What is a Spanish Corneta?

Introduction

I’m always on the lookout for weird and wonderful brass instruments. Because of the way that a brass instrument works there are a huge number of ways they could be re-designed. Some ideas that have been tried include:

  • Compensating valve systems (used on French Horns, Euphoniums and Tubas – extra pieces of tubing are added to correct intonation when the fourth valve is pressed)
  • Tuning holes (as added to rotary valve trumpets)
  • Triggers on tuning slides (recent Besson cornets and Euphoniums, and some Kanstul marching trumpets)

There have been other ideas that have been less popular such as:

  • Valves that shorten the instrument (for example moving a C trumpet into D)
  • Transposing keys (offering a trumpet that works in both B-flat and A)
  • Instruments that feature both a moveable slide and valves (Maynard Ferguson’s Firebird trumpet, or the comically named Superbone).

There has been a trumpet developed recently with five valves, offering an array of different fingering/tuning options. It is currently being promoted by trumpeter David Hickman (click this link for more information).

These, however, are not the things that interest me quite so much as the instruments that have been purpose-built for a specific task. By this I mean things such as a the two-valved instruments pitched in G that were designed and used exclusively in Drum and Bugle Corps competitions and the subject of this blog post – the Carmen Cornet, a.k.a Spanish Bugle, or simply Corneta in Spain.

This is an instrument that is pretty unheard of in Britain, and from what I can gleam most other English-speaking countries. The utter lack of information I’ve found online has led me to write this post in the hope of starting to remedy that.

How it looks and works

The Spanish corneta at first glance looks like a military bugle with an added rotary valve. On closer inspection you’ll see that there are a few more details to describe. Disclaimer: When I was in Spain and borrowed one of these instruments I did not have any measuring tools with me so there are no precise measurements. However, you should definitely find enough information here to get a good understanding.

The corneta is held horizontally in the right hand so that that the rotary key can be turned with the left hand. The rotary valve changes the length of tubing by a semitone.

When in the longest form, the harmonic series that can be produced is based upon C and moving the valve then raises this by a semitone. Because the music you read for this instrument is written at concert pitch you would therefore say that the valve works in the opposite way to the middle valve on a standard modern brass instrument. At first this is a little odd to get your head around, but is by no means the most tricky thing. Overlapping the two available series of notes gives you the following scale, which only really allows you to play full scales in the keys of F minor and A-flat major.

Corneta Scale 0 and 1 represent the two positions of the valve. These are arbitrary labels as there is no spring mechanism so there is no default position for the valve.

You’ll also notice in this scale that the lowest note is a G. Playing the low C (second harmonic) is not possible because of the bore profile of the instrument (the fact that it starts and stays small relative to the length of tubing). This is just like the missing first harmonic on any modern trumpet – you cannot play a proper pedal C on a B-flat trumpet, but you can on a flugelhorn because the bore profile is different.

The receiver is large enough to take a trumpet mouthpiece. This receiver is part of a lead pipe that goes into the tubing in the same way as a piccolo trumpet or flugelhorn and then acts as a tuning slide. The size of the tubing up to and including the valve mechanism is small. Visually it looks about the same bore as you’d expect on a piccolo, or maybe a D trumpet, definitely no bigger. I believe that this is a major contributing factor to that missing low C. The rest of the instrument in then conical but unlike a military bugle it has a proper flare to the bell which is not dissimilar to the bell of a modern pocket trumpet.

Mouthpieces

This instrument cannot be well described without also addressing the mouthpiece that is used with it. I will attempt to be concise about this and will probably return to the subject when I write the blog post about small mouthpieces that I have been meaning to for a long time…

These are the features of a Honsuy 1 mouthpiece:

  • Length: short, like an old short-shank British cornet mouthpiece. Differing from that mouthpiece however because the size of the instrument’s receiver is large enough to fit a trumpet mouthpiece, unlike a normal cornet.
  • Rim: thinner than a trumpet or cornet mouthpiece; like that on a French-horn mouthpiece.
  • Diameter: approximately 15.10mm or 0.590 inches.
  • Cup: by the standards of most, this would be described as very shallow. I expect that most trumpet players would “bottom out” on this mouthpiece.
  • Throat: very small, at most a 30 drill (standard size is 27). I think that this is a defining feature of the mouthpiece as it creates a lot of resistance.
  • Backbore: No measurements available, but it is around half the length of a normal trumpet backbore and increases from the small throat to full-bore-size in that space.

I also had access to an unmarked mouthpiece with a slightly larger internal diameter and deeper cup but found this much harder to play in the usable range of the instrument.

Sound

The only way to get a good feel for how these instruments sound is to hear them. Below is a short list of videos that I think give you a good idea of how they should sound. Warning: Allowing YouTube to recommend similar videos could waste hours of your life.

Ensembles

Generally these cornets are only used in one type of band. This is a style of music that has been gaining popularity in the southern regions of Spain for approximately thirty years.

Typically the ensemble is a drum and bugle band. There are three sections of instruments. Firstly the percussion section; secondly the bugles, which are split into four parts; and thirdly a group of trumpets, flugelhorns, baritones and tubas that fill in the rest of the tonality and harmony of the music.

Coda

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this brief explanation of the Spanish Bugle. At the bottom of this post I have added a small gallery of photographs that I took of the instrument I borrowed.

If you have any questions for me then please comment. ~iii<0