Fiske Orchestra Cornet in C, 1860

Before this cornet surfaced recently, we only knew of this model from Fiske's 1861 illustrated catalog (see the last image below), but two other similar cornets have since come to light.  One is from about the same time period as this, although probably in Bb and with the larger bell that Fiske recommended for use in the brass band.  That is on display at the Gettysburg Heritage Center. The third, belonging to Cleveland Orchestra trumpeter Michael Sachs, was made a little later, probably between 1865 and 1867, has a slightly larger bore (.438") and bell that is very similar to this C cornet, but made on a different mandrel and has a 5" bell rim.  This is pictured in the last photo down on the left.  All of these examples of very rare models by this important US maker have survived unusually complete and well preserved.  The cornet featured here has stayed in the family of the original owner from when it was new until the present.  That original owner was Walter M Davis (born in 1819 in Covington, NY, died in 1903 in Marble Rock, IA), who started his musical career in 1839 with VanAmburgh's Circus.  It is tempting to assume that he played keyed bugle in the circus band at that time, but I haven't been able to find any additional facts regarding his musical activities and he may have been a very early cornet player.  He was known to be an agent/manager for circuses subsequently and retired from that business no later than 1871.  When he was 50 years old, he was listed in the 1870 Federal Census as a farmer in Polk Township, Iowa, with a wife 18 years his junior and three children under age 8 years.  He had real and personal estate worth $8170, which was fairly wealthy for the time, but not unusual for a successful farmer/businessman.  It would be interesting to know if he amassed this wealth from his career in the circus or more typically by working hard as a farmer and taking advantage of the Homestead Act.  Either way, he was no longer a professional musician and most likely used this cornet in a local town band or social orchestra.


This cornet was polished and lacquered more than 30 years ago, while in the possession of Walter Davis' granddaughter, who later passed it on to her grandson, Charles Davis.  She also loaned it to the University of North Dakota (reason unknown) and it was reputedly played by Doc Severinsen while he was giving a concert there.  The polishing was more aggressive than appropriate for preservation reasons, but that is really the only complaint that I would have regarding the state of preservation.  The parts shown may, indeed, be everything that came with it when new.  There was never a mount for a lyre, which was unusual even for an orchestra cornet at the time.  It plays in C with the short shank in place as in the first two photos to the left, the crooks lower the pitch to Bb, A and Ab.  The catalog mentions that the crooks would also lower it to G and the combination of the Bb and A crooks work very well for that pitch, so it may not have had a dedicated G crook.  The catalog also describes this being of "Small calibre, suitable for Orchestra".  Among Fiske's cornets, I have come across only three Bb (and no C) cornets with larger, Saxhorn style bells and those shared the same valve bore (.433") as this instrument.  I was able to compare the bell dimensions of this cornet to that of the Fiske circular cornet featured on this site and they have bells of the same size, although with different rim diameters and have the same valve bores.   The bell rim diameter is 4 1/2" and the overall length of the cornet without crooks is 15 1/2".  It appears that even though Fiske was offering the wider bells for bands in these years, the smaller (more cornet-like) were much more popular.  Original cases surviving from the 1860s are quite rare and are most often black painted softwood and the more deluxe were varnished hardwood or leather covered.  This one is highly unusual, being cloth covered, a practice that became almost universal more than 35 years later, but appears to be original.  The edges are all trimmed in leather, tacked in place and the original leather handle and brass lock are both in excellent condition.


There is some confusion as to what was meant by "orchestra cornet" by US makers and players in the 1850s through the 1880s.  Unfortunately, I will not be able to clear this up completely.  First, it should be understood that the vast majority of orchestras or "string bands" in the US at the time were social orchestras for dances and similar entertainments rather than symphonic or chamber orchestras that we may think of today.  Typically, the same musicians played in both situations and may have used the same cornets such as this one for both.  If the players of altos, tenors and basses wanted both jobs, they would have needed to switch the string equivalents, or in some cases trombone and French horn for the indoor gigs.  There are also many historical accounts of brass bands playing for dances, perhaps necessitating a larger hall for the louder group.  What I gather from the above mentioned Fiske catalog, it seems that larger and presumably louder Bb cornets were thought to be more suitable for band or outdoor use and the smaller "calibre" best for smaller bands, the orchestra, or other indoor use.  This seems logical, but by the early 1880s, Boston was supplying Bb cornets in Band Size which appeared to be smaller than their Orchestra Size Cornet.   These were remarkably similar instruments, but Orchestra having larger valves and wider curves, although the same bell and bore size.  Basically, the Band Size was the earlier design as had been made by E.G. Wright for more than a decade.   Both also had interchangeable mouthpipe shanks for Bb and A and could be supplied with crooks to G.  This brings up the other detail that seems to better define an "orchestra cornet": the ability to play in a variety of pitches.  This seems to be the case with these early Fiske instruments and those by Allen and Hall.  D.C. Hall's 1864 catalog he makes a clear distinction between the band cornets in Bb only and the orchestra cornets in C or Bb, with crooks to G.   One of these can be seen elsewhere on this site.  The only other of Hall's instruments that are specified to be used in the orchestra are the slide trombone and French horn.  Fiske blurs the line much more by allowing that the small Eb cornet and a variety of bell front and circular C and Bb cornets are appropriate for the orchestra.  E.G. Wright is alone in making F and Eb valve trumpets along with cornets in C and Bb with crooks to G. These are in addition to cornets in Eb and Bb only.  In the only known list of instruments available from Wright, dating from about 1863, it is not specified that these are instruments for the orchestra, but based on the information above, I would make that speculation.  In an 1856 publication of Harvey Dodworth, he lists for sale both US and European made brass instruments.  Among the imports, there are cornets in C and Bb as well as unspecified trumpets, all with crooks.  In the list of higher quality, US made cornets, he specifies "Cornets for String Bands, Small Bells" and "Cornets for Brass Bands, Large Bells".  Once again, those for string bands are in C or Bb with crooks to G and there is also a trumpet in F with crooks to Ab.  It is possible that these instruments were being supplied by Fiske at that time, based on a known relationship between the two, but it is also possible that Dodworth was having them made by a variety of makers.  For instance, the keyed bugles listed were not likely made by Fiske and there is no reason to believe that the trumpets were either.  I'm sure that there is a lot more documentary evidence for the use of the term orchestra cornet" to be found, but the information above should help to give some understanding of the traditions long before the common adoption of the modern Bb trumpets.