Five Valve Circular Cornet in C by Isaac Fiske

This very rare and interesting cornet, in the collection of Steve Ward, is a bit of a reconstruction involving mostly parts that were original to a cornet of this design. What was presented to me, initially, was a set of photos of the four valve cornet with bell over the shoulder shown here in the fifth photo. The bell garland is signed by Fiske and the valves are obviously made by him, but I told Steve that Fiske would never have made such a awkward and ugly instrument and must have been “remodeled” from a bell front cornet.

I agreed to take a closer look at it if he sent it to me and try to figure out what the original design might have been and how feasible it would be to return it to that. Even before it arrived, Steve described where there were shadows of original braces and he believed that it had a fifth valve. I was skeptical, but once in my hands, I agreed with his assessment.

The only five valve cornets known by Fiske are three circular cornets in C along the lines of “Dodworth’s Cornet” as illustrated and described in “Dodworth’s Brass Band School” published by Allen Dodworth in New York in 1853. The Dodworth family were great promoters of their businesses, but tended to exaggerate. It seems very unlikely that they designed this instrument in 1843 or that they came up with the idea of an ascending valve independently. It is nice to know that Fiske was making this design as early as 1853, however.

Of the existing instruments, the earliest and most similar to the Dodworth illustration (fourth image here), with the two auxiliary valve first and second, is owned by Mark Elrod. Another resides in the Henry Ford Museum and the last is at the Schubert Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. Having photos of these instruments along with additional information provided, was great help in this restoration. Mark Elrod put in the extra work to make up a very nice measured drawing of his instrument, allowing me to know the over all dimensions of the body of this instrument.

In the sixth and seventh photos, I’ve traced the lines left by the original braces, which all appear to be in the same places as in the Schubert Club’s example. In the restoration, I only placed braces in those spots. I originally told Steve that I didn’t want to make a new rotary valve assembly to replace the fifth valve, but I had another thought. When I had made the valve section for my Graves Bb cornet with bell over the shoulder and for the replica of a four valve Graves Circular cornet, I made made an eighth assembly as insurance against disaster in those projects. The disaster didn’t happen, so the extra assembly was usable. It is of a slightly different design, but I was excited to find that it is the same bore size, .438” and body diameter as the valves in this Fiske cornet. I was able to modify it somewhat to make it appear to belong to this cornet and only a very close examination by somebody looking for evidence would notice the differences.

When this cornet was converted to over the shoulder, the bell tail was straightened as far as the guy could do and then tried to file off the ripples and lumps. You can see some of that in the last two photos, including a cut mark where he started to cut, but changed his mind. Most of the rough tubing had been covered by a long tapered sleeve. I thought about re-bending that length, but knew that it would get rougher and thinner and I would have to place a ferrule, joining it part of the way around the curve. Instead, I cut off that length and joined the original part of the bell with the new curve right at the point where the curve would have ended. I normally do not ever remove original material from important antiques, but I could not think of another way.

I had to make ten new braces, copying the originals as best I could as well as two new valve levers, mounts and screws. I also had to make the entire mouthpipe/tuning crook assembly with tuning slides for C and Bb. Two of the original, surviving instruments have these intact, along with very long tuning slides that lower the pitch to G. This can be constructed in the future if Steve wants it, but it seems likely that it would not have been used much originally and would add to an already very expensive restoration.

The first valve, called “No. 4” by Allen Dodworth in his book, is an ascending valve, raising the pitch by a whole step, putting the C cornet in D. This can be used both for improved intonation of certain notes as well as making some trills easier. The fifth valve lowers the pitch by two and a half tones, the same as fourth valves on many modern tubas and euphoniums as well as the F valves on trombones. This can be used to extend the range downwards as well as adding more alternate fingerings to improve intonation. Not being a very good cornet player myself, I didn’t spend much time playing the completed cornet to determine the utility of the extra valves. My impression is that the player would have to spend a little time adjusting the valve tuning slides to find optimum intonation of the alternate fingerings.

The last photo shown here is this cornet, dismantled for restoration, with the original parts grouped towards the back and those that are not original towards the front. The short piece of tubing standing upright on the far left of the photo is the mouthpipe that I thought might be original. I was never able to determine if it really is original, but if it is, it had been modified to a degree that prevented me from using it in he original design.

As I previously stated the bore of the three main valves along with the fifth, is .438”, but the first valve is smaller at .413”. The height of the cornet, with the bell upright, is 11 7/8” and the bell rim diameter is 5”.