically, keyed trumpets, with an Irregular bore)
DevelopedRelated to all wind instruments made of animal horn and sounded by the vibration of pressed lips. Animal horn with fingerholes such as the coradoiz was "precursor."[1]

The cornett, cornetto, or zink is an early wind instrument that dates from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods, popular from 1500 to 1650.[2] It was used in what are now called alta capellas or loud wind ensembles.[3] It was popular in Germany, where guild laws made it illegal for residents to play trumpets.[4] As well, it is a quiet instrument, compared with the trumpet, more suitable indoors.

The instrument has features of both the trumpet and the flute. Like the trumpet, the cornett has a mouthpiece or cup, where the instrument is sounded with the player's lips.[5] Like the flute, it has fingerholes and sometimes keys to determine pitch; pitch can also be changed on low notes by the tension of the player's lips.[5] The cornett was built in two styles, straight and curved. It was also built in a variety of sizes from highest cornettino downward through alto cornett, tenor cornett, and cornone bass cornett.[4]

It is not to be confused with the modern cornet.[4] The spelling cornet which had applied to the instrument in this article since about 1400 A.D. was transferred to a brass-tubed trumpet in the early 20th century, and cornett became the modern spelling of this instrument.[4] The most common is the alto cornett, also called curved cornett, or treble cornett.


Mouthpieces from the side
Mouthpieces and the end of the instrument

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 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.[6]

Cornett family[edit]

Cornetts, here labeled the German Zink, (in Syntagma Musicum, vol. 2, 1619). From the right: tenor cornett, alto cornett, soprano cornett.

Cornetts were built in two styles, curved and straight.[4]

Curved cornetts[edit]


The cornettino is the soprano member of the cornett family.[4] In Syntagma Musicum, it was presented as being about 1.5 feet long. It had a range from E4-E6 in the 16th and 17th centuries.[7] In the 18th century that changed to D4 to D6.[7]


Contrebass de cornet à bouquin, Paris Conservatoire Museum.

The curved cornett is the alto or treble instrument for the cornett family. It is also the family's "ordinary instrument."[4] The instrument was about 2 feet long in 1619 A.D., according to the scaled drawing in Syntagma Musicum. It has a range from G3-A5.[4] To get below A3, players had to slacken their lips.[4]


The tenor cornet (or Italian cornone, French basse de cornetà bouquin, German Basszink) was the tenor instrument in the cornett family,[4] and was about 3.5 feet long in the 1619 drawing in Syntagma Musicum. Although the French and German names implies it was bass instrument, it is placed as a tenor instrument by musical-instrument historians Sibyl Marcuse and Anthony C. Baines, who seperately point out that two examples of a "real bass" instrument exist.[4][8] Both said that the bass instrument should be called contrebass de cornet à bouquin.[4][8]

The cornone was pitched about a fifth below the alto cornett, from C3 to D5.[9]


There are limited examples of instruments that are tuned below the tenor cornett. One is called hautecontre de cornet à bouquin.[4]

The other should be called contrebass de cornet à bouquin, and there are only two examples of it, one in the Paris Conservatoire museum and the other in Hamburg.[4][8]

These were tuned "a pitch or so below the type instrument."[4] This was put differently elsewhere as an octave below the cornettino.[10] The Paris Conservatoire contrebass de cornet à bouquin is described as having "an octagonal exterior and 4 extension keys."[4] The Hamburg example has 2 extension keys.[4]

Straight cornetts[edit]

Two kinds of cornets with a straight body.

Straight cornett[edit]

The straight cornett has a straight, conical body.[11] The specific instrument differs from the mute cornett by having a removeable mouthpiece.[4]

Range was A3 to A5.[11]

Mute cornett[edit]

Straight cornett with the mouthpiece carved into the end of the instrument's body.[12]

Music for the cornett[edit]

Tobias Stimmer woodcut engraving of a woman with an alto cornett, circa 1570-1577.

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. From the left, back row:
*cornettino, 17th century
*alto or treble cornet, 17th century
*cornone, tenor cornett or bass de cornet à bouquin, 17th century[4][8]
*contrebass de cornet à bouquin[4][8] (bass cornett), 16th century

Front row:
*tenor cornet, 17th century.[8]

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.[13]

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. 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.[14]

See also[edit]

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


  1. ^ Marcuse, Sibyl (1964). "Coradoiz". Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p. 124.
  2. ^ "Zink". Retrieved 2012-05-26.
  3. ^ Howard Mayer Brown; Keith Polk. "Alta (i)". In Deane Root (ed.). Grove Music Online. Retrieved 26 January 2023. alta musique (Fr.) or 'loud music' as opposed to basse musique, 'soft music'
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Marcuse, Sibyl (1964). "Cornett". Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p. xi, 128.
  5. ^ a b Anthony C. Baines; Bruce Dickey (2001). "Cornett (Fr. cornet-à-bouquin; Ger. Zink; It. cornetto; Sp. corneta". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments and Their History, with a foreword by Sir Adrian Boult (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1957): 259–60.
  7. ^ a b Marcuse, Sibyl (1964). "Cornettino". Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p. xi, 129. (note:Marcuse put in her own pitch notation scale, converted here to Scientific pitch notation)
  8. ^ a b c d e f Baines, Anthony C. (1984). "Cornett". In Stanley, Sadie (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. New York: MacMillan Press. p. 500. [note: The page shows a photo of the bottom cornett, and says it is a tenor cornett.]
  9. ^ Marcuse, Sibyl (1964). "Cornone". Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p. xi, 130. (note:Marcuse put in her own pitch notation scale, converted here to Scientific pitch notation)
  10. ^ Viet-Linh NGUYEN; Pierre-Damien Houville, eds. (13 March 2010). "The cornetto, "a nerd thing"?". Muse Baroque.
  11. ^ a b Marcuse, Sibyl (1964). "Straight cornett". Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. pp. 494–495.
  12. ^ Marcuse, Sibyl (1964). "Mute cornett". Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p. 354.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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]