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cornu

aerophone

In pepla or Asterix albums (ill. 1), you sometimes come across a cornu. This bronze trumpet was often played by the Romans. The cornu differed from other Roman trumpets, such as the straight tuba, the C-shaped bucina and the staff-like lituus, by its impressive outline and generous dimensions. The cornu had a removable mouthpiece, a more than three-metre-long conical tube, bent round in the shape of a capital G, and a slightly widening bell. The grip on the instrument was made easier by a wooden cross piece.

In Ancient Rome the cornu was used in the army, but also in amphitheatres, during circus games and all kinds of ceremonies, such as funerals and processions. Typically, a cornu played together with a hydraulus, a water organ, to accompany the fights of the gladiators. This duet is pictured on a mosaic from the second-century Roman villa of Nennig near Trier (ill. 2). With their thunderous sound the cornu and hydraulus could drown out the racket of the immense amphitheatres, where the spectacles, so much enjoyed by the audiences of those times, were put on. With its powerful and ceremonious sound the cornu marked the fights and their preparations. A lost mural painting in Pompeii,  only known thanks to a 19th-century watercolour (ill. 3), would suggest the gladiator himself played the cornu. As a rule, though, the cornicen was a musician dressed in the same attire as the judges in the arena.

Before everything, the cornu was a military instrument, used to signal orders, add lustre to the presentation of the colours, and enhance the warlords' prestige. The Roman legions frequently made use of the instrument, and quite often the cornicen was forcefully enlisted by a recruiting officer.

Some rare examples from Roman times were brought to light during archaeological excavations.  Among them three rather well preserved cornua (ill. 4) discovered next to a gladiator's body in Pompeii in 1884. A few years before, in April 1878, Victor-Charles Mahillon, the first curator of the mim, could examine instruments of this type in the National Museum of Naples. Afterwards he made  successful reconstructions, which are now to be admired in the mim (ill. 5) and in a few other musical instrument museums elsewhere in the world. A cornu from the mim was played by the trombone teacher Henri Séha on 25 May 1896, during a historical concert in the Brussels conservatory. This event illustrated a lecture by François-Auguste Gevaert, director of the conservatory, under the title 'On the present state of our knowledge about musical practice among the Greek and Romans'. On this occasion other reconstructions of antique instruments, such as the zither and the aulos, were presented, too. As there is no extant original cornu music, Gevaert himself composed two signals for the occasion. It should be pointed out that both Victor Mahillon and Gevaert were pioneers of the revival of ancient music, and of the old, and antique instruments in particular. Good to know is also that Mahillon made a pastiche of the cornu, adding three valves, for the Brussels world exhibition of 1897.

Moreover, the predilection for Classical antiquity in the time of the French Revolution produced another musical instrument that was directly inspired by the Roman cornu: the tuba curva, with its fanciful bell in the shape of an animal head. The tuba curva was featured, to name but one example, in François-Joseph Gossec's music. A few years later, in 1852, Adolphe Sax invented the sax-tuba, which he also based on the cornua as represented on the famous Trajan's column in Rome.

Mahillon's replicas of the cornua have a lot to offer to researchers: they are very carefully made, and taking the necessary precautions, some notes can be drawn from the instrument (ill. 6). This enables us to get quite an accurate idea of the sound characteristics of the original, no longer playable instruments.  Recently, these valuable replicas and the mim's archives were studied as part of a research programme supported by the École française de Rome devoted to soundscapes in the urban societies of antiquity. In time, all musical instruments from Pompeii will be analyzed. They will be the subject of a publication by a pluridisciplinary team led by Christophe Vendries (Université de Rennes II), with Benoît Mille and Margot Tensu (C2RMF, Musée du Louvre), René Caussé (IRCAM, Parijs) and Alexandre Vincent (Université de Poitiers).

Media
Images: 
in: Asterix the Gladiator, R. Goscinny, A. Uderzo, Paris, Hachette, 1964
postcard, Trier, Mosella, around 1900. mim library
aquarelle by De Witte, end of 19th C., mim library
3 cornua discovered in 1884 in Pompeii, photo G. Sommer
cornu, inv.0464
cornu with 3 valves, inv.LD0242
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