The modern cornet comes from the Middle ages instrument called the post horn. One name for the post horn was cornet de-post. The word cornet derives from the Latin word for horn.
Most notably, post horns were used in the 1700s and 1800s by mail coach guards to notify the town that the coach carrying that week’s mail had arrived. The post horn was made of brass and came in three different shapes that each produced a unique sound. The instrument was capable of producing almost two octaves.`
Like the modern cornet, post horns were made with a conical bore. This means that the diameter of the inside of the instrument is smaller at the mouthpiece and gradually gets bigger until you reach the bell.
Straight post horns were roughly 3 feet long. They consisted of a cup-shaped mouthpiece, a long tube, and a bell. Many straight post horns featured a sliding joint which pushed into the bell piece.
This made the instrument shorter and easier to transport and store. Crescent-shaped post horns were shaped like a crescent moon.
Coiled instruments were coiled like a modern French horn.
Who Invented the Cornet?
The first recognized cornet maker was Jean Aste. He was also known by the name of Halary and lived in Paris. He started making cornets with rotary valves in 1828.
Those early rotary valves worked similarly to the valves on a modern French horn. The player presses a key which causes the valve to turn. The turning of the rotary valve blocks, or opens the flow of air through specific parts of the instrument tubing.
Adding rotary valves to the post horn gave the musician more control over pitch and intonation. The valves also extended the range of the instrument.
Piston valves, similar to the valves used on cornets, trumpets, and other brass instruments today were invented by Heinrich Stolzel and Friedrich Bluhmel.
Some sources say these two men invented the piston valve independently and simultaneously, however other sources credit Bluhmel for inventing the piston valves, and Stotzel for figuring out how to add the valves to a post horn, to create the instrument we now call the cornet.
Bluhmel and Stolzel applied for the original cornet patent together. They held this patent for 10 years.
In 1838 Francois Perinet was granted his patent for an improved version of the piston valve. Perinet’s piston valve was adopted for widespread use in brass instruments, including the cornet.
What Were the Early Cornets Like?
Early cornets used rotary valves. The section of the horn called the crook came in different lengths and sizes. Musicians could swap out that section of the cornet to extend the range of the instrument. Changing the crook also resulted in a deeper, darker tone.
In 1855 B.F Richardson developed the circular cornet in his shop in Boston. The circular cornet was different from most because it had 4 rotary valves, instead of the usual 3, and came with two different mouthpiece shapes.
Circular cornets were pitched in C when the short straight mouthpiece was used. The second mouthpiece had a loop in the shank which lowered the pitch of the instrument to Bb. These are no longer in use today and are difficult to find.
How and When did Cornets Become Popular?
The mellow tone and flexibility of the cornet made it ideal for military bands of the 1800s. Both the United States military and the military of England were early adopters of the instrument.
Early expert cornet players came to the instrument from the post horn. They used detachable pieces of tubing to change the size and shape of the early cornets. By removing one crook, and replacing it with another, the early cornet player could change the range and timbre of the instrument.
Hermann Koenig and Issac Levy are two of the earliest known popular cornet soloists.
Because the cornet was more versatile and had a more mellow sound, it was preferred over the trumpet. Many musical groups of the time would use cornets in place of trumpets.
Because the two instruments are both pitched to the key of Bb, the cornet could play parts written for trumpet with ease. Cornets were often found in orchestras, brass bands, military bands, and any other group that might call for trumpet part.
Some composers, like Hector Berlioz, wrote parts specifically for the cornet.
Cornets were used in the modern dance groups of the late 1800s. Later, when jazz became popular cornet was the brass instrument of choice. Louis Armstrong preferred cornet over the trumpet.
What Makes Cornet Different from Trumpet?
Cornets and trumpets look very similar. Most non-brass players can’t tell them apart, but there are some clear differences between them.
The biggest difference between trumpets and cornets is on the inside. Cornets have a conical bore, while trumpets have a cylindrical bore.
- Conical bore — the inside is shaped like a very long funnel. The diameter of the inside slowly and steadily increases until it reaches the bell of the instrument. This shape gives the sound a full and warm quality.
- Cylindrical bore — the bore is the same size from mouthpiece to bell section. The bell flares out suddenly to produce a direct sound that is projected from the horn. Instruments with a cylindrical bore have a harsher sound.
Cornets are more compact, and shorter than the trumpet.
Traditional cornets have tubing near the mouthpiece that looks like the end of a shepherd’s staff. This is called a “Shepherds Crook.”
The end where the mouthpiece slides into (called the mouthpiece receiver) is much smaller on a cornet than it is on a trumpet.
Cornet mouthpieces are smaller than those made for trumpet.
Trumpet makers were much slower to adopt the piston valve on their instrument. Cornet makers in Paris, France took advantage of the piston valve as early as the 1830s.
How did Cornets Change Over Time?
James W York opened his music store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. In 1885, York partnered with Frank Holton to start manufacturing band instruments. The J.W York & Son company was formed in 1887 when Frank Holton left to form his own company.
The long model cornet was also called the Trumpet-Cornet. It was developed around 1910. This cornet was a hybrid between the trumpet and standard cornet. It was introduced in the May 1910 edition of Music Trade Review under the brand name Perfec-Tone.
It boasted a “quick change to A, and can be used in either high or low pitch.” The Perfec-Tone was 16 3/4 inches long. This first cornet/trumpet hybrid was popular with musicians, and it’s estimated that this model was the highest-selling cornet model in history.
In May 1913, a patent was filed for a cornet design called the Al-True. The patent was granted in December 1913. The Al-True was manufactured by J.W. York & Sons. This model featured two turns in the air passage.
This means there were fewer curves in the brass for the air to flow through. This cornet featured a rod that came off the valves to allow for tuning adjustment. The Al-True model allowed for a quick change to the key of A and came with both a shallow and a deep mouthpiece.
The Al-True model doesn’t seem to have been popular. It’s believed it was only in production from 1913 -1914. Serial numbers for this cornet have been found from 36000 to 39000.
Also in 1913, cornet player Ernst A. Couturier was granted a patent for his cornet plans. Also produced by J.W. York & Sons, the Courturier Wizard cornet had a continuous conical bore. These were sold from 1913-1916.
In 1922 the Trumpet-Cornet was changed to be longer than the previous model. It looked a lot like a trumpet but had an extra loop in the tubing. These were produced from 1922 until 1941.
A patent was granted in 1933 to York for their redesign of the springs inside of valves Known as the Feather Touch spring design, these springs were closed in resting position, and the tension increased as you pushed the valve down. York did not include these valves on their cornets until 1948.
In 1964 Carl Fischer sold the J.W York & Sons factory to Tolchin. It was finally closed in 1971.
What are the Different Types of Cornet?
Bb Cornet The most common cornet is pitched in the key of Bb. It has a range from the E below middle C up to C above the staff. These instruments are commonly played in wind and concert bands, marching bands, fanfare orkest symphony orchestras, and jazz ensembles.
Some models of Bb cornet include a rotary valve that allows the musician to change the key of the instrument to A. The Bb cornet is comparable to the trumpet.
The soprano cornet is pitched in Eb. Soprano cornets are pitched higher than the more common Bb cornet. This gives the Eb a higher range, and a light, airy sound. It’s more difficult to play than the Bb cornet because the month piece is smaller. The Eb soprano cornet is equivalent to the piccolo trumpet.
They are most often used in British brass bands, silver bands, and brass ensembles. Examples of expert Eb cornet players include Charlie Cook and Peter Roberts.
The A cornet looks very similar to the one in Bb. Cornets in the key of A aren’t used often, and they are difficult to find. Occasionally a musician might use it to make an extremely difficult chromatic passage easier, and they are sometimes found in small theater groups.
These cornets are pitched in the key of C. They look a lot like the more common Bb cornet. Some models of C cornet distinguish themselves by adding a “shepherds crook” look to the piping. C cornets aren’t widely used.
This is probably because in most bands and orchestras the cornet doubles the trumpet part, and trumpets are in the key of Bb. While it’s possible to play Bb trumpet/cornet music on a C cornet, that requires the musician to transpose on the fly. C cornets are most often used in orchestras, church choirs, brass bands, or symphonies.
Echo cornets have been documented as far back as the late 1800s. They are called echo cornets because the musician can create the illusion of echoing themselves in their music. This effect is achieved by the addition of a second bell, and a valve to redirect the airflow to that bell. The second bell is much smaller than the main cornet bell.
The mute bell is also tapered so that the sound comes out of the smaller end. Directing the air through the second bell creates a muted sound, very similar to that of the modern Harmon mute.
A cornet player can create an echo effect by playing a few notes, through the normal bell, and then playing the same notes with the 4th valve pressed to direct the air away from the main bell and through the mute bell.
Cornet manufacturers in the late 1800s offered the echo bell as an attachment. Musicians could remove the second bell, and use the cornet in the typical manner. The fourth valve was not removable.
The echo cornet was never really popular. The same effect can be achieved by simply using a mute, and most musicians of the time chose that option. Cornet manufacturers stopped producing the echo cornet shortly after World War I.
You can find good new echo cornets made by individual craftsmen on Etsy. There are also a few companies that manufacture these and sell them through various online marketplaces. The majority of these are produced and sold cheaply.
They are usually out of tune and very difficult to play. If you’re looking for a good echo cornet that’s in tune and is easily playable in a jazz or concert band, the best options are a good independent craftsman or finding an old horn.
Another Way to Classify a Cornet
Cornet classification is unique because unlike most other instruments cornets have different shapes as well as different types and keys.
The traditional shape of a cornet is called the “Shepherds Crook.” It’s a short instrument that can have the appearance of a squished trumpet. These cornets have the largest bore of all cornets. They produce a mellow and rich sound.
The main physical identifying feature on these horns is the signature curve in the piping near the mouthpiece. It’s shaped just like the curve of a shepherd’s staff.
The “American-wrap” or long-model cornet has a smaller bore. The tubing is wrapped in a manner that looks very much like a trumpet. The long-model cornet has a brighter sound. It’s typically used in American concert bands. Some British brass and concert bands have also adopted this model of cornet.
The long cornet is the third type of this instrument. Despite the similar name, the long cornet is distinctly different from the long-model cornet mentioned above. The long cornet was created by C.G Conn and E.F Olds in the mid 20th Century. Like all cornets, this model has a conical bore, but the tubing is shaped to look exactly like a trumpet.
How do Cornets Make Sound?
Like all brass instruments, the sound is produced when the musician “buzzes” into the mouthpiece. If you purse your lips together and blow air through the small hole created, that will give you a general idea of buzzing. Brass instruments use the vibration of the player’s lips to make the sound instead of a reed like a clarinet or a saxophone.
The tone and quality of the sound produced are influenced by the mouthpiece used. Brass players chose the mouthpiece that works best for their lips and mouth shape. Cornet mouthpieces are a bit smaller than the mouthpiece of a trumpet.
All brass mouthpieces are shaped like a small cup with a tube at the end. The tube fits into the instrument. Each brass mouthpiece is produced in a variety of sizes and materials.
Most are made of metal, but there are plastic, crystal, and wooden mouthpieces available as well. Cornet mouthpieces come in a variety of sizes. The player can change the quality of their sound simply by changing the size mouthpiece they use.
Famous Cornet Players
Alfred F Weldon (1862-1914) The Weldon cornet made by York & Sons is named after Alfred Weldon. This line of cornets has serial numbers from 1100 to 2400. York & Sons also produced the Weldon cornet mouthpiece. Weldon taught cornet at the Siegel-Meyers School of Music in Chicago in the early 1900s. He developed the Weldon system of playing.
Ernst Albert Couturier (1869 -1950) Couturier was born on September 30, in Poughkeepsie, New York. He started playing cornet when he was 14 years old. Two years later he entered the New England Conservatory of Music to study cornet. However, he had to withdraw from the school to take a job repairing watches for his uncle.
By the time he was 17 years old, Couturier was playing some of the most difficult cornet pieces of the time. He performed Variations On Carnival of Venice by Herbert L Clarke, which is known for its technical difficulty and 6-octave range.
Couturier began playing cornet professionally in the 1880s. He played for a variety of bands and became a well-known cornet player. He was featured in The Twenty-first Regiment Band, Gilmore Band, Innes Band, and Eastman Business College Band,
In 1902, Couturier made his first tour across the Midwestern states.
1906 found him on his first European tour. During this famous musical tour, Couturier became the first person to produce more than one note at a time on a wind instrument. Today, this feat is knowns as multiphonics.
It’s so difficult on cornet that the American History and Encyclopedia of Music claims it can’t be done. As far as history knows, Couturier is the only cornet player to ever be able to demonstrate multiphonics on the cornet.
He turned down an offer to tour with John Phillip Sousa, and his band. The Frank Holton Company hired Couturier to help develop, and perform on the Holton cornet. On September 23, 1913, E. A Couturier was granted his first patent. His work improved upon the conical bore of the time.
He began manufacturing cornets based on his patented design, as well as other brass instruments in 1916. His company was purchased by Lyon and Healy in 1923. Couturier sold his brass manufacturing business because he lost his sight. He began performing regularly again
Eventually, he suffered from a mental breakdown and was admitted to Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in the state of New York. Couturier died in that facility.
Charlie Cook Cook began playing with the renowned Fodens Band in 1933. He was known for his excellent technique and unrivaled tone. Bram Hay said Charlie Cook was, “an incredible artist.
An octave stop for the cornet section.” Cook played the soprano cornet and was the standard to which other cornet players were compared. Cook died in 1997, at 86 years old.
Peter Roberts is considered one of the best soprano cornet players of all time. . He’s known for pushing the boundaries of modern cornet playing. It’s rumored that Roberts helped create Yamaha’s Xeno cornets.
His farewell performance of On With the Motley With the BBBC was conducted by Sarah Loannides, on July 6, 2009. A recording of the event is on YouTube.
Hermann Koenig was from Germany. He is known for being the very first cornet soloist who became known worldwide. In the 1840’s he was a featured soloist in the Drury Lane Orchestra under orchestra conductor Louis Jullien. This was a famous orchestra based in England. In 1853 Koenig was part of the first world tour of a European orchestra.
Jullien brought his group to North America to tour the “New World.” In addition to being the first celebrated solo cornet player, Koenig also wrote several famous pieces for post horn and cornet. The Post Horn Galop was written for post horn in Ab and includes a cornet solo. This piece is still performed today.
Also still in circulation is the piece known as Three Duettinos For the Cornet. Koenig published this piece in 1843, and copies can still be found. In 1846 Koenig’s piece Journal For a Cornet was released. That piece is more difficult to find. Koenig helped develop his own brand of cornet. The Koenig cornet is still available today.
Jules (Isaac) Levy was born in 1848 and died in 1903. Throughout his musical career, Mr. Levy performed in at least 216 concerts. He played in a wide variety of events, including performing a one-month run of Robinson Crusoe in 1869.
In the same year, he played with the Mendelssohn Orchestra. In addition to being an accomplished performer on the cornet, Levy also composed music. Some of his works include
- Central Park Garden polka
- Hungarian fantasy
- Leviathan polka
- Maud waltz
- Whirlwind polka
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) Armstrong, known as Satchmo, Pops, and Satch was easily one of the most influential cornet players in jazz. Armstrong was born in the home of jazz, New Orleans. Armstrong was nominated for 3 Grammy Awards and won a Grammy for his vocals in Hello, Dolly.
He was known for his Scat singing as well as his cornet and trumpet playing. He had an energetic stage presence and was widely popular across many musical genres. Armstrong was one of the first Black musicians to gain “cross-over” popularity.
His music was well known internationally and he played more than 300 performances a year for 30 years. In addition to his success on the stage, Louis Armstrong also composed more than 50 songs. The 3 tunes below are jazz standards.
- Swing that Music
- Potato Head Blues
- Gully Low Blues
Interesting Facts about the Cornet
Cornet mouthpiece sizes are not standardized. One company’s 3C is not the same depth and width as the same sized mouthpiece from another company.
The baritone and tenor horn (also known as the althorn) were both developed from the cornet.
The Flugelhorn was created from the cornet
Some sources credit the cornet for the creation of the bugle.
Answer: The Bb cornet is the most common cornet used today. It plays in the key of Bb. It has a more mellow and sweet tone than the currently more popular trumpet.
Answer: No. As far as technique goes, cornet and trumpet require the same skills. Cornet is more difficult to play because the mouthpiece is smaller.
Answer: No. Although trumpets and cornets look very similar on the outside, they are different on the inside. The inside of a trumpet is the same diameter from mouthpiece receiver to bell. The bell of a trumpet flares suddenly.
Cornets start small at the mouthpiece receiver, but steadily and gradually get bigger for the entire length of the horn tubing. There is no sudden change in diameter
The cornet descended from a middle ages instrument called the post horn. It first used rotary valves and interchangeable tubing to change notes and the range of the instrument. Today’s cornets use the more efficient piston valve. The cornet and its musicians have been an integral part of the development of modern musical styles.