Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My “definitive” guide to the Sovereign cornet

Since its launch in 1974, the Sovereign cornet has been the benchmark for all brass band cornets, but it has gone through various models and changes - including a complete redesign in 1984. This article aims to explain the development of the instrument and the differences between models.

For serial number information go here: Besson (Boosey and Hawkes) serial number list.

Sovereign by Boosey & Hawkes AKA “round stamp” (From 1974)
This is the original sovereign cornet supplied in a blue wooden case. There were three models (including the soprano cornet) launched in 1974.

  • 920 Medium bore  (.460 bore)
  • 921 Large bore (.466 bore)
  • 925 Soprano (Eb) - with the tuning slide in the bell crook.

The 920 medium bore was almost identical to the preceding Imperial model and had a second main tuning slide where the lead pipe entered the third valve. This is sometimes referred to as the "flower pot" model due to the shape of its bell flare.

The 921 was a completely different instrument of a larger bore which took many of its features from the Besson International cornet which was also manufactured by Boosey and Hawkes. When people talk about the famous “round stamp” cornet, it is the 921 large bore they are referring to. It described as such because it had the Boosey and Hawkes globe logo engraved on the bell. The 921 was designed in conjunction with Thomas Wilson, principal cornet player with the Scots Guards. Tommy, who came from a Salvation Army background, had already worked with Denis Wick on developing his range of cornet mouthpieces:

In the early 1970’s I was asked by Denis Wick if I would help him develop a cornet mouthpiece – and the rest, as they say, is history. It was also round about this time I was asked by Boosey & Hawkes if I would help in the development of a new cornet for them. After a lot of hard work the first large bore Sovereign cornet was born. I still play the original prototype. It’s still going strong after over 30 years. It was stamped No. 1, (which causes the customs people more than a little curiosity when London Citadel Band goes on trips). http://londoncitadelband.on.ca/tommy_wilson_bio.htm

The famous "round stamp"

920 medium bore
921 large bore

921 third valve trigger

921 valves

Sovereign by Boosey & Hawkes still with the“round stamp” (From late 70's)
At some point in the late 70’s a new medium bore cornet was produced based on the 921 rather than the old Imperial design. This did not have the second main tuning slide and was cosmetically identical to the 921. It was designated “923”. This had the same valves but lever style triggers rather than the ring one on the 921. The rare 922 cornet is a 921 without triggers and seems to have been sold into mainland europe rather than the brass band market. As the range developed the 921 lost its ring trigger and the last ones had lever style triggers and a pinky hook instead of a ring. Some of these very late production models have the more streamlined valves that were developed in the early 80's.

  • 922 Large Bore but without triggers  (.466 bore) 
  • 923 Medium Bore  (.460 bore)
  • 924 [not to be confused with the current 924 which is an Eb soprano cornet]

922 large bore

923 medium bore

Besson Sovereign (1984 - Present)
Designed by Dr Richard Smith. Click here , and here for articles explaining how,and why, he designed it.

These have redesigned, more streamlined looking valves and have “Besson London” engraved on the bell. At some point in the 1990’s they started having the word “Besson” engraved on the mouthpiece receiver.

  • 927 Medium bore (.460 bore)
  • 928 Large bore (.466 bore)

928 large bore

Click here for a spare parts list for the Sovereign model 928. This also shows which parts it has in common with other Besson models, especially the 723.

Over the years these have changed slightly:

The later GS variant had a higher copper content bell and was mainly sold in the US and other export markets. At some point they changed from Monel to stainless steel valves, but went back to Monel before returning to stainless steel when manufacturing moved to France.

Second valve tuning slide
Originally pointed forward like the original sovereign. Eventually pointed towards the player to stop water collecting in it.

Water Keys
Earlier models have "cockspur" water keys with long levers pointing backwards - guaranteed to get caught in your band jacket when you go to play a solo. These were replaced with conventional short ones in the 1980's.

Long vs Short Receiver
All sovereign cornets were supplied with a Denis Wick mouthpiece. If you try a modern Wick mouthpiece in an older Sovereign cornet you will see that it sticks out further than an older Wick mouthpiece does. This may just be a coincidence, but the theory is that at some point Wick introduced mouthpieces with the suffix “L” meaning “large”. These had a fractionally larger taper. In the 1990’s Boosey & Hawkes seem to have changed their cornet mouthpiece receiver to this new, longer, size and Wick may have adjusted theirs to suit. The longer receiver may have been to accommodate the engraving of the Besson name. Whatever happened, the older instruments do seem to work better with the older style Wick mouthpieces.

“Lottery” cornets
During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s  there were large lottery grants available to brass bands for purchase of full instrument sets which led to a battle between Yamaha and Boosey & Hawkes. Prices were kept as low as possible and demand was considerable and the quality of instruments became less consistent. This has led to the term “pre lottery” for a sovereign instrument made before this period. These are considered to be of better quality.

The standard finish for these instruments was bright silver plate but they were also made in lacquer. From my own experience dealers would often get a lacquered cornet plated in order to meet an order for a set because there seemed to be too many lacquered ones being made compared to silver. The quality of third party plating may not be as good as a factory plated one especially if the instrument was over-buffed to remove the lacquer.

The peak period for lottery grants to brass bands were 1996 - 1999. Some of the alleged issues reported with sovereign cornets supplied in the latter part of this period include insufficiently lapped stainless steel valves, leaking joints (especially at the mouthpiece reciever), stays popping off due to tension in the instrument combined with poor soldering. There have also been allegations of leaks being sealed using cyanoacrylate (i.e. super glue) gel. Whatever the truth of this it did damage Boosey and Hawkes reputation.

928E echo cornet
In 1992 Boosey and Hawkes made a limited number of sovereign echo cornets (probably around 100) based on the 928. These have an additional valve in the bell which, when operated by the thumb,  allows sound to be diverted into a mute. This is for use in a number of novelty pieces popular with brass bands like Alpine Echoes. The muted bell is removable and stores in the case allowing the cornet to be played like a normal 928.

928E Echo Cornet


(Photo from Hayes Music)

Launched in 2016, this is a 928 with a main tuning slide trigger in place of the first valve trigger (review). In order to accommodate the main tuning slide trigger the second valve tuning slide now points forward. This is the same arrangement as the Prestige model.

926 Soprano Cornet

Introduced in 1988 this featured a front pull tuning slide like a trumpet rather than a tuning shank. It also came with two screw in receivers. One for a cornet mouthpiece and the other for a trumpet mouthpiece. If you buy one second hand the trumpet one will nearly always be missing. This model was later revised as the 926G which had a gold brass bell.

924G Soprano Cornet
This was launched in 2011 at the same time as Courtois discontinued their AC-107R. This instrument has a bore of .460 which is large for a soprano cornet but is very similar to the Courtois, which was .459 (compared to Schilke at .450 and Yamaha Neo at .445) .

French Production
Since 2009 the 927 and 928 have been manufactured in France by Courtois, although Richard Smith has stated that they have made some changes to his original design. The current Besson range can be found on their web site here.

“Imperial Besson” model by Boosey and Hawkes (c 1980)
For a few years from approx 1980 they made a version of the 923 Sovereign without a first valve trigger, and with a wider bell flare similar to the old 920 which they called model 723. These were badged  "Imperial Besson by Boosey and Hawkes", but should not to be confused with the "Besson Imperial" which was long out of production by then. At the time I was told this was to fulfil military orders, but that might be a myth. Also not to be confused with "Besson International BE-723" which is a different instrument. They originally came in the small sovereign style cases which were coloured black instead of blue, later in the larger cases as pictured here:

Besson "International" 723
Not to be confused with the earlier International cornet which was in many ways the predecessor of the Sovereign cornet, the 723 International utilised the sovereign 927 medium bore valve block, slidesm bell and triggers. The model 622 student cornet also has the same bell.

International 723 Cornet

Besson Prestige (2001- )
This was developed in consultation with Roger Webster (for a video of a masterclass where Roger talks about the development of the Prestige cornet click here). The leadpipe and bell are identical tapers to the 928 Sovereign but the shape of the bends is different to improve the response and reduce the effort required. The model number is “2028” indicating its roots in the 928 sovereign. The prestige cornet has a third valve trigger but no first valve trigger. Instead it has a main tuning slide trigger. On Boosey and Hawkes made instruments this was located in the middle of the main tuning slide and had a tendency to stick. When the Prestige cornet was relaunched by Buffet Crampon this was redesigned with a “miniball” linkage (as found on rotary valve trumpets) and moved to near the top leg of the tuning slide rather than the middle. Later it appears to have moved back to the middle! It also comes with an additional set of heavier valve caps and has black onyx, rather than mother of pearl, inlays on the valve buttons.
There are actually very few differences between the Besson Sovereign and the Prestige models. They both have the same bell size, valve block, metal, finish and tuning slides. However, the Prestige has a slightly larger bore on the lead-pipe and at the start of the shepherd’s crook. (Source: Brass Band World Magazine).

York Variants (2005-2010)
Following the collapse of Boosey and Hawkes in 2005, Schreiber (AKA Keilwerth, who made the parts for sovereign cornets for B&H) decided to start assembling instruments themselves in Germany. These were sold under the name York Preference with model number 3027 and 3028. A version of the Prestige cornet was also sold as the York Eminence. Production of these ended in 2010 as Buffet Crampon (Courtois) started to regain market share with their relaunched Besson range. The York instruments have stainless steel valves, as do the current French made “Besson” models.

LMI Variants (2005- )
Some of the staff from Boosey and Hawkes formed London Musical Instruments and have had some success making and selling “Sovereign style” cornets based on the 927 and 928 designs badged as “Royal” and with model numbers RO28 and RE27 respectively. The valves have been redesigned with better felting to reduce noise. Click here for further information.

Possible of reintroduction of the 921 “round stamp”.
Rumours circulate that Courtois have the original tooling or detailed drawings for the 921 cornet and have considered reintroducing it. However, sales of all instruments are so suppressed at the moment that this seems unlikely.

Round Stamp vs 928 - My View
Having played on a 921 for many years and then a 928 (made in the late 80’s) I would say that the 928 is the better instrument. The 921 was quite stuffy and benefited from the large throated Wick mouthpieces. The 928 is more flexible, but is harder for the average player  to get a nice sound from on a Wick mouthpiece. This might be why the “round stamp”  is still so popular. The key to getting a 928 working well is mouthpiece choice. It seems that the smaller receiver works better with mouthpieces that have the correct taper. Newer 928’s need the larger taper mouthpiece they are designed for. many players benefit from using a mouthpiece that has equal depth, but a  bit more resistance (Alliance, Curry, Warburton or even the Wick 4.5).

Advice for people looking for  second hand Sovereign cornet
I get asked this a lot and the answer is down to two issues:

1. Was it properly built in the first place? 

Make sure all the braces are properly soldered and that the solder joints look correct. The earlier short receiver models of the 928 model are generally better made than the later British made long receiver models. The even later German and French models are usually fine too.

2. Has it been properly maintained? 

Most of these instruments have been used in brass bands and played heavily. Often they rarely get cleaned out and if they do the cleaning can be brutal. I have seen one with almost triangular valves caused by cleaning them repeatedly with "Duraglit". You will need to check the compression or buy from a reputable dealer with a return policy.

Would you recommend the Sovereign 928
As I said earlier in this article I played on Sovereign's for years. I like them, but I don't play on one currently, here are my reasons:

Advantage of the Sovereign:
  • Free blowing 
  • Ability to play loud 
  • Intonation / tuning (usually) 

  • Lack of focus to the sound, especially when played quietly 
  • Pale sounding lower register 
  • Doesn't like very open big mouthpieces
Incidentally, these three disadvantages are addressed somewhat in the Prestige cornet which I find to have much better tone when played quietly and in the low register and is more friendly towards bigger mouthpieces.