The Contemporary Cornett

Over the past few years I have been increasingly working with contemporary composers to commission new music for the cornett. One of my most fruitful collaborations has been with Oxford composer Prof Martyn Harry and His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts. The group recorded Martyn’s 60-minute ‘opera without words’, At His Majesty’s Pleasure, in 2012 (SFZM0412).

Composers often ask me for guidance on writing for the cornett, so I drafted the following which I hope might be helpful to anyone contemplating writing for the instrument. But I’d say the best way to get an idea of the cornett’s capabilities is to listen to it in some recordings (both in its usual habitat of early music, and in the contemporary context, for which our CD of Martyn Harry’s music provides some of the most imaginative, varied and challenging writing that we’ve so far encountered).

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like any further advice!


Some notes on writing for the cornett (cornetto / zink)

Range. The treble cornett has a working range of two and a half octaves, from a (below middle C) to d’’’ (two leger lines above the treble stave). The bottom a, b-flat and b-natural can be slightly slower to speak than notes in the middle of the range, and should ideally be avoided in fast passage work. Notes above a’’ should be used sparingly: notes up to d’’’ are quite playable, but it can be tiring to play in the extreme high register for very long. Anything higher than d’’’ becomes something of an extreme sport and although some players are capable of playing higher they are unlikely to thank you for writing at that altitude!

Sound. The cornett was regarded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the instrument that came closest to imitating a human voice. It was often used to support or substitute for voices – either boy trebles, or adult sopranos (male and female). If you write as if for a soprano voice you won’t go far wrong. That said, it was also sometimes used as a trumpet substitute – and has the capability of sounding shrill and brilliant too, when required.

Passagework. Much of the virtuosic writing for the cornett in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries consists of fast passagework. This works best in stepwise motion, with just a few leaps of larger intervals, and also works best in keys with few sharps and flats (C major / A minor, G major / E minor, F major / D minor, etc.) – this is due to its fingering system, which becomes increasingly cumbersome as more sharps and flats are added.

Chromatic writing. The cornett is fully chromatic across its entire range. However, due to the system of cross-fingering, it is not very easy to play fast chromatic passages. Chromatic writing is best reserved for slower, expressive moments (as, for example, the end of Cima’s sonata for cornetto and trombone, or just before the fireworks at the end of Frescobaldi’s canzona ‘La Bernardinia’).

Temperament. The cornett is tuned in ¼ comma mean-tone temperament. However, it is possible to adapt to other temperaments (including equal temperament) as required. When playing in mean tone we use different fingerings for E-flat and D-sharp, and for A-flat and G-sharp – these notes are separated by about a quarter tone. So microtones are built into the fingering system for this instrument, which might perhaps be of interest to composers. But it also means that the enharmonic ‘spelling’ of notes is important.

Stamina. Physical stamina can often be an issue with this instrument – tiredness can affect the intonation and tone quality. But recovery time is normally quick, and some well-placed rests in the composition can make all the difference! And remember (at the risk of stating the obvious), as with all wind instruments, it’s also important to allow places to breathe.