Cornetto Master Recital

Kartäuserkirche, Basel, 03.10.2011


Animal horn improvisation


Antoine Bruhier, La Turatu


Orlando di Lasso, Cognovi Domine


Aurelio Bonelli, Canzon Licori


Filippo Azzaiolo, Al di dolce ben mio

Diego Ortiz, La Gamba

Cipriano da Rore, Ancor che col partire


Giovanni P. Cima, Sonata per cornetto & trombone


Tomás Luis de Victoria, O Lux et decus Hispaniæ

Heinrich Schütz, Dulcis Jesu


Dario Castello, Seconda sonata a doi soprani


Antonio Vivarino, O Magnanimo Alcide


Giacomo Perti, Vieni, ferma o gelosia


Giovanni Gabrieli, Jubilate Deo


Paul Desmond, Take five


With special thanks to:

Jenny Högström, Ivo Haun (voice), Silke Gwendolyn Schulze (recorder, bombard, dulcian), Hanna Geisel (bombard), Pietro Modesti (cornetto), Matthew Lonson (renaissance and baroque violin), Sarah Souza-Simon (renaissance and baroque gamba), Nathaniel Wood (sackbut), Claire Piganiol (harp), Magdalena Hasibeder (organ, harpsichord)

Ricardo white 3


À far buono Instromento

Postcards from the cornetto‘s tale (Concert program notes)

„The Cornetto is a difficult instrument. Courageous cornetto players“ (Il Cornetto è difficile Instromento. Valenti Sonatori di Cornetto) writes Giovanni Maria Artusi in the margin of page 6 in his „On the Imperfections of Modern Music“, a work in the form of a dialogue, in which Luca instructs Vario regarding music, instruments, music performance and composition. He elaborates this idea further on by saying the following:

„There is need of many ceremonies and warnings for those who want to play this instrument properly, as I don‘t believe there are so many difficulties in playing any other instrument no matter which one you choose...“. „You need to practice for a very long time in order to play it properly“ (bisogna però essercitarsi lungo tempo, à far buono Instromento).

This surprising admonition was printed in Venice exactly at the arrival of the XVII century, thus at the very moment when Venice alone had more cornetto players than the whole world today and when good cornetto players were known to earn even more than some maestri da cappella in northern Italy. Despite being a kind of „kamikaze“ instrument for players because of it‘s extreme difficulty, it was one very much loved and a very required one. It was praised as being able to imitate the human voice better than the other instruments (as Artusi states in the same page) and is described as having a wonderful color which sounds „like a ray of sunshine piercing the shadows, when heard with the choir voices in the cathedrals or chapels“, as Mersenne writes in his treatise.

How did it happen that an instrument appeared so quickly, became within just a few centuries the most appreciated of them all (with its players the best paid), raised so much interest and even called forth warnings like the previous one, and then disappeared almost into nothing within just a few decades? We‘ll probably never understand for sure the complex mix of social, historical, musical, aesthetic, economical and even biological* elements that made the history of the cornetto such a particular one (leaving no descendant at all in the modern orchestra), but the cornetto‘s ride through music history was, without any doubt, a gorgeous one while it lasted. Its abrupt disappearance makes its history more intriguing and its modern rediscovery more exciting. This is the main theme of the present concert, a set of postcards from different moments of this journey, which together should help us to understand the tale of this unique instrument ant its role in the music of the centuries it populated.

It would certainly be impossible to present the whole story of any instrument within a single concert, not even that of an instrument with a relatively short history like the cornetto. Therefore, the postcards which form this program are not to be understood as a detailed, exhaustive or even scientifically representative display, but only as samples, isolated dots of a grand picture we‘ll never be able to fill in again. For the same reason, such postcards will not even be presented in a chronological or thematic order but freely arranged according to musical and practical reasons. Nevertheless, random postcards from a trip are usually more appealing than an exhaustive and detailed chronicle of such travel as they require an active observer to puzzle them together.

How and when did the cornetto appear on the musical scene? This is a matter of considerable debate as the „modern“ cornetto (curved and usually octagonal in shape) succeeded but also overlapped with some other instruments (particularly animal horns with finger holes, which can still be heard in nordic folk music) which may or may not be considered proper cornetti but rather cornetto predecessors. Nevertheless, we do know for sure that the cornetto joined the late Alta Cappella formations; this might well have been its first formal, standard and widespread use all around Europe. Our program begins with an animal horn improvisation, followed by an Alta Capella piece in which a „modern“ cornetto joins a bombard and trombone ensemble for a rendition of Bruhier‘s La Turatu, as printed by Petrucci in Venice.

As almost all renaissance instruments, the cornetto developed into a family of  different sizes. Being such a strange acoustical combination of acoustical elements, the cornetto never developed into a full family or consort of its own, but tenor and alto cornetti were certainly well appreciated during their day. Gabrieli‘s precise orchestrations, as well as the different renaissance instrument collections around the world, prove that they were quite common. In the following two pieces the tenor cornetto (which is called tenor but actually plays within an alto voice register) joins as an alto voice for a Lassus motet and as the second voice for Aurelio Bonelli‘s Canzon Licori.

Improvising was an important skill for renaissance musicians for many practical and musical reasons. Cornetto players were particularly renowned for their prowess in improvising diminutions (or even for being too obsessive, impulsive and unconstrained in this regard) and are working very hard nowadays in order to regain all of their precedents‘ qualifications. The following two postcards are connected to this part of the cornetto‘s tale, improvisation, as we‘ll present a collective written improvisation upon La Gamba, a standard renaissance tenor line (using both old material by Diego Ortiz and new divisions) and a newly crafted diminution upon Ancor che col partire by Cipriano da Rore.

It is impressive to realize that the first time the word „sonata“ was used in a printed source it was used for the title of a piece specifically written for the cornetto, from Giovanni Paolo Cima‘s 1610 Concerti Ecclesiastici. Therefore, no matter how well known this postcard might be, no collection of pictures of the cornetto‘s tale could be complete without it. So, let‘s travel once more to Santa Maria dei Miracoli presso San Celso in Milan, where this piece sounded for the very first time and where the word sonata, as an instrumental self-standing piece, was firstly defined.

The mute cornetto, a straight version of the cornetto without a detachable mouthpiece, was also an important member of the cornetto family - maybe it even preceded the „modern“ one. Its somehow softer and mellower sound was very much appreciated in order to evoke certain affects and colours or to mix with the voices. The next two postcards present a Victoria motet where the mute cornetto plays amongst only voices and strings (an instrumentation specifically suggested in several sources) and as a solo instrument to perform an instrumental version of Schütz‘ „O dulcis Iesu“, a motet for solo soprano.

Playing other wind instruments, and particularly the recorder, was also a fundamental part of any professional cornetto player‘s skills in the old days. Bartolomeo Bismantova, in his surprisingly detailed explanation of the cornetto and its practice, says „before learning the cornetto you need to practice the recorder in order to learn the correct tonguing and fingering“. Therefore, the following postcard represents not a break within the program but an important part of what would have been the performing life of a cornetto player. Even though there is much debate nowadays about the recorder‘s real role in the italian early baroque era, some pieces were specifically composed for it or can be attributed to it for several reasons. One of the latter is Dario Castello‘s Sonata seconda a doi soprani, which perfectly matches the ranges and the affects of the recorder available in those days and is even written in Venice‘s „recorder clef“ (soprano). Both of these elements are unique within the whole of Castello‘s surviving opus.

Playing within the orchestra of a Drama in musica („opera“) also fell within the confines of the cornettists‘ world, something to which Monteverdi‘s careful orchestrations for his Orfeo fully attest. Also, improvising counter-melodies, rearranging music for available conditions and adding voices to previously existing material were required skills of professional musicians during the XVI and XVII centuries. All of these features are presented in the following postcard, originally a representative-style solo voice madrigal with ritornelli for two violins by Innocentio Vivarino, which today will be presented as a small scene of a Drama in musica for two voices and small orchestra. 

The decline of the cornetto and its use was strange, somehow unexpected and utterly unsystematic. While in some countries or regions its disappearance appeared complete by the second half of the XVII century, in other places it remained a perfectly fashionable instrument until much later. The Concerto Palatino in Bologna continued performing until 1797, while in Vienna we find not only a late use for it but even the development of new aesthetic possibilities. Here, the cornettino, a smaller instrument tuned a fourth or a fifth higher than the soprano cornetto, enjoyed a particular popularity.  Was the cornettino the instrument for which Giacomo Antonio Perti‘s unusually high parts in his roman operas were written, most of the time carrying the indication „cornetto“ and sometimes „cornettino“? It is certainly a good, or even the best option for the player, and we shouldn‘t forget that Perti‘s operas were very popular in Vienna, but there is very little evidence of the cornettino being used in Italy. This postcard shows a completely different musical world from the others, but somehow the cornetto still manages to fit into this world, expanding its range both into the unusually high and the unusually low registers. Nevertheless, even though it seems the cornetto could have managed to fit into this new era this piece truly represents the end of the road or somewhere very near to it, like a dying swan song performed with unusual virtuosity.

The cornetto‘s tale had many ups and downs all around Europe (and even further into the Latin American colonies), many of them connected with particular cities, composers or virtuoso players, but it would be difficult to argue that the highest flourishing point for it was not the one that Venice, San Marco‘s church, Giovanni Gabrieli and the fantastic players who lived in those days (Bassano, Dalla Casa...) created together. It would be difficult not to call this „the golden age“ of the cornetto, and it is with a postcard from this glorious moment that we bring this concert to a close. „Jubilate Deo“, a monumental composition for eight voices by Giovanni Gabrieli, has survived in different versions thanks to German copies, which demonstrate that his music was being performed in the north as well. Our tutti finale follows, therefore, some of Praetorius‘ instrumentation indications for this type of composition (including a „soft pommer“ in the tenor voice) thereby bringing together both the italian and the Germanic tradition and creating somehow a synthesis of the whole story of the cornetto through its greatest moments.

* The black plague, according to many, had an important role in it too, as it killed many of the cornetto players at a crucial point.


© Ricardo Simian 2011 - 2017