Very Early Besson Cornet with Rotary Valves
This cornet was entrusted to me for repairs and cleaning by Connecticut trombonist Ken Andresen. It was given to him by a friend of his. I suspect that he was a very good friend, but I'm pretty sure that he didn't have any idea of the significance of the gift. Current research indicates likelihood that this is the second oldest Besson instrument known and the earliest made at his second address, rue des Trois Couronnes No. 7, which he moved to in approximately 1845. To restate that point, it was likely made in the mid- to late 1840s. This was a era of much experimentation in the field of brass instruments and valve cornets had been around for less than a decade, only beginning to gain popularity in military and popular music. The form of the cornet was not yet firmly standardized even within France and the major French makers were experimenting with rotary valves as well as various piston valves that were to prove more popular there. This is the only known rotary valve cornet made by Besson known. As always, I invite any additions and corrections to the information that I present here.
This instrument is certainly in remarkably well preserved condition after over 160 years and there is no reason to doubt that the extant shanks, crooks and case are original. The mouthpiece appearing in some of the photos is not original, however, and the spots in the case give clues that it likely also had two bits and a mouthpiece or one bit and two mouthpieces when new. The shanks and crooks are typical of French cornets for many years to come, allowing to play in Bb, A, Ab, G, F and Eb. Over all length with mouthpiece removed is 11 3/4", the bell rim diameter is 4 7/8" and the bore measures .434".
When I first examined this instrument, I felt strongly that the silver plated finish was not original. Silver plating had been invented decades earlier and major improvements to the process were patented in 1840, so it was possible that it was original. But I saw what I thought were strong clues as to the silver being applied later such as some crude appearing work that was obviously done before the plating was applied. Some of the curved tubing is a little rough as is scraping around solder joints. Also, silver plating is deposited on interior surfaces of the valves and slides and on the entire rotors as well. This is commonly seen on instruments refinished in the 19th century. While working on this cornet, it became clear that every solder joint has the same rough scraping, all lengthwise, and not just those that might have been repaired.
More closely examining the curved tubes, I tried to differentiate the obvious damage from flaws that might have occurred in the original bending process. I've examined thousands of brass instruments during my career and while I probably have a much better understanding of what I'm observing than most, I have only worked on a very small number (probably less than 20) of valved instruments made before 1850. The first half of the 19th century was a time of great strides in technology and industry, when it was possible for the first time to make valves that were both air tight and easily moved by the touch of a finger, but few examples have survived in such good condition.
I've restored 30 or so keyed bugles and I'm accustomed to workmanship of the build being less refined (on both early fine instruments and later inexpensive examples) than on valve brass, but hadn't given much thought to the fact that it was often the same shops producing the earliest of those. All techniques would be the same for both, other than parts of the valve mechanism and I want to clarify what is seen in the scraper marks that I mentioned. The most common technique for smoothing the surface of tubing, including bells was with a hand scraper in a lengthwise motion, similar to the scraping technique used on wood furniture surfaces.
In later years, it became common to polish the parts before mounting (soft soldering the assemblies together), but previously, and for centuries, the parts were mounted immediately after scraping. It would then be handed to an apprentice to use an abrasive polish, further smoothing the surface, including right up to the edges of soldered joints and areas that were hard to reach. This probably took several hours of work and on this cornet was not done thoroughly in those hard to reach areas.
We are especially fortunate that the valve mechanism on this cornet has survived with little wear. The design of this is also somewhat archaic when compared with rotary valves made in the next decade by those that made a specialty of them. The separate valve stop arm and actuating arm make for a more complicated build and would more easily become unserviceable from wear and damage than a simpler design. The extra clamping screw in the stop arm assemblies, opposite the arms seemed to be added later, but again, close examination indicate that they are also part of the original design, keeping the more familiar retaining screw from causing them to bind against the cork chamber cap.
The bearing surfaces on both ends of the rotors are very short and would wear out much more quickly than all later rotary valve designs. These, too, are in very good working order. The articulation between the valve levers and push rods are riveted together and not really repairable as they wear, causing much noise that can be only partially silenced with thick oil. Oil wasn't often used on musical instruments at that time; the common choices were vegetable and animal oils, which oxidize and solidify with age. The likely uses were more for rust prevention on the steel parts rather than lubrication as we are accustomed to.
Also worth noting is the design of the knuckles (short, curved tubes) that attach to the valve casings. The inner bend is an abrupt 90 degree bend as seen on almost all American made rotary valve instruments made before 1865 and many early German and Austrian examples. Later instruments, at this inside turn, have two short 45 degree bends or an actual curve. I haven't made a study of the European made instruments to know if this was the most common in the earliest of them or varied from maker to maker.
While I can't draw a firm conclusion on the question of originality of the silver plating, another bit of positive evidence is the decorative engraving. This is very rare on early French instruments, even by the end of the 19th century. While products of Adolphe Sax's shop were engraved with words in a large and very bold script akin to John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence, even these had no additional decoration beyond Sax's trademark monogram.
The obvious question is what was the reason for the unusual treatment of finish and decoration. We know that Besson exhibited instruments in major international exhibitions including 1844 Paris (probably before this was made), the 1851 London Crystal Palace Exhibition and again in Paris in 1855. At this point it would only be a wild speculation to imagine this as one of the instruments specially prepared for one of those shows. I have not been able to find a list of the instruments that Besson exhibited at the Crystal Palace, but I'm sure that it exists somewhere.