When Monteverdi wrote his 1610 Vespers, the instruments most commonly used in churches, after the organ, were sackbuts and cornetts, and these instruments add their very distinctive flavour to a lot of church music from that time. But what exactly are they? We’d like to introduce you to these two beautiful families of instruments
You might not realise it from our English name, but the sackbut (from the French saqueboute, meaning pull-push) is not very much different from a very well-known instrument – but in Italian it’s always been called a “trombone”. It began life when instrument makers hit on the idea of adding a double slide to a trumpet so that more notes could be played, making it the most versatile of early brass instruments. A modern trombone has a bigger bell, and an additional tuning slide, but it’s not very different (if you have an old trombone lying around, there are YouTube videos that will tell you how to cut it down into a sackbut).
The sackbut has a lovely mellow sound that blends well with voices and with renaissance organs, so church composers often used it to double the lower parts, as well as including sackbuts in instrumental church music: you get a flavour of this in the instrumental interlude ‘sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ in the Vespers. Listen out too for the sackbuts adding their gravitas to some of the grander moments of the big choral movements, particularly in the Glorias and the wonderful final Amens.
You can hear the sackbuts to full effect in this recording by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Beato Virgo a 6.
Unlike the sackbut, which is a recognisable ancestor the modern trombone, the cornetto is an evolutionary dead-end: there’s nothing quite like it in any modern ensemble. The cornetto come in various sizes, and consist of a curved wooden tube, covered in leather, with fingered holes like a recorder, but the sound is produced through a small cup-shaped mouthpiece, like a brass instrument. The result is an instrument that can manage fast, virtuosic lines, and great expressivity, whilst also having enough power to stand out against voices and sackbuts in a large space.
The cornetto was prized for its ability to mimic the voice, particularly in Italy, and cornetto players were often expected to create elaborate improvisations around solo vocal lines. One of the finest moments for cornetto in the 1610 Vespers comes in the ‘Deposuit potentes de sede’ movement of the Magnificat, in which a pair of cornetti weave their beguiling lines around a simple plainchant.
This video by soprano Hana Blažíková and cornettist Bruce Dickey shows just what the cornetto can do: