O.J.'s Trumpet Page Articles and reviews

Cornett - the "Megaphone of the Soul"
seminar with David Staff at Barrat Due Music Institute

David Staff is professor at Guildhall School of Music. He is a cornettist and founder member of the group His Majestys Sagbutt and Cornetts.

David is also an internationally acclaimed exponent of the Baroque trumpet. He came to Norway to play Baroque trumpet in Handels Messiah with the Oslo Baroque Orchestra.

He holds the position of solo trumpet with Frans Brüggen's Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century.

The start...
11 years old, David was taken to a concert in London by his music teacher. There he heard Bach's Christmas Oratorio. He was bored most of the time but when 3 men stood up and played trumpet he was thrilled. Returning home late that evening, he woke up his parents and told them: "Guess what? I'm going to be a professional trumpet player!"

When later they heard music by Gabrieli, Locke, Pezel, Holborne and others his teacher told them. "The instruments are not the one that it was written for." (Modern instruments were used). "It is written for Cornetts". David wanted to know more about this. At 16 he met an eccentric doctor who told him that he had a Cornett and that David could buy it for £19. It was a plastic Cornett. He did not at that time know what it would sound like. As a music student he got a teacher who supported his decision to play the Cornett. He also studied the natural or baroque trumpet. Now he performs both on Cornett and Baroque trumpet and also on modern trumpets.

The Seminar was held at Barratt Due Musikkinstitutt- 10th of October 1999 (17.00 - 21.00). It was a cooperation between trumpet professor Arnulf Naur Nilsen (who teaches at Barratt Due Musikkinstitutt) and The Norwegian Trumpet Forum.

The seminar started with a lecture and demonstration of the Cornett, then after a short brake the last part was a master class. Knut Johannessen accompanied David on harpsicord.

The Cornett - "The Star of the Show"
The name derives from the word for "little horn" ("corno" = horn, + suffix "etto" = small).

  • Cornett (in English)
  • Cornetto (Italian)
  • Zink (German)

The earliest where made of animal horn, but in the Renaissance they started to make them from wood covered with leather.

It is a hybrid instrument, kind of woodwind due to the wood, but with a trumpet like mouthpiece. The typical instrument has a slight curve and an octagonal cross-section. It has six fingerholes and a thumbhole. The mouthpiece was often made from ivory. (David's mouthpiece was made from mammoth - and was maybe 15 000 year old!)

The playing of the Cornett.
How and what can you play with it?

In its heyday (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) the Cornett  was the undisputed king of wind instruments. Blown like a trumpet but fingered like a recorder, it is capable of both astonishing virtuosity and heart-rending vocal expression. David gave us a list of what and how:

  • soft (indoors)
  • loud (outdoors)
  • with sackbutts (trombones)
  • with flute and strings
  • trumpet of the time (Renaissance and early Baroque)
  • expressive, lyrical like a singer
  • play fast
  • the same as violins (music often marked "violino o cornetto")
  • also with lute, singers, choirs, in huge groups

The old instruments.
There exists Venetian instruments from late 1500. Also some in England - Henry VIII brought both players and instruments from Venice.

The types of Cornetts

  • Cornettino
  • Cornett
  • Alto Cornett
  • Tenor Cornett (Lysarden)
  • Bass Cornett (Serpent)
  • Also Mute Cornett (with mouthpiece carved into the instrument)

The important composers

  • Heinrich Schutz - he is to the cornett what Bach is to the trumpet.
  • Michael Praetorius
  • Claudio Monteverdi - his Vespers of 1610 calls for cornetti, and also in his opera Orfeo it is used.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach - use cornetts in 30 cantatas (ex. No 4 Christ lag in Todes Bandes)
  • Giovanni Gabrieli - he is maybe the most important composer for the instrument. He worked at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. There he had 3 galleries where he could have different groups of instruments and singers. At his disposal was also some great cornetti performers.

The treatises
There exists several books or treatises. Most well known are the ones by Girolama Dalla Casa from 1584 and by Giovanni Bassano. Both were virtuoso cornett players at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice.

The question: Why did it disappear?
David discussed this and listed some possible reasons:

  • There are lots of factors!
  • New instrument. The inventions and development of new and better instrument like the oboe made people prefer these new instruments.
  • Not mean tuning. When the new tempered system started being used more and more (Bach even wrote a whole book for it), instrument like the cornette who had the "older type" of tuning got into trouble.
  • Weak notes. That can be a nice in some cases, but compared to other instruments with more equal sound on all notes, it is a problem.
  • Players died out. It has also been suggested that several of the leading players died during the great Venetian plague of 1630, leaving few people to teach the instrument!

The revival
Thanks to some makers, especially Christopher Monk, who studied the old instruments and started making copies, it became possible for players to start playing and to re-discover the playing technique. Monk also made some cheap plastic instruments (resin) and was even so optimistic that he thought these cheap instruments could compete with the plastic recorders used in schools all over the world.

The revival has now been going on for a while and David divide it into two periods:

First generation players:

  • Don Smithers (American)
  • Edward Tarr (American - lives in Europe)
  • Michael Laird (English)

Second generation players:

  • Bruce Dickey (American)
  • Jeremy West (English)
  • Jean Pierre Canihac, William Dongois and Jean Tubery (French)

The master class
After David's interesting lecture/demonstration and a short intermission, it was time for participants to play in a master class. Two groups volunteered.

1. Group: 4 modern trumpets

Samuel Scheidt - Canzona

Robert (student at Barrat Due) lead a group of 4 students playing the (well known?) Canzona by Scheidt.

In addition to comment on some playing problems (tension - how to hold the instrument etc.), David stressed two important things:

Rhythm: Strong 1 - weak 2 - semi strong 3 - weak 4

Articulation: The ideal in modern orchestral trumpet playing is with attack that are "clean" and very uniform (TA - TA - TA - TA - etc.) This was not the ideal in this music (Scheidt piece was originally written for 4 Cornetts).

2. Group: Renaissance ensemble

Kristin on Cornett was next. She brought her own group who consisted of Drum/flute, Cornett and 2 Sackbutts. This group played very well - they had obvious been playing together for a long time. Here David could work on musical problems most of the time. He commented that Kristin should try to get a better mouthpiece to make her job easier.

Articulation: Since all 4 played a wind instrument (the drummer played alto recorder) David worked with all of them on different articulation.

For the Sackbutts he had found out that the articulation dø-dø-lø-dø worked well. The flute and cornett could use many more different articulations. Some examples:

Da-ga-da-ga (made a crude effect)

Te-re-le-re (worked very well)


It is important to look at the text to find solutions for different types of articulation, David noted.

Vowels for the Cornett - David suggested A for the low register, french U for the middle register, E for middle to high register and I for the very high notes. "Do not be afraid to raise the tongue." He had us all check with the thumb how much space we have above the tongue.

Always play with an open throat! To get "the open throat feeling", imaging that you breath into a mirror to fog it.

The "Stage fright"
One of the participants asked David what to do with "stage fright".

A very simple but effective thing one could do was to "unlock the knees". He had often observed that when people got this trouble they would lock their knees. That would make it difficult for the breathing, etc. By moving the knees forward and go down a bit like a weight lifter one gets a much better control. This is the best way to stand when playing.

The Scola Cantorum Yearbook 1981 - "Das Zink Buch"
is a very good information source.
O.J. 1999