The gemshorn: a (necessarily) short history

The haunting sound of the gemshorn has played a small part in the early music revival. Evidence for its historical use is sparse, scattered thinly from the late middle ages or early renaissance to the first days of the baroque period, and only within Germany. This ocarina made of goat horn was included in the completist musical lexicographies of Sebastian Virdung, 1511, and Michael Praetorius, 1618, and was deemed recognisable enough to be played by the figure of death in a series of woodcuts in 1488. This article traces what we know about the gemshorn, comparing the evidence with its use in the early music revival.

What is a gemshorn?

A Gemse or chamois (from which we also name the leather).
A Gems or chamois (from which we also name the leather).

The word cornet or cornett appears in French sources from the 13th century onwards, indicating any little horn, including animal horns and short metal trumpets, and the same usage appears in English from c. 1400. In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, French sources also refer to cor à doigts, literally fingered horns. These animal horns drilled with finger holes cannot be classed with gemshorns, as they are all blown from a mouthpiece created at or near the sharp point of the horn, eventually leading to the creation of the leather-covered wooden cornett in c. 1500. Gemshorns, however, are distinctive for being blown from the open end.

A gemshorn (one word) is the horn of the Gems (hard g), plural Gemsen or, in modern German, Gämsen, a European mountain goat. The removed horn had holes drilled in it to make a wind instrument, the open end plugged with a fipple and a lip made to blow into, so it becomes essentially an ocarina made of horn with a range of the number of holes plus one note. Commercially available gemshorns today are not the horns of Gemsen, but the horns of other animals, such as cows or oxen.

Evidence of its use

The first written description of the instrument is in Musica Getutscht und Ausgezogen, published in 1511, by the German musicologist Sebastian Virdung, who described it as a short, curved animal horn, with 4 finger holes. German renaissance musician and music theorist Martin Agricola published his Musica instrumentalis deudsch in 1529, including information and illustrations for the gemshorn and other instruments that appears to be taken directly from Virdung’s earlier work.

Left: The gemshorn and other instruments illustrated in Sebastian Virdung’s Musica Getutscht und Ausgezogen, 1511. Right: An identical-looking gemshorn as it appears in Martin Agricola’s Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1529.
Left: The gemshorn and other instruments illustrated in Sebastian Virdung’s Musica Getutscht und Ausgezogen, 1511. Right: The gemshorn as it appears in Martin Agricola’s Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1529.

The Heidelberger Totentanz is a German book of 38 prints from woodcuts, author unknown, printed by Heinrich Knoblochtzer in 1488. The story in the book and its striking illustrations depict the dance of death, only the second book to have done so, the first being published by Parisian printer Guyot Marchant in 1485, in what was to become a major theme in art. The Heidelberger Totentanz woodcuts mostly feature the figure of death playing or holding musical instruments of the time – lute, bray harp, shawm, tromba marina, bagpipes, psaltery, etc. One woodcut depicts what looks very much like a gemshorn: we can clearly see the window (the rectangular hole cut near the mouthpiece) and it is played at the wide end as a gemshorn would be, not the narrow end as a hunting horn, for example, would be.

Death holding a gemshorn, a woodcut in the Heidelberger Totentanz, Germany, 1488.
Death holding a gemshorn, a woodcut in the Heidelberger Totentanz, Germany, 1488.

The illustration lacks finger holes, but this may well be the woodcutter’s artistic license. In a similar way, the harps in this collection of woodcuts have strings unfeasibly placed, and medieval or early renaissance illustrations of stringed instruments often show different numbers of strings to tuning pegs: we see that in this collection, where a lute drawn with 6 courses is shown with only 5 pegs. In the unlikely case that this particular horn did lack finger holes, it is the same size and blown the same way as a gemshorn, so I don’t think such a detail, even if true, need disqualify it, pushing the earliest recorded date back to 1488.

An instrument structurally the same as a gemshorn but made of clay was found buried beneath the foundation of a house dated 1455, with 4 holes in the front, just as Sebastian Virdung described in 1511, and with another hole in the back (citation here without further details – I wish I could tell you more). Of course, it’s a moot point to ask if the material really matters: if it functions the same way but is made of clay instead of horn, is it any less a functioning gemshorn than one made of cow horn rather than goat horn? If it doesn’t matter, this pushes the earliest date back to 1455.

Gemshorn and other pipe organ stops.
Gemshorn and other pipe organ stops.

The gemshorn on a pipe organ

Pipe organs have a selection of stops, used for the purpose of admitting pressurised air in order to change the timbre of the sound. One stop is called the gemshorn, the earliest date of which may help us date the eponymous instrument. The gemshorn stop, however, first came into use in the early 16th century and so pushes the date back no further.

Period and usage

So we know that the gemshorn was played from the late middle ages or early renaissance (depending on when you think the renaissance started in Germany) to the early baroque period, when another German musician and musical lexicographer, Michael Praetorius, provided gemshorn diagrams in his De Organographia, 1618. After this, it disappears from the records.

Overall it appears extremely rarely in any known documents or iconography, it only appears in Germany, and there is no music written specifically for it, which is normal for a medieval instrument but a huge omission for the renaissance period. We have to conclude, therefore, that the gemshorn was evidently a very minor player in renaissance and early baroque music, was never used in mainstream music of the period and, despite some early music groups using it for medieval music, there is no evidence of its existence or use in the middle ages before 1455 (which, in any case, is arguably the renaissance). Some shops sell gemshorn consorts, a set in different sizes and therefore at different pitches, for which there is no evidence; and drill extra holes in them (seven in the front, one in the back) in order to play them like recorders.

So essentially the gemshorn is an early music curiosity with an unknown repertoire and uncertain use, but nevertheless with a rather haunting and lovely sound, as you can hear below: Packington’s Pound, anonymous, England, late 16th century, played on gemshorn by Andy Casserley.

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