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Couesnon '1900' GMN Armée soprano sax

Couesnon 1900 GMN Armée soprano sax reviewOrigin: France
Guide price: Don't pay much
Weight: 0.95kg
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 chic.
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').
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...

Couesnon 1900 soprano lower stackSo 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.

Couesnon 1900 soprano studAnother 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 pillars on.
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.

Couesnon 1900 soprano bell keysThe 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.

Couesnon 1900 soprano octave mechAnd speaking of synchronicity, the octave key mech presented quite a few challenges.
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 later.

Couesnon 1900 soprano palm keysBy 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.

Couesnon 1900 soprano side leysNo 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.

Stuffed padAnd 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.
Couesnon 1900 soprano top B keyAnd 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 pads.
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.

Couesnon 1900 soprano bellSo 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 they're doing.
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...

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018