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Composing for the Instruments

Imitating the sound and articulation of the voice was central to the playing techniques of renaissance wind players. To help us continue this tradition, ECSE are looking for new pieces that treat cornetts and sackbuts as 'wordless voices', closer to a group of madrigal singers than to a modern brass ensemble. Some points to bear in mind:
  • The historical mouthpieces we use allow for a variety of light but clear articulations/ tonguings.
  • Articulations used on the instruments include 'te-re, te-re', or 'te-de, te-de', so the notes have a 'paired' sound. This is different from modern brass articulations like 'ta ta ta ta'
  • Our instruments can play a wide range of dynamics, but our forte is that of a good singer, not the extreme volume modern trumpets and trombones are capable of.
  • For this project we will play at a high pitch of A=465 (i.e. a semitone above 'concert' pitch of A=440), using modern copies of original instruments built at that pitch. They are not transposing instruments (as with modern clarinets, horns etc.). If you write us a C we will play a C - it's just that our C is higher than the one on a piano!


The range is equivalent to a soprano voice. i.e. comfortable from middle C up to a1 (one line above the treble clef). The range extends down a minor 3rd below middle C, as well as a 3rd or 4th above a1, but this extreme high register quickly becomes tiring to play and is harder to control. Like a recorder or a singer, the cornetto is better suited to playing fluent linear musical lines than violin-style leaps and arpeggios. The cornett is a fully chromatic instrument but the fingering system is far better suited to playing in 'home' keys such as C, D, G and F majors, or A, D, or E minors.


All sizes of sackbut can play fluently in running passages, at speeds similar to a good singer. Fast leaps can sound clumsy. Generally speaking, the lower the notes in the range, the bigger arm movements need to be, so more time needs to be allowed. Glissandos can be used as in modern trombone. Unbroken slides are only possible to a maximum of 7 semitones. Adaptations and compromises can be made by the player to make glissandos work with disguised breaks.


The range is basically that of a tenor voice. Where a tenor singer becomes high and 'heroic', so does a tenor sackbut. The lowest comfortable note is F (at the bottom of bass clef). The highest comfortable note is a, (middle space of the treble clef).  The following is a list of basic unbroken glissandos: Direction can of course go either way, and parts of these slides can be used.

NB: the following is for a performing pitch of A=465. These ranges and glissandi pitches will therefore differ from modern trombone pitches, which are based on a pitch of A=440, a.k.a modern 'concert pitch'.
Between A (lowest space of bass clef) down to Eflat
E (middle space of bass clef) down to Bflat
A (top line of bass clef) down to Eflat
C# (a semitone above middle C) down to G
E (a third above middle C) down to Bflat
A (a sixth above middle C) down to Eflat


The range is basically that of a bass voice. The lowest comfortable note is low C (2 ledger lines below the bass clef). The highest comfortable note is d (a tone above middle C). The instrument works very well with linear writing but is not as secure with large leaps at high speed. Like the tenor, glissandos are possible on any pitch but only to a maximum of 7 semitones if starting in 1st position. The intervals which allow for these 7-semitone glissandos are:

Between low F (bottom of bass clef) down to bottom C
C (2nd space of bass clef) down to low F#
F (4th line) down to low B
A (top line) down to D# (3rd line) 
Middle C down to F# (4th line)

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Tantum ergo   
Claudio Merulo instrumental pieces  

Cornetts and sackbuts were among the most important wind instruments in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. 'Sackbut' was simply the English name for the renaissance trombone*, an instrument which has changed relatively little over the past 400 years. The cornett on the other hand has no modern equivalent. Carved in wood and bound in leather or parchment, it has fingerholes like a recorder and a small trumpet-style mouthpiece made of horn. The flexibility of both these instruments was unrivalled by other wind instruments of the time.

Cornetts and sackbuts were noted for their ability to imitate the timbre of the human voice, and this made them ideally suited to perform alongside (or instead of) singers in chapels and cathedrals across Europe. As a result, vocal polyphony was always a central part of the repertoire for the instruments. Their dynamic range also made them a mainstay of the civic wind bands that played in town squares and for public events of all kinds. Despite coming from different instrumental families, they were often played together in 'consort'.

The sound of the instruments was widely praised ('like a ray of sunlight piercing the shadows' was how French theorist Marin Mersenne memorably described the cornetto), and we know that these instruments were widely enjoyed - although they tended to be played by non-noble professionals rather than aristocrats. They were used all over Europe: from Stockholm to Seville, by the finest musicians of St Mark's Basilica in Venice and the Town Waits of Norwich and London (as well as in countless other English towns). They were used in cantatas by J.S. Bach, and across Habsburg Spain and Austria, and were also widely played across 'New Spain' (modern-day Central and Southern America) thanks to the Spanish belief in the spiritual and propaganda effects of music. Today these instruments count as one of the great successes of the early music revival, and are closely identified with the music of Italian composers such as Monteverdi, Gabrieli and their contemporaries.

*'Sackbut' is taken from the French term sacqueboute. From that day to this the instrument was always called posaune in Germany and trombone in Italy.