What Is a Cornett?

The Renaissance cornett is a hybrid instrument with a small trumpet-like mouthpiece and the finger holes of a woodwind instrument. It reached the height of popularity around 1500 to 1650, and was in demand for all types of music—indoor and outdoor, in serious and dance music, in church and chamber music, and in town bands and royal households. Cornetto is the Italian name for the instrument and means “little horn.” The extra “t” has remained in the English spelling to distinguish the cornett from the modern day brass instrument.

All cornetts have seven holes, usually six finger holes and one thumb hole. The absence of a seventh finger hole means that cornett players have to make adjustments with their lips to produce some notes. For example, on a standard cornett in G, the same fingering is used to play G, A flat, and A. In addition, most fingerings are not very straightforward, and players still have to make regular adjustments in their embouchures while playing. In spite of these difficulties, Renaissance cornett players mastered the instrument, given the many accounts of the cornett’s agility and beauty of tone. An example of the virtuosic parts written for the cornett is the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria” by Claudio Monteverdi.

There were three varieties of cornett—curved, straight, and mute—and all were made in varying sizes. The straight cornett was probably developed first, but was difficult to make in many sizes because of the finger stretches involved. The mute cornett was also straight but instead of having a separate mouthpiece a conical recess was cut into the top of the instrument. The curved cornett, which was probably the favorite of the three, consisted of two gouged-out pieces of wood that were glued together, planed into an octagonal shaped, and then covered with leather to prevent leaks that might develop along the bore.

In spite of its great popularity, the cornett was gradually eclipsed by the baroque trumpet, oboe and violin during the baroque period.

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