Bruce Dickey on the Cornetto and the Vespers


Bruce Dickey on the Cornetto and the Vespers


Bruce Dickey

For four decades, Bruce Dickey has almost single-handedly pioneered the resurgence of the cornetto, an instrument forgotten for centuries but absolutely essential to faithful historical performance. He has been a fixture at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, leading new students of the instrument forward. In 2000, the Historic Brass Society awarded him the prestigious Christopher Monk Award for ‘his monumental work in cornetto performance, historical performance practice and musicological scholarship’. In 2007, he was honored with the rare ‘Taverner Award’. Dickey has worked with all the most famous contributors to historically informed performance  ̶  from Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen and Nikolaus Harnoncourt through Jordi Savall, Andrew Parrot, Ton Koopman, Monica Huggett, Philippe Herreweghe and Masaaki Suzuki. Some of his most beautiful recent recordings have been with his ensemble, Concerto Palatino. He moved to Italy many years ago, partly to be closer to the source materials for his instrument, and currently lives with his family close to Bologna, the home of the original Concerto Palatino.

I was able to talk to Bruce Dickey prior to his upcoming Vancouver performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers with conductor Stephen Stubbs and Pacific MusicWorks. What impressed me about this esteemed artist is just how definite his viewpoints are. As the interview reveals, his commitment to historical instruments goes far beyond the mere recognition of the unique and compelling sounds they produce; these instruments truly serve as ‘cultural artefacts’. Implicit is the additional recognition of the disservice that 19th-century Romantic musical language and performing traditions did to the stunning music of earlier times. Perhaps the considered nature of these opinions should not be surprising: as we find out, he has performed the Vespers over 600 times!

Geoffrey Newman: You are a true ‘father’ of the cornetto, having performed so extensively on the instrument and taught so many students over the years. Let’s start from a very basic question: What do you think attracts young musicians to the instrument, given the variety of different authentic instruments available?

Bruce Dickey: It is almost always the sound of the instrument which attracts people. Perhaps you might say that it’s the ‘vocality’ of the sound, but it seems to me to be something much more. It’s a sound which is both vocal and instrumental, sweet and strident, intimate yet disembodied, and which somehow touches people very deeply. There are, of course, practical considerations in choosing this instrument. For someone coming to the cornetto from the trumpet or recorder, one enters a new repertoire of music that is simply not as well-known as that of the other instruments. There is also a smaller contingent of top players  ̶  though that is changing rapidly.

GN: One historical puzzle is why composers and performers abandoned the cornetto in the late 17th century and essentially never returned to it. What is your take on this?

BD: Well, I think this goes back to the early 17th century. At that time the violin and cornetto were in many ways musical equals. They shared much of the repertoire, which often carries the indication ‘per violino overo cornetto’. The cornetto, though, was the older instrument, and the violin was the young upstart. I think the fashion for string instruments in the early 17th century made the cornetto begin to seem to some a little bit old-fashioned. While it was at home in the church or on the balcony of the public square, it didn’t have so much traction within the newer styles appearing in the early part of the century, including the opera. This meant that there were fewer people interested in taking up this difficult instrument, and the result was an inevitable decline in playing standards. At the same time, the music was becoming more difficult, more and more idiomatic for the violin.

This set in motion, already by 1640, a process that would take two centuries to complete – the decline and eventual obsolescence of the cornetto. The decline took place later in northern countries than in Italy, but the direction was inevitable. Nonetheless, there were a number of surprising peaks and troughs, including some spectacular players in Naples and Rome in the last decade of the 17th century. The last player that we have any record of gave up his post in Lübeck in northern Germany in 1860.

GN: Do you feel that the use of the cornetto creates a more ‘authentic’ tonal fabric for 17th century music, as compared to traditional performing practices that might substitute a violin or, say, a recorder?

BD: Since the cornetto was normally considered an alternative to the violin, and also under certain circumstances the human voice, choosing it will naturally change the ambient quality and texture of the sound. However, as the choice between the violin and cornetto was typically left up to the performer, I don’t think that one instrument can really be regarded as more ‘authentic’ than the other. The recorder was not often used as a substitute. Of course you could choose to play a sonata or trio sonata on recorder rather than on either the violin or the cornetto, but that is a choice that would arguably fall under the designation ‘per ogni sorte di stromento’ (for any sort of instrument).

GN: When you play with Concerto Palatino, you usually score two violins, two cornetti and between four to eight trombones. Do you think of the cornetti as serving more as woodwinds or brass in this balance?

BD: The combination you mention unites three different kinds of musical sounds into what I think is a very satisfying whole. However, the classifications ‘woodwind’ or ’brass’ actually do not have much relevance in my way of thinking; perhaps they carry with them too much baggage from later periods. The cornetto is a hybrid, and it is what it is. Renaissance or baroque trombones are ‘brass’ instruments in construction, but they don’t (that is, shouldn’t) carry with them any of the brassiness of 19th century orchestral instruments. Cornetti are made of wood, but that doesn’t make them ‘woodwinds’.

GN: Are there any current composers writing ultra-modern pieces for the cornetto? It is a coming trend to use early instruments in modern abstract compositions. 

BD: I’m not so interested in ‘ultra-modern’ pieces, but I am very interested in contemporary compositions for the cornetto set in an authentic context. To be interesting, to me at least, the composer has to take some interest in the instrument as a cultural artifact and not just as a sound producer.

I was involved last year in the production of a beautiful opera by the Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki for three solo singers and an orchestra of 17th century instruments including, in addition to theorbos, gambas, violone and flute, one cornetto and three renaissance trombones. This same composer has just written a piece for a project I am involved in, and which I will be bringing to Vancouver in October 2016, called ‘breathtaking: a voice and a cornetto entwined’. The program is intended to show the wonderful affinity and similarity of the cornetto and the human voice. It will involve the brilliant Czech soprano Hana Blažíková, who has the most cornetto-friendly voice I have ever encountered. For this project, Calliope Tsoupaki has composed a setting of the Song of Songs text ‘Nigra sum’, but in Byzantine Greek, for soprano, cornetto and viola da gamba. She is fascinated by the idea of my instrument and Hana’s voice ‘entwining’ and has written the piece to highlight that aspect of 17th century music for voice and cornetto. That is what I mean by understanding the instrument as a cultural artifact.

GN: You have performed in Monteverdi’s Vespers many, many times and in different vocal and instrumental variants. How many do you think in total? Given your experience, have you gleaned any secret for success in this work?

BD: I would guess that I have performed the Vespers between 600 and 700 times, yet I do not think there is a clear formula for success. That said, any creditable performance must surely recognize Vespers as highly virtuosic music, which demands virtuoso singers and players, and have someone in charge who understands the musical language of the time with regard to such things as rhetoric, ornamentation, phrasing, text declamation and temperament.

GN: Recalling some of the early recordings of Vespers (Hans Martin Schneit, John Elliot Gardiner, Andrew Parrott), how do you think performances have changed over the years? Do think that things have increasingly moved towards a small-scale intimate presentation?

BD: In general, I think we have moved toward performances with fewer performers. The first decades of the revival of this work (the 50s and 60s) were dominated by forces taken over from oratorios of a different epoch and using choirs that were clearly too large. Actually, Andrew Parrott’s recording, on which I am proud to say that I played, was one of the first to address this issue along with a number of others, and I think that it still stands as one of the best recordings in existence. It’s not really a question of making the performances intimate, since the spaces in Italian churches of this time were anything but intimate, but of understanding the proper role of soloists and ripieno singers in this repertoire. This is music which is clearly written for solo singers, with the possibility that they be joined in certain sections by additional singers (ripieni).

GN: What do think are the most challenging parts of the Vespers for your instrument?

BD: I suppose the most challenging parts of the Vespers are the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria’ and the ‘Magnificat’, but only because these are the parts of the Vespers that have solo, obbligato lines. But these parts of the work are no more challenging, and in many ways less so, than other music of the period, such as the canzonas and motets of Giovanni Gabrieli or of Heinrich Schütz, to name just two. The cornetto obbligato parts in the Vespers gained the reputation of being extraordinarily difficult because it was not understood that certain sections of the music were intended to be transposed down.


GN: In their recordings, Andrew Parrott and Masaaki Suzuki in fact do transpose down a fourth for later sections of the work including the two settings of the ‘Magnificat’ — allegedly to reduce the stress on upper register of the cornetti.   Is this transposition something singularly connected with the cornetti or of more general significance?


BD: Yes, Andrew Parrott was the first to put forward the idea, now almost universally accepted, that certain sections of the Monteverdi Vespers, as with an enormous amount of other polyphonic and polychoral music of the period, was notated in a combination of clefs that indicated transposition downwards, usually of a fourth and occasionally of a fifth. These transpositions have nothing in particular to do with accommodating the cornetti; they were simply part of a complex notational convention.  In fact, if we look at the music of the ‘Magnificat’ as notated by Monteverdi, not only are the cornetti in an unprecedented tessitura, but also the violins and, above all, the voices. It is, in fact, the vocal ranges would make the strongest argument for the transposition, if an argument apart from the clef combinations were necessary. Today, the work is rarely performed, at least in knowledgable circles, without transposition of the sections in high clefs — in ‘Lauda Jerusalem’ and the ‘Magnificat’.

GN: You are working with conductor Stephen Stubbs in this Vespers, an artist you have known for many years. What makes him so special to work with?

BD: Stephen has all of the best qualities of historical awareness at his command, gained through a lifetime of performance of music of the 17th century. What makes it special for me is that we have learned these things together over decades of music making, together and with shared and esteemed colleagues.

GN: The range of distinguished artists you have worked with over the decades is remarkable; for example, artists as different as Monica Huggett and Masaaki Suzuki. What makes these great musicians so special, yet so different?

BD: Every great musician brings to the table unique skills and a unique personality rooted in their background, culture, training and so on. These two musicians come from radically different directions, but they share a great passion, a long experience with their respective repertoires and a dose of musical ‘genius’ (though I am cautious in using a word that normally evokes a romantic 19th century tone).  Perhaps it is not the ‘greatness’ of these artists that impresses me most: it is that they really have a nuts-and-bolts understanding of the music being performed and personalities that can inspire originality in performance.

GN: One final question: You have spent so many years teaching at Schola Cantorum Baselinas, and so many celebrated Baroque artists have now visited. Yet when I first heard about this school, it was mainly about Paul Sacher commissioning all these new modern works. Briefly, how did the historical research department of the institution ultimately gain its strength and world renown?

BD: I think this change really occurred during the 1970s, which is when I first arrived there. I believe it was the leadership of Professor Wolf Arlt and Peter Reidemeister which brought about the change in focus. It was an adjustment which was not without some wrenching difficulties, but which brought into being the ‘modern’ Schola Cantorum.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

NEW! New Energy in Early Music in the Pacific Northwest: An Interview with Matthew White


New Energy in Early Music in the Pacific Northwest: An Interview with Matthew White


Matthew White

Read more

Magnificent Schubert from Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.



bbc proms logo








Prom 57 – Schubert and Mozart: Maria João Pires (piano), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.8.2015 (MB)

Prom 57_CR_BBC_Chris Christodoulou_1

                            Prom 57  CR BBC Chris Christodoulou 1

Read more

NEW! The Three Choirs Festival: Recollections of a Chorus Member


    The Three Choirs Festival: Recollections of a Chorus Member

Read more

NEW! The Great Canadian Artists: An Interview with Pianist Angela Hewitt


  The Great Canadian Artists: An Interview with Pianist Angela Hewitthewitt(1)-400


Angela Hewitt grew up in Ottawa and began her piano studies at the age of three. She gave her first full-length recital at the age of nine at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she studied from 1964 to 1973. She later studied with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa. The pianist is universally recognized for her path-breaking series of recordings of Bach’s keyboard works for Hyperion which began in 1994 and finished in 2005. She recorded the ultimate masterpiece, The Art of the Fugue, in 2014. Between those dates, many new discs of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, Fauré and others were also released. In 2005, Ms. Hewitt launched the Trasimeno Music Festival, of which she is Artistic Director, in Umbria near Perugia. A tenth-anniversary concert takes place in London this spring. She is also an Ambassador for The Leading Note Foundation’s ʻOrkidstra’, a social engagement and development program in Ottawa’s inner city. Angela Hewitt was named ‘Artist of the Year’ at the 2006 Gramophone Awards and was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of the same year. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000.

Ms. Hewitt’s most memorable concerts in Vancouver in recent years have been her performances of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, and the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Daniel Muller-Schott. She was able to sit down and talk to me after a busy day of preparing Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain for performance with the Vancouver Symphony.

Geoffrey Newman: Everybody naturally associates you with Bach, but now you play a great many other things. Were you a Baroque specialist by training when you were young, or was the range of your repertoire really quite large?

Angela Hewitt: My father was an organist and choirmaster, so I was introduced to Bach right from my infancy. Perhaps he held the view that it was not good to give a child too much romantic music early on but I did have a large repertoire soon enough. By the age of fifteen, I was playing a lot of Chopin and Liszt, and Ravel too.

GN: I know you studied with Jean-Paul Sevilla at the University of Ottawa  ̶  but I have very little feeling for all the early influences on your Bach interpretation.

AH: Yes, Sevilla loved to play Bach, and I had the recordings by Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck. Yet I think that it was my father who was still the key influence: all Bach’s great organ works were with us at every moment when I was growing up. I sang Bach, danced Bach and even played Bach on the violin, which I studied as well. Perhaps one other inspiration later was the ‘authentic’ movement which was gaining momentum in the 1980s. I was very intrigued by what conductors like Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardner were doing.

GN: So, from very early on, you were conscious of historical style when you performed Bach?

AH: Yes, I felt that to be a good Bach player you also must be something of a scholar, finding out about the time when a piece was written, the exact feeling and character of the dances and so on. When I started, I followed the rules in the Book of Ornaments fairly strictly, but as time has passed, I have become more flexible. The important thing for me now is how ‘musical’ the ornament is. It must really be consistent with the musical flow and, of course, it must always be in good taste. As you might expect, I have examined many interpretations on the harpsichord and I have actually tried the instrument myself. Unfortunately, a major limitation is that one cannot ‘taper’ on it – play one note louder or softer than the preceding one.

GN: When you listen to your early recordings of Bach, are you very conscious of the advances you have made over the years?

AH: Take, for example, my two recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the first in 1997, the second in 2008. I know some people still like the former, but I think that the latter is significantly better, having much more colour and rhythmic freedom. More generally, I think that I have become more advanced technically over the years. I still practice as much as I used to, but I have much more power and assurance, and I can do difficult things more easily. This is also very important in playing the larger romantic repertoire.

GN: As a performer, when you play the Art of the Fugue, as you have done in recent years, do you find you need a totally different mind-set to carry you through? How different is this from, say, playing the Goldberg Variations?

AH: In such a massive piece, your sheer stamina is so important, and you must learn to pace yourself over its full span. Every movement is a fugue  ̶  there are no Preludes for comic relief. As critic Wilfrid Mellers put it, it is ʻBach playing to God and himself in an empty churchʼ. The Goldberg Variations require great concentration too but they are, of course, shorter, less contrapuntal, and allow more variety of expression.

GN: On the issue of playing with a musical score in front of you, do you condone that generally?

AH: I would certainly discourage young musicians from doing this. I think that playing from memory allows you to be more interiorized and freer, and besides, keeping a good memory is a critical resource for when you get older. Having said that, on occasion I do use the score  ̶  which I now put on my iPad so as to turn the pages with my foot – when playing works that are immensely complicated. For pieces like Art of the Fugue, there may be no alternative.

GN: A number of pianists have said that if you can play Bach well, you can play anything well. Do you agree?

AH: Yes, I think that is true. It is a mistake for any pianist to not work on their Bach, since fundamental things like architecture, independence of fingering and equality of left and right hand strengths are all there. I think pianists who attempt later works without these fundamentals are definitely at a disadvantage.

GN: You also played and recorded Ravel fairly early on. The link between Bach and the French piano tradition has a long historical precedent, in Robert Casadesus, Marcelle Meyer and others. How did you establish this affinity?

AH: For the record, I actually recorded Ravel’s complete piano music right in the middle of my traversal of Bach’s complete keyboard works  ̶  in 2001. Much of my early exposure again came   from Jean Paul Sevilla, who graduated from the Paris Conservatoire. There are some interesting historical stories about this link: apparently when Debussy played a Bach Prelude and Fugue in competition, he was marked down for being too expressive!

GN: You have recorded Fauré and Debussy too. Do you find these composers quite different?

AH: With both Ravel and Debussy you must pay great attention to the tempi, rubati and the ‘sound’ itself. You must really work on the balance in the harmonies, the voicing in the chords (from top to bottom), and the sound cannot be too heavy. Even Debussy must be approached with the same care and attention as a Bach fugue. Fauré is very different, more ‘classical’ in feeling. You must find a distinct style for each.

GN: You are moving quickly to performing and recording concertos. For example, you now have three volumes of the Mozart concertos released. How different do you find it playing with an orchestra?

AH: Actually, when you are so well known for your Bach, it is sometimes more difficult to get orchestra managers to invite you to play other parts of the repertoire, such as larger concertos. I have studied and played many of the standard concertos since I was young. The one thing about playing with a conductor is that there sometimes has to be compromise, and in general a soloist cannot mesh with all conductors. I am thrilled with my collaboration with Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu in the Mozart concertos, and we have also recorded the Schumann concerto. I think we are a great match: he is as much a ‘perfectionist’ as I am. I can also get very good results conducting myself from the keyboard (which I do more often now), and then it becomes like chamber music. But in something like the Mozart’s K. 491 concerto (and especially its last movement), it helps to have a really top-notch conductor.

GN: What about lieder accompaniment?  I know that you will be performing with Dame Felicity Lott soon. Do you think there is a special art to accompanying voice?

AH: Yes, I am very excited about accompanying Felicity, and we have performed together before. One of my greatest joys is accompanying a truly great singer. The reason is simple: I love to sing too, and this gives us both a great freedom. I sing everywhere, and sing all the time when I am practicing. (I am not sure that my neighbours always appreciate this!) In general, I think it is critical for an accompanist to understand what a singer can do. If you are aware of ‘breath’ training and control, that certainly helps.

GN: What explains your recent interest in Liszt?

AH: Well, in many ways, this is sheer nostalgia. I won competition prizes with the B-minor Sonata when I was seventeen, and have played the work throughout my life. I knew the Dante Sonata from 1985. I actually did not like the B-minor Sonata at all when I very first heard it, but became converted when I heard Jean-Paul Sevilla play it.

GN: I know that many people might be wondering whether you are planning to perform the full cycle of Bach’s keyboard works all over again.

AH: That is a big question: the answer is ‘yes’!

GN: Many pianists are very committed to their own piano, as you are to your Fazioli. But do you think different pianos work better for different repertoire?

AH: In many ways, that is true, since different pianos have a distinct character and tonal palette that suit different repertoire. Look at the sheer variety of pianos available over the last century. Somebody put me down as a Steinway artist back in the early 1980s (I’m not sure why because I never owned one), but I was taken off the list when I purchased a Fazioli F278 grand in 2003. While there is always considerable variability in quality even in pianos made by any given maker, Fazioli has very high quality across the board, and I think my own Fazioli concert grand is terrific for any repertoire.

GN: Virtually all artists are more socially conscious than they used to be, and I have read about your humanitarian initiative ‘Orkidstra’. Why do you think we are seeing this change?

AH: Is it a change really? Liszt often played without fee, and funded himself the great monument to Beethoven. But I understand what you mean: musicians are now expected to participate in many types of public engagement activities and create or support charities. Yes, there is considerable pressure in this direction. It would certainly be very difficult to get a conducting post in North America if you didn’t agree to do social events.

GN: Being Canadian, it must always be a pleasure to come back and perform in your own   country. What are some of your fondest Canadian memories?

AH: I have always enjoyed the warmth of Canadians, and I have so many welcoming friends here whenever I come back. Little things, such as being able to record my most recent volume of the Mozart concertos with my original hometown orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, in 2013, certainly mean something to me. This week actually means a great deal to me: Sunday (May 11, 2015) is the thirtieth anniversary of my winning of the 1985 Toronto International Bach Competition, a prize that entitled me to record my initial disc for Deutsche Grammophon, and sent my career on its way.

 Geoffrey Newman



Previously published in a slightly different form on

NEW! Pianist Paul Lewis in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman


Pianist Paul Lewis in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Read more

NEW! Interview with Pianist Nelson Goerner


Interview with Pianist Nelson Goernerimage003-500 Read more

NEW! Pianist Martin Jones in Conversation with Robert Beattie


Martin Jones Photo Courtesy Nimbus Records

Martin Jones
Photo Courtesy Nimbus Records

Pianist Martin Jones in Conversation with Robert Beattie Read more

« Previous PageNext Page »

Recent Reviews


Season Previews

  • NEW! Summer Music in Cincinnati 2017 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Pierre Boulez Saal’s 2017/18 Season in Berlin __________________________________
  • NEW! The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company – 2017 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Roman River Music’s Summer Weekend – 14-16 July __________________________________
  • NEW! Birmingham and Beyond: Ex Cathedra in 2017/18 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Glyndebourne Opera Cup and Glyndebourne in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera’s 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Culture and the Coast: Garsington’s Opera for All and Forthcoming Opera Screenings __________________________________
  • NEW! 2017 BBC Proms from Friday 14 July – Saturday 9 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich Announces Details of New Season 2017/2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! Grange Park Opera’s 2017 Season in its New Opera House __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House Announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! In 2017 The Three Choirs Festival is from 22 to 29 July __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich Announces New Chief Conductor __________________________________
  • NEW! IN MEMORIAM LOUIS FRÉMAUX (1921-2017) __________________________________
  • NEW! Robert Farr reports on the 26th Annual Singing Competition Final – Elizabeth Harwood Memorial Award for Singers __________________________________
  • UPDATED IN MEMORIAM NICOLAI GEDDA (1925-2017) __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • NEW! Reviews of Opera in Mumbai: A Gala and La Bohème Revisited __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H