Modern vs Old Cornetti


by Ricardo Simian


The title „Modern vs Old Cornetti“ seems to be a contradiction in itself as modern cornetti are reliable copies from museum instruments.

Are they?

First of all, as for every other ancient instrument there is a huge variety of original museum instruments to choose from. In the case of the cornetti we have a sample of a couple of hundred instruments which are recognizable as a cornetto, which provides us with a wide margin of variation and possibilities.

Nevertheless, and in a very similar way than it has happened with other early instruments such as violins, gambas, recorders and oboes, a sort of „standard“ model (or a limited set of „standard“ models) has been defined through practice and research and is usually presented and used as the renaissance cornetto.

There is of course an ongoing discussion on the definition, reliability and margins of all these modernly defined standard models, particularly amongst performers of the same instrument who disagree on their personal choice of „original instrument“. There is also a conceptual disagreement between different possible philosophies. Is a good standard model an average of the instruments available at museums? Is it the exact replica of a specific, well-preserved instrument? Is it a theoretical reconstruction of an ideal model which compensates for the damage inflicted by time? Is it the average of the best instruments preserved? How do we define which are the best instruments amongst the ones which happened to survive to the present?

At any case and even though there’s no wide agreement on the answers to these questions, it is clear that there are „standard“ models which have established themselves as such. In most cases this has happened mainly through giving priority to certain instrument makers or families of instrument makers with a large production, an evident good quality and confirmation of how esteemed they were at their time through other sources. That is why Amati, Stradivari, Colichon, Stanesby and Bassano (amongst others) are familiar names to us and they are connected to quality and to certain modern „standard“ models.

In the specific case of the cornetto there hasn’t been (yet) such a heated discussion between players as it has occurred with other instruments. The main collections which have inspired the current „standard“ cornetto are the ones preserved in Verona and in Vienna, which is not surprising at all since they have a wide sample, their instruments are well preserved, play very well and are similar to each other on average. The instruments in Verona are allegedly connected to the Bassano family, which also contributes to their pedigree.

Now, is the modern „standard“ cornetto a good copy of the instruments preserved in Verona and Vienna? In terms of inner bore, length, shape and thickness, yes, they are (accepting that there is a margin of variation between the instruments preserved within these collections). On the other hand, in terms of hole placing and shaping, no, they are definitively not.

If we make an average for hole placement of the Verona and Vienna instruments and another for the cornetti being sold today we’ll find a systematic difference of about 1 cm. (or even more). Old instruments were build with their holes 1 cm. further up the instrument (towards the mouthpiece) than modern ones, which proportionally to the instrument’s length is a lot.

Is this a random mistake? Not at all, when you play original instruments (or exact copies) you find that many things work very well, some even surprisingly well, but there is a systematic bug, at least to our modern understanding of how a cornetto should work. This problem concerns the B Flat when covering every hole in the instrument, which plays extremely low, to the point of not being usable. The standard solution to this issue, which established itself as standard due to repetition, was simply to keep the instrument’s bore and length unaltered while moving every hole downwards.* This creates other tuning issues but they can be compensated by altering the shape and size of the holes. That is why many modern instruments have a very small right-hand ring finger hole, a feature rarely seen on old instruments and certainly not in Vienna or Verona.

There are reports of original cornetti which do produce an acceptable B-Flat by covering every hole, but they are sporadic exceptions and it is certainly not the case for Verona and Vienna. So, where does the idea of the all-covered B Flat comes in the first place? There are several elements to the answer to this question, but the most influential one are some of the few surviving fingering charts, which do show this fingering as the correct one for a B Flat. This leads to several questions. Are the fingering charts wrong or are we reading and applying them in the wrong way? Are we copying the wrong instruments? Are we making some wrong association between these elements? 

These questions and the practical necessity of modern performers to being able to play a B Flat in tune has lead to several possible answers, theories and approaches:

  • We don’t know what is wrong but there is something wrong and if we move every hole down the B Flat works better (thus the modern „standard“ cornetto).
  • There is nothing wrong with the old instruments, you just have to train your right ring finger to cover a halve hole in order to produce a B Flat (something every recorder player and most other renaissance wind performer was and is expected to do).
  • Cornetti were not supposed to play B Flats anyway. Music should be transposed to other keys and avoid this note (usually one tone up will do the trick).
  • Opening your thumb hole (or thumb hole plus left index) bends the B Flat upwards (there are reports of one of the Verona instruments reacting positively to this combined with lipping up the note). 

Even unknowingly, if you are a cornetto player you have taken one of these approaches, most likely the first one due to the difficulty to find exact replicas on the market.

My personal view leans to the second option. There is nothing wrong with the very fine instruments in Verona and Vienna, you just need to train your fingers like every other renaissance wind instrument player is expected to. This approach does not only solve the B Flat issue but by using real copies of the original instruments many other usual tuning problems of the cornetto (like the C Sharp and the thumb-only G Sharp) tend to work much better. If this is the case, what about the fingering charts which show the all-covered B Flat? One should understand that these fingering charts were not intended for the professional players in the first place and also that something self-evident for a renaissance wind instrument player (like using halve holes to tune) does not have to be written down. In such perspective, it comes not as a surprise that this idea is usually welcome by cornetto players who come from the recorder and rejected by the ones who come from the trumpet.

How can you know if the cornetto you play is a real replica of an old instrument or a modern „standard“ version? Well, unless you have specially asked for it to be original the chances are very low that you have a real replica. Alternatively, if the pitch produced by your instrument when covering every hole is closer to an B Flat than to a A then you certainly have a modern version (or your instrument was not build after the Verona and Vienna models). As far as I know there are very few cornetto makers offering unaltered exact replicas from original measurements.** I have been producing them for a while (go to exact replicas) and some players around the world are very pleased with them. Nevertheless, I would be extremely happy to learn about more instrument makers offering similar items and advertising them on my website too.

There is of course nothing wrong about modifying, altering and reinventing an old instrument or playing a modified version (in most fields outside early music this is actually called progress). There’s although something questionable about not knowing what the instruments we are playing really are and advertising them as something they are certainly not. I look forward to a more informed and lively discussion regarding these aspects of the cornetto. Furthermore, I look forward to more players experimenting different approaches and solutions than simply the modern „standard“ cornetto just because it was the first instrument they happened to get their hands on. And why not, more people could just happen to discover that there was nothing wrong with the original instruments in the first place.


* By moving every hole downwards the tuning of the B flat itself does not change but the pitch of every other note on the instrument becomes lower, making the B flat higher in relation to them.

** Damien Bardonnet (www.dbardonnet.com) and Andrew Hallock (www.hallock-cornetti.com) are two fine examples.


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