This used to be the gold standard of band instruments. The brass section was built on a solid section of B-flat Cornets. Three Cornet parts and two Trumpet parts were the norm. The Trumpets were the fanfare and dramatic instruments while the Cornets were the melodic and harmonic instruments. Nowadays, the Cornet is only thought of as an instrument for beginning students. We have entirely lost this sound from the band. Even when the piece calls for Cornets, which many, many pieces do, I can count on one finger the times I’ve actually seen real Cornets used. Composers wrote for this instrument for a very good reason. Band directors and players are doing these pieces a disservice to play them on the wrong instrument. Cornets are widely available and easy to acquire. Players should make every attempt to play Cornet parts on an actual Cornet (with a Cornet mouthpiece!). Because of the lackadaisical attitude towards instrument choice shown by both players and conductors, composers no longer want to write for the Cornet. Any band trumpeter must, I repeat MUST, have a Cornet in their arsenal.
I mentioned in the above paragraph about using a correct cornet mouthpiece. A true cornet mouthpiece is somewhat like a Horn’s in that is cone-shaped and not cup-shaped like a trumpet’s. The cup-shaped mouthpiece will give the cornet a more trumpet-like sound and render the two instruments nearly indistinguishable from one another. Also, many modern manufacturers do not make true cornets anymore. Make sure your players are playing on an authentic cornet and not a cornet-trumpet hybrid.
Traditionally, there have been two standard Cornet sections for the band. The first is a standard 1st, 2nd, 3rd arrangement. The second adds a so-called “Solo” part on to the top of this, so in essence the Cornet section is now a four part section. The Solo Cornet part was traditionally for a single player, and often doubles much of the 1st part with some additional high notes and solos. The other parts were intended for multiple players (3-4 per part).
The cornet was almost immediately adopted into the orchestra soon after its invention, as it was the first chromatic high brass instrument that composers found usable. At the time of the cornet’s invention, the trumpet was still a valveless instrument. Composers were finally able to write notes outside of the harmonic series for the cornet. The traditional orchestra section that includes cornets is comprised of two cornets and two trumpets. The cornets take the melodies, while the Trumpets still play fanfare-type figures. As the trumpets gained valves, the cornets started to vanish from the orchestra. Today, most people do not realize that our standard B-flat Trumpet is really a modified B-flat Cornet with a trumpet-like bore. Trumpet really means “little Tromba.” The real Tromba, the old “low F Trumpet,” is a thing of the past.
In comparison to the trumpets, the cornet has exactly the same technique, but possesses a warm and fluid sound. As I’ve mentioned before, the cornets have the most technical ability and flexibility of all the brass instruments (mostly due to their warmer sound).
Scoring possibilities are numerous. The top melodic voice of the brass is traditional. I find that the cornet blends better with the trombones (and tubas) than does the trumpet. As the name (little horn) suggests, the Cornet can also lead the Horn section if care is taken by the player to be gentle. Another traditional usage is as a duet between the Cornet and the Baritone Horn or Euphonium.
Mute selection for the Cornet is as large as any brass instrument, as all trumpet mutes also work on the Cornet.
Cornets have been made in other keys besides B-flat. Originally, many cornets were made in A a half-step lower (or rather, the B-flat Cornets came with a set of extension slides to pitch that instrument a semi-tone lower). The famous low Cornet part in the prelude to Carmen is written for the A Cornet and can really only be effectively played on that instrument. Many orchestral trumpeters will possess a C Cornet and use it exactly like they would their C Trumpet.
Carnival of Venice on an authentic 19th Century Cornet and mouthpiece. This is the real sound of a Cornet. This also shows the technical virtuosity of the cornet family.
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique 2nd movement. Note, all the high brass here are cornets. Their part comes into play around the 4:30 mark. Note the much softer sound than that of trumpets. Also note, all the instruments here are from the 19th Century or replicas of those instruments.
By the way, I highly recommend listening to the whole performance under Norrington. I LOVE the effect of the period instruments.
Wynton Marsalis on the Cornet in Variation on Napoli