Lascivissimo Cornetto

1611: the word “orgasm” is born. Gesualdo de Venosa publishes his Responsorias for six voices, without question the most harmonically audacious work in history. Shakespeare writes The Tempest, Monteverdi is about to be named conductor of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the first part of El Quijote has been in circulation for five years, Frescobaldi plays the organ for 30,000 people in Rome – it was a transcendent moment for the conquest of new territories in art. Until about 1990, however, the king of instruments of that crucial period was unknown to most audiences, as was its repertory and sound. The most sensual and expressive music between the births of Palestrina (1525) and Bach (1685) had been extinguished in the early 18th century.

Resembling a cross between a soft-flute and a trumpet (we could call it a soft-trumpet), the wooden cornetto descended from a primitive horn with the conical mouthpiece of a French horn, but was played more like a flute. From a distance, it sounded like the voice of a castrato (delight of so many Roman cardinals) and it came in two models (like so many other things): straight and curved. The straight “mute” cornetto, more sober and dark, was perfect for the sublime madrigals of Palestrina, accompanied by organ and lute. The curved cornetto, octagonal and covered in leather, shone in the brilliant sonatas of Fontana (1571-1630) or Falconieri (1585-1656), where the fledgling tonal structures of the baroque were not yet systematized and an unpredictable and fantastical prosody could unfold. Extremely difficult to play, the cornetto was a frequent substitute for voice and violin.

An entire era of this treasure would have been lost forever had it not been for the work of a group of historical rescuers (David Munrow, Christopher Monk, Bernard Krainis) who recovered in the 1970s the performance techniques of this musical fossil that existed only in oil paintings and treatises as well as in some copies. Now we have a complete discography highlighting the superb Jean Tubéry, perhaps the most important French musician of today. The highest authority on the ornamentation of the period, Tubéry recorded jewels of the 16th and 17th centuries with his ensemble La Fenice – in particular Palestrina’s madrigal “lo son ferito,” where he reveals the expressivity of the mute cornetto. The English virtuoso Bruce Dickey revived a repertoire that reveals the refinement of instrumental composition between the Council of Trent and the coronation of Luis XIV. During this period, the popular bagatelle disappears and the dramatic individual creation that coincides with Cartesian reflection (and the discovery of American tobacco, which in my opinion propitiated it) is reinforced. It is impossible to understand that era without knowing the incomparable music of Castello, Cima, Turini, Uccellini, Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz, or Fux, without discovering the magic of the cornetto, whose versatility allowed the fusion of vocal and instrumental virtues to enrich melodic discourse in the development of the sonata, the seed of future symphonic forms. It is the missing link that propelled the leap from the madrigal of 16th-century polyphonists to the baroque sonata. The appearance of equal temperament and modular melodic progression eliminated it around 1715 – nobody knows quite how it was resuscitated. Certain virtues of music are immortal.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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