Music in the Daily Life of Vermeer: The Crumhorn

"Spaert gheen Cromhorens, Herpen, Luyten, Velen"

Johann David Heemsen (1581–1644), in
Nederduytsche Poëmata, 84 (Antwerp 1619).
(source: Woordenboek der Nederlandsch taal,
VIII, pt. 1, col. 325, The Hague 1882–1971)

Classification and Etymology

The Crumhorn

German: Krummhorn, Krumbhorn
('curved/crooked horn')
('curved/crooked pipe')
Italian: storto, cornamuto torto, piva torta
French: tournebout, douçaine

The crumhorn was the most important double reed wind cap instrument in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Its name, of German origin, refers to its special shape with a curved lower end to the body. It is mainly associated with Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. The term refers also to one of the oldest reed organ stops, mainly in 8', but should not be confused with the French "Cromorne," a wind instrument of uncertain identity, used at the French court in the seventeenth and 18th century.

The history of the crumhorn

The crumhorn, with its curious umbrella handle shape, was probably originated during the fifteenth century in Germany which remained the principal area of its use. The term "Krummhorn" (meaning bent horn or crump from the older English, meaning curve) was used in Germany from about 1300 on, apparently to describe a curved lip-reed instrument. Its characteristic curvature and wind cap may have evolved from the curved animal horn of bladder pipes and bagpipes. The great Greek comedy dramatist Aristophanes mentioned in his Lysistrata a wind instrument called physalis (from Old Greek: physa = bladder, bellow). An early representation of bladder pipes, both straight and curved, appears the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria from the time of Alfonso X "El Sabio" (1221–1284).

The characteristic curve is purely decorative and is probably a reminder of earlier wind instruments. It have been curved to shorten its length and make the pipe less clumsy for the player.

Crumhorns produce a range in tone from a gentle, somewhat nasal humming to a rich, resonant buzzing. Due to their limited range, music for crumhorns is usually played by a group of instruments of different sizes and hence at different pitches. Such a group is known as a consort of crumhorns.

The true crumhorn is already mentioned as "Krummpfeyffen" at the court of Albrecht Achilles of Ansbach (1440–1486). Its earliest appearance as an organ register dates from 1489, used in Dresden for a reed register of the Dreikönigskirche. At the wedding of Duke Johann of Saxony to Sofia of Mecklenburg at Torgau in 1500, the Mass was accompanied by instruments including four crumhorns.

The Triumph of Death, Lorenzo Costa
The Triumph of Death
Lorenzo Costa
Fresco. S. Giacomo
Maggiore, Bologna

The Triumph of Death, Lorenzo Costa
The Triumph of Death (detail)
The little child at the lower right corner of the painting probably holds a crumhorn. This refers to an early awareness of the instrument in Italy.

The earliest appearance of a crumhorn in painting dates from about the same time, in Lorenzo Costa's Triumph of Death (see left) even though it occupies a very marginal part in the composition. However, in Carpaccio's Presentation of Christ in the Temple (see painting and detail to the right) it plays a far more significant visual role.

Another crumhorn can be found in the precious intarsie of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, which is decorated with Raphael's most famous frescoes. The room once housed the library of pope Julius II together with a collection of musical instruments. The wooden intarsie, which survived the horrifying Sacco di Roma in 1527, provide invaluable documentation of Renaissance musical instruments1. Among the instruments are five crumhorns.

Descriptions of crumhorns in Italian treatises are ambiguous. The earliest of two major treatises is Johannes Tinctoris' De inventione et usu musicae, (Naples c. 1484) which describes a "doulcina," referring to the softness of its sound along with a few other characteristics of a crumhorn2 but it does not mention the instrument's appearance (see image right). The second is Ludovico Zacconi's Prattica di musica (Part 1, Venice 1596). In his discussion of musical instruments, Zacconi provides scattered information on instruments that seem to be related to the dolzaine, functionally identical to the crumhorn and its probable medieval antecedent. They are cornamuti torti, sordoni, cornamuse and doppioni. The two described instruments with the adjective torto (bent), the corno torto and the cornamuto torto, were probably the cornett and the crumhorn.

In Germany the crumhorn appears in various engravings. Emperor Maximilian I, although known to be particularly keen on tournaments, was nonetheless one of the greatest patrons of the sciences, literature and arts of his time. He maintained a large and exquisite court band, the "Hofkapelle." Some of the most renowned musicians, like the Franco-Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac and his most famous pupil Ludwig Senfl were employed at his court. To ensure that posterity would remember him as he wished, Maximilian commissioned a number of biographical richly decorated books with engravings as well as a monumental triumphal procession, Triumphzug, represented in a series of 137 woodcuts, designed and supervised by Albrecht Dürer. Roughly half of the woodcuts were executed by the German painter and printmaker Hans Burgkmair (see Shawm).

Hans Burgkmair, "Musica Schalmeyen, Pusaunen vnd Hans Burgkmair, "Musica Schalmeyen, Pusaunen vnd Krumphörner." Woodcut from Triumphal Procession for Maximilian I. (1512–19, publ. 1526). The ensemble consists of two crumhorns (descant/alto), two shawms (alto/tenor) and a trombone.

Among the various instruments in the Triumphzug we find in one of the carriages five musicians playing "Schalmeyen, Pusaunen vnd Krumphörner" (shawms, trombones and crumhorns).

The two principal semi-biographical works of Maximilian3 were the Theuerdank (1517), which raccounts in allegorical form his travels and courtship for his first wife, Mary of Burgundy, and the Weisskunig4 which deals with the life of Maximilian's parents, his own birth and education and his campaigns and battles. The volume is elaborately decorated with 251 woodcuts, half of which executed by Hans Burgkmair. Print no. 33 shows the musical education of the young Weisskunig..5 The accompanying text to the woodcut is headed (in old German spelling): "Wie der jung weyß kunig die musica und saytenspil lernet erkennen" ("How the young white king learned music and to play string instruments").

Heinrich Aldegrever, Three Crumhorn Players Heinrich Aldegrever, Three Crumhorn Players. 1551. engraving. Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina. Aldegrever's monogram "AG" shows a close resemblance to that of Albrecht Dürer, whom Aldegrever deeply admired.

Although the title of this print refers to string instruments, the print demonstrates how wind instruments predominated over strings in the sixteenth century. This is also evident in the inventory of musical instruments of the English King Henry VIII which listed 77 recorders, 25 crumhorns and 5 cornetts but only 25 viols.

An engraving by the German painter and engraver Heinrich Aldegrever shows three crumhorn-players. By this time the crumhorn, like with nearly all of the other woodwind instruments, had established a true family (exilent/descant, alto, tenor, bass or great bass), and three-voice music-pieces suitable for crumhorns were rather rare in the limited repertory for this instrument.

The three principal German treatises (Virdung, Agricola, Praetorius) all contain descriptions and depictions of the crumhorn and its relatives. The first is Sebastian Virdung's Musica getutscht (Basel 1511). He described the crumhorn as a soft-toned double-reed consort instrument and labeled a woodcut with a set of four of them, together with other related instruments.

Martin Agricola's woodcut in his Musica instrumentalis deutsch6 may have been copied from Virdung's work. Beside a set of four crumhorns it also shows a "Platerspil" (as a possible predecessor of the crumhorn) and an animal horn of similar name ("Krumphorn," probably a Gemshorn).

Michael Praetorius Michael Praetorius, "Nicolo" (left-side, a bassett), crumhorns, mute cornetts (right-side below), and a "musette" [bagpipe with bellow attached, see The Bagpipe], in Syntagma musicum II, (1619), Plate 13.eeply

Both Virdung and Agricola described a basic consort of four instruments in three sizes: one descant in g, two tenors in c, and a bass in F, although the woodcuts appeared to depict four different sizes of crumhorns. But it was customary to employ two crumhorns of the same size to play the tenor and alto parts, commonly called tenor, alto-tenor or tenor-alto size. The explanatory texts of these treatises offer little except for some diagrams with fingerings and tablatures, which, however, has at least shed some light on playing technique.

The most important contribution to the crumhorn is to be found in Michael Praetorius' Syntagma musicum (3 vols, 1615–1620). Praetorius added only one size to the basic consort —the great bass—but there is also evidence7 of a small exilent size, tuned a fourth (c') above the descant's g. Praetorius was the first to discuss the difficulties of tuning and intonation of a crumhorn consort. While the members of other woodwind consorts (recorder and shawms in particular) were normally separated by fifths, the sizes added to the basic three-species crumhorn consort were tuned a fourth from their neighbors, probably a concession to the crumhorn's limited range. Praetorius suggested a combination of fourths and fifths in the tuning of a crumhorn ensemble in order to improve the intonation. So the instruemtns of the basic group were separated by fifths, while the added sizes (exilents and great bass) were tuned a fourth from their neighbors.

Sizes of crumhorns and their range, listed by Michael Praetorius

1. small descant or exilent c' – d''
2. descant g – a'
3. alto-tenor c – d'
4. bass F – g
5. great bass B' – c or C – d
(with extra keys for B' and A)

Even though they were not described by Praetorius, tenor crumhorns sometimes had keys and sliders to extend their range downward which could be found on several surviving tenor crumhorns. These instruments show the greatest variation of all crumhorn types: normal ranges with or without key as well as extended instruments with one or two keys.

Set of crumhorns today
Set of crumhorns today, made by Moeck, Celle (Germany).
ltr: soprano, alto, tenor, bass and great bass.

Praetorius considered an "ideal" set of crumhorns as one having nine instruments. He recommended one exilent, two descants, three tenor-altos, two basses, and one great bass. This set was not universally available: most of the sets were far more modest, containing usually four instruments (a descant, two tenors, one bass), which corresponded rather to the consorts described by Virdung and Agricola.

The only known crumhorn maker was the German Jörg Wier (first half sixteenth century) from Memmingen (South Germany). His workshop was renowned even in Nuremberg, the center for wind instrument making, and developed into an important distribution center for Memmingen crumhorns. The Duke of Bavaria, the Elector of Saxony and the cardinal of Trent purchased crumhorns via Nuremberg but "made in Memmingen." Today a number of museums and collections for musical instruments (Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Merano, Brussels) are proud owners of original or workshop Jörg-Wier-crumhorns. Wier probably employed at least one maker, and they might have divided the work according to instrument size.8

Bernard Thomas, Playing the crumhorn

Period engraving of a crumhorn-consort Period engraving of a crumhorn-consort

"Having acquired an instrument, there is relatively little to the playing technique. Players of reed instruments such as the oboe and bassoon will find they can already do all the things required, and it will be mainly a question of getting used to the breath pressure and to the precision with which each note has to be begun and ended. On the other hand, recorder players (who seem to make up the majority of those who take up the crumhorn) will find (a) they are not used to blowing hard enough, (b) they have difficulty in starting a note cleanly, (c) unless they make a conscious effort, each note will end uncleanly, with a slight dip in the pitch, (d) after playing for some time (depending on the instrument), their lips will get tired, and air will begin to escape.

The correct breath pressure does of course depend on the particular instrument, but what a lot of beginners do not realize is that on most instruments (especially on good ones) the range of pitch inside which the instrument will produce its best tone is quite small. It takes a certain amount of experimenting with a new instrument to find its optimum resonance.

There is sometimes a conflict between tone and intonation: it is not always possible (except on exceptionally good instruments) to play all notes of an instrument at their optimum resonance point, but it is something that must always be borne in mind both when playing and tuning an instrument.

The crumhorn needs a firmer, stronger movement of the tongue than practically any wind instrument you can come by. Because of the relative amount of effort involved, tonguing has to be very forward—either against the back of the upper teeth, or against the edge of the hole in the mouthpiece. What many beginners find hard is to tongue smoothly: very often they tend to play in a consistently staccato manner, and then when required to play more smoothly, to slur notes together, which is not part of renaissance performing style.

The crumhorn is one of the few wind instruments on which you cannot stop a note in the throat—it is simply impossible. Every note must be stopped by returning the tongue to its starting position. It is important to listen hard for a clean end to the note—there is a tendency for the pitch to fluctuate just before the end.

Endurance can be a problem at first on the crumhorn, simply because of the limited playing technique. It is purely a question of practice.

The only remotely difficult thing is playing the crumhorn completely in tune. The player must be always listening carefully for intonation, and always prepared to blow a note up or down, or to modify fingerings at very short notice, especially if the instrument in question is not used regularly, or is used in different places with radically differing temperatures. In fact more than half the battle is getting the instrument in tune before playing it: crumhorns do tend to need a certain amount of fiddling with (i.e. altering the size of the finger holes) from time to time. Because crumhorns do not overblow, they are very easy to tune, as each hole basically controls only one note (though obviously forked fingerings are also affected). The crumhorn-player must still be constantly on the alert for bad intonation, listening especially to the bass of the consort, and making sure that the pitch of any notes does not flag once started.

Although many crumhorns function on quite a high breath-pressure, their very small bore means that the actual quantity of air involved is not large, and it is possible to play much longer phrases in one breath than one can on a recorder. The frequency with which one has to breathe does of course depend on the instrument. On most crumhorns it should be possible to hold a note for 30–-40 seconds without faltering.

The other thing that novice crumhorn-players take some time getting used to is listening carefully for the end of a note. There is no instrument on which the tone stops as suddenly as the crumhorn, and so if the cut-off in an ensemble at the end of a phrase is not absolutely together, the result is diabolical. The same of course applies to the beginning of a piece or phrase.

It is worth playing as much vocal music as possible, as most of the music played on the crumhorn must have been vocal any way. It is known that crumhorns were sometimes used for doubling voices during the sixteenth century."

Bernard Thomas, "Playing the crumhorn: first steps." Early Music 2, no 3 (1974). 151-56.

  1. See Emmanuel Winternitz, Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art, New York: Yale University Press, 1967.
  2. The representation shows seven fingerholes and a thumbhole, therefore the limit of pieces to be played on.
  3. Maximilian either wrote the Theuerdank himself or dictated it to his secretary, Marx Trautsauerwein.
  4. 1514, unfinished, first edition Vienna 1775.
  5. Weiss is a German word-play meaning "white" for the young king's silver armour, as well as the German "weise" = "wise"; referring to Maximilian as a "wise king." For details to the depicted instruments see Christine K. Mather, 'Maximilian I and his instruments'. Early Music 3, no. 1 (January 1975) 42–46.
  6. Wittenberg 1528, revised ed. 1545.
  7. e.g. a purchase of a set of crumhorns by the city of Nuremberg.
  8. See also Barra Boydell, "Ioerg Wier."

.by Adelheid Rech.

Cantigas de Santa Maria
Straight double bladder pipes. Illustration to Cantiga no. 230 from the Cantigas de Santa Maria.
Cantigas de Santa MariaLarge curved bladder pipes. Illustration to Camtiga no. 250 from the Cantigas de Santa Maria.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Vittore Carpaccio
Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Vittore Carpaccio
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

The group of angels at the bottom are playing a crumhorn (left), a lute (middle) and a viola da braccio (right). Carpaccio repeated this ensemble in a painting for the altar of Saint Roch in the Cathedral at Capo d'Istria, where he died in 1526.
Carpaccio, Presentation ( detail) Presentation (detail)
Vittore Carpaccio

The angel to the left, playing a crumhorn.
Fra Giovanni da Verona, Stanza della Segnatura
Fra Giovanni da Verona,
Intarsia with five crumhorns
(1513–1521). Vatican,
Stanza della Segnatura.
Hans Burgkmair print
Detail of print 33 showing woodwind instruments lying on the table at the right side, showing two recorders, one crumhorn, one straight cornett and one flute. The value of this print may not principally be seen in a detailed depiction of the instruments, which is rather inaccurate in some cases, but rather in its record of the variety of instruments used at the German Imperial court in the early sixteenth century.
Sebastian Virdung
Sebastian Virdung, "Rußpfeif, Krumhorn, Gemsenhorn, Zincken, Platerspil and Krummhörner" from Musica getutscht (Basel 1511). The single "Krumhorn" (above) is an animal horn with four finger holes and a cup shaped mouth-piece, similar to that of the
"Zinck" (cornett). The "Platerspil" is the German word for bladder pipe.image caption
Martin Agricola
Martin Agricola, "Der Instrument Musica. Vier Kromphörner/odder Pfeiffen. Platerspiel, Krumphorn, Biij Gemsen." from Musica instrumentalis deutsch (Wittenberg 1528/1545).