The cornet à pistons is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone outfitted with piston valves and interchangeable crooks that make it a fully chromatic instrument that can be pitched in a number of different keys. Originating in 1820s France and falling out of usage by the early 20th century, the cornet à pistons (known in England and the United States as the cornopean) is an early form of the modern cornet. Pictured here is a cornet à pistons made around 1850 in Lyon, France, by the maker Couturier. It looks different from a modern cornet in large part because of the design of some of its valves; the primary tubing of the instrument enters/exits the first and third valves at the bottom of their valve casings rather than their sides, giving the instrument its distinctive rounded look. (More information on the valve designs used for this instrument will be found in the following paragraphs.) While the cornet à pistons were incorporated into dance music ensembles and, at least in France, occasionally in the orchestra, the military band of the mid-19th century was probably the primary setting in which the cornet à pistons was found. Today, the cornet à pistons is of interest primarily to collectors (individuals and museums) of historic brass instruments and to a few performers belonging to ensembles specializing in the performance of mid-19th century dance and military band music.
The cornet à pistons pictured here is an approximately 4.5-foot length of brass tubing with a cup mouthpiece inserted at one end, a flared bell at its other end, and interrupted mid-course by three spring-loaded piston valves (the first and third valves are of the Stölzel type, the second of the Périnet type--see final paragraph and the Of Tubes, Slides, and Valves special topics page). The bore profile this tubing is cylindrical from the mouthpiece end of the tubing through the valves, at which point it becomes moderately conical until the bell flare. The instrument includes six terminal crooks of various lengths and designs (see detail #1): two straight shank ones (middle right) the incorporation of which produce B-flat2 (shorter) and A2 (longer) fundamentals, respectively; two coiled crooks (upper left) producing A-flat2 and G2 fundamentals; and two oblong crooks (lower left) producing F2 and E2 fundamentals. The instrument also includes a single extender or coupler marked ‘MiB’ (bottom right) that can be added between the E crook and the instrument itself thereby lowering the pitch of the instrument a minor second (m2) to E-flat2. The pre-valve segment of the air column, at its second U-bend, has a tuning slide, as does each valve’s tubing at its U-bend. As pictured in the gallery image, the cup mouthpiece is inserted into the B-flat crook, which in turn is inserted into the lead pipe of the instrument, this combination producing an instrument with a fundamental of B-flat2. The body, all the crooks, and the mouthpiece are stored in a wooden case when not in use (detail #2).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
A player, either seated or standing, grasps the three valve casings with their left hand and positions the cornet à pistons so that the mouthpiece touches their lips, the valve buttons pointing upwards, and the bell facing forwards. The first three fingers of the right hand operate the three valves; the small finger of this hand hooks around a C-shaped rest that helps the player balance the instrument. The player must choose one terminal crook to establish the fundamental for the instrument according to the needs of the musical work being performed at the moment. Once this is established six further fundamentals can be produced on the instrument by depressing various combinations of valves, each combination adding an additional length of tubing to the air column of the instrument. With each of the seven air column lengths the performer may produce a fundamental pitch (called a pedal tone) and the notes in the natural harmonic series above it by controlling the force of the airstream (with their diaphragm muscles) and its modulation (with their embouchure muscles adjusting lip tension). The fundamental of the basic tube length of the instrument as assembled in gallery #1 is B-flat2; the practical range of the instrument is E3 to B-flat5. The cornet à pistons has a wide dynamic range and in general a mellower tone quality than its cousin the trumpet (listen to audio #1), though there are subtle differences in timbre depending on which crook is installed (generally, with the shorter crooks the instrument has a relatively brighter sound than when the longer crooks are in use).
Carse describes the invention of the cornet à pistons as involving the addition of valves (initially two, and later three) to a relatively obscure French natural horn called the cornet simple (other sources call this instrument the German posthorn and post-horn des Allemande) in the mid-1820s, possibly by the Parisian maker Hilari (or Hilary). Extant cornet à pistons are generally outfitted with piston valves of the Stölzel type, a design patented in 1816 in which the air channel passed in part longitudinally through the interior of the piston itself. They were also outfitted with terminal crooks, like natural horns of the day (see Classical natural horn), used to alter the length, and therefore the key, of the instrument. Given that the cornet à pistons was in a sense a modified natural horn and included several crooks, it should not be surprising that the earliest generation of performers of this instrument were generally horn players, not trumpet players. As the 19th century progressed, design changes to the cornet à pistons took place such as the use of one Périnet valve (a design patented in 1839) and the reduction of the number of terminal crooks down to just two (B-flat and A shanks). By 1865 a descendant of the cornet à pistons with a slightly-less conical bore profile, no crooks, a shallower mouthpiece design, and three Périnet valves had evolved and was favored by trumpet players rather than horn players. This was what we might consider the modern cornet. Some cornet à pistons manufactured in France as late as 1915 continued to be made with Stölzel valves, but long before then the Périnet valve had won out and has remained the primary piston valve design right up to the present for piston valve brass instruments.
Baines, Anthony. 1984. “Cornet.” NGDMI v.1: 496-497.
Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.