(This is the fifth part of my dissertation series. Previous: Monteverdi’s Symbolic Use of the Cornett, Chapter 1, part 3)
A general symbolism for the cornett can be extrapolated from contemporary iconography, literary references, the construction of the instrument, and musical sources. Although this paper does not intend to exhaustively explore the general European-wide, fifteenth- to seventeenth-century symbolic use of the cornett, this line of research contributes important insight toward an understanding of Monteverdi’s symbolic use of the cornett, especially considering J. A. Westrup’s argument that “Monteverdi’s orchestra is quite normal in structure for the period. He does not ask for unusual instruments. He employs recognized groups [of instruments] and recognized continuo instruments, and uses them in a way that would have occasioned no surprise among his contemporaries.”
In contrast to this general associative use of the cornett, Monteverdi’s personal symbolism may be deduced from dramatic contexts, textual relationships, what he reveals in his letters, and other evidence derived from his life and philosophy. No research literature to date adequately addresses Monteverdi’s symbolic use of the cornett, although a wide variety of unsynthesized information on this subject is available.
Since this type of symbolism has so many different levels of meaning, some clarification may be necessary before continuing. In this paper, when the cornett has a strong association with something else, be it an concept, a mythological figure, a person, a thing or even another musical instrument, the cornett will be said to be symbolic of this. This association might be a historic tradition long established before Monteverdi’s day, or a novel idea used only once. Although my research has indicated nearly 500 different symbols associated with the cornett, these symbols reduce down to only a handful of broad themes. While there is a certain flexibility and even inconsistency found among the sources (for example, the cornett is depicted both in heaven and in hell), the general thematic trends contribute to a symbolic niche unique to the cornett.
. Westrup, “Monteverdi and the Orchestra,” 240.