Harmonia Early Music

Cornucopia: Music for the Harvest, Fertility, and Giving Thanks

A look at the cornucopia, an ancient symbol used in music from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and early America.

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carving of a horn of plenty on side of ship

Photo: Stringberd

A carving of a cornucopia on the side of the SS Great Britain (Bristol, England).

Origins

The word cornucopia is derived from the Latin Cornu Copiae, meaning “horn of plenty.” Its origins go back to antiquity and center around the mythological nymph, Amalthea, who was one of the foster mothers of Zeus. As the story goes, Amalthea, who was supposedly a goat, was playing with Zeus one day when he broke one of her horns off. He felt so bad that he returned it with special powers that granted any wish that the holder desired. This was the origin of the cornucopia as a symbol of a horn bearing fruits and flowers.

Fortune

The cornucopia also accompanied depictions of Fortuna, the goddess who personified good luck. Like justice, Fortuna was blind and governed the Wheel of Life. One of the most popular stories set to music by Guillaume de Machaut was the medieval lyric, Remede de Fortune.

Guillaume Machaut : Danse balladée, Chanson Balladée: "Dame a vous," Rondelet: "Dame mon cuer en vous remaint"
Ensemble P.A.N. — Remede de Fortune (New Albion , 1994)
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Politics

It seems that the cornucopia has always produced a bounty of one sort or another. Depictions vary, however. Earlier we mentioned fruits and flowers coming out of the horn, but this is in relatively stark contrast to today’s depictions which are much more varied and perhaps more abundant.

The cornucopia has also been used as a political symbol and can be found on the flags of two American states, as well as the coat of arms of a number of Central and South American countries.

It has been appropriated as a powerful symbol of prosperity.

Anonymous: "En la fuente del rosel," "Ecce tu pulcher es," "Au ioly bocquet croist la violette"
Orlando Consort — Medieval Gardens: The Rose, the Lily, and the Whortleberry (HMC, 2005)
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Fertility

It is easy to see that, while the principal meaning of the cornucopia is one of prosperity and abundance, its ancient association as a symbol of fertility was a natural development; the horn perhaps suggesting the shape of a womb.

The story of the Virgin Mary and the many writings praising her fertility come to mind; as well as Biblical depictions of the womb as a fertile vessel.

Josquin Desprez: "Ave Maria, Virgo serena"
Gabrieli Consort/McCreesh — A Spotless Rose (Dg Imports , 2008)
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Thanksgiving

In America, the cornucopia has come to be associated with Thanksgiving. Depictions usually have the horn overflowing with all kinds of fruit and vegetables such as corn, apples, squash, grapes, pumpkins, and so forth. The cornucopia is also a subtle reminder of early America whose settlers depended on a good harvest and prosperity for their survival. This can be seen in the many songs of praise and thanksgiving from the period which have come down to us.

William Billings: Africa and "Parting Friends" (Traditional)
Moira Smiley & VOCO — Circle, Square, Diamond & Flag (Whim Records , 2008)
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Featured Release

Our featured release of the week is aptly titled “Cornucopia.” It is a program of music for horn and strings by composers such as Michael Haydn, Carl Stamitz, and Mozart, among others. Horn player Richard Serphinoff leads the ensemble in a Focus label recording.

Michael Haydn: Romance in A-flat for horn and string quartet
Richard Seraphinoff, horn, Cynthia Roberts, violin, Rachel Evans, violin and viola, David Miller, viola, and Allen Whear, cello — Cornucopia II: German Chamber Music for Horn and Strings (Focus, 2008)
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for horn, violin, two violas, and cello in E-flat major, K. 407, Rondo Allegro
Richard Seraphinoff, horn, Cynthia Roberts, violin, Rachel Evans, violin and viola, David Miller, viola, and Allen Whear, cello — Cornucopia II: German Chamber Music for Horn and Strings (Focus, 2008)
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Guillaume Machaut : Danse balladée, Chanson Balladée: "Dame a vous," Rondelet: "Dame mon cuer en vous remaint"
Ensemble P.A.N. — Remede de Fortune (New Albion , 1994)
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album cover
Anonymous: "En la fuente del rosel," "Ecce tu pulcher es," "Au ioly bocquet croist la violette"
Orlando Consort — Medieval Gardens: The Rose, the Lily, and the Whortleberry (HMC, 2005)
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album cover
Josquin Desprez: "Ave Maria, Virgo serena"
Gabrieli Consort/McCreesh — A Spotless Rose (Dg Imports , 2008)
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Jeremiah Ingalls : "The Apple Tree" and Chester (William Billings)
Paul Hillier and various ensembles — Home to Thanksgiving: Songs of Thanks and Praise (HMX, 1992)
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William Billings: Africa and "Parting Friends" (Traditional)
Moira Smiley & VOCO — Circle, Square, Diamond & Flag (Whim Records , 2008)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Michael Haydn: Romance in A-flat for horn and string quartet
Richard Seraphinoff, horn, Cynthia Roberts, violin, Rachel Evans, violin and viola, David Miller, viola, and Allen Whear, cello — Cornucopia II: German Chamber Music for Horn and Strings (Focus, 2008)
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Carl Stamitz: Quartet in E-flat for horn and strings, op. 8, no. 2, Allegro moderato
Richard Seraphinoff, horn, Cynthia Roberts, violin, Rachel Evans, violin and viola, David Miller, viola, and Allen Whear, cello — Cornucopia II: German Chamber Music for Horn and Strings (Focus, 2008)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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