The crumhorn seems originally to have been a German instrument, and the variously spelt ‘crum’, ‘krumm’ or ‘krumb’ of its name means crooked, curved or bent, as it looks like a musical walking stick.
To make a crumhorn: bore out a length of wood, fill it with sand and plug the end; steam the lower end to make it soft; now bend it into a J shape. No one really knows why the crumhorn is bent, so all theories are equally as valid. Since it’s a quiet instrument played in consort, Andy thinks it may be bent upwards to help the player hear himself. The reed is capped inside a wooden mouthpiece, so that the player places their lips on the wood, not the reed. And because the reed is capped, the player has virtually no volume control: the crumhorn is either on or off. A similar instrument, the cornamuse, was straight, but was made with perforations instead of a hole in the end to let the sound out, which makes it even more quiet compared to the crumhorn.
Crumhorns first appeared in (what is now) Germany and Italy: called "Krummpfeyffen" at the court of Albrecht Achilles of Ansbach (1440-1486). The first image of a crumhorn is in Italy, in Lorenzo Costa’s painting, The Triumph of Death, 1488. 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. Given the sound that crumhorns make, this seems like a strange choice to modern ears. As well as being used for church music, they played a wider role in music for social dances and madrigals. They were most popular in Germany and Italy, but were enjoyed throughout renaissance Europe. The English King Henry VIII (1491–1547) liked crumhorns and owned 25 of them, so it’s a good bet that they were played at his court.
Like lutes, recorders and viols, crumhorns were made in various sizes, meant to be played together in a consort. The usual four part consort consisted of an alto, two tenors, and a bass. Occasionally, to this combination a soprano and great bass were added. The crumhorn has a range of only an octave and a note, so together the consort hugely increases the range of music that can be played. (An extra three notes beyond an octave plus one are possible with extreme effort, but controlling those notes is nigh on impossible so you’ll rarely find a crumhorn player prepared to do it.) Early renaissance iconography shows that crumhorns and sackbuts (early trombones) were also played together.
With its distinctive sound, the crumhorn sounds like nothing else you’ll hear, which is perhaps why it retained its popularity throughout the renaissance and baroque periods.
Crumhorn playing La Volta, traditional, 16th and 17th centuries