Elbphilharmonie Explains: the Cornett

The Quintessence of a Flute, a Trumpet and a Human Being: the Cornett.

A slightly curved wooden tube with holes like a recorder: the cornett is rarely seen or heard nowadays. But from the 15th until well into the 17th century, it was among the most popular instruments, and was used in every social stratum, be it in church, for court or chamber music, at tournaments or dances, or for so-called tower music. It's to this that the cornett owes its unique sound, which people in its heyday believed to come closer to the human voice than any other instrument.

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Although cornetts are generally made of wood, they belong to the family of brass instruments: they are blown in a similar way to the trumpet, via a cup-shaped mouthpiece. However, the cornett's mouthpiece is substantially smaller, and this, in combination with its simple finger-hole construction, makes it very hard to play. Thus cornett virtuosi were highly regarded in their day, and were often better-paid than the band's conductor.

»Nothing comes so near an excellent voice as a cornett pipe.«

Roger North (1653–1734)

While melody instruments like the violin experienced a boom, the cornett declined in popularity in the 17th century, and by the 19th century it had vanished completely from the music landscape. Only after the First World War did the instrument make a comeback: as so-called historic performing practice gradually became established, musicians began to perform Renaissance and Baroque repertoire increasingly on original instruments. Today, fortunately, we once again have both instrument-makers who build cornetts according to historic standards, and professional cornett-players who have trained at a college of music.

Text: Laura Etspüler, last updated: 19.2.2020

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