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Lost: One Cornett

July 18, 2008

Just spent a beautiful evening at The American Bach Soloists' Summerfest. It all began at 6pm with ABS principal violone, contrabass and viola da gamba player, Steven Lehning, giving a lighthearted yet informative lecture on early string instruments. Then there was a delicious picnic supper with music provided by the early music ensemble The Whole Noyse. The evening ended with a (mostly) expertly played concert of string quartets by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. (I say mostly because the intonation on the opening number, Beethoven's D Major quartet Op 18 No 3, was a little dicey.) The players were Adam LaMotte and Carla Moore (violins), Elizabeth Blumenstock (viola) and Tanya Tomkins (cello.)

One of the best things about the evening for me, however, was the discussion I had after dinner with Stephen Escher, The Whole Noyse's cornett player.

The cornett is a velvety sounding hybrid between a brass and woodwind instrument that was all the rage between the 1500s and 1700s. The instrument is made out of wood (usually box wood), has open finger holes like a recorder and a small, trumpet-like mouthpiece. It's often curved in shape and fiendishly difficult to play.

I once played a cornett. I think I was about 16 at the time. I don't remember much about the experience except that I almost burst a lung trying to get a note out of the thing.

Anyway, it was wonderful to hear the instrument come to life in The Whole Noyse's program of short works by Italian composers of the 1500 and 1600s like Antonio Troilo, Giovanni Taeggio and Florentino Maschera. I also learned some fascinating facts about this weird and rarely heard instrument from Escher. Some highlights of our conversation:

The cornett's curved shape may derive from an earlier form of the instrument that was made out of an animal's horn.

Some cornetts are straight and some even have the finger holes on the other side of the curve. (I asked Escher if this was to make playing easier for southpaws. He didn't think so.)

If you want to buy a cornett today, you have to visit the few people who still make them. One master craftsman (who made Escher's instrument) lives in Utah. Other respected cornett makers reside in Montreal and Paris.

Escher doesn't really know why the cornett fell out of use. According to Escher, one explanation might be to do with a great plague which hit Italy in the 17th century. "It killed off most of the great cornett players of the era," said Escher. "And no one really kept the tradition alive in Italy after that."

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