The cornett (Zink), a horn made of wood or ivory with finger-holes, and a mouthpiece similar to that of a trumpet, was a common instrument in the German speaking countries from the 14th to the 18th centuries. In German sources of the Middle Ages one can find the first references to animal horns—first without, later with finger-holes—which were precursors of the cornett. In the Remede de Fortune of Guillaume de Machaut, dated to the 14th century, a grant cornet d’Alemaigne (“big horn from Germany”) is mentioned. This gives us a clear hint to the instrument’s geographical origin.
The “golden age” of the cornett lasted from the 16th until the early 18th century. Cornett virtuosos were to find at the courts of Innsbruck, Munich, Salzburg and Baden-Baden. An engraving of Hans Burgkmair of 1517 shows the famous cornett-player Schubinger. In Hamburg, Leipzig and Nuremburg the cornett was used by the urban bandsmen who were organized in a guild, the so-called Stadtpfeifer (waits). Cornett music was composed for private and public, for secular and ecclesiastical events where the Stadtpfeifer played. A large amount of compositions were made especially for these musicians.
The compositions for cornett which emerged in these particular surroundings had a number of characteristic features: The preference for unusual instrumentations (for example Bertali) and a preference for high and very high registers (for example Biber and Schütz) The stiller Zink (which means silent cornett, cornetto muto: a straight instrument in opposite to the usual curved cornett) and the Kleinzink (little cornett, cornettino: tuned a fourth above) were frequently used by the composers. Finally the cornett was used particularly as a solo instrument in the vocal music (for example by Buxtehude and Capricornus).
In the German speaking countries cornett music has been composed until the 18th century. Having in mind that cornett virtuosos have been known until the 18th century, the music for cornett comprises not only the compositions especially written for the instrument but the complete edited chamber music too. Works written for violin are particularly appropriate for the cornett as long as they are adequately playable and don’t have any special characteristics for string instruments like double-stops, scordatura and unusual keys.
Composers like Johann Rosenmüller wrote instrumental pieces which are playable on string and wind instruments; the decision on which instrument to play is left to the interpreter. Rosenmüller’s Sonate a 2, 3, 4, e 5 stromenti da arco e alti (“for strings and others”) belong to this group. The attractive combination of violin and zink in both descant voices is surely authentical, having in mind Rosenmüller’s contact to the Stadtpfeifer in Leipzig, his employment as a trombone-player at St. Marc in Venice and the composition of important obligati for trumpet and cornett in his sacred music.
– © William Dongois & Christian Pointet 1997
Translation: Henrike Leclercq, Friedemann Hellwig