The cornett, cornetto or zink is an early wind instrument, dating from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. It was used in what are now called alta capellas or wind ensembles. It is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument cornet.
To avoid confusion between this instrument and the more modern cornet (with one t), the cornett is often called by its Italian name, cornetto or cornetto curvo (to distinguish it from the straight cornett). Occasionally it is called by its German name, which is zink or krummer Zink (curved spike). The instrument was known as the "cornet à bouquin" in France and the "corneta" in Spain.
The cornett takes the form of a tube, typically about 60 cm. long, made of ivory, wood, or, in the case of some modern reconstructions of historical instruments, ebony resin, with woodwind-style fingerholes. Usually the cornett is octagonal in cross-section, and it is wrapped in leather or parchment, with the fingerholes penetrating this cover. The cornett is slightly curved, normally to the right, so that the player's left hand, playing the upper holes, and the player's right hand, playing the lower holes, can more comfortably reach their proper locations. At the top of the cornett there is a small mouthpiece of the kind used in brass instruments; that is, the lips vibrate to produce sound.
The cornett is thus an unusual specimen among wind instruments, with a body constructed like a woodwind but its mouthpiece (and thus mechanism of tone production) being that of a brass instrument. Scholars evidently agree that the latter criterion is more important, and so the cornett should be counted as brass. In particular, the Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification places it alongside instruments such as the trumpet.
Modern cornett players tend to use a smaller mouthpiece, whereas those needing to make a compromise—often with the need to go on playing modern brass instruments—may use a much larger mouthpiece, sometimes a trumpet mouthpiece turned down on a lathe so that only the cup and a minimal stub which fits the cornett's mouthpiece receiver are left. The larger mouthpiece gives a less incisive tone with less "edge" to the sound.
Historically, the cornett was frequently used in consort with sackbuts (2 cornetts, 3 sackbuts), often to double a church choir. This was particularly popular in Venetian churches such as the Basilica San Marco, where extensive instrumental accompaniment was encouraged, particularly in use with antiphonal choirs. Giovanni Bassano was an example of a virtuoso early player of the cornett, and Giovanni Gabrieli wrote much of his resplendent polychoral music with him in mind. Heinrich Schütz also used the instrument extensively, especially in his earlier work; he had studied in Venice with Gabrieli and was acquainted with Bassano's playing.
The cornett was, like almost all Renaissance and Baroque instruments, made in a complete family; the different sizes being the high cornettino, the cornett (or curved cornett), the tenor cornett (or lizard) and the rare bass cornett. The serpent largely supplanted the bass cornett in the 17th century. Other versions include the mute cornett, which is a straight narrow-bore instrument with integrated mouthpiece, quiet enough to be used in a consort of viols or even recorders.
The cornett was also used as a virtuoso solo instrument, and a relatively large amount of solo music for the cornetto (and/or violin) survives. The use of the instrument had declined by 1700, although the instrument was still common in Europe until the late 18th century. Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann and their German contemporaries used both the cornett and cornettino in cantatas to play in unison with the soprano voices of the choir. Occasionally, these composers allocated a solo part to the cornetto (see Bach's cantata BWV 118). Alessandro Scarlatti used the cornetto or pairs of cornetti in a number of his operas. Johann Joseph Fux used a pair of mute cornetts in a Requiem. It was last scored for by Gluck, in his opera Orfeo ed Euridice (he suggested the soprano trombone as an alternative).
The cornett is generally agreed to be a difficult instrument to play—it requires a lot of practice. It embodies a design that survives in no modern instrument; that is, the main tube has only the length of a typical woodwind, but the mouthpiece is of the brass type, relying on a combination of the player's lips and the alteration of the length of the sound column via the opening and closing of the finger holes to alter the pitch of the musical sound. Most modern brass instruments are considerably longer than the cornett, which permits the use of harmonics, the sound being altered by slides or valves to control the pitch.
The Baroque era was relatively tolerant of bright or extroverted tonal quality, as the surviving organs of the time attest. Thus the Baroque theorist Marin Mersenne described the sound of the cornett as "a ray of sunshine piercing the shadows". Yet there is also evidence that the cornett was sometimes badly played, although it also seems to have been played much more expertly than any other woodwind instrument. Its upper register sounded somewhat like a trumpet or modern cornet, the lower register resembling the sackbutts that often accompanied it, whereas the middle register gave an indistinct wailing sound that was not attractive when played in isolation. Cornett intonation also tended to be fluid, which enabled it to be played perfectly in tune in a range of tonalities and temperaments.
As a result of its design, the cornett requires a specialized embouchure which is, initially, very tiring to play for any length of time. Cornetts were often replaced by violins in consort music and cornetts could be similarly used as a substitutes for violins in consort music and sacred music. The cornett and the violin were considered interchangeable; and a good cornettist doubled between either cornetti and trumpets or cornetti and recorders.
Cornetts were used to reinforce the human voice in choirs, and many commentators suggested that the sound of a well played cornett, heard at a distance, could be mistaken for a "choice castrato". The place of the cornett was never really filled by any other instrument and it wasn't until the second half of the 20th century that the cornett revival gave music lovers a chance to hear the sound of this instrument again in its proper context.
As a result of the recent early music renaissance, the cornett has been rediscovered, and as before attracts the finest players. In many pieces (particularly those of early to mid Baroque composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli, Francesco Cavalli, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Giovanni Battista Riccio, Dario Castello, Antonio Bertali, Pavel Josef Vejvanovský, Jan Křtitel Tolar, Michael Praetorius, Johann Hermann Schein, Samuel Scheidt, Sebastian Knüpfer, Johann Schelle, Johann Andreas Pachelbel, Giovanni Felice Sances, Johann Joseph Fux, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Andreas Hofer, Alessandro Stradella, Matthew Locke, John Adson and Heinrich Schütz) the cornett is indispensable in performance, and the music suffers if other instruments substitute for them. The violin was the usual substitute for the cornetto in historical music. The recorder, modern B-flat trumpet, oboe, and soprano saxophone have all been used as substitutes for the cornetto in modern performances.