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Writing for the instruments

Imitating the sound and articulation of the voice was central to the playing techniques of renaissance wind players. To help us continue this tradition, ECSE are looking for new pieces that treat cornetts and sackbuts as 'wordless voices', closer to a group of madrigal singers than to a modern brass ensemble. Some points to bear in mind:

  • The historical mouthpieces we use allow for a variety of light but clear articulations/tonguings.

  • Articulations used on the instruments include 'te-re, te-re', or 'te-de, te-de', so the notes have a 'paired' sound. This is different from modern brass articulations like 'ta ta ta ta'

  • Our instruments can play a wide range of dynamics, but our forte is that of a good singer, not the extreme volume modern trumpets and trombones are capable of.

  • For this project we will play at a high pitch of A=465 (i.e. a semitone above 'concert' pitch of A=440), using modern copies of original instruments built at that pitch. They are not transposing instruments (as with modern clarinets, horns etc.). If you write us a C we will play a C - it's just that our C is higher than the one on a piano.


The range is equivalent to a soprano voice. i.e. comfortable from middle C up to a1 (one line above the treble clef). The range extends down a minor 3rd below middle C, as well as a 3rd or 4th above a1, but this extreme high register quickly becomes tiring to play and is harder to control. Like a recorder or a singer, the cornett is better suited to playing fluent linear musical lines than violin-style leaps and arpeggios. The cornett is a fully chromatic instrument but the fingering system is far better suited to playing in 'home' keys such as C, D, G and F majors, or A, D, or E minors.


All sizes of sackbut can play fluently in running passages, at speeds similar to a good singer. Fast leaps can sound clumsy. Generally speaking, the lower the notes in the range, the bigger arm movements need to be, so more time needs to be allowed. Glissandos can be used as in modern trombone. Unbroken slides are only possible to a maximum of 7 semitones. Adaptations and compromises can be made by the player to make glissandos work with disguised breaks.

Choose clefs that avoid excessive leger lines:

Alto sackbut - use the treble clef or the octave treble clef (treble clef with the symbol 8 below it)

Tenor sackbut -  the octave treble clef is preferable, though the players can read bass and tenor C clefs too

Bass sackbut – bass clef


The range is that of an alto voice. The sound can be lighter than a tenor trombone in the high range, but also has the capability to sound trumpety and bright. It’s not practical to keep playing continuously - with regular rests to allow the blood back to the lips, the alto can play for a long time. The lowest comfortable note is the C below middle C, and the highest comfortable note is the C above middle C. For extremes, the alto can play two notes below and one note above this range.


The following is a list of possible glissandos, starting at the lowest. The direction of the glissando can of course go either way, and parts of these slides can also be used:


Between D (middle line of bass clef) down to Aflat 

A (top line of bass clef) down to Eflat

D (a tone above middle C) down to Aflat

Gflat (second line of treble clef) down to C

A (second space of treble clef) down to Eflat

C (third space) down to Gflat

D (fourth line) down to Aflat

Please note: Our performing pitch is A=465. The ranges and glissando pitches will therefore differ from modern trombone pitches, which are based on a pitch of A=440, a.k.a. modern 'concert pitch'.


The range is basically that of a tenor voice. Where a tenor singer becomes high and ‘heroic', so does a tenor sackbut. The lowest comfortable note is F (at the bottom of the bass clef). The highest comfortable note is A (middle space of the treble clef). The following is a list of basic unbroken glissandos:


Between A (lowest space of bass clef) down to Eflat

E (middle space of bass clef) down to Bflat

A (top line of bass clef) down to Eflat

C# (a semitone above middle C) down to G

E (a third above middle C) down to Bflat

A (a sixth above middle C) down to Eflat


The range is basically that of a bass voice. The lowest comfortable note is low C (2 ledger lines below the bass clef). The highest comfortable note is D (a tone above middle C). The instrument works very well with linear writing but is not as secure with large leaps at high speed. Like the tenor, glissandos are possible on any pitch but only to a maximum of 7 semitones if starting in 1st position. The intervals which allow for these 7-semitone glissandos are:


Between low F (bottom of bass clef) down to bottom C

C (2nd space of bass clef) down to low F#

F (4th line) down to low B

A (top line) down to D# (3rd line) 

Middle C down to F# (4th line)


The range is from C (lowest note on the cello) to c3 (two ledger-lines above top of treble clef) and there are no pedals.


The instrument at NCEM, which is typical of modern chamber organs, has three different sounds (ranks of pipes called ‘Stops’) that sound at different octaves. The sound at ‘normal’ pitch (the pitch of the piano, known as ‘eight foot’ pitch, since a pipe eight feet tall is required to produce the pitch of the bottom C) is mellow and like the sound of a flute (often called a ’Stopped Diapason’). This blends very well with the cornetts and sackbuts, providing warmth and cohesion; in 16th-century music without a separate organ part, the organist usually plays the whole score (or as much as is within easy reach of the hands), doubling in unison with the other instruments. The organ also has a rank of pipes that produce a flute-like sound at ‘four-foot’ pitch - an octave higher than the piano - and finally a rank of metal pipes that produce a bright, shrill sound at two-foot pitch. The three ranks of pipes are usually used in combination: 8’ flute for piano passages, 8’ + 4’ flutes for mp/mf and 8’ + 4’ + 2’ for forte passages, but all combinations are possible; the 4’ flute on its own is also worth considering, especially since some historic chamber organs had four-foot pipes as their lowest sounding pipes.


You can either specify which stops you want, or you can leave it to the performer to select the stops based on dynamic indications. One specific piece of advice: the sound of the 8’ flute pipes becomes progressively softer and less distinct as it gets lower, so if you write an organ part that is independent of the wind parts, you need to take this into account; any important musical material in the bottom octave will either need to be played on 8’+4’ or 8’+4’+2’ or be doubled by a trombone.

The organ will be tuned to the same pitch as the wind instruments, A=465.


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