PrintMail this page

Cwène

aerophone

This cow-horn flute, or cwène, was made by Henri Crasson (Ondenval 1903 - Waimes 1997). Hâri Tchâ Héri, as he was called in his neighbourhood, was successively a cowherd, farmhand and farmer in Gueuzaine, a hamlet of the commune of Waimes (province of Liège). But above all, as he said himself, he was on-ome du muzike, a music man. In his younger years he played in a band at local parties. He played the fiddle, as well as the mandolin, harmonica and Streichzither. His most unusual instrument, however, was this cwène (Liège dialect for 'horn').

Henri Crasson had an interesting story about how he came to make such a flute:

'I was a little boy of not yet ten years old. In those times we herded the cows here in the area.  Among the broom, which grew so high that I could not see my cows. Before the war of '14 there weren't fences for the cattle, yet. And yes, on a beautiful day, when I was herding my cows, I heard a horrible racket in that high broom. I went to see what was going on. And what was the matter?  One of the cows had fought with one of her neighbours, and she had lost a horn. I found it, and, as a music man, I said to myself: "You could make a musical instrument out of this."  And I was still so young! With a knife I bored four holes, and one more below, because we only have five fingers. It took me two years before I got a sound out of it. But I was so determined that I finally succeeded. Then, I learned all songs. I play anything you want.'

Henri Crasson made several copies of his cwène, at first using only a knife, and later on also a file and a bore.  About one centimetre from the edge of the open end of the horn he filed a lancet-shaped window.  He also drilled five playing holes, where he spontaneously placed his left-hand fingers in the playing position. The horn could be suspended on a ribbon that went through the tip.

Contrary to duct flutes such as the recorder, Henri Crasson' cwène doesn't have a fipple plug or block. He closed the opening of the horn with his chin and lower lip, leaving a narrow windway for directing the airstream to the sharp edge (labium) of the window. He said he could play a complete octave by blowing harder with all the holes open. In reality his repertoire was limited to five or six tone tunes within the diatonic tone series c (final note)-d-e-f-g-(a).

Henri Crasson claimed to have invented his cwène all by himself, and that he had never seen anyone else playing such a horn flute. His blowing technique was indeed unique. But horn flutes with a block were already known in the German cultural area in the fifteenth century, as is demonstrated by a still-playable 15th century stoneware imitation of a horn flute excavated in Ochsenfeld (commune of Adelschlag, Bavaria). The earliest representations date from around 1500. Among them the Gemsenhorn in Sebastian Virdung's organological treatise Musica getutscht (Basel, 1511) and two illustrations by Albrecht Dürer in the Prayer Book of Maximilian II (1515). The popularity of the instrument at the time is shown by the fact that organs in the Rhineland were provided with a Gemshorn stop from around 1500 at the latest. From the early 16th century onwards it was also introduced in the Low Countries.

In the more recent past, horn flutes were also recorded elsewhere in Europe, especially among herdsmen. They were often made of a goat's horn, and had a fipple block in cork, wax or wood. And close to the Belgian border, in the area of Rocroi (French Ardennes), young cowherds in the middle of the 19th century were known to carry a small flute made of a heifer's horn in their knapsack. Henri Crasson may not have been the first to make and play horn flutes, but he was certainly the last in Belgium, and possibly even in the whole of Europe.

Wim Bosmans

 

 

 

Media
Images: 
Cwène 1983.046
Henri Crasson, Gueuzaine, 1985, © Wim Bosmans
External Video
See video