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

Leave a Comment