The Instruments of Praetorius’ Time – Part 2

By Ross Brownlee

In Part 2, we explore more of the weird and wonderful instruments that Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) himself would have used and that will be part of the concert Praetorius Christmas Mass that we are presenting. The woodcuts that accompany this article were published in his book Syntagma musicum, published in 1619.


The crumhorn family.

Crumhorn – These curious instruments are another in the amazing wind section. Unlike the dulcian, shawm and rackett, these double reed instruments have their reed enclosed in a sealed “cap.” When the player blows at the top of the cap, the air chamber pressurizes and forces air through the reed, without it ever touching the player’s mouth. This makes for a very different kind of sound and tuning control! I have spent a week at Amherst Early Music trying to learn the crumhorn, and never have I experienced such intense pressure in my head! It takes amazing control to play these instruments, and enormous core strength to power them!

The shape is also very unique. Crumhorns are wooden and have a straight body, much a like a recorder. It is under the finger holes that they break away from the norm. The bottom of the instrument curves forward, away from the player, ultimately sending the sound soaring upward. Check it out on the Praetorius woodcuts! With a cylindrical body and no bell, the crumhorns also have a nasal, buzzing sound that is gorgeous and unique. Be sure to listen for their feature moment on verse 3 of In Dulci Jubilo!

Gut Strings – Our five wonderful string players have modified their instruments to play this performance. Rather than use their normal, steel core strings, our WSO players have removed the modern iteration and replaced them with strings made of spun gut. Yes! This is how all strings were made up until the advent of machinery that could spin steel into thread-like consistency! Poor animals! The difference in sound is remarkable and many people, upon hearing period performances have commented on the warm, earthy sound produced. This is due to the natural, gut core of the strings, and also from the style of bow and hand position used by the players to accommodate the natural strings. Why change to the steel strings in the 19th century? Mostly for projection. With large orchestras and newer, stronger brass, woodwinds and percussion, the orchestral strings had to play with a more potent sound to be heard. So, inventors learned to spin steel and make tighter, more powerful sounding strings. Here though, we will go back and hear the lovely and warm vocal quality of the original sound.

Theorbo and instruments of the guitar/lute family.

Theorbo and instruments of the guitar/lute family.

Theorbo – The original hybrid! This amazing instrument is half lute, the precursor of today’s guitar, and half bass lute, essentially a bass guitar. This was pure genius for the omnipresent continuo lines of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Rather than have a separate bass player, who would give the fundamental chord tone, and a high lute player, who would fill in the chord and rhythmic interest, by adding a long neck for the bass strings, one highly skilled musician could do it all! Theorbos were routinely paired with a small portative organ to fill out the chord structures to accompany singers and players alike.

This is another of my favourite instruments! It has a magical, almost other-worldly bass sound, unique to any instrument, but can strum and create rhythmic drive like any modern guitar! I often wonder why a modern version of this instrument hasn’t found more favour in today’s bands and singer-songwriters? The ability to play with such a wide range seems very appealing!



Recorder – This beautiful instrument has been largely relegated to elementary music rooms in North America. But it is so much more! Like the cornetto, the Renaissance recorder is designed to allow skilled players tremendous virtuosity! Renaissance recorders have a larger bore diameter and larger whistle than the modern instruments, resulting in a rich, full, woody sound, ideally suited for singers and other period instruments. Listen for the soaring high notes of the sopranino, and notice the incredibly rich and gentle sounds of the larger tenor and bass instruments. The largest 8-foot recorders require a metal bocal to direct the players air to the top of the instrument.

Organ – The mighty organ at Westminster is the heart of this program! Such a marvel of engineering, the organ offers a range of sounds, dynamics, colours and combinations unrivalled in any other instrument! Using ranks of pipes, ranging from tiny flutes to mighty bass trombones (or shall we say sackbuts?), the organ can gently accompany a solo singer or instrument, or lead an entire audience of hearty singers! The skill required of the player is astounding. Not only must they be able to play the hand keyboards (there can be up to 5 of them!), but they must also operate the pedal board with their feet, change the ranks of different sounding pipes by adjusting the stops (controls for which type of pipe will sound), and spend hours beforehand, figuring which combinations of sounds and colours best suit the style and effect of the music they are playing. It is daunting and wonderful! Erik will adjust this Winnipeg organ to best recreate the colours that Praetorius, himself an organ builder, would have imagined for this wonderful Christmas Mass.

The Instruments of Praetorius’ Time – Part 1

By Ross Brownlee

Black and white portrait of Michael Praetorius

Praetorius published the Syntagma musicum in 1619.

Michael Praetorius was not only a fine and masterful composer; he was also a virtuoso organist and instrument builder. The woodcuts that he published in his book Syntagma Musicum, which depict with scientific accuracy the dimensions of the common instruments of his time, have become invaluable in the modern recreation of these instruments. The book is also a beautiful resource for performance practices such as the ones you will hear in our upcoming concert, Praetorius Christmas Mass. Given that most of the weird and wonderful instruments he would have used will be part of the show, we thought it would be fun to give an introduction to their look and sound!

Sackbuts and cornettos

Sackbut and cornetto families.

Cornetto – One of the most beautiful and enchanting of instruments, the cornetto is often compared to a fine singer! Cornettos are a curved, wooden instrument, conical in shape and fingered much like a recorder, but played with a tiny mouthpiece that is still used in modern brass. Having tried to play this thing on numerous occasions, I have tremendous respect for those who play it with virtuosity and delicacy. This thing is really tricky! The cornetto comes in many sizes, mimicking the voices of a choir. The bass cornetto is often seen in museums and photos as the giant, twisted, black instrument known as “the Serpent,” for its striking resemblance to a monstrous, black, coiled snake! There are also straight cornetti with built-in mouthpieces that play with a gentler sound and are known as “mute cornetto.” Played in combination with voices, strings and winds, but especially with the sackbut, the cornetto was a staple of all 15th, 16th and early 17th century ensembles. For an unknown reason, the instrument lost favour in the 18th century and virtually disappeared until its renaissance by music historians in the 1960s.

Sackbut – Clearly an instrument with a name one doesn’t forget, the sackbut is a direct predecessor of the modern trombone, and looks strikingly similar to the instruments used in bands and orchestras all over the world today. Featuring a double slide, a new technology in the 16th century, the sackbut changes its fundamental harmonic easily by adding or subtracting its length, thereby making it a fully chromatic instrument. Sackbuts had less physical rigidness, thus making it gentler in sound than its modern counterparts and well suited for playing with voices, the cornetto (its favourite partner), and all manner of wind and string instruments. Like most instruments in the Renaissance, sackbuts range in size from soprano through to bass and even contrabass. The largest of these have slide-extending handles to allow the player to reach the lowest positions. Most common are the alto, tenor and bass versions. Its curious name comes from the old French words “saquer – bouter,” meaning “push – pull.” The English changed this to sackbut!

Dulcians and racketts

The dulcian and rackett families.

Dulcian – Also known as “curtal,” these are the direct predecessors of the modern bassoon. Without the complex mechanical apparatus of modern instruments, these lovely, buzzy double reed instruments had a limited range of just a couple of octaves, again requiring many sizes to cover the full range. The largest is 16 feet long, and the smallest, just one foot! Dulcians add tremendous warmth and colour to any ensemble and have been one of my favourite instruments to pair with while playing my sackbut. Added to an a cappella choir’s bass line, dulcians are an integral anchor for perfect tuning and rock solid bass lines!

Rackett I’m so delighted that we will have three, yes three, wonderful bass racketts in this performance! I don’t believe Winnipeg audiences have ever heard one, let alone three, of these magical instruments before. Racketts are essentially “pocket bassoons.” There are 16 feet of cylindrical tubing wrapped in foot-long lengths inside a larger wooden casing that is one foot long. A large, double reed, attached to a copper bocal, provides the sound. The resulting peppermill-looking instrument plays the same range as a bass dulcian, but its small size and cylindrical shape mean that the fundamental harmonic is very thin and thus they sound very buzzy. The effect is magnificent and will be heard in one of the gentlest motets of the Praetorius Christmas Mass.

In Part 2, we will explore more of these weird and wonderful instruments!

Ross conducting

Ross Brownlee


An early music specialist, Ross Brownlee conducts Camerata Nova’s period concerts. While at McGill University, Brownlee was mentored by Dr. Douglas Kirk, a world-class expert on historical instruments and early music repertoire. In 2000, Ross continued his studies in early music in Vancouver, investigating the performance practice and history of the Renaissance trombone (sackbut) with leading musicians from around the world. For many years he has been a teacher and coach at the Amherst Early Music Festival in New London, Connecticut. Initially a singer in Camerata Nova, Brownlee now acts as a co-conductor, designing and conducting early music concerts while also acting as a member of the Board and of the Music Committee.