The Saga of the Pélisson “Curved Baritone”


Many years ago I came across an interesting picture.  It was described as a “curved F baritone.”  I’ve only seen one other curved saxophone, outside Bb/C/Eb sopranos, in one place:  A. Sax’s patent drawing.  I had also heard the rumor that all of A. Sax’s prototypes were C basses in this shape, so I wasn’t completely floored.  The “curved” shape isn’t that big a deal, if you think about it: A. Sax’s father, Charles-Joseph Sax, was also an instrument builder and he built ophicleides: a keyed brasswind with a cup mouthpiece and they had the same basic shape.  It has been theorized that A. Sax said, “Hey.  Let me slap a single reed mouthpiece on that and see how it sounds.”  As a matter of fact, some modern musicians have slapped a cup (brasswind) mouthpiece on a saxophone and found out that it works (see YouTube for billions of examples).  How well it works is a matter of opinion.

Anyhow, the biggest problem I had with the designation of “F baritone” was the scarcity of F saxophones, in general, and the fact that an overwhelming percentage of 19th century instruments I’ve heard described as pitched in F were really high pitch Eb instruments.

I did, however, get an e-mail from one of the folks that often contributed to my articles on saxpics.com, Randy Emerick.  He not only had seen one of these “F baritones,” he could tell me where he saw them:

That baritone picture was originally published in Saxophone, Erfindung und Entwicklung einer Musikinstrumenten-Familie und ihre bedeutenden Hersteller (whew!) by Gunter Dullat. The book is not entirely accurate, but since Dullat actually owns the horn, I’m sure he has at least correctly identified the key in which it is pitched. It is the only baritone in F that I know of that still exists, made by “PELISSON FRERES & Cie., SYSTEME GEORGE BREVETE S.G.D.G.” It was made around 1900, and even though it’s not that old, I sure wish I could find one.

After I posted these comments on saxpics.com, there were a number of threads that were started on SOTW, where I was an administrator/moderator.  There was a lot of back-and-forth on the topic, trying to determine whether this horn was an F instrument or a high pitch Eb instrument and/or the who actual manufacturer was (see this, for instance).

As I mentioned on SOTW, I did try to contact the owner of the website this “curved F baritone” was on, Michel Smiga.  Last I tried, I was told that M. Smiga was very ill and couldn’t answer my questions (he had his father respond to my e-mail).  His website was finally taken offline in 2005 (see this for an archive.org backup).  I posted all this and essentially had to leave my research be.

However, that didn’t stop other folks from researching.

The folks over at Archives Musique, Facteurs, Marchands, Luthiers did an article on the Pelisson curved baritone.  It’s little wonder that I couldn’t find more about these horns: they’re not called “saxophones,” they’re called “Georgeophones.”  There’s also a Bb bass out there!

Allow me to try to translate and transliterate the article from French to English (I’ve preserved the capitalizations):

The PELISSON Brothers and GEORGE System Saxophone.
This below catalog, bought on eBay, shows us the manufacture of instruments by PELISSON Brothers in Lyon, France in the 1880s.

Couturier was formed in 1812, in Lyon, France by Jacques Couturier.  He took on a partner in 1836, Dubois, to found Maison Dubois and COUTURIER.  In 1852, Jacques Couturier’s son took over the company.  In 1875, the company was purchased by PELISSON Brothers.  In 1901, the company became Pelisson, Guinot, Blanchon.

The most interesting things I found in this catalog were the “George System” saxophone keywork system and an instrument that I had never heard of, the “Georgeophone.”

PELISSON Brothers had exclusive use of the patent that Toulon resident Claude George filed in 1867, “A mounting system for saxophone keywork,” which mostly consisted of a system to align the keys for one hand on the same rod, which considerably simplified the assembly and disassembly of the instrument.  It says in the brochure that it was, “Only 8 screws instead of 34 on a conventional model.”  This keywork idea is still used for modern saxophones.

There were additions to this patent in June 24, 1869 and June 13, 1870, but have no practical application on modern saxophones.

For more information about the “George System” saxophones, please take a look at the article by Bruno KAMPMANN in the May 2006 issue (issue #37) of Largiot (pgs. 20-26).

[ed. note: The Kampmann article is incredibly detailed and has great pics, but I’m not going to translate 6 pages of text.  Sorry!  If you translate it into English, please send me a copy!]

The Georgeophone, itself, was “a new family of instruments:” an “easier to hold” baritone [and bass].  [ed. note The article refers to the ad description I’ve translated, below.]

This Georgophone was displayed at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878 and won award(s), but it had no commercial success.

If you have any photos of this instrument, I’m very interested!

There’s a little description ad from Pelisson on the Archives Musique website that I’ll attempt to translate:

GEORGE SYSTEM SAXOPHONES
We call our customers’ attention to the detail in the simplified and patented George System saxophones and the numerous awards that attest to their merit.

The George System Saxophones offer the advantage of being much less complicated — in fact the George System has reduced the number of screws from 34 to 8.  This allows you to disassemble and reassemble the instrument without the aid of any custom tools.

The keywork mechanism is so simple that, in less than two minutes, any musician can easily disassemble the saxophone without having any special knowledge.  It is stronger and requires fewer repairs than any similar instruments. The springs are hidden and steel. The advantages of the George System Saxophones are so compelling that more than 100 music directors in the navy and army, not to mention professors, certify this system as the best available.

GEORGEOPHONES
Mr. George, seeing the difficulties that people have marching with a baritone saxophone has created a family of instruments which he named Georgeophones.

A baritone example was admitted to the Universal Exhibition of 1878 and won several awards.

The shape of Georgeophone allows the baritone saxophone player to march in military bands and add their own texture to support them.  The timbre of the Georgeophone is remarkable on low notes, offering impeccable sound and intonation. Despite the gravity of their tone, these instruments produce a clear tone.   This tone allows the Georgeophone to be equally at home in a marching band or in a dance hall.

I can mention one more thing: how old these horns are.

If you assume that 1878 is the introduction of these horns, based on the Universal Exhibition date, I’d have to compare “normal” Pelissons of about the same age to something we have a somewhat accurate serial number record of: A. Sax instruments.  Looking very specifically at the catalog drawing of the Pelisson baritone, I have no problems at all saying that they are 1878-1880s horns, based on how A. Sax instruments of the same era looked, thus the Georgeophone is from the same era.  If you have one of the Georgeophones (please send me pics, too), all you’d have to do is check out the engraving: provided it doesn’t say “Pelisson, Guinot, Blanchon,” you’ve got a horn made between 1878 and 1900.  Personally, I doubt that the Georgeophone survived that far into the 1880s.

Oh.  If you’re wondering why I say that the Georgeophones are Eb baritone and Bb bass, that’s because that’s what’s in the catalog.  No F instruments.  Hey, the Georgeophones are rare enough, as it is!

Just think: they were 350 Francs in 1878.  According to this, a good meal cost 8 Francs in 1871 (a pheasant, a chicken and two bottles of wine).  Let’s say that that’s about $150 in today’s money, so 1 Franc = $18.75.  That’d mean that the Eb baritone was a shade over $6500!  You thought Selmers had high prices!

Hop on down to Archives Musique and look at the pics!


One of the posters from the Woodwind Forum sent me a link to a video of someone actually playing a Georgeophone. Here ya go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC3BPVftiGo.