Restoration of 1904 Couesnon Contrabass Sarrusophone

CC Contrabass Sarrusophone, Couesnon and Company, 1904

Late this past fall the Center had its 1904 Couesnon contrabass sarrusophone restored by Carl Thacker, who works on instrument restorations in Bloomington, Illinois.  For those who have never seen or heard a sarrusophone, it is a special music dinosaur that was patented and produced by Pierre Louis Gautrot (d. 1882) beginning in 1856.  It was named after French bandmaster, Pierre-Auguste Sarrus (1813-1876) who is credited with the concept for the instrument which was intended as a replacement for the oboe and bassoon both of which frequently lacked the volume of sound to be heard over large brass ensembles.    The sarrusophone family consisted of the E-flat sopranino, B-flat soprano, E-flat alto, B-flat tenor, E-flat baritone, B-flat bass, and the EE-flat, CC and BB-flat contrabass.

All of the instruments were made from either brass, nickel-plated brass, or silver-plated brass, and utilized a conical bore.  The instrument’s bore is conical and was played with a double reed similar to the oboe and bassoon, and its fingering was similar to the saxophone.  Adolphe Sax filed a patent infringement suit against Gautrot in 1856 and in 1859 the court ruled in favor of Sax, and ordered Gautrot to pay 500,000 francs indemnity and stamp every sarrusophone “Sax-model BI made.”  Gautrot ignored the court injunction, and when Sax appealed to a higher court, the injunction was nullified in 1867 on the grounds that the tones produced by the sarrusophone and saxophone families were markedly different even though they shared similar mechanical features.

The Center currently has two complete families of sarrusophones as part of its collections.  The University Bands Wind Symphony will be performing Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques  on our restored 1904 sarrusophone for the March American Bandmasters Association conference in Indianapolis.  Our instrument was made by the Couesnon & Cie Company which began its life in 1845 as the Guichard Music Company, at that time considered France’s largest music instrument manufacturer, under the leadership of Pierre Louis Gautrot.  In 1882 Gautrot’s son-in-law, Auguste Amédée  Couesnon (1850-1931), took over the management of Guichard and changed the company’s name to Couesnon & Cie.

As you can see from the set of images that Carl took of his work on our sarrusophone, the instrument was in need of some serious restoration work.  However, after much hard and careful restoration work the instrument has been returned to its fully functional condition.  It also received a thorough cleaning which revealed our original “ugly duckling” was a true beauty hidden by years of disuse and poor care.  The picture of the newly restored Couesnon sarrusophone in the lower right corner of this collage, is sitting next to our EE-flat contrabass sarrusophone which was made by the C.G. Conn Music Company in 1923.

Later in April Carl will begin work on the restoration of our other contrabass sarrusophone, and it is our hope that we will be able to give a duet performance of these two rare historical instruments sometime in the fall.  For those who would like to hear our instrument played for a few moments by Michael Dicker, Professor of Bassoon at Illinois State University, please visit this site.

Special thanks to Carl Thacker for making this restoration project possible and Michael Dicker for demonstrating the extraordinary sound of this wonderful musical marvel.

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