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The French Connection:
Origin and Early Days of
Périnet-Valved Bb Cornet Design

Niles Eldredge
The American Museum of Natural History, New York

The bewildering diversity of cornet design stands in marked contrast to the configurational monotony that has characterized trumpet manufacture since the nineteenth century. Yet the history of cornet design diversity is far from chaotic, and it has proven possible to pinpoint the origins and subsequent histories of major models that set the standards and were industry leaders over successive intervals of time. Several designs originating from the Parisian ateliers of Courtois and Besson, in particular, dominated Périnet-valved cornet design on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s up to the end of the nineteenth century—and one of those designs (the Besson “Concertiste” dating from the early 1870s) became the forerunner of modern cornets.

Figure 1. Typical early cornet à pistons (“cornopean”) with Stölzel valves. By Collin, Paris, ?1830s. Author’s collection.

The earliest surviving Périnet-valved cornets (early 1840s) are virtually identical to their Stölzel-valved “cornet à pistons” (often called “cornopeans” in the English-speaking world) forerunners (Figure 1), which, according to legend, at least, had been developed only slightly more than a decade earlier by Halary (cf. Baines, 1976, p. 226). All early cornets with either of these two valve types were configured in what later came to be known as “modèle français” style—meaning the bell was placed to the right of the valve assembly (i.e. as is still true of modern flugelhorns, which come down little altered in basic configuration from their 19th century French predecessors).

Figure 2. Earliest known modèle anglais Périnet-valved cornet, the “Nouveau Modèle” of Antoine Courtois, 21 Rue de Caire, Paris. Serial number A 712; ca. 1854-1855. Finger crook and patches not original. Note the shell finger buttons (typical of many early cornopeans), and differences in the configuration of the first and third valve slides vis à vis the later Arbuckle and Arban models of Figs. 3 & 4.

Though Adolphe Sax was one of the first to apply Périnet valves to the cornet, Besson, Gautrot and other makers were also building such instruments by at least the late 1840s and early 1850s. Of these, the signal success of Courtois and Besson at the 1855 Exposition Universelle apparently established these two makers as industry leaders (Rose, 1895, p. 172). Courtois cornets in particular captured the fancy of British musicians, thanks in no small measure to the promotional efforts of the virtuoso Koenig of Jullien’s orchestra—and especially to the salesmanship of Samuel Arthur Chappell, who succeeded Jullien as a London dealer and importer of Courtois cornets (Waterhouse, 1993, p. 62). The earliest “modèle anglais” (so called by French makers in their catalogues throughout the remainder of the 19th century)—i.e. with bell placed to the left of the valve assembly—as far as can be determined was the Courtois “Nouveau Modèle” (Figure 2) of ca. 1854-1855 (and in agreement with Chappell’s statement as recorded by Rose, 1895, p. 173); with its double water key, this model, with slight modifications, became standardized into the two Courtois double waterkey designs (Figures 3 and 4) that dominated the French, British and American markets until the end of the century in spite of limited production (apparently only some 20,000 by the end of the century—Eldredge, unpub. data). Yet Courtois was the industry leader in terms both of sales to many of the top musicians of the era, and in inspiring copies of varying degree of fidelity and quality by perhaps the majority of other brass instrument makers in these countries.

Figure 3. Courtois “Arbuckle”;
serial no. 15548

Figure 4. Courtois “Arban”;
serial no. 19108

Figure 5. Besson (Paris) Modèle français; Breveté 1854. Serial 4193 (Rue d’ Angoulème)

Figure 6. Besson (Paris) Modèle français “à bosse”; Breveté 1855. Serial 422 (Rue de Trois Couronnes)

Besson, meanwhile, stuck to the modèle français configuration, patenting two models in the 1850s (Figures 5 and 6), and adding two more (Figures 7 and 8) in the 1870s (Eldredge, unpub.).

Figure 7. Besson (Paris) Modèle français “élève”; Breveté 1872. Serial 23001

Figure 8. Besson (Paris) Modèle français “étoile”; Breveté 1874. Serial 57458

In the early 1870s, however, they introduced their first two “modèle anglais” designs—(1) the “Desideratum” (Figure 9), manufactured up to the beginning of World War II, and (2) the forerunner to the “Concertiste” (though this model name did not actually appear until a slightly modified version was patented in 1888—see Figure 10), manufactured into the 1960s (albeit with fixed leadpipes near the end).

Figure 9. Besson (Paris) Modèle anglais “Desideratum”; Breveté ??; Serial 78092

Figure 10. Besson (Paris) Modèle anglais “Concertiste”; Breveté 1888; Serial 72036

The Besson modèle anglais instruments (also including the 1889 “Soliste” model) were their most expensive; they featured the usual removable mouthpiece receiving shank (to allow pitch adjustment—most commonly from Bb to A), and a second tuning slide on the “leadpipe” just before the valve assembly (to change between “high” and “low” pitch—otherwise achieved by changing the main tuning slide on Courtois and many other makers’ instruments)—and, of course, the by-then traditional “shepherd’s crook.” But with their single water key and 1½  turn “wrap,”  these Besson instruments, with the addition of a fixed leadpipe and a longer bell, survive as the conventional design of cornets today. Moreover, the valve assembly of the early Besson Desideratum and Concertiste of the 1870s—and especially as modified in the 1888 Concertiste design (“perce pleine”)—is the configuration seen today on the Bb Périnet-valved cornets (and trumpets) of virtually all modern makers


Photos & Text, ©2000 Niles Eldredge; Illustrations, ©2000 Budd Jahn


About the Author
Niles Eldredge is a Curator in the Department of Invertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "The French Connection" is the abstract of the paper he will present at the joint American Musical Instrument Society and Historic Brass Society meeting to be held in Toronto in November, 2000. His most recent books are The Pattern of Evolution (1999) and The Triumph of Evolution....and The Failure of Creationism (May, 2000), both published by W.H. Freeman..

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