Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

Adolphe Sax, his Saxhorn and the People Who Made It Popular During The War Between The States

Adolphe Sax at the Age of 40 Illustrated by Eric Ortner

Adolphe Sax at the Age of 40 Illustrated by Eric Ortner

Written and Illustrated by Eric Ortner

Originally Published in The Civil War Courier

Some of the most important social activities in the mid 19th Century were performances from community music ensembles. Around the time of the American Civil War the ensembles were more often than not brass bands. The great popularity of the brass band was a result of many individual’s contributions to the improvement of brass instruments.

There have been thousands of instrument manufactures through the ages. Yet in the minds of most people today, there are really only two names associated with the title instrument maker. The first is obvious, Stradivarius. The second is equally well known, but seldom thought of; Adolphe Sax. Sax was the inventor of the saxophone and more importantly for those interested in the history of the Civil War, the Saxhorn.

Adolphe Sax was born in Brussles on November 6, 1814. His father, Charles Sax, was a joiner and cabinetmaker. Charles eventually worked in a factory and later began to produce woodwind  instruments like serpents and flutes. Charles was self-trained, and his work became so well regarded that King William I appointed him Instrument Maker to the Court of the Netherlands. This required Charles to supply the Belgian military bands with instruments. What Charles Sax learned in the creation of his acclaimed instruments was, that variations in tones were created by the proportions of an instrument’s bore. The sound further depended on whether the instrument was cylindrical, conical or a combination of both. He also noticed the importance of the method by which the source of the sound was created. He closely studied the oboe’s double reed, the clarinet’s single reed, the trumpet’s cup mouthpiece and the flute’s open hole. Charles Sax was one of the first people to conduct thorough research in this field. Charles’ eldest son, Adolphe, was there to assist him with all of his work, and in the process, Adolphe learned a great deal.

There is not a whole lot written about Adolphe’s mother. She bore 11 children, few of whom survived into adulthood. The only quote that she is known to have said is, “The child is doomed to suffer; he won’t live.”

She said this of Adolphe after he nearly drowned in a river. He had numerous other mishaps that consisted of several poisonings, a serious fall down stairs, a close call with a gunpowder explosion, which badly burned him, a hot frying pan falling on him along with a roof stone hitting him in the head leaving a scar that remained long into adulthood. This sort of bad luck can almost be seen as an omen of the sort of life that lay ahead for young Adolphe.

Adolphe’s misfortunes did not hinder him in becoming a skilled instrument manufacturer though. Before he was even in his teens, Adolphe Sax had learned how to drill the pieces of a clarinet to perfection. He was even able to create the involved key work of these instruments. At the age of 14 Adolphe began to study music at the Royal School of Singing. He started studying flute, but later took up the clarinet under the instruction of Valentine Vender, who was a famous Belgian bandmaster. He learned quickly from Vender, and in 1834 Joseph Küffner, a German bandmaster and composer dedicated a work for two clarinets to Adolphe.

Although Adolphe Sax gradually drifted back to producing instruments in his father’s shop, what led to his career as an instrument maker was his vast improvements to the bass clarinet which were made public in June of 1838. After a successful trip to Paris with the instrument, Adolphe returned to Brussels where he met great disappointment in the Brussels Exhibition of 1841. Sax was encouraged by Jacques Halévy, whom he had met in his trip to Paris, to return there and continue to create his family of instruments. Against his father’s objections, Adolphe left Brussels for Paris with only 30 Francs to his name.

Sax’s arrival in Paris bordered on disaster. His father had warned him when he left that the French manufacturers did not take kindly to foreign competition on their own soil. He was loaned 4,000 francs by Halévy and other friends. Sax then set up a shop on Rue St. Georges and began to advertise his instruments. When a local conductor tried to write parts for them, the orchestra members refused to use them because they were not French. Shortly after, almost all of the loaned 4,000 francs were stolen. It is believed that the offender was most likely one of Sax’s competitors.

Upright Family of saxhorns

Upright Family of saxhorns

There was a call for support from King Leopold of Belgium to sponsor the work of Sax. Initially the King was uninterested, but General Rumigny was able to convince him that Sax’s instruments were optimal for military style music. As a result of the King’s new-found interest, stock in the company was made available on the Paris Stock Exchange. Sax’s rivals bought out all of the stock and sold it for half the price. His competition once again succeeded in ruining his business.

Adolphe Sax had many powerful connections, though, and as a result his competitors were never completely able to keep him down. As a third chance to rebound from his economic woes, a concert was arranged. It was a competition between bands using traditional instrumentation and instruments produced by Sax. The commission and huge audience that was in attendance supported Sax. He believed that his financial problems would finally be over, but this was not the case. Adolphe’s competitor’s bribed his employees to get the plans for his instruments and then promptly sued him saying that Sax had stolen their instruments. As a result, Sax sold the factory for four thousand Francs.

He traveled to England promoting his saxophones with limited success in small concerts. He then returned to France in the fall of 1845 and bought back his factory. The French government, which was convinced of the Sax instruments superior quality due to the contest, ordered hundreds of instruments for the official military bands. Upon General Rumigny’s suggestion, prison labor was used to produce these instruments. This was only because Sax could still not afford to pay skilled employees.

This new success was still very short lived. In 1848 the French government was in upheaval due to revolution. The turmoil which ensued lead to the revocation of Sax’s military contract. His banker went bankrupt as a result of Sax’s inability to pay his loan. Adolphe was thus thrown into debtor’s prison. He was released shortly after because of his friend’s support.

When President Louis Napoleon appointed himself Emperor Napoleon III, opportunity once again arose for Sax, and once again Sax’s powerful military connections saved the day. The Emperor’s Aide-de-camp Colonel Fleury, was a friend of Adolphe, and introduced him to the Emperor. With strong urging on Fleury’s part, Napoleon III agreed to give Sax payment of 20,000 Francs per month to build the instruments for military bands. Unfortunately for Sax, this arrangement did not last long. He lost a similar opportunity in 1859 when the French government replaced all of their military instruments.

In the area of brass instruments it is difficult to call Sax an inventor. It would be much more accurate to call him a perfectionist. Adolphe Sax’s principals were gained primarily from the work of his father. Sax was interested in the study of acoustics. He was concerned with correct proportions such as measurements of bore size, tube length, valve placement, and mouthpiece construction. He realized that by paying close attention to such details, the discrepancies in intonation between instruments could be eliminated. What his efforts resulted in, were the creation of homogenous families of instruments.

Prior to the work of Sax, military brass instruments came from many manufacturers in a wide variety of shapes. These deviations resulted in a discrepancy of tuning. These problems were further amplified due to the fact that many bands had both keyed and valved brass instruments intermixed.

The complete family of brass instruments, although vastly improved was not even Sax’s invention. Previously, a French manufacturer, Danays, created a family of valved bugles called Clavicors. What made Sax’s work significant was the overall quality of his instruments. By 1849, Adolphe Sax had unveiled three of his greatest contributions to the brass world. Sax adopted an upright tuba shape for all of these instruments. Originally, even the highest pitched instruments in his family of five were positioned upright. However, his quest for acoustic perfection later caused Sax to use horizontal patterns that resemble the modern cornet.

All the Sax families utilized the same bore size regardless of whether they were conical or cylindrical. The saxhorn was a conical family, which used the same fingerings for notes, and the same basic mouthpiece shape for all its members.

Cutaway Diagram of a Berliner Pumpen Valve Illustrated by Eric Ortner

Cutaway Diagram of a Berliner Pumpen Valve Illustrated by Eric Ortner

Sax took existing ideas in valve design, and improved them. He borrowed some of his valve designs heavily from the instrument maker Moriz in Berlin. Adolphe became skilled at making Moritz’s Berliner-Pumpen valve, and even was able to make an improvement to it. He did so by smoothing out the nine sharp angles that were integral to the valve system. These sharp bends in the wind passage of brass instruments were often the cause of poor tone. He did some similar work with rotary valves.

Adolph’s efforts in the creation of a valved instrument with great tone resulted in the creation of the saxhorn. The Saxhorn family was patented in October of 1845 and utilized a wide coned, deep cupped mouthpiece which resembles a modern French Horn’s. There were numerous lawsuits filed against Adolphe by his competition in regards to this popular instrument. However, none of the cases were successful.

Saxhorns had a larger bore than that of a trumpet. The bore’s conical shape produced a mellow tone. This warm sound was preferred by the nineteenth century audience, both in the United States and in Europe  over the bright tone of a cylindrical trumpet. These preferences most likely resulted from the lack of mellow sounding woodwinds in an all brass band. The bright tone of an ensemble made up entirely of cylindrical brasses would have been very overwhelming.

The complete saxhorn family, was designed to perform in military as well as orchestral functions. The instruments intended for military use were tuned in E-flat and B-flat, while instruments designed for use in the orchestra were in the keys of C and F. The complete set of Saxhorns consists of seven members. The soprano in E-flat and the soprano in B-flat were identical in pitch to the standard cornet. The alto member of the family was tuned in E-flat, while the baritone was in B-flat. The bass was built in the key of B-flat. The bass also had a big brother tuned to BB-flat. Sax completed the family a couple years after he unveiled the original 5 instruments with a tuba in E-flat. The differences in baritone and B-flat bass Saxhorns are subtle. The bass members of the family have larger bores and as a result are able to produce fuller low notes with less effort.

Saxhorns gained more favorable attention from military bands than they did in orchestras. This is partially because they blended too well with string instruments and the desired contrast in tonal quality between the two families is absent. This reason was in addition to orchestra member’s dislike for the instruments. Their distaste was not simply due to Sax’s nationality, but also because the orchestra members would be forced to purchase and learn how to perform on new instruments. However, a few composers did find a place for the saxhorn in their arrangements.

Even with great critical acclaim and powerful connections in France and abroad during his life, Sax died on February 4, 1894 a penniless man. He was forced to sell off his valuable collection of 467 instruments in 1877 to repay his debts. His debts were of course a direct result of poor business skills. This weakness caused Sax to fall victim to the greed of his unscrupulous competitors. So with all of Sax’s misfortunes, how was he able to earn a name on instruments in the United States? This question is easily answered with another family name.

The Distin family were an English quintet. The leader, and father, John Distin was a member of King George IV’s Household Band. At this point, John was playing slide-trumpet on which he was considered to be the second best performer in Great Brittain. He was the first trumpet in the orchestra that triumphed the coronation of Queen Victoria.

John’s children were encouraged to take after their father. The Distin family toured Great Britain as a miniature brass band, and were immensely popular with all who had heard them. With their success, the family decided to try their luck on the rest of the continent. It was on this tour that they made the acquaintance of Adolphe Sax.

The Distin family did not achieve the same critical acceptance in the rest of Europe that they had previously been used to in England. This was especially true in Vienne. There they performed terribly in an audition. Their shoddy execution was a direct result of their crude instruments. On February 4, 1844 they met Sax at the Rue-Saint-Georges workshop after hearing the saxhorn for the first time the night before.

Sax was eager to present the Distin’s with his creations, according to Henry Distin’s recollections. Success for the Distins followed with the receipt of their new instruments. Although the new found friendship between Sax and the Distins was mutually beneficial, it almost certainly did more for the promotion of Sax’s instruments. The instruments were taken back to England where they earned a great deal more notoriety. In 1846 the family took saxhorns across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America where many heard the instrument for the first time.

It is believed that the first band to purchase saxhorns in the United States was the Stonewall Brigade Band of Staunton, Virginia. In fact before they joined the 5th Virginia Infantry, the performers called themselves the Mountain Saxhorn Band of Staunton. They carried these instruments throughout the Civil War. They were by no means the only southern band to do so.

The 26th Regimental Band from Salem, North Carolina also carried them. Brass instruments were far superior to their woodwind counterparts in the conditions of war. That is, of course, one of the reasons that brass bands gained popularity during the Civil War. However, brass instruments could also fall prey to the trials of military life. The Salem band’s instruments were no exception. In April of 1864 the band members requested that Governor Vance attempt to run the blockade and trade cotton for a new set of Saxhorns. The governor’s aide responded by saying, “He (Vance) directs me to say he will ship the cotton for that purpose if you will furnish it, provided the steamers continue to run.”

That was an unfeasible proposition for almost any Confederate soldier in that late month of the war. To add insult to injury, the 26th Regimental Band was forced to give most of their battered instruments up to Union Troops in the last days of the war, when they were captured by the Yankee army. Julius Augustus Leinbach wrote of his capture, “We walked up to them and were taken in charge. Our instruments were taken from us and that seemed to be the bitterest experience of all…”

Some of the Instruments played by various North Carolina Bands, including an E flat bass over the shoulder saxhorn played by Leinbach in the early part of the war, can be seen publicly. These are in the Wachovia Museum of Old Salem. There are other strong collections of Civil War period instruments on public display throughout the country. The Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum both have extensive displays. However, there are no public exhibits of a complete set of 7 saxhorns in the United States.

Performing positions of upright verses over the shoulder instruments

Performing positions of upright verses over the shoulder instruments

True upright saxhorns were not widely used by Union and Confederate troops during the war. Instead, they preferred the over the shoulder instruments patented in 1838 by Allen Dodworth and manufactured in Austria. The name Saxhorn is more often than not used to describe over the shoulder instruments as well as the upright style. This is an inaccurate title. However, it is an inaccuracy, which was not started anytime recently. The nomenclature was even used in the wrong context during the time of the War Between the States. However, for the interest of this article, the over the shoulder instruments will be discussed as well.

It is important to note that for the most part, over the shoulder instruments were also made in matching families. Therefore, they at least held true to the principals of Sax. Over the shoulder instruments were made of the same length of tubing. However they had tighter coils which created a longer neck than upright instruments. Therefore they appear longer. Another big difference between the two instruments was that over the shoulder versions utilized rotary valves for the most part, as apposed to the Berliner-Pumpen Valves preferred by Adolphe Sax. (See Coronet Article For Complete Description)

Illustration of a Family of Over-the-Shoulder Saxhorns

Illustration of a Family of Over-the-Shoulder Saxhorns

Allen Dodworth was a strong supporter of Sax’s creation. In 1849 he described them as being, far superior to any other class of instruments in use. Allen Dodworth designed over the shoulder instruments specifically for marching. He wrote a very influential instruction book called, Dodworth’s Brass Band School, published in 1853. It helped to inform small community bands how to start and maintain a successful organization. It is important to note that most of the bands that enlisted in the Civil War were originally amateur community bands that performed with local militias. In Dodworth’s Brass Band School, he suggested, “In selecting the instruments, attention should be paid to the use intended; if for military purposes only, those with bells behind, over the shoulder, are preferable, as they throw all the tone to those who are marching to it, but for any other purpose are not so good ….For general purposes, those with the bell upward, like the Sax Horn, are most convenient, and should be adopted by all whose business is not exclusively military; care should be taken to have all the bells one way.”

Many amateur bands of the day used instrumentation combining over the shoulder instruments, up right saxhorns and bell front instruments. This mixture caused significant problems with intonation. This sort of instrumentation was often partially the result of the cost of instruments, or in many cases simply an ignorance of acoustic science.

Allen Dodworth was very influential as a band leader and as an instrument inventor. One of his most widely known protégés was Patrick Gilmore, the famed cornet player of the Boston Brigade Band. Like Gilmore’s ensemble, The Dodworth Band participated in the Civil War. At this point in time it was lead by Allen’s Brother Harvey.

Harvey Dodworth took over the directorship of the band in 1860. In 1862 Harvey was selected by the war department to serve on an advisory board to suggest a policy for military bands. Naturally, Dodworth’s selection for instrumentation of regimental bands included over-the-shoulder saxhorns.

The band enlisted for three months as part of the 71st New York Militia Regiment. The band was not just an excellent relief from the drudgery of military service. They earned their pay at the First Manassas by serving and rescuing the wounded on the battlefield. Although enlisted for only a short period, the Dodworth Band later aided the Union’s war effort by performing benefit concerts.

The disparity between the two armies is also evident in regards to their bands. While the 71st was gallivanting around in New York’s high society, the 26th Regimental Band from Salem, North Carolina had its own version of benefit concerts. These were solely performed in the interest of putting food in their own stomachs.

Over the shoulder instruments were by no means exclusively made in Europe. This increasingly became the case after 1850. There were many manufacturers in the United States who were quite successful as a direct result of the War Between the States. Some of the manufacturers set up shop in the Boston area. Graves and Company, J. Lanthrop Allen, E.G. Wright were just a few Boston area manufacturers.

There were other instrument makers who constructed Sax style instruments in New York City. C.A. Zoebisch and Sons were one such manufacturer. Harvey Dodworth from New York also has his name imprinted on some over the shoulder instruments. These were not actually manufactured by the Dodworth family, but by John F. Stratton another New York City instrument maker. Harvey’s endorsement was as much required to save the family name, as it was to earn a little extra money. Instrument manufacturers at the time were claiming to produce instruments endorsed by the Dodworths. Many of these endorsed instruments were of poor construction. Therefore, the H.B. Dodworth seal on John F. Stratton’s instruments had a great deal of meaning when it came to quality.

Stratton was also one of the first manufacturers to mass produce instruments. His first factory in New York was established in 1860. In 1861 Stratton was filling government contracts and producing an unprecedented 100 instruments a day. These were for the most part field trumpets and bugles though, not saxhorns. Still his contributions in the area of mass production made sets of instruments readily available at reasonable cost by the end of the war.

One manufacturer who learned a great deal from Stratton’s efforts was Henry Distin. Henry, who was a famed member of the Distin family, worked for a brief time in Philadelphia with the J. W. Pepper Company in 1877.  After working with them he set up his own factory in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1887.

Although over the shoulder saxhorns were very popular during the Civil War, they began to fall out of favor by 1870. The 24 member brass marching band lost its popularity as grand concert bands with mixed winds received the most critical acclaim. With the exception of the baritone, saxhorns are no longer used in most American bands. However, to this day in England, community brass bands still use the saxhorn family. Musical tastes change though. Today in the United States it is painful to watch the attendance of concerts put on by community bands in local parks dwindle in some areas. As fewer and fewer people show up to these community performances, one of the last vestiges of 19th century social life becomes another memory.


The Instruments of Adolphe Sax, Gerald Loren Welker

A Johny Reb Band From Salem The Pride of Tarheela,  Barry H. Hall

Adolphe Sax 1814-1898, Wally Harwood

Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy, Editors of Time Life Books

Music And Musket, Kenneth Olson

A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments & Military Bands,

Mark Elrod Robert Garofalo

Bands of the Confederacy, Benny Pryor Ferguson

Bands and Drummer Boys of the Civil War, Francis A. Lord and Arthur Wise

Early American Brass Makers, Robert E. Eliason

The Music Men, By Margaret Hindle Hazen and Robert M. Hazen

American Musical Instruments, Laurence Libin

The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, Trevor Herbert and John Wallace

A History of Military Music in America, William Carter White

Bands of America, H.W. Schwartz

Brass Instruments Their History and Development,  Anthoney Baines

The Keyed Bugel, Ralph T. Dedgeon

Military Music, Henry George Farmer

The Trumpet, Edward Tarr

The Trumpet and Trombone, Philip Bate

French Horn, Robin Gregory

The Cornet and its Civil War Virtuoso Patrick Gilmore

Written and Illustrated by Eric Ortner for The Civil War Courier in 1999

E flat Coronet with Rotary Valves

E flat Coronet with Rotary Valves

Music was an important part of the Civil War. It called the beginning and end of the day, and was a means for the commander to communicate with his troops in a heated battle. As well as a substantial communication tool, it was also a way for soldiers to overcome the boredom, and drudgery of everyday life. The sounds of a powerful marching band could lift the morale of one’s regiment or even frighten an opposing army. Robert E. Lee said at the onset of the war, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

A wind band composed entirely of brass instruments quickly became the favorite and most practical form of an ensemble in America. However, the brass band was not originally an American idea. In 1836, the Bradley Old Reed Band performed an entertainment in Woodhouse Moore to honor the coronation of William IV. At this time the ensemble had a mixture of brass and woodwind instruments. A few days later the musicians in Bradley’s ensemble made the decision to do away with the woodwinds. With this decision they became the first brass band in history. Still extreme patriotism prior to the War Between the States along with the war itself pushed this new style of ensemble to greater heights.

The new brass band was made possible as a result of some great new technology relating to brass instruments. This included improvements in mining and refining the elements required to create brass. Another significant advancement in technology dates back to 1810 with the invention of the keyed bugle. Once again it was an Englishman who was responsible for this advancement. Joseph Halliday, who was the bandmaster of the Cavan Militia, cut tone holes into the common military bugle. Mr. Halliday then added woodwind like keys to cover the holes. The instrument that Halliday modified was half-moon shaped and called a Hanoverian Bugle. By 1814 the Hanoverian Bugle was the symbol of the English Light Infantry.

The advancement of the keyed bugle was significant because until its invention, brass instruments were very confined in terms of pitch and range. One such limited instrument was called the Natural Trumpet. The musician performing on these natural trumpets was confined to only a few of the twelve notes in western music theory. They were octaves, fifths, fourths, major thirds and minor thirds. These are the natural overtones in music, and all natural trumpets, no matter what their tuning, were limited to them.

The fundamental principle of all brass instruments, which started with natural trumpets, requires the performer to tighten the tension of the lips on the mouthpiece. This causes the variation in pitch. With this in mind, musicians in a section would specialize in mastering a specific range of notes.

The keyed bugle was a welcome improvement because it allowed the player to more easily achieve an entire chromatic series of notes. The keyed bugle’s keys were similar to that of a clarinet or modern day saxophone. The sound of these instruments can be described as mellow. This results from the acoustical phenomena associated with its vented (keyed) design, and from the instruments conical shape.

In brass instruments, there are generally two different shapes. The first is conical or cone shaped which represents the bugle family. The bore of the tubing in conical brass instruments continuously widens as it moves from the mouthpiece to the bell of the instrument. The other basic design of brass instruments is cylindrical. Trumpets are members of this family. The diameter of the tubing in a cylindrical instrument stays the same width all the way from the mouthpiece to the bell. This results in a much more brilliant sound than the conical style.

In the conical style, the keyed bugle is strongly linked to the cornet a pistons and was eventually replaced in popularity and functionality by this instrument. The keyed bugle’s major flaw was that over blowing could change its intonation. The invention of the valve changed all of that.


Berliner Pumpen Valve

Despite the success of the keyed bugle, by 1839 most Europeans had embraced the improvements to brass instruments that used valves. Thus, the prominence of the keyed bugle in both civilian and military bands in Europe began to wane. This had a little to do with the economic interests of the band leaders. That is because brass band leaders were often partners with instrument manufacturers. Therefore, when they took over an ensemble, it was in the leader’s financial interest to purchase their own company’s instruments and replace the existing ones. Although greed definitely did play into the leader’s decision, it was important to have a complete set of matching instruments. Every band leader had his own personal favorite. At this time there was no uniform tuning from manufacturer to manufacturer. Thus with a new leader and orchestration came the need for a complete set of 17 new instruments. Most brass bands in the mid 1800s had between 17 and 24 members. The valve for brass instruments is said to have been invented by two Berliner, Heinrich Stolzel, and Freiderch Bluhmel. They patented their design in 1818. However,  the invention was further  refined  by the French in 1825, and in 1829, the cornet a pistons was used in Paris for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and this instrument quickly grew in popularity.

The 1830s saw numerous improvements to valve designs. Some of the more successful and long-lasting adaptations were the invention of the Vienna Twin-Piston valve patented by Leopold Uhlman in 1830; the Rad-Maschine, a rotary-action valve designed by Joseph Riedl and patented in 1832; the Berliner Pumpen Valve, a piston valve designed by Wilhelm Wieprecht and J.G. Moritz in Prussia 1835; and the Perinet Valve which earned its name in 1839 from its Parisian inventor.

Vienna Twin-Piston valve

Vienna Twin-Piston valve

Valve mechanisms can be grouped into two basic types; these are piston and rotary valves. Piston Valves have buttons which can be pressed down. They are easily associated with the modern day trumpet. When the button of piston valve is pressed, it reroutes the airflow through the pathway of additional tubing. It does this by sealing the main tube in an up and down motion forcing the airflow into the secondary tube which is inaccessible by the airflow otherwise. Once the air completes this long-cut, it is permitted to reenter the main tube. This creates a lower pitch by lengthening the tubing.

A rotary valve operates by a key or lever. When the performer presses this key a string, mechanical linkage or both (as is the case today), engages  the rotary valve which is a revolving cylinder. This revolving cylinder has a path which redirects the airflow through additional tubing. Revolving cylinders are common today on modern French Horns.

Cutaway diagram of a rotary valve

Cutaway diagram of a rotary valve

The significance of the valve was that it could redirect the passage of airflow in a brass instrument from the main tube into several smaller tubes. This could lengthen the instruments and thus change its key. For example, one valve is designed to lower the instrument by one semi tone or half step. This effectively lowers a B flat bugle to the key of A. If a second valve is added, it lowers the instrument by two semi-tones. This effectively changes the B flat bugle by three semi tones or 11/2 steps creating a G bugle. Combining these three valves one can lower the B flat bugle to a G flat, F or E bugle. The use of all three of these valves and their combinations fill in the missing notes in the natural bugle’s overtone series and thus makes it Cornet a Pistons.

Thomas D. Payne was an American inventor who significantly improve the rotary valve. The problem with earlier rotary valves was that they required a great amount of force to operate them. Paine identified the problem and came up with a solution. His ideas was to add another passage through the center of the rotor so that it would only need to turn an eight of the way around rather than the usual quarter turn. This made the valve larger, but Pain was able to reduce the size through further adjusting to the angles at which the tubing entered the valve. His valve systems were used on Cornets by many different manufacturers of that time both domestic and foreign. Payne’s basic system is still in use today on French Horns.

The Cornet a Pistons, or cornet as it is more commonly referred to, became widely implement during the 19th century and particularly popular during the Civil War. This is mostly because it is much easier to play than earlier instruments. Prior to this instrument’s use, high-pitched melodies were primarily performed by the woodwinds. The cornet changed all that. The use of valves made it much easier to play quickly and accurately. It reduced the danger of blunders while performing music in the high range. However, this insurance is at the sacrifice of the brilliant sound that one associates with the trumpet.

One of the reasons that the cornet was more popular for use in brass bands than the trumpet was the mouthpiece. The cornet mouthpiece was deeper and much more flexible than the trumpets. This enabled the members of brass bands to play for many hours at a time without fatiguing their embouchure. The mouthpiece for the cornet during the Civil War was different than the style utilized on cornets today. In the 1860s, cornet mouthpieces were much more conically shaped than those currently in use. They were narrow rimmed, thin walled, with an interior of up to 17 mm in depth. This would gradually taper down. They can be easily compared to a modern French horn mouthpiece. They were usually made of brass or ivory.

There are several different styles of cornets and they varied from manufacturer to manufacturer, but they wall utilized the same basic principles. The style most popular with bandleaders for the soprano part of a brass band during the Civil War era was the E flat cornet or soprano bugle. It had a length of approximately 3 feet. Another popular style was the B flat cornet, with a length of 4 and a half feet. The B flat cornet played at an octave lower than the E flat and was therefore often used as the Alto voice in a brass band.

The instrument makers of the time used a lead form to shape their creations. Most manufacturers made their instruments out of brass or German Silver. The metal used on instruments in the period of the Civil War was much thinner and more malleable than seen on instruments today. As a result, few cornets have survived from this period.

Coronetist and Band Leader Patrick Gilmore

Cornetist and Band Leader Patrick Gilmore

One of the people credited with bringing the cornet to its great popularity during the mid 19th century, is also considered to be the leader of one of the two best Civil War Brass bands in the Union. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, a talented cornet soloist and director of the Salem, Massachusetts Brass Band was renowned for his showmanship. In early December of 1856 Gilmore invited the popular keyed bugle virtuoso Edward (Ned) Kendall to perform as a soloist with the Salem band. The two were billed to perform a duel between the keyed bugle and the cornet as they performed the Wood Up Quickstep.

The performance was held in the drill hall of the Mechanic Light Infantry at a cost of 25 cents. The Salem  Brass Band, as was the  custom of the time, was made up of civilians but was part of the militia company. The only paid member of this sort of ensemble was the leader, in this case the leader was Gilmore.

After he directed a couple of tunes, Gilmore announced Kendall as, “The world’s most famous keyed-bugle soloist.” Kendall then proceeded to solo with the band for three numbers. These have been described in numerous sources as a triumph for Kendal. The performers then broke for intermission. When Ned and Patrick returned, they each sported an E flat version of their respective instruments. They soon began to perform the long anticipated Wood Up Quickstep. It was decided that Mr. Kendal would play the first passage on his keyed bugle and then Mr. Gilmore would answer him by repeating the same passage on the cornet. Both musicians played well. However, the residents of Salem who attended this concert seemed to believe that Gilmore out-played Kendal. This is easy to believe since by today’s standards, the Wood Up Quickstep is a simple piece to perform on a cornet. However, on the keyed bugle it was a whole different story. This performance is considered an example of the decline of the keyed bugle in the United States.

Sheet Music for Wood Up Quick Step written by John Halloway Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 161, Item 143

Sheet Music for Wood Up Quick Step written by John Holloway Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 161, Item 143


Sheet Music for Wood Up Quick Step written by John Holloway Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 161, Item 143

Three months after this vastly documented performance Gilmore won more critical acclaim as director of the Salem band. The Washington Post made special mention of this well disciplined organization. The Post commented on their excellent playing as they performed in James Buchanon’s inauguration parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The paper commented on the fact that this band managed to stay sober. Most bands of the period drink excessively when on the road (history repeats itself again).

The Salem band was so applauded that they became highly sought after in the Boston area making it next to impossible for the other bands to land a gig. The Salem band’s success struck such a dissonant chord with other Boston area bands, that they decided to take their competition out of the picture. The Boston Brigade Band conspired to attack the Salem Band on the way to a gig in downtown Boston. There was a plan to beat the Salem band’s lips in so badly that they would not be able to play for weeks. The plan also entailed smashing the Salem band’s instruments so terribly that they could never be played again. Gilmore’s notoriety also brought with it many social connections and he was made aware of Boston Brigade Band’s plan. He went to the docks in Salem and found the biggest, toughest crewmen available for hire. When the Boston Brigade Band made their move against the Salem band in the railway station, they were quite surprised to be confronted by brass knuckles, black jacks and belaying pins swung by seamen. They were so surprised that some of the band’s members were unable to run and they received a thrashing.

The Boston Brigade Band finally decided that competing with Gilmore was futile and negotiated a deal which Patrick could not refuse. In this deal, Mr. Gilmore took on all the costs of the band which included music, uniforms, rent and any other expenses which incurred. However, the band was to be known as the Gilmore Band all of its members worked for Patrick. Thus, Mr. Gilmore brought home all of the profits. To ensure the marketability of the band he purchased a great deal of music. He also formed different size and style ensembles so that a group could be provided for any occasion.

As the issues of state’s rights, slavery and finally secession took over public life in Boston, Patrick played patriotic numbers and performed in Fort Warren in The Boston Harbor. These performances were to entertain the glitzy Light Infantry Battalion that was stationed there. The Tigers, as the Light Infantry Battalion were called formed a glee club which sometimes accompanied Gilmore’s band. One of the Tigers favorite tunes was the song John Brown’s Body. This tune is not about Harper’s Ferry, but is significant to the Civil War because Gilmore wrote a popular arrangement for it. New words for this arrangement were later written by Julia Ward Howe, and with these, the tune became the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

As many private bands did during the War Between the States, Gilmore enlisted along with his band. Gilmore’s Band removed the gray uniforms which he supplied and donned the blue style supplied by the Massachusetts 24th Volunteer Regiment in late1861. Two things caused this enlistment. The first was a result of General Order Number 15 issued on May 4th 1861 it called for 39 regiments of volunteer infantry and one cavalry. Musician positions were required for all of these regiments and they included 39 brass bands of 24 bandsmen each. The second was that Patrick Gilmore feared that the ensemble would break up as a result of individual enlistments.

For the most part, the government did not supply these bands with instruments. The required instruments were paid for either by the individual band member or in some cases by the leader of the regiment. It is somewhat surprising then to see that the first proposal for sealed bids for Union army musical equipment included 150 trumpets. It is even more bewildering to know that during the War Between the States, conically bored instruments were much more popular than the cylindrical style trumpet. There probably wasn’t need for more than 20 trumpets in all 39 regiments. Perhaps the military powers simply did not know the difference between a trumpet and cornet.

It can be assured that despite the ignorance in the Union’s top brass, Gilmore’s leadership abilities prepared his band members well for military service. The bandsmen were assigned to General Burnside’s Corps which was already engaged in Virginia. The band spent most of its enlistment traveling the coast in North Carolina. The 24th infantry was very pleased with its luck of having Gilmore’s band assigned to their regiment. One private said, “I don’t know what we should have done without our band. It is acknowledged by everyone to be the best in the division. Every night about sun down Gilmore gives us a splendid concert, playing selections from their operas and some very pretty marches quickstep waltzes and the like. Most which are composed by himself or by Zohler, a member of his band… Thus you see we get a great deal of new music, not withstanding we are off here in the woods.”

During his enlistment, Gilmore’s key solo cornetist was Matthew Arbuckle. Mr. Arbuckle had also achieved fame by dueling with the infamous Edward Kendal. He had previously worked with an American instrument manufacturing company owned by Isaac Fiske. Arbuckle performed in Fiske’s Cornet Band where he, received wide spread critical acclaim.

Despite the immense popularity with troops, the regimental bands became targets for financial pruning by elected officials. In October of 1861 Benjamin F. Larned, Paymaster General responded to Henry Wilson of United States Senate by suggesting that $5,000,000 could be saved annually if regimental bands were taken out of service. In July of 1862, the adjutant general ordered that all bands of the volunteer regiments be mustered from the service, “so much of the aforesaid act… as authorizes each regiment of volunteers in the United States service to have twenty-four musicians for a band… is hereby repealed; and the men composing such bands shall be mustered out of the service within thirty days after the passage of this act.” In August of 1862 the band mustered out. The 24 th Massachusetts regimental commander called their leave, “ a great mistake.”

It is important to note that other regiments were glad to see their bands leave. This only further emphasizes the quality of Patrick Gilmore’s Band. Charles B Hayden of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry said, “The band has been discharged, right glad we were to be rid of the lazy loafers.”

When the 24th mustered out, Mr. Gilmore went on to support the war effort by performing benefit concerts for a while. However, in 1863, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts requested that Patrick regroup all of the state’s militia bands. He was later inspired by Monsieur Jullien and his large orchestra. Hearing this gave Gilmore the idea of putting on huge scale concerts.

The first of which was in 1864 in celebration of the inauguration of Governor Michael Hahn in “Free and Restored Louisiana.” For this occasion, Gilmore formed a chorus of 5,000 school children. He then organized what was at the time the largest brass band ever. Patrick assembled all of the area regimental bands into a group of 500 instrumentalist and 36 cannons. This included 120 cornets. Around this time, Gilmore also wrote the words and music to When Johnny Comes Marching Home under the pseudonym Louis Lambert.

Gilmore continued to be a prudent businessman. In the late 1860s he formed a partnership with the manufacturer E.G. Wright who supplied many brass instruments during the Civil War. In 1870, Wright, Gilmore and Co. later merged with Samuel Graves and Company to form the Boston Musical Instrument Manufactory.

After the war, the E flat cornet’s popularity was surpassed by that of the B flat cornet. By 1870 though, people’s tastes were changing and the sound of the total brass band was falling out of favor (especially in regards to over the shoulder instruments). In the years prior to the War Between the States, Gilmore]s Band had worked with mixed winds or woodwind and brass ensembles. As the all brass band began to fall out of favor, Gilmore’s band became the post war model for band masters such as John Phillip Sousa and John Duss. On September 24, 1892, Patrick Gilmore passed away. His death took place at approximately the same time as Sousa’s premier, and thus many musical historians feel that Sousa picked up where Gilmore left off.


Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy, Editors of Time Life Books

Music and Musket, Kenneth Olson

A Pictorial History of Civil War Era Musical Instruments & Military Bands,
Robert Garofalo

Bands of Confederacy, Benny Pryor Ferguson

Bands and Drummer Boys of the Civil War, by Francis A. Lord and Arthur Wise

Early American Brass Makers, Robert E. Eliason

American Musical Instruments, Laurence Libin

A History of Military Music in America, William Carter White

Bands of America, H.W. Schwartz

The Keyed Bugle, Ralph T. Dedgeon

Military Music, Henry George Farmer

The Trumpet, Edward Tarr

The Trumpet and Trombone, Philip Bate

French Horn, Robin Gregory