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Facture des cornets à bouquin

Aline Hufschmitt

Serge Delmas, professor of trumpet and cornetto at the Paris conservatory, also concert artiste, has for some years now devoted time and effort in manufacturing cornetti and mute cornetti. I went along to ask him about making these instruments.

What can you tell me about the origins of the cornett ?

The origin is uncertain but it already exists in the 8th century iconography one can find a cornetto player. Following the positioning of his fingers one may conclude that the instrument, evidently an animal horn, has one or two holes. It is difficult to pretend that this constitutes a cornetto, on the other hand, at the Museum of Cluny, there is a sculpture of the middle 13th C having octagonal cornetti. If they are octagonal, then they were obviously made of wood or Ivory. In any case, from that moment on, they were made in two parts glued together and we are definitely dealing with a cornetto. What is absolutely certain, in Bologne in 1226, mention is made of two cornetti that had to play motets outside the church, it was not yet allowed in church, but the fact that they played motets is mentioned. At that time they must have had at least five holes to be able to play these pieces correctly, otherwise one would not have allowed them to play. In the 17th C Germany, one did not say play an instrument, one said corner an instrument for wind instrument, perhaps the origin of the name comes from there.

Do these different musical iconographs offer interesting information for the maker ?

The musical iconography gives little help for construction. One could relate the size of the cornetto to the size of the human body and to deduce the pitch(scale) from that, but in that epoch, everything was symbolic; it was possible for an angel to play cornetto, the respective sizes of the angel and the cornetto had little relation to reality. The artists took too much liberty with their representation for icons to be reliable. The only reliable information of interest is the existence or not of certain instruments: mute cornet, curved cornetto, straight cornet with mouthpiece etc etc but the dimensions are unreliable. There are numerous representations of cornetti in the 16th and 17th centuries, equally the 15th C with regard to street music. But, in the 15th C the cornet (Serpent/Lysarden ??) only existed in the serpentine form, and although they might have been good to look at, from a musical perspective, they could not have been so good, otherwise they would also have been seen outside the church.

Could you tell me of the geographical distribution of cornetti and the differences in manufacture.

It's an instrument that spread throughout the whole of Europe : France, Italy, England, Germany, Austria. There are different bores, for example German cornetti have a larger bore than Italian cornetti. Why ? I do not know; they both function as well as each other. Perhaps the German cornetti mixed better with trombones, and other brass, while the Italian cornetti played better with strings. It's my own personal opinion, and the only explanation that I have found. The Italian repertoire was well distributed and played throughout Europe.

How does one bore the instrument, what are the sources for reproduction of ancient bores ?

The bore is a development of geometrical proportions with relation to the golden number, that's to say one uses the golden number in the relationship of the distances between the holes. These also have their own proportions which are sufficiently characteristic. The size of the last hole, for example, is smaller because it has been adapted to size of the hand. Then, the use of mathematical treaties was fashionable, and a good understanding of the tools of calculation was a necessity. An Italian family, from Verona, called Bassano constructed harpsichords, it's something I discovered. To construct a soundboard for a Harpsichord they used a proportional compass set to the golden proportions, that is, 1/618, a proportion that has been known for a very long time. This family, began to make cornetti, and straight away made instruments that worked very well, I wanted to know why and I thought that this proportional compass had something to do with it. The manipulation of the proportionality and the golden Number were indispensable for the construction of harpsichord soundboards.(Translator's note - also for violins !!)
It is evident that their mastery of the proportional compass(dividers) that allowed them to construct accurately tuned cornetti. I have used this compass, and rediscovered its usage. First I read the Treatise on the "Divine Proportion" by Lucas Paccoli which is a tool of understanding and mastery which one can use to establish the proportional relationships of a bore, as well as for architecture or poetry. I took the time to do the enormous number of exercises at the end of the book, almost a year! I gained a certain amount of insight of this tool and I use all of the proportions, thanks to the compass, to establish a cornetto bore. I noticed that the results corresponded closely to the cornetti in museums, the same hole spacing and the rest...

Can one rely on these conserved cornetti as models for new instruments ?

One can rely on those in Europe, but not all because some have "moved". In most of them the wood has "worked"(warped) and taken on moisture, furthermore, they have been irreparably restored, under those conditions.. one has to ask what happened! However, in Italy, there are still some good ones, notably in some private collections in Verona. They are an excellent representation of instruments from that era.

Are there any other books which describe the methodology of making a cornetto ?

There is the book by Mersene (L'Harmonie Universelle ?). Although I have not been able to construct a functional cornetto with six holes, as described by Mersene. The instrument only works on five of the scale, and I can't see how a player could have managed to play the other notes. Mersene possibly omitted certain critical information, I have not been able to find the omission and the cornetto does not work. Mersene was not a maker, he was a theoretician who did not know the use of proportional relationships or their existence, otherwise he would have described them in his book, even though he gives some bore measurements of the cornetto he describes. As for Bassano, he has not left us a book. Generally speaking, there is no book that describes the making of a cornetto, by a maker.

What sort of woods are used ?

The woods used are fine grained fruit for preference, long fibers tend to work and break, or usually split. The use of specific woods is not only to do with its physical qualities. Each "essence"(spirit ?) of a tree was associated with a particular symbolism which had to coincide with that of the instrument. René Cote has written a book where one can find the symbolism of the cornetto and mute cornetto. In the works of Monteverde, for example, a curved cornetto intervenes, each time hell, or the Corned One - the Devil if you prefer, is evoked. On the other hand, when Moteverdi wants to evoke Angels or Heaven, he uses the mute cornetto. The mute cornetto is straight and made from a single piece whereas the cornetto is curved and made from two pieces. The wood used in this instrument had to be very stable, because the animal or vegetable based glues in that period could withstand moisture. Because the pieces were not glued, if the wood was not stable it could "work" even more and the curve of the two pieces no longer matched. Consider, in museums one encounters numerous problems for this type of instrument, there are many unplayable cornetti as a result. They used ties, in strategic places, to join the halves of the instrument. To finish, they covered the instrument with wet parchment, on drying it clamped the two halves together. This gave the cornetto its airtight-ness. Leather, on the other hand keeps its size and is applied dry. Using leather or parchment makes no difference, save that parchment is very solid, very humidity and temperature resistant. Whereas leather is quite fragile.

The wood used for the construction of the cornetto is Walnut or Yew as Trichet states in his book on the spirits of various woods. Walnut has the connotation of evil in that if one sleeps or rests under a Walnut one will feel nauseous or have a headache. This comes from the toxin produced by the tree to stop other plants growing underneath it. As for the Yew, its berries are used to make poison arrows or even to poison people. Other woods were used, Thorn for example because of the "Crown of Thorns" of Christ. All these woods had evil connotations because they did brought evil to man. The mute cornetto, however, was made of a wood which brought good to man, like Apple, Pear or Box, with its characteristic of eternity. Coincidentally, apart from their symbolic attributes, these are all excellent wood from which to make instruments.

Which wood did you use to make my cornetto ?

For your cornetto, it is sycamore.

You don't use the same woods today ?

Yes, but I also use "exotic" woods which have the same properties but are harder. I use these woods because their hardness gives a better quality cornetto. They used to use Ivory, but it's illegal today, especially in that quantity. The material permits a maximum hardness in the "channels" (halves) which determines the quality of the sound. The cornetto vibrates better, there are fewer parasitic frequencies in the sound, the response is faster, the "note strike" (start of vibration) is simpler and one does not have strain.

What sources do you have for the construction of mouthpieces ?

In actual fact, there is no extant 17th C mouthpiece. Those that exist are 18th C reproductions. Nevertheless we have a reference and a size! : these are the mute cornetti where the mouthpiece is cut directly into the instrument. One must suppose the players of these instruments did not change their preferred diameter when they played mute cornetto or straight cornetto, one would postulate that the internal form of the mouthpiece of the cornetto (curved) resembled that of the straight cornetto. The iconography shows large mouthpieces, others small, and one can hardly distinguish the presentation of the lips, here it is still total uncertainty.

Mouthpiece making has then made problems for you ?

During manufacture, the main problem is the tail of the mouthpiece. If the tail is not well made, there are some false octaves, one might say that the instrument is bad, but it is not the instrument at fault. Today there are a lot of cornetto players who use mouthpieces that mask the quality of the instrument. At the construction level, it all depends on what one requires: there are mouthpieces that work well over one octave, one octave and a half, others over two octaves, but there are concessions to make on each, you win here, then you lose somewhere else.

When you nmade your first cornettos, what problems did you encounter apart from those of the mouthpiece.

I started by copying an English plastic instrument, which wasn't that bad actually. The first problem was the wood used, I used Beech because it was cheap, but it did not sound at all, then I asked for information. To be truthful, I had already asked for the information, but I wanted to know if the nature of the wood was so very important, because I would rather have used a less expensive wood. So I made another copy in Walnut, and that one worked quite well, but still with the same fault, a fault in tuning and bore. I then jumped into, as I have already explained, the mathematical works of that period, and I finished by improving my cornetti. When one does not truly know how to make a cornetto, one cannot rule out an error in the bore, one does not know where the problem lies. Thus, I have spent time trying thing out, modifying in certain places in the bore, and it was then that I saw that the bore was divided in 5 inter-proportional parts following the relationship of the golden proportion. The first part, close to the mouthpiece is very important and the further along the bore the less the importance.

In the bore there will always be little modifications to make but the are found with use. Because of making, one understands better and better how to model an instrument and what modifications have what influence on which criteria. In any case, I have lots of things to learn.

Finally, can you descibe the steps in making a cornetto ?

When I make a cornetto, I start from two planks. On one of the planks I gouge a curved channel, with the aid of a guide, because the other plank has to correspond exactly. I then rough cut the plank and gouge the channel almost to its final dimensions, with a small margin to allow polishing and adjusting later without danger. Then I glue the two halves with an animal and vegatable glue to which I add resin, my own personal mix. This resin allows the glue to withstand humidity but it is still animal and vegetable just as it was then. I obtain thus a square cornetto. I sand until I have equal sides all over, I then remove any excess to get a finer cornetto at the mouthpiece end : pyramid shaped (Is this after the lozenges are cut ?) Then, thanks to a clamp that holds the cornetto at an angle, I cut the corners to get an octagonal cornetto. I cut the lozenge patterns and the decoration between the mouthpiece and the first hole. I then soak the instrument in a saturated solution of brine, to stabilize the wood and stop it warping later, although it is already dry, because my planks are a minimum of 15-20 years after sawing. When I remove them from the bath I let them dry then I soak them again, but this time in oil, for about two months. I remove them to finish sand the bore. I cut the holes where they should be, and at this time I start to tune the instrument. That is not to say I don't touch the bore, obviously because of the curve there are special tools to be able to remove wood from wherever necessary. The tuning finished I soak it again for eight days and then adjust the tuning, and do this at least four times, after which the tuning doesn't move any more. To fine tune one enlarges the holes, one the inside (undercutting). Inside the cornetto there are places where one can adjust the bore with a curved file inside the holes, one often tunes the octaves like this when they are not in tune to start with. To finish I cover the cornetto with parchment, which softens the instrument, less strident. It modifies slightly the tonality of the instrument but does not change the tuning; it serves principally to stiffen the instrument.