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Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Richard I. Schwartz

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Nicholas Bessaraboff and the Cornet à Pistons

The monumental work by Nicholas Bessaraboff entitled, Ancient European Musical Instruments: An Organological Study of the Musical Instruments in the Leslie Lindsey Mason Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Bessaraboff 1941) not only thoroughly discusses and measures all of the instruments in the Leslie Lindsey Mason Collection, but provides a great amount of information concerning acoustics, classifications of instruments, and their history. Information about the cornets in the collection is scattered throughout the work, and an attempt is made here to centralize and dissect that information.

The cornet is a "conoidal bore instrument with narrow taper tubes and bell of medium size; three-octave instruments without a pedal tone; elongated cup mouthpiece with a medium shallow cup. Instruments belonging to this family are post-horns, cornopeans, cornet-à-pistons" (Bessaraboff 1941, 152). His list includes the following instruments in the family: octave cornets in C, Bb, and A; sopranino cornet in Eb; cornets in C and Bb; althorns in F, Eb, and D; and tenorhorns in Bb and A. The list does not include any instruments lower than the tenor range because the relatively small bore size of the cornet family does not allow easy access to pitches below the range of the tenorhorn in A.

Bessaraboff breaks down the entire family of instruments into VI (six) Classes. They appear here in an abbreviated fashion:

I  Idiophones (instruments that produce sounds from the substance of the instrument itself, e.g. sistrum, castanets, triangle, cymbal, bells, xylophone, glass harmonica, glockenspiel, music box)

II Membranophones (instruments which have a membrane, e.g. drums)

III Aerophones (instruments requiring air to produce the tone)

    Division 1 (Instruments controlled directly by air)

        Section A: flutes

        Section B: reed vibrating instruments

        Section C: lip vibrating (brasswinds)

    Division 2 (Instruments controlled by a keyboard) Accordion, chamber organ, concertina

    Division 3 (Instruments controlled by automatic motion) Barrel organ

    Division 4 (Free air instruments) Bull-roarer [not in collection]

IV Chordophones (Instruments with strings)

    Division 1 Instruments controlled directly

        Section A: plucked (guitar, zither, harp, lute, balalaika)

        Section B: struck (dulcimer, tambourin à cordes, keyed guitar)

        Section C: bowed (rebec, rebec kit, kit, husla, violin family)

    Division 2 (Instruments controlled by a keyboard)

        Section A: plucked (harpsichord, virginal, spinet)

        Section B: struck (piano, clavichord, orphica)

        Section C: bowed (nyckelharpa, hurdy-gurdy)

    Division 3 (Instruments controlled by automatic or autonomous motion) Aeolian Harp

V  Electrophonic Instruments (sound must be passed through a loud speaker) [none in collection]

VI Accessories (bows, stage harp, portion of a tibia)

The cornet fits into Class III, Division 1, Section C, as well as all of the other brasses.

Section C is subdivided into two subsections, as follows:

        Subsection A: Conoidal [conical] tube instruments

            Group 1: (two-octave instruments)

                    Primitive types: shofar, oliphant

                    Tubes with lateral holes: Bukkehorn

Cornett family

                    Tubes with lateral holes and keys: keyed bugles, ophicleide

            Group 2: (three-octave instruments)

                    Subgroup i w/pedal: bugle, lur, buccina, alphorn, modern cornet in Bb (Bessaraboff 1941, 175), because of larger bore size, generally, than early cornet à pistons

                    Subgroup ii w/o pedal: cornopean, ballad horn, early cornet à pistons (Bessaraboff 1941, 176), octave post horn in Bb with conoidal bore (English, no valves), Alto post horn in G with five keys and conoidal bore (made in Germany)

            Group 3: (four-octave instruments)

                    Subgroup i w/pedal: [Orchestral French Horn in Bb, none in collection]

                    Subgroup ii w/o pedal: Horns (hunting horn, hand horn, inventionshorn), cor omnitonique, horn crooked in C with two disc valves, bass cornon in Eb or F, contrabass cornon in BBb (Bessaraboff 1941, 406)

    Subsection B: Cylindrical tube instruments

            Group 1: (two-octave instruments)

                    Primitive types: glass trumpet, celluloid trumpet

            Group 2: (three-octave instruments)   

                    Subgroup i w/pedal: Trombone family, e.g. alto buysine in D, Tenor Buccin in Bb, trombones, and modern trumpet in Bb; Wagner tenor tuba, tenor cornon, tenor cornophone (Bessaraboff 1941, 406)

                    Subgroup ii w/o pedal: he lists trombone in lower positions as an example, but explains little in this respect

            Group 3: (four-octave instruments)

                    Subgroup i w/pedal: Reproduction of Roman lituus, soprano stopf- trumpete in Ab, alto keyed trumpet in G, alto valve trumpet in F

                    Subgroup ii w/o pedal: alto valveless trumpet in Eb, alto cavalry trumpet in Eb, slide trumpet crooked to Eb, two German cylindrical-conoidal alto post horns in Eb (one with no valves and one with two piston valves of the "Berliner Pumpen" type)

All two-octave instruments play easily from the pedal to the fourth partial. In some cases these instruments do have a pedal, but never exceed the fourth partial, e.g., instruments made from animal horns, tree bark, and tusks. Their tone is usually "dull or rough and brutal" (Bessaraboff 1941, 139-140). There are no subgroups for these instruments regardless of their conoidal or cylindrical nature.

All three-octave instruments (conoidal and cylindrical) play from either the pedal or the second partial to the eighth partial. "Whole-tube instruments" are those which have pedals, and "half-tube instruments," those which have no pedal. The tone quality of these three-octave instruments is "not devoid of a certain degree of nobility" (Bessaraboff 1941, 140). Instruments of this group that have a pedal are best suited for entire families of instruments.

All four-octave instruments (conoidal and cylindrical) play up to the sixteenth partial. Pedal tones are not normally present in these instruments, and most are high pitched instruments without pedal in this group (Bessaraboff 1941, 147). A small number of these instruments are lower pitched and with pedal. Normally, no complete families of instruments are present for these instruments.

The three-octave instruments of the valved bugle, the valved post horn, and the cornet generally outlived the two-octave instruments of the ophicleide and the keyed bugle. These two-octave instruments had a smaller range, more difficult fingerings, more limited facility, a more complicated mechanism with its inherent problems, and a more mellow sound than the valved bugle and valved post horn.

It is more difficult to make entire families of valved trumpets or horns than it is of the cornet, and still maintain the timbre of the instrument. If the tubing is lengthened or the mouthpiece is enlarged, horns would sound more like a large cornets, and trumpets more like trombones. Trumpets and horns must have a narrow bore and a small mouthpiece to more easily maintain the partials of the fourth octave. According to Bessaraboff, Adolphe Sax had the best solution in creating entire families of brass instruments (Bessaraboff 1941, 141). Sax selected the 3-octave instruments of the bugle family and modified the bore to be a compromise between the slightly tapered ophicleide and the widely tapered bugle. Saxhorns were built in two separate families of three-valve and four-valve instruments. It is with these instruments that Adolphe Sax brought in a "new era" of brass instrument manufacture.

According to Bessaraboff, the third valve can theoretically be omitted on a trumpet or horn (four-octave instruments) because notes of melodies can be written in the best octave for closely spaced higher partials, and the third valve is needed only to fill-in the gap between low g and c 1; even this tone can be played with the first valve, "although with some difficulty" (Bessaraboff 1941, 400). This tone can be "sacrificed" to obtain all of the useful tones on the instrument.

On the other hand, the third valve is necessary on a three-octave instrument in the interval of the fifth between the second and third partials [between c 1 and g 1]. Bessaraboff mentions that perhaps during the early development of valves, the difference between the three-octave and four-octave instruments "was not clearly understood"(Bessaraboff 1941, 400). The French post horn is a conoidal bore three-octave instrument without a pedal, and the German Posthorn, a four-octave cylindrical instrument without pedal. The author of this document believes that Halary’s two-valve addition to the German Posthorn (see Choice of Instrument above) was actually a good choice for the early cornet à pistons, since two valves are quite enough to produce the necessary tones on a four octave German Posthorn. Perhaps Halary knew more about acoustics than Bessaraboff would lead us to believe. The author of this document believes that the change was made later to the more conical bore of later cornet perhaps because the timbre of the cylindrical German Posthorn was already accessible on the valveless trumpet, and the two-valve German Posthorn was, therefore, superfluous.

Conoidal and cylindrical are certainly only relative terms, as no one instrument is either entirely conoidal or cylindrical. Conoidal instruments are generally more conical than cylindrical and vice versa for cylindrical instruments. On average, the conical [French] post horns in the collection were 95% conical, cornets 53% conical, cornopeans 49% conical, and [German] Posthorns 25% conical. According to Bessaraboff the French post horn is basically conoidal and the German Posthorn is basically cylindrical (Bessaraboff 1941, 198). The number of instruments in the collection certainly does not represent a cross-section of all instruments manufactured, but may shed light on the fact that French post horns were the most conical, then cornets, cornopeans, and lastly German Posthorns. Judging by the comparative timbre of these instruments alone, these statistics do make sense.

Many instruments, including the natural trumpet and early cornet were not acoustically designed to produce a pedal. The "Flattergrub" or literally, the "uncouth flutter," was the very descriptive term that the Germans had for the pedal tone. Apparently some players could produce a "Flattergrub" and nothing more. The early cornet à pistons had a narrow taper bore and not a very playable pedal. It was difficult to achieve, at best, and the sound was out of tune and harsh. Even the valved notes below c1 on some of the narrow bore cornet à pistons were out of tune. Pedal tones on the early Flügelhorn were easily accessible, however, and quite beautiful, so manufacturers of the cornet soon widened the bore and the taper of the instrument. This, unfortunately, made the cornet sound more like a narrow bore Flügelhorn and made it lose some of its characteristic timbre. Early cornets in general had a deep funnel mouthpiece, as well, but due to soloists such as Arban, Levy, and Clarke, the cornet mouthpiece became shallower and not as wide. The smaller mouthpiece allows for a higher range and brighter sound, but takes away from the potentially mellow nature of the cornet.

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