Couesnon '1900' GMN Armée soprano sax
Guide price: Don't pay much
Date of manufacture: Likely early 1900s (serial range: 8xx)
Date reviewed: January 2018
A strange beauty
If you were in the market for a vintage horn,
how far back would you go? I doubt few, if any of you, would hesitate
at the prospect of owing a nice Martin or a King from the 1950s,
or a Selmer from the '40s. A Conn from the '30s might cause some
concern, if only because the further back you go the less ergonomic
the keywork is - but plenty of players seem to manage just fine
though. But what about an even older horn?
By the time you get to the '20s you're really pushing at the limit.
The keywork on such old horns is likely to be somewhat...eccentric,
and then there's the risk of landing yourself with a high-pitched
horn if you're not careful. And all that's on top of the likelihood
that such a horn will have seen a very great deal of wear and tear.
Push back still further to the very early 1900s and you've effectively
left the cosy comfort of the vintage era and are now wandering around
in the no-man's-land that is the antique period. It sounds quite
exciting - or at least it would be if antique horns had the same
value as, say, tables and chairs. Unfortunately this isn't the case
- and aside from original Adolphe Sax horns and a couple of other
rarities, most horns of this period are really just wall fodder.
Buy 'em cheap, nail 'em to the wall and revel in the post-Victorian
If you're canny and careful though, there are still a few gems to
be had - but the semi-golden rule seems to be that you're better
off sticking to the larger instruments (baritones and basses), if
only because horns this old tend to be rather 'enigmatic' when it
comes to tuning...and a bigger horn tends to be rather more forgiving
of such things.
So it stands to reason that a soprano from this period is likely
to be as big a gamble as it gets. Or is it?
What we have here is a Couesnon. Those of you
in the know (or that have read my other reviews) will know that
this company has a reputation for turning out some very nice horns
- and that they have a distinguished history that goes back to at
least the 1880s - from which it's reasonable to conclude that they
knew what they were doing. But even in spite of such a pedigree,
there's still a practical limit as to what's usable in a modern
context and what's just so much objet d'art - and this horn sits
right on the border where the two meet.
For many of you I doubt that will come as any surprise. A quick
scan of the photo tells you that the keywork is rather simple, and
that the horn only goes down to low B...and up to top Eb. The teardrop
touchpieces on the low C/Eb keys stick out like a bass player's
thumb - and the metal 'pearls' practically scream "Danger,
Will Robinson! Danger!"
So exactly how old is it? Well, there are a few
pointers. The bell is elaborately engraved with a medallion that
says "Universal Exhibition of Paris, 1900" - and at the
very bottom of the bell there's what's been described as a grenade
or a pineapple, in which the number 25 is stamped (visible in the
last shot in this review). The engraving also says "Pour Msseurs
De L'Armee" (roughly, 'for the men of the army'). [My very
good friend Dirk de Vries has pointed out that the engraving actually
says "Fournisseurs de l'Armée" - which means 'Providers to the army'].
About the only thing that's clear is that this
sax was built post-1900. Rumour has it that the number stamped in
the grenade indicates the year of manufacture (1925) - however the
design of the instrument seems rather at odds with other instruments
of that period, which weren't much different to the horns we play
today. This would make the Couesnon as commercially viable as Apple
releasing a phone the size and weight of a housebrick - complete
with pull-up aerial and a battery life of ten minutes.
The only way a date of 1925 makes any sense is if this model was
built for a specific customer (the military, perhaps) - but I'm
pretty sure even they would have baulked at such an antiquated design
being thrust upon them when the rest of the world was forging ahead
with new designs.
But we can certainly date the horn to 1912, thanks to an online
copy of Couesnon's catalogue of the period which lists the various
models - and it would appear that this horn is a GMN series Armée
model (200 Francs, 9 year guarantee). We can also see that there's
a more modern design available in the shape of the BN and HN series.
Just stop and think about that for a minute. No, not the fact that
such an old model was being sold alongside rather more modern examples
- I'm talking about the 9 year guarantee...
who on earth would buy such a thing these days - and why? We'll
come back to that knotty question at the end - but in the meantime
let's take a closer look at how it's all put together.
As you might expect on a horn this old, the toneholes are soldered
on. Or at least they used be; selective galvanic corrosion had taken
its toll over the years, and almost all of them had to be removed,
cleaned and resoldered.
You might be surprised to hear that it features
ribbed construction. This means that multiple pillars are fitted
to a single plate or strap, which is then fitted to the horn. It
saves on time and costs in production and perhaps adds a little
stiffness to the body. It sounds like quite a modern technique,
but can be found on Adolphe Sax's original horns.
There are few other body features of note - you get a plain static
thumb hook, a small and slightly domed metal thumb rest...and that's
it. You don't even get a sling ring or a side F# key - though you
do get a lyre holder...just in case you fancy a spot of marching.
The build quality is distinctly iffy in places,
which comes as a bit of a surprise considering what I've seen of
Couesnon's output (both before and after this horn). It's not terrible,
by any means, but every now and again you see something that looks
a bit out of place...a bit out of character.
Perhaps the most 'interesting' is the lower stack rib. Note how
poorly the cut-outs align with the toneholes. In fact the rib barely
fits at all, which makes me wonder why they didn't do something
about it. That's the thing with ribbed construction, you only have
to get the layout right once - and thereafter every copy of that
rib will be a perfect fit.
You might suggest that it's been removed and poorly refitted - but
then you'd see a discrepancy in the way the key cup arms lined up
with the toneholes as well as 'witness marks' on the body that show
its original position.
giveaway is that Couesnon have used riveted studs to position/secure
the individual or 'standalone' pillars. It might seem unusual but
this is exactly the same method of construction that was used on
Adolphe Sax's horns. The interesting question (to me, at any rate)
is whether these studs were part of a 'template' based approach
to construction - or simply a means of ensuring that the pillars
and fittings didn't fall off the horn. Chances are it's a bit of
both - and just to be on the safe side they've also soldered the
Either way it means that these riveted pillar are fixed points -
and because the lower stack rib incorporates pillars that connect
(via keys) to standalone ones, you couldn't reposition it without
seriously affecting its relationship to these standalones. And yes,
it throws up the possibility that the rib is where it is precisely
because of this relationship...which would mean that the standalone
pillars have been incorrectly placed. It's enough to make your brain
dribble out of your nose...so let's just say that someone made a
bit of a boo-boo when it came to ensuring everything lined up.
keywork fares slightly better in terms of build quality, notwithstanding
the varied key cup angles (more of which later). It's quite a simple
action, with both stacks mounted on a single rod screw and a standalone
non-articulated G# key. The latter might sound like a bit of a drawback,
but at least you'll never be bothered with a sticky G#. Swings and
roundabouts, as always.
Similarly, there's no link between the bell keys - mostly down to
the fact that there's nothing to link to. You get a low C# and a
low B - and that's your lot.
The bell key table (such as it is) might look rather clunky, but
in fact it's quite a presentable layout. Naturally it's greatly
helped by virtue of the keys being quite small and light, and mounted
on proper point screws. For sure, if you were jumping from G# to
C# or low B it's going to require some dexterity - but for the most
part it works very well indeed, and isn't so very dissimilar to
the left hand lever key arrangement on a clarinet.
Note the two key cups below the bell keys. This is the G key - and
yeah, it's got two cups. Although it's considered an antiquated
design it's still standard practice on flutes (though the keys are
often able to move independently of each other so as to provide
a feature known as a 'split E'), and over the years variations of
it have popped up on saxes from time-to-time. It's no big deal on
something as small as a flute, but with larger keys you can often
find that the inherent flex in them makes it a bit of chore to synchronise
the two pads...and to maintain it over the long term.
speaking of synchronicity, the octave key mech presented quite a
Although it looks rather clunky, and more than a bit Steampunk,
it actually feels quite slick under the thumb. I dare say most of
this is down to its size - and that the same mech on a larger horn
would be a lot less fun - but the degree of precision required when
setting it up may have you tearing your hair out. I shan't go into
too much detail, or we'll be here all day - but suffice to say that
it's the sort of mechanism where each and every adjustment has a
critical effect on the next key down the line. So you sand a cork
here, and then you have to adjust a cork there, which means you
have to fiddle with a felt there, which means you have to sand the
original cork here again...and...and...and so on.
It's also the case that the thickness of the octave key pads is
part of the regulation roundabout - so unless you want to drive
yourself mad you'll be well advised to use cork pads (which can
be sanded down in situ). And the reason it's so fiendishly complicated
is that there's little if any scope for free play. Under normal
circumstances free play is not something you want in a horn's keywork,
but there are time when it's essential. It's rather like 'backlash'
on plain gears - if you don't have a little bit of free play between
two gears, they'll lock up solid. Sometimes a mechanism needs a
bit of room to move. And so it is with octave mechs - a bit of free
play is required to take up differences in finger/thumb pressure,
pad expansion/shrinkage and plain old wear and tear in the action.
This mech allows for none of that - and is further complicated by
the need to work to a prescribed action height...about more of which
way of relief, the palm keys are pure simplicity. Again, the design
and layout is obviously old - but the touchpieces sit nicely under
the fingers and have a reassuringly solid feel about them.
Admittedly it take a little while to get used to the 'over and under'
layout as opposed to the modern 'side by side' arrangement - but
the lack of a top F keeps things simple.
These two keys are extremely picky when it comes
to spring tension - due to a combination of key geometry and spring
length. Unfortunately this poor old horn had previously been 'restored'
by a complete plonker - so a fair amount of remedial work was necessary
in order to restore a slick and snappy feel to these keys.
And speaking of springs, the horn uses a mix of
standard and captive/integral spring cradles. Standard spring cradles
are small stubs fitted to the key barrels...and are pretty much
the norm on modern horns. Captive cradles use slots or holes cut
into the key arms/feet. There are pros and cons to both methods,
of course - but the hole-type cradle comes with a nasty gotcha...because
you often forget you're dealing with one until you've assembled
an entire key stack. It's only when you go to set the springs up
that you realise you're gonna have to dismantle the entire stack
because one spring needs to be set into its hole before the stack
is assembled. If all the springs used captive holes you'd clock
it straightaway and assemble the horn accordingly...but when it's
just one or two they nearly always catch you out.
surprise to see single-piece side keys - it's a soprano, after all.
I rather like these two keys - not because they're anything particularly
special...it just struck me that they look rather elegant. Feel
free to disagree, or even wonder if I've been drinking too much
tea lately. Note the key on the underside of the horn - that's the
standalone G# key cup.
Incidentally, it looks like the horn is finished
in silver plate - but in fact it's nickel. It caught me out initially,
but this was largely due to it being covered with a thick coat of
new but extremely crappy gold lacquer. Where it was flaking off
(already) it appeared to be silver plated...but once I started to
strip it, it showed its true colours (nickel plate looks 'blacker').
Fitting pads to this horn was something of a Herculean
task. The key cups are incredibly shallow, and the angle between
the rim of the toneholes and the base of the key cups appeared to
be as arbitrary as it was varied. Some of this is undoubtedly down
to previous 'repairs' - but mostly it's because the horn is designed
to use 'stuffed' pads. A modern pad has a flat disc of woven or
compressed felt at its core, which means the pad is more or less
flat. A stuffed pad is, essentially, a small bag filled with either
loose wool fibres (a bit like cotton wool) or a very loosely-packed
disc (like a cotton wool pad). On occassion a combination of stuffing
was used, comprising a loosely packed disc topped with a layer of
loose fibres. As you might imagine, they're extremely soft and squishy
- and such pads don't so much sit on the tonehole rims as squish
themselves into the tonehole.
whereas a flat pad (shown on the left in the diagram) relies largely
on the tonehole and the key cup being flat, and a certain geometry
between them - the stuffed pad (shown on the right) needs no such
creature comforts and will squish itself into whatever hole it can
find, no matter the angle its presented at. It sounds like the perfect
pad, but the payoff for its accommodating nature is that it feels
bloody awful under the fingers, there's little to no chance of maintaining
any degree of accuracy in the regulation between linked keys and
the efficacy of the pad seat changes from day to day.
Had my brief been to restore this horn to original
condition for display purposes, I'd have fitted stuffed pads - but
it had been bought by a client who had every intention of using
it...so it would need a set of reliable pads. There really wasn't
much I could do about many of the existing cup angles (you can only
adjust them so far without 'going nuclear' and dismantling the key),
so I had to settle for making a bespoke pad for each and every key
cup and making up the resultant height differences in the regulation.
It was, to say the least, something of a challenge.
If you're ever faced with such a proposition,
my advice is to find the key with the least amount of adjustability
and make this the first one you deal with. If you don't, you run
the risk of making and fitting almost a whole set of pads before
realising the you're left with one key that can't be made to work.
This'll leave you with the option of re-doing all the other pads,
or dismantling the key and rebuilding it. Neither option is particularly
attractive (or cheap). In this case I singled out the top B as being
the immovable object - so I built a pad for it and used the height
of the key as the standard to which all the others would be matched.
when I say built, I really mean it. There's no pad on Earth thin
enough to fit this key, so I fell back on a technique used on very
early woodwinds - the flap pad. This is exactly as it sounds, it's
simply a leather flap. Back in the day it would have been glued
to a flat key (think of a rectangular ping-pong bat) - and as a
padding system it actually worked quite well. I adapted it slightly
by sanding a thin disc of cork to the precise thickness required,
then glued it to the back of the leather before fitting it to the
key cup. What you see here is solid pad. I could have just used
plain cork - but it would have jarred against the look of the remaining
pads...and I think the time spent on it was well worth it.
As for the remaining pads, I went with white
kid (goat) skin - with small flat reflectors fitted to the larger
The original stuffed pads would almost certainly have been white
kid and would probably have had a single stitch in the centre of
the pad to keep them from over-ballooning.
It's always worth giving some thought to the type of pads you're
going to fit to a horn of this age, and although the colour and
type of leather isn't particularly important you still need to be
careful with the choice of pad rivet/reflector. Such horns have
a very particular 'voice', and I've played examples where large
reflectors have been fitted on the assumption that old horns are
often stuffy and dull. In fact they're often stuffy because they're
leaking like a sieve, and once you've cured the leaks and whacked
in a set of large reflectors you might well find that the horn sounds
uncharacteristically harsh and brittle. Better to play it safe and
err on the side of modesty.
In the hands the horns feels incredibly light,
which isn't entirely unexpected given that it tips the scales at
just under a kilogram (modern sopranos come in at about 1.25kg).
The action's light too - or at least it is now.
When it came into the workshop it was plain to see that someone
had resprung it...but had used a single thickness of spring throughout.
This meant that the very smallest key was being powered by the same
sized spring as the very largest key, which is a recipe for disaster.
I can't even begin to describe how awful it felt. With these issues
sorted out and a revamped action (on replacement oversized rods),
the horn became a joy to the touch. Modern horns are all very nice
and whizz-bangy, but there's something to be said for getting back
to simplicity. It's very refreshing.
In terms of ergonomics there weren't too many problems. It's a small
horn, so nothing's going to be very much out of reach. Granted,
the palm key layout takes some getting used to, as does the very
basic bell key cluster...and the placement of the side key touches
might trip you up for a while - but it's all very much doable and
feels rather like a large clarinet than a sax.
It's time now to come back to that earlier question;
why buy an old soprano of unremarkable build quality, ancient key
design and limited note range?
It all becomes clear when you play the thing. Tonewise it has an
enchanting clarity coupled with a frighteningly immediate response
and indefatigable definition. If a modern soprano is a Swiss army
knife, the Couesnon is a scalpel.
I can usually come up with a (strained) analogy to describe the
way a horn plays, but there's something so ethereal about this horn
that it almost defies description. At one and the same time it's
both as new as the very first day on Earth, and as old as the end
of time itself. I think it's the simplicity, the purity, the very
rawness of it. It's quite haunting. I think, too, that it has more
harmonic complexity. It's less constrained, less sterile.
where did we go wrong? Why would we want to lose something like
this? Like all woodwinds the saxophone has always been an instrument
of compromises. If you compare the tone of an original Adolphe Sax
saxophone to a modern one you'll be amazed at how much more open
and alive the original horn sounds in comparison. This is the price
you have to pay for mechanical complexity and accuracy of tuning
- the more you tame the horn, the tamer it sounds - and we tend
not to notice what's been lost simply because it's rare that any
of us have the means to make such a comparison. This horn represents
the very last of what I guess you could call the first generation
of saxophones - the ones that most closely resembled Sax's horns.
Even as it was being built, this horn was outdated - mechanically
outclassed by the more contemporary BN and HN series horns.
As you might expect there's a price to pay for
all of the Couesnon's strange beauty, and it shows up in the tuning.
In terms of overall pitch it's fine - it hits A=440Hz no problem.
Internally it's reasonably precise for a soprano, perhaps aided
by its inherent flexibility. There's very little that's 'dialled
in' about this horn - and while I wouldn't say it's wild it nonetheless
demands a bit of steering (as all sopranos do).
By far the only real issue is an extremely flat mid C#. In fact
it's barely distinguishable from a C. The solution to this, of course,
is to avoid playing a mid C# (I'm full of helpful advice like that)
- but if you simply must then you'll find that opening the palm
D key brings it right into line.
It sounds like a right pain in the arse, but it's not like your
fingers have anything else to do...and it really doesn't take long
before it becomes second nature.
Given that this is a horn that's at least 100 years old and that
has such a wonderful tone, it's perhaps a small price to pay.
So should you rush out and buy one?
No. At least not unless you have a stack of cash going spare. Horns
like this tend to be bought by people who really know what they're
doing (collectors, in the main) or those who really don't know what
I don't think the client will mind terribly if I say that they fell
into the latter camp in this instance. They had a hankering for
a vintage soprano, did a little bit of research - and then got royally
turned over by a dodgy seller/repairer.
On first seeing this horn (and after I'd stopped laughing) I wrote
it off as a basket case. It was in such poor shape, and the 'restoration'
work that had been carried out on it was a joke. A very bad joke.
It was, in effect, a dead loss. If you have a look at its entry
in the Black Museum
you'll see exactly what I mean.
But I thought I'd at least give it a blow - and, after a few emergency
tweaks, managed to get it half-playable. And that's when I changed
my mind. It was still something of a gamble, and the figures weren't
in the client's favour - but a decision was made to go ahead solely
on the way it played. And I'm delighted to say it turned out to
be a good bet - the client was, and is, thrilled to bits with how
this horn feels and plays (as am I)...and is equally thrilled by
the interest and comments from other players whenever the horn is
played. What more can you ask for?
Restoring a horn as old as this takes time, experience
and care, and that never comes cheap. Because of the simplistic
keywork, the limited note range and the C# tuning issue, these horns
are never going to be worth a great deal of money - probably only
as much as the cost of the repairs put into them. If you buy wisely
and cheaply though, you may well be in with a chance.
Tempting, isn't it...