August 12, 2020

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Cornetto virtuoso took to instrument almost by accident

Camerata Nova: Rosa [mys.ti.ka] features rare instrument

Bruce Dickey is in Winnipeg to perform with the Camerata Nova during their December 13 and 14th shows at Crescent Fort Rouge Community Church. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Bruce Dickey is in Winnipeg to perform with the Camerata Nova during their December 13 and 14th shows at Crescent Fort Rouge Community Church. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/12/2019 (243 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Bruce Dickey has been given many honorifics over the years, all intended to convey his incredible proficiency on the cornetto, a Renaissance-era wind instrument.He’s been called everything from the master of the cornetto to the king of the cornetto, and even the emperor of the cornetto. He’s been referred to as virtuoso, a doyen, even an Orfeo of the cornetto.

You get the picture: the man is practically synonymous with the cornetto, and has been widely credited with the instrument’s own renaissance in the past 45 years.

But the South Bend, Ind.-born musician and teacher, who lives in Italy, says he stumbled into his speciality.

"It was a series of accidents, almost," says Dickey, who initially focused on the trumpet while doing his masters in musicology at Indiana University.

"I started playing early music — recorder, other historical wind instruments — but not the cornetto, or hardly at all. I found it very difficult, and disruptive to my trumpet playing at the time."

The cornetto — not to be confused with the cornet, the brass instrument similar to a trumpet — dates back to the medieval era, and was popular in musical ensembles from 1500 to 1650, when it began to fall out of favour. A curved wooden instrument wrapped in thin leather, it features six front finger holes and a thumb hole, and is played with a separate cup mouthpiece made of bone, often bison, resembling a trumpet mouthpiece but much smaller.

In the 1970s, Dickey was in Basel, Switzerland, studying the recorder. He took a few cornetto lessons, but found the instrument, which is notoriously difficult to play, didn’t appeal to him.

Then he broke his right wrist playing football in the house. He had to wear a cast, which put the kibosh on playing the recorder, as he couldn’t reach the bottom hole with his pinky.

"I saw the cornetto hanging on the wall and I thought, ‘Oh, there are only six finger holes and it’s curved,’" he recalls.

"I realized I could rest the instrument on my knee and put my arm on the table and I could just play it."

He practised daily without seeing much improvement, until the cast was removed.

"Suddenly, everything — my trumpet-playing experience, my recorder-playing experience — came together and I had an experience I’d never had on an instrument, which was that each day I could play something I couldn’t have the day before."

Within a year, he was teaching the cornetto and playing in major ensembles.

He’s gone on to teach many of the world’s leading players at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the renowned academy in Basel focused on early music.

The cornetto is a curved wooden instrument wrapped in thin leather, it features six front finger holes and a thumb hole, and is played with a separate cup mouthpiece made of bone, often bison, resembling a trumpet mouthpiece but much smaller. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

The cornetto is a curved wooden instrument wrapped in thin leather, it features six front finger holes and a thumb hole, and is played with a separate cup mouthpiece made of bone, often bison, resembling a trumpet mouthpiece but much smaller. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I discovered what a wonderful instrument it was and that there was this whole repertoire of music that no one was playing," he says.

Winnipeggers can hear some of that repertoire when Dickey joins Camerata Nova this weekend for Rosa [mys.ti.ka], a concert directed by John Wiens, featuring the works of Renaissance composers Gabrieli, Bovicelli, Mouton, Lassus and Praetorius, as well as contemporary works by the choir’s artistic director, Andrew Balfour. The eclectic local vocal group is joined by celebrated early-music devotees Guido Morini (continuo) and Madeleine Owen (theorbo).

"This program is a real departure for me," Wiens says.

"It’s the first one I’ve presented in a long time where the choir is part of the concert, but not the whole concert. It features Bruce quite prominently, but it also features Elinor Frey, who’s a terrific cellist and viol player from Montreal, and my wife, Dayna Lamothe, who’s going to be singing some duets with Bruce."

It might sound strange to refer to the pairing of voice and instrument as a duet, but the cornetto is known for its ability to imitate the human voice, not just in the sound or timbre, but in its expression and ornamentation.

"The more vocal the music was, the happier the cornetto was," Dickey says, adding that the instrument was gradually phased out as the more arpeggiated style of the violin became popular.

As befitting a December concert, Wiens says there’s a Christmas feel to many of the pieces, including Balfour’s compositions, which are based on traditional themes and melodies.

"But really, this concert is about everybody getting to soak in all the various aspects of the cornetto."

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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