MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 6

(This is the twenty-third part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 3, Part 5)

(c. 1562-68, Germany) Embroidered tablecloth with Count Poppo of Henneberg and wife Sophie of Brunswick, musicians and dancers (now lost). Among musicians are one curved cornett player (bottom right of middle square) and one straight cornett (top right of middle square).

(c. 1562-68, Germany) Embroidered tablecloth with Count Poppo of Henneberg and wife Sophie of Brunswick, musicians and dancers (now lost). Among musicians are one curved cornett player (bottom right of middle square) and one straight cornett (top right of middle square).

The Cornett as a Symbol of the

The loud, rustic, obstreperous associations of the cornett undoubtedly made the cornett one of the most approprate dance instruments in the Renaissance and early Baroque. A couple of lines from Henry Fitzgeffrey’s Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams illustrates how immediate the association between the cornett and dancing was: “Yet marke! No sooner shall the Cornets blow, / But ye shall haue him skipping too and fro.”[1] H. Colin Slim, in his analysis of Philippo Oriolo da Bassano’s poem Monte Parnasso, summarizes a part of the poem in which cornetts, among other wind players, are specifically identified with the heavenly dance music:

[The musicians] are presented according to their instrument. Players of wind instruments arrive first: bagpipes, cornetti, pifferi . . . , and trombones. With the wind players providing, as was customary, the music, a ball takes place with legendary and historical lovers as dance partners. Canto XX opens with these wind players, exhausted from accompanying the ball, giving way to players of keyboard instruments.[2]


Of the musical records affiliated with dance in my database, a wide range of dance types are found: allemands, ballets, courantes, galliards, passamezzos, pavanes, sarabandes, and intradas. The intrada and galliard are the most frequently encountered. Because the cornett is also prominently associated with announcing entrances, the intrada is particularly interesting.

There is an interesting example in Richard Brome’s drama The English Moor. In the scene of interest, a dance of costumed masquers (a stag, a ram, a goat, and an ox, all with horns on their heads) is put on to teach one of the characters a negative lesson. Interesting is the specificity of horns being on top of the masquer’s heads.[3] “Mercury” introduces the dance music:

Now by this dance let husband that doth wed
Bride from her proper love to loathed bed
Observe his fortune. Musick strike aloud
The cuckolds joy, with merry pipe & crowd.

They dance to musick of Cornet; & Violins.

The Daunce.

Exit. Masquers.[4]


The first line of Brome’s rubric after the introduction has a semi-colon after “musick of Cornet,” then follows “& Violins.” This detail of punctuation implies that the cornetts play a section of music first, as a way of playing an attention-getting introductory dance, followed by a section played by the violins (or violins and cornetts together). Another illustration of an opening dance played by cornetts, less ambiguous than Brome’s, is from Ben Jonson’s account of a masque at Whitehall Palace (a large indoor hall) on February 9, 1609:

Here they lighted from their Chariots, and danc’d forth their first dance; then a second, immediately following it: both right curious, and full of subtile and excellent changes, and seem’d perform’d with no lesse spirits, then of those they personated. The first was to the Cornets, the second to the Vyolines. After which, they tooke out the men, and danc’d the measures; entertaining the time, almost to the space of an houre, with singular varietie: when, to giue them rest, from the Musique which attended the Chariots, by that most excellent tenor voyce, and exact singer (her Maiesties seruant, M r. Io. Allin) this Dittie was sung.[5]


Still another instance of cornetts playing first is found in the English novel, Clidamas (1639):

The masquers prepared themselves for the first measure, which was performed in most exquisite maner to the sound of cornets, that being done certaine loose dances passed betweene the masquers and the gentlewomen, and they being finished, they addrest themselves to the second measures, at the end whereof, sorting themselves as they were at their entrance, Triton spake in this manner.[6]


Perhaps it is the cornett’s role as a fanfaring instrument which best explains the sequence of dances, in which the cornetts play the introductory signal or dance and then the other instruments follow with the rest of the dances.[7] A good visual example is found in an early sixteenth-century print by Hans Schäufelein (1480-1540) entitled “The Princess’s Dance: Audience and Musicians.” In this depiction of nobility, the princess and her companions, tired of traveling, are seated next to an open-air shelter, in which a flutist, a slide trumpeter, a drummer and a cornettist are playing. One of the verses reads as follows:

Blow loud and clear on the zinken [cornetts], we will be soon given a drink. There, the cadence is being played with great reverence. Go find the pipes and the flutes, the kettledrums and the trumpets. Let’s get our dancing rightly organized when the refreshments are brought.[8]

In this depiction the cornettist (there is only one depicted in the band—despite the plural used in the verse caption) is asked to signal the beginning of the dance (or perhaps in this example the cornett signals that the drinks are to be brought in and when this happens, the dance can begin). A dramatic example from Fletcher’s The Little French Lawyer, first performed around 1620, also illustrates this type of fanfare where the cornet does not actually play the dance music (“Cornet.” and “Musicke within.” are rubrics between lines of dialogue):

I am glad, I yield you

Such ample scope of mirth.

Musicke within.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I say, if you are noble, be’t who will;
Goe presently and thanke ’em: I can jump yet,
Or tread a measure.[9]


The following excerpt from Sylvester’s Du Bartas (1621) shows Musica (in this case, “Musick”) dancing.


     [The description of Musick.]
That grace-full posture, and those pretty feet
Which seem still Dancing: all those Harps and Lutes,
Shawms, Sag-buts, Citrons, Viols, Cornets, Flutes,
Plaç’t round about her; prove in every part
This is the noble, sweet, Voice-ord’ring Art . . .[10]


The cornetts are playing in a large, mixed ensemble, which would be appropriate for Musica, who represents all types of musical instruments.

(c. 1500) Israhel van Meckenem, The Dance at the Court of Herod (musician on left plays a cornett-like instrument, possibly a fingerhole horn)

(c. 1500) Israhel van Meckenem, The Dance at the Court of Herod (musician on left plays a cornett-like instrument, possibly a fingerhole horn; the middle musician plays a “pipe and tabor” and the musician on the right plays an early trombone)

Although the cornett as a symbol juxtaposed with dancing angels is a fairly common theme in general, the use of the cornett as a symbol of sinful dancing figures even more prominently in my research.[11] Israhel van Meckenem’s copperplate engraving “The Dance of Herodias” of 1475 depicts a small music ensemble of three wind players in the center of a large hall accompanying dancers who are elegantly dressed (in fifteenth-century garb) and are circling around the hall. The three basse danse wind instruments are a pipe-and-tabor, a slide trumpet, and a fingerhole horn, an animal horn with what appears to be seven finger holes and certainly the precursor to the sixteenth-century cornett. Symbolically, the most important aspects of this scene are the evil and  lewd overtones implicit in the subject matter: the head of John the baptist is presented to Salome in the left corner of the engraving; then the head is served up to Salome’s father in the right corner; in the foreground, Salome dances with the courtiers in celebration of her evil deeds. The idea here is that the instruments provide an unwholesome and frantic type of entertainment, appropriate only for the likes of Salome, noble though she is.[12]

Another example of the cornett as an unseemly dance instrument is from John Davies of Hereford’s poem Wittes Pilgrimage [1605?]:

My Lady shee will laugh as madd shee were
(Lord! why should Mirth make sober Ladies madd?)
If shee but see Him, like an Asse, to fleere;
So shee (kind Mule) to see an Asse is gladd.
And when such Buffons ball, and Cornetts sound
(The Ghests loud-Laughing) Who can then bee heard
That speakes like Phillpps Page, as shrill, as sound,
That Voice hath then no grace and lesse regard?[13]

In conclusion, one can see that the transitory and unwholesome connotations of the dance, held by many in the Renaissance, transfer to instruments used for the dance. Monteverdi effectively and ironically sets off the humble pleas to the Virgin Mary with instrumental dance passages idiomatically scored for violins, trombones, violas, and especially cornetts, which were known at this time to be particularly suitable for dances.

(Next: the cornett in “Deposuit potentes de sede”)

[1]. Henry Fitzgeffrey, “The Third Booke of Humours: Intituled Notes from Black-Fryers,” in Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams, originally published as Satyres and Satyricall Epigrams: With Certaine Observations at Black-Fryers: By H: F:  in London by Edw: Allde, for Miles Patrich [etc.] in 1617, The English Poetry Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), lines 117–18.

[2]. H. Colin Slim, “Musicians on Parnassus,” Studies in the Renaissance 12 (1965): 139.

[3]. See chapter 2,  p. 58, for more on wearing horns as symbol of totemistic god.

[4]. Richard Brome, The English Moor, originally published as Five nevv Playes, Viz. The English Moor, or The Mock-Marriage. The Love-Sick Court, or The Ambitious Politique. Covent Garden Weeded. The Nevv Academy, or The Nevv Exchange. The Queen and Concubine. By Richard Brome in London by A. Crook… and H. Brome [etc.] in 1659, English Verse Drama Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), 1.3.169–72 (and following rubric).

[5]. Ben Jonson, The Masqve of Queenes, originally published in the source text The Workes of Beniamin Jonson in London by Will. Stansby in 1616, English Verse Drama Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), rubric after line 381.

[6]. J. S., Clidamas, originally published as Clidamas, or the Sicilian Tale in London by Thomas Payne in 1639, Early English Prose Fiction Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1997), 153. Italics original.

[7]. The cornett is associated with fanfares in 88 records of my database (3.4% of all records).

[8]. Naylor, The Trumpet & Trombone in Graphic Arts, 1500–1800, 194 (notes to plate 33).

[9]. John Fletcher, The Little French Lawyer, originally published as an anthology of three authors (John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, and Francis Beaumont) entitled Comedies and Tragedies Written by Francis Beaumont and Iohn Fletcher.. Never printed before, And now published by the Authours Originall Copies in London by Humphrey Robinson.. and for Humphrey Moseley [etc.] in 1647, English Verse Drama Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey), 4.1.251–2, 267–9.

[10]. Joshua Sylvester, “Noah. The Second Day of the Second Week,” in Du Bartas: His Divine Weekes And Workes, originally published as Du Bartas: His Divine Weekes And Workes with A Compleate Collectio[n] of all the other most delight-full Workes: Translated and written by yt famous Philomusus: Iosvah Sylvester in London by Humphrey Lownes in 1621, The English Poetry Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1994), lines 710–14. Italics original.

[11]. An angelic example may be found in an anonymous Italian painting from the middle of the seventeenth-century entitled L’Annunciazione della Vergine; in alto il Padre Eterno, con concerto e danza di angeli which depicts a small ensemble with a cornett playing for dancing angels [observed in Luigi Parigi, I disegni musicali del Gabinetto degli Uffizi e delle minori (Firenze: L.S. Olschki, 1951), 84].

[12]. Beck and Roth, Music in Prints, Plate 1.


[13]. John Davies, “I said unto Laughter,” in Wittes Pilgrimage, originally published as Wittes Pilgrimage (by Poeticall Essaies): Through a a VVorld of amorous Sonnets, Soule-passions, and other Passages, Diuine, Philosophicall, morall, Poeticall, and Politicall. By Iohn Davies, in  London by Iohn Browne in 1605 [?], English Poetry Full-Text Database (Cambridge, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1992), lines 37–44.

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