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CORNET, a word having two distinct significations and two etymological histories, both, however, ultimately referable to the same Latin origin:—

1. (Fr. cornette, dim. of corne, from Lat. cornu, a horn), a small standard, formerly carried by a troop of cavalry, and similar to the pennon in form, narrowing gradually to a point. The term was then applied to the body of cavalry which carried a cornet. In this sense it is used in the military literature of the 16th century and, less frequently, in that of the 17th. Before the close of the 16th century, however, the world had also come to mean a junior officer of a troop of cavalry who, like the “ensign” of foot, carried the colour. The spelling “coronet” occurs in the 16th century, and has perhaps contributed to obscure the derivation of “colonel” or “coronel.” The rank of “cornet” remained in the British cavalry until the general adoption of the term “second lieutenant.” In the Boer republics “field-cornets” were local subordinate officers of the commando (q.v.), the unit of the military forces. Elected for three years by the wards into which the electoral districts were divided, they had administrative as well as military duties, and acted as magistrates, inspectors of natives and registration officers for their respective wards. In 1907, the “field-cornet” system was re-established in the Transvaal; the new duties of the “field-cornets” are those performed by assistant magistrates, viz. petty jurisdiction, registration of voters, births and deaths, the carrying out of regulations as to animal diseases, and maintenance of roads. The “field-cornets” are appointed by government for three years.

2. (Fr. cornet, Ital. cornetto, Med. Lat. cornetum, a bugle, from Lat. cornu, a horn), in music, the name of two varieties of wind instruments (see below), and also of certain stops of the organ. The great organ “solo cornet” was a mixture or compound stop, having either 5, 4, or 3 ranges of pipes; occasionally it was placed on a separate soundboard, when it was known as a “mounted cornet.” The “echo cornet” was a similar stop, but softer and enclosed in a box. In German and Dutch organs the term cornet is sometimes applied to a pedal reed stop.

Britannica Cornet Cornetto Muto.pngBritannica Cornet Cornetto Curvo.png
From Capt. C. R. Day’s Descriptive Catalogue of Musical Instruments, by permission of Messrs. Eyre & Spottiswoode.
Fig. 1.—Cornetto Muto. Fig. 2.—Cornetto Curvo.

(a) Cornet or Cornett (Fr. cornet, cornet à bouquin; Ger. Zinck, Zincken; Ital. cornetto) is the name given to a family of wood wind instruments, now obsolete, having a cup-shaped mouthpiece and a conical bore without a bell, and differing entirely from the modern cornet à pistons. The old cornets were of two kinds, the straight and the curved, characterized by radical differences in construction. There were two very different kinds of straight cornets (Ger. gerader Zinck, Ital. cornetto diretto or recto), the one most commonly used having a detachable cup-shaped mouthpiece similar to that of the trumpet, while the other was made to all appearance without mouthpiece, there being not even a moulded rim at the end of the tube to break the rigid straight line. Examination of the tube, however, reveals the secret of the characteristic sweet tone of this latter kind of cornet; unsuspected inside the top of the tube is cut out of the thickness of the wood a mouthpiece, not cup-shaped, but like a funnel similar to that of the French horn, which merges gradually into the bore of the instrument. This mode of construction, together with the narrower bore adopted, greatly influenced the timbre of the instrument, whose softer tone was thus due mainly to the substitution of the funnel for the sharp angle of incidence at the bottom of the cup mouthpiece known as the throat (see Mouthpiece), where it communicates with the tube. It is this sharp angle, which in the other cornets with detachable mouthpiece, causes the column of air to break, producing a shrill quality of tone, while the wider bore and slightly rough walls of the tube account for the harshness. In Germany the sweet-toned cornet was known as stiller or sanfter Zinck, and in Italy as cornetto muto (fig. 1), while in France the instruments with detachable mouthpiece were distinguished by the addition of à bouquin (= with mouthpiece). The curved cornet (Ger. krummer Zinck or Stadtkalb; Ital. cornetto curvo) could not for obvious reasons have the bore pierced through a single piece of wood; the channel for the vibrating column of air was, therefore, hollowed out of two pieces of wood, the diameter increasing from the mouthpiece to the lower end. The two pieces of wood thus prepared were joined together with glue and covered with leather, the outer surface of the tube being finished off in octagonal shape. The separate mouthpiece, made indifferently of wood, horn, ivory or metal,[1] analogous to that of the trumpet, was distinctly cup-shaped and fixed by a tenon to the upper extremity of the pipe. The primitive instrument was an animal’s horn.

Pipes of such short length give only, besides the first or fundamental, the second and sometimes the third note of the harmonic series. Thus a pipe that has for its fundamental A will, if the pressure of breath and tension of the lips be steadily increased, give the octave A and the twelfth E. In order to connect the first and second harmonics diatonically, the length of the pipe was progressively shortened by boring lateral holes through the tube for the fingers to cover. The successive opening of these holes furnished the instrumentalist with the different intervals of the scale, six holes sufficing for this purpose:

Britannica Cornet Scale.png

The fundamental was thus connected with its octave by all the degrees of a diatonic scale, which became chromatic by the help of cross-fingering and the greater or less tension of the lips stretched as vibrating reeds across the opening of the mouthpiece. This increased compass of twenty-seven notes obtained by cross-fingering is very clearly shown in a table by Eisel.[2] The fingering was completed by a seventh hole, which had for its object the production of the octave without the necessity of closing all the holes in order to produce the second note of the harmonic series. The first complete octave, thus obtained by a succession of fundamental notes, was easily octaved by a stronger pressure of breath and tension of the lips across the mouthpiece, and thus the ordinary limits of the compass of a Zinck or cornet could be extended to a fifteenth. Whether straight or curved it was pierced laterally with seven holes, six through the front, and the seventh, that nearest the mouthpiece, through the back. The first three holes were usually covered with the third, second and first fingers of the right hand, the next four with the third, second and first fingers and the thumb of the left hand. But some instrumentalists inverted the position of the hands. Virdung[3] shows, besides the cornetto recto, a kind of Zinck made of an animal’s horn with only four holes, three in the front of the pipe and one at the back. Such an instrument as this had naturally a very limited compass, since these four holes only sufficed to produce the intermediate notes between the second and third proper tones of the harmonic scale, the lower octave comprised between the first and second remaining incomplete; by overblowing, however, the next octave would be obtained in addition.

At the beginning of the 17th century Praetorius[4] represents the Zincken as a complete family comprising: (1) the little Zinck with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Little Zinck Lowest Note.png, (2) the ordinary Zinck with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Ordinary Zinck Lowest Note.png, (3) the great Zinck, cornon or corno torto, a great cornet in the shape of an Cornet6a.png with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Great Cornet Lowest Note.png. In France[5] the family was composed of the following instruments:

(1) The dessus or treble cornet with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Treble Cornet Lowest Note.png;

(2) the haute-contre or alto cornet with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Alto Cornet Lowest Note.png;

(3) the taille or tenor cornet with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Tenor Cornet Lowest Note.png and the basse or bass or pédalle[6] cornet with the lowest note Britannica Cornet Bass Cornet Lowest Note.png.

The cornets of the lowest pitch were sometimes furnished with an open key which, when closed, lengthened the tube, and extended the compass downwards by a note. Mersenne figures a cornon with a key.

During the middle ages these instruments were in such favour that an important part was given to them in all instrumental combinations. At Dresden,[7] between 1647 and 1651, the Kapelle of the electoral prince of Saxony included two cornets, the bass being supplied by the trombone. Monteverde introduced two cornets in the 3rd and 4th acts of his Orfeo (1607). In France the charges for the Chapelle-Musique of the kings of France for the year 1619 contain two entries of the sum of 450 livres tournois, salary paid to one Marcel Cayty, joueur de cornet, a post held by him from 1604 until at least 1631, when another cornet player, Jean Daneau, is also mentioned.[8]

In Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, Zincken were used with trombones in the churches to accompany the chorales. There are examples of this use of the instrument in the sacred cantatas of J. S. Bach, where the cornet is added to the upper voice parts to strengthen them. Johann Mattheson, conductor of the opera at Hamburg, writing on the orchestra in 1713[9] gives a description of the Zinck as a member of the orchestra, but in 1739,[10] in his work on the perfect conductor, he deplores the decrease of its popularity in church music, from which it seems to be banished as useless. Gluck was the last composer of importance who scored for the cornet, as for instance in Orfeo, in Paride ed Elena, in Alceste and in Armide, &c. The great vogue of the curved cornet is not to be accounted for by its musical qualities, for it had a hard, hoarse, piercing sound, and it failed utterly in truth of intonation; these natural defects, moreover, could only be modified with great difficulty. Mersenne’s eulogium of the dessus, then more employed than the other cornets, can only be appreciated at its full value if we look upon the art of cornet playing as a lost art. “The dessus,” he says, “was used in the vocal concerts and to make the treble with the organ, which is ravishing when one knows how to play it to perfection like the Sieur Guiclet;” and again further on, “the character of its tone resembles the brilliance of a sunbeam piercing the darkness, when it is heard among the voices in churches, cathedrals or chapels.”[11] Mersenne further observes that the serpent is the true bass of the cornet, that one without the other is like body without soul. A drawing in pen and ink of a curved cornet is given by Randle Holme in his Academy of Armoury (1688);[12] and at the end of the description of the instrument he adds, “It is a delicate pleasant wind musick, if well played and humoured.” Giovanni Maria Artusi[13] of Bologna, writing at the end of the 16th century, devotes much space to the cornet, explaining in detail the three kinds of tonguing used with the instrument. By tonguing is understood a method of articulation into the mouthpiece of flute, cornet à pistons or trumpet, of certain syllables which add brilliance to the tone. Artusi advocates (1) for the guttural effect, ler, ler, ler, der, ler, der, ler; ter, ler, ter; ler, ter, ler; (2) for the tongue effect, tere, tere, tere; (3) for the dental effect, teche, teche, teche, used by those who wish to strike terror into the hearts of the hearers—an effect, however, which offends the ear. A clue to the popularity of the instrument during the middle ages may perhaps be found in Artusi’s remark that this instrument is the most apt in imitating the human voice, but that it is very difficult and fatiguing to play; the musician, he adds elsewhere, should adopt an instrument to imitate the voice as much as possible, such as the cornetto and the trombone. He mentions two players in Venice, Il Cavaliero del Cornetto and M. Girolamo da Udine, who excelled in the art of playing the cornet.

Being derived from the horn of an animal through which lateral holes had been pierced, the curved cornet was probably the earlier, and when the instrument came to be copied in metal and in wood the straight cornet was the result of an attempt to simplify the construction. The evolution probably took place in Asia Minor, where tubes with conical bore were the rule, and the instrument was thence introduced into Europe. A straight Zinck, having a grotesque animal’s head at the bell-end, and six holes visible, is pictured in a miniature of the 11th century.[14] What appears to be precisely the same kind of instrument, although differing widely in reality, the chaunter being reed-blown, is to be found in illuminated MSS. as the chaunter of the bagpipe, as for example in a royal roll of Henry III. at the British Museum,[15] where it occurs twice played by a man on stilts. The grotesque was probably added to the chaunter in imitation of that on the straight Zinck. Two stille Zincken or cornetti muti are among the musical instruments represented in the triumphal procession of the emperor Maximilian I.[16] (d. 1519), designed at his command by H. Burgmair under the superintendence of Albrecht Dürer.

(b) Cornet à Pistons, Cornet, Cornopaean (Fr. cornet à pistons; Ger. Cornett; Ital. cornetto), are the names of a modern brass wind instrument of the same pitch as the trumpet. Being a transformation of the old post-horn, the cornet should have a conical bore of wide diameter in proportion to the length of tube, but in practice usually only a small portion of the tube is conical, i.e. from the mouthpiece to the slide of the first valve and from the slide of the third valve to the bell. The tube of the cornet is doubled round upon itself. The cup-shaped mouthpiece is larger than that of the trumpet; the shape of the cup in conjunction with the length of the tube and the proportions of the bore determines the timbre of the instrument. The outline of the bottom of the cup, where it communicates with the bore, is of the greatest importance.[17] If, as in the trumpet, it presents angles against which the column of air breaks, it produces a brilliant tone quality. In the cornet mouthpiece there are no angles at the bottom of the cup, which curves into the bore; hence the cornet’s loose, coarse quality of tone. The sound is produced by stretching the lips across the mouthpiece, and making them act as double reeds, set in vibration by the breath. There are no fixed notes on the cornet as in instruments with lateral holes, or with keys; the musical scale is obtained by means of the power the performer possesses—once he has learned how to use it—of producing the notes of the harmonic series by overblowing, i.e. by varying the tension of the lips and the pressure of breath. In the cornet this series is short, comprising only the harmonics from the 2nd to the 8th:

Britannica Cornet B♭ Harmonic series.png

Harmonic series of the B♭ cornet—the 7th is slightly flat, a defect which the performer corrects, if he uses the note at all.

The intermediate notes completing the chromatic scale are obtained by means of three pistons which, on being depressed, open valves leading into supplementary wind-ways, which lengthen the original tube. The pitch of the instrument is thus lowered respectively one tone, half a tone, and one tone and a half. The action of the piston temporarily changes the key of the instrument and with it the notes of the harmonic series. Before a performer, therefore, can play a note he must know in which harmonic series it is best obtained and use the proper piston in conjunction with the requisite lip tension. By means of the pistons the compass of the cornet is thus extended from

Real sounds for the cornet in C.
Britannica Cornet C Range with Pistons.png

(The minims indicate the practical compass but the extension shown by the crotchets is possible to all good players.)

The treble clef is used in notation, and in England the music for the cornet is usually written as sounded, but most French and German composers score for it as for a transposing instrument; for example, the music for the B♭ cornet is written in a key one tone higher than that of the composition.

Britannica Cornet B♭ with Enharmonic Valves.png

Fig. 3.—B♭ Cornet with enharmonic
valves (Besson & Co.).

The timbre of the cornet lies somewhere between that of the horn and the trumpet, having the blaring, penetrating quality of the latter without its brilliant noble sonorousness. The great favour with which the cornet meets is due to the facility with which it speaks, to the little fatigue it causes, and to the simplicity of its mechanism. We must, however, regret from the point of view of art that its success has been so great, and that it has ended in usurping in brass bands the place of the bugles, the tone colour of which is infinitely preferable as a foundation for an ensemble composed entirely of brass instruments. Even the symphonic orchestra has not been secure from its intrusion, and the growing tendency in some orchestras, notably in France, to allow the cornet to supersede the trumpet, to the great detriment of tone colour, is to be deplored. The cornet used in a rich orchestral harmony is of value for completing the chords of trumpets, or to undertake diatonic and chromatic passages which on account of their rapidity cannot easily be fingered by trombones or horns. The technical possibilities of the instrument are very great, almost unrivalled in the brass wind:—notes sustained, crescendo or diminuendo; diatonic and chromatic scale and arpeggio passages; leaps, shakes, and in fact all kinds of musical figures in any key, can be played with great facility on the three-valved cornet. Double tonguing is also practicable, the articulation with the tongue of the syllables ti-ke for double, and of ti-ke-ti for triple time producing a striking staccato effect.

Britannica Cornet B♭ with Strictly Conical Bore.png

Fig. 4.—B♭ Cornet with strictly conical bore throughout,
Klussmann’s patent (Rudall, Carte & Co.).

The cornet was evolved in Germany, at the beginning of the 19th century, from the post-horn, by the application of the newly invented pistons of Stoelzel and Bluemel patented in 1815. It was introduced into Great Britain and France about 1830. There were at first only two pistons—for a whole tone and for a half tone—from which there naturally resulted gaps in the chromatic scale of the instrument. The use of a combination of pistons (see Bombardon and Valves) fails to give acoustically correct intervals, because the length of tubing thus thrown open is not of the theoretical length required to produce the interval. A tube about 4 ft. long, such as that of the B♭ cornet, needs an additional length of about 3 in. to lower the pitch a semitone; but, if this cornet has already been lowered one tone to the key of A♭, the length of tube has increased some 6 in., and the 3-in. semitone piston no longer adds sufficient tubing to produce a semitone of correct intonation. To the performer falls the task of concealing the shortcomings of his instrument, and he therefore corrects the intonation by varying the lip tension. At first the cornet was supplied with a great many crooks for A, A♭, G, F, E, E♭ and D, but from the explanation now given, it will be readily understood that they were found unpractical for valve instruments, and all but the first two mentioned have been abandoned. The history of the cornet is a record of the endeavours of successive musical instrument makers to overcome this inherent defect in construction. The most ingenious and successful of these improvements are the following:—(1) The six-valve-independent system[18] of Adolphe Sax, designed about 1850, by which a separate valve was used for each position, thus obviating the necessity of using combinations of pistons. This theoretically perfect system unfortunately introduced great difficulties in practice, the valves being made ascending instead of descending, and each piston cutting off a definite length of wind-way from the open tube, instead of adding to it. The system was eventually abandoned. (2) The Besson Registre giving eight independent positions, afterwards modified as the (3) Besson compensating system transpositeur, patented in England in 1859, which was considered so successful that the idea was extensively used by other makers. (4) The Boosey automatic compensating piston, invented by D. J. Blaikley, and patented in 1878, a very ingenious device whereby when two or more pistons are used simultaneously the length of the air column is automatically adjusted to the theoretical length required to ensure correct intonation. (5) Victor Mahillon’s automatic regulating pistons (pistons régulateur automatique) produced about 1886, the result of independent efforts in the same direction as Blaikley, and equally ingenious and effectual.[19] Finally we have (6) more recently the Besson enharmonic valve system (fig. 3) with three pistons and six independent tuning slides which give the seven positions independently, thus realizing in a simple effectual manner all that Sax strove to accomplish with his six pistons. The enharmonic valves give all notes theoretically true; there are in addition separate means for adjusting each of the first six lengths, for although these lengths are theoretically correct there are always certain modifying conditions connected with brass instruments which render it essential to provide means for adjustment. All notes being true on this Besson cornet, they can be fingered to the greatest advantage for smoothness and rapidity. (7) Rudall, Carte & Co.’s cornet (fig. 4), with strictly conical bore (Klussmann’s patent) throughout the open tube and additional lengths from the mouthpiece to the bell, gives a perfect intonation and is at the same time easy to blow. There are no crooks to this cornet when constructed in B♭, but it may be instantaneously transposed into the key of A major by means of an undetachable slide guided by a piston rod.  (V. M.; K. S.) 

  1. See Marin Mersenne, L’Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636–1637), bk. v., pp. 273–274.
  2. See Eisel’s (Anon.) Musicus Αὐτοδίδακτος, oder der sich selbst informirende Musicus (Erfurt, 1738), p. 93 and table vi.
  3. Sebastian Virdung, Musica getutscht und auszgezogen (Basel, 1511).
  4. Michael Praetorius, Syntag. Music., vol. ii. De Organographia (Wolfenbüttel, 1618), pp. 25 and 41, pls. 8 and 13.
  5. See Mersenne, loc. cit.
  6. See Ad. MS. 30342, Brit. Museum, fol. 145. A tract in French containing pen and ink sketches of musical instruments, which dates from the 17th or perhaps the 18th century, and was formerly in the possession of the Jesuit college in Paris. Here the pédalle is the bass pommer, or hautbois, and the sackbut is indicated as second bass or basse-contre. As also in Mersenne, the cornets are curved.
  7. See Moritz Fürstenau, Geschichte der Musik und des Theaters am Hofe zu Dresden (Dresden, 1861–1862), p. 28.
  8. See Michel Brenet, “Deux comptes de la Chapelle Musique des rois de France,” Sammelband der Intern. Mus. Ges., vi. 1 (Leipzig, 1904), pp. 20, 21, 29; and Archives nationales (Paris), Z. Ia. 486.
  9. Das neu-eröffnete Orchester (Hamburg, 1713), p. 253.
  10. Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (Hamburg, 1739).
  11. See Mersenne, op. cit., bk. v., p. 274.
  12. Part of book iii. in MS. Harleian, 2034, fol. 207b. Brit. Museum.
  13. Delle imperfettioni della moderna musica (Venice, 1600), pp. 4, 5, 6 and 12b.
  14. Gräfl. Schönborn Bibl. Pommersfelden, Cod. 2776, reproduced in E. Buhle’s Die musikalischen Instrumente in den Miniatur-Handschriften des Mittelalters, part i. (Leipzig, 1903) pl. 6 and p. 24, where other references will be found.
  15. Royal Roll, 14 B. v. 13th century. See also Augustus Hughes-Hughes, Catalogue of MS. Music in the British Museum, part iii.
  16. See “Triumphzug des Kaisers Maximilians I.,” Beilage zum 1sten Bd. d. Jahrbuch der Samml. des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses (Vienna, 1883), part i. p. 26, and letterpress, Bd. i. pp. 154-181.
  17. See Victor Mahillon, Éléments d’acoustique musicale et instrumentale (Brussels, 1874), pp. 96, 97, &c., with diagrams, and Friedrich Zamminer, Die Musik und die musikalischen Instrumente, &c. (Giessen, 1855), p. 310, &c., with diagrams.
  18. For a fuller description of this system see Capt. C. R. Day, Descriptive Catalogue of Musical Instruments (London, 1891), p. 207, No. 406.
  19. Id., pp. 192-193.