Courtois Company HistoryCourtois Company History


In France the pioneering role of the Courtois family in the development of instrument manufacture is documented from the time of the French Revolution, and coincides with the beginnings of industrialization and the modernization of brass instruments. The first Courtois (first name unknown) founded a workshop in 1789 in the "rue Mazarine" in Paris. Two instruments from this time are extant: a horn (Berlin) and a "cavalry trumpet having belonged to the courier for the parliamentary officer sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to St John of Acre (Egypt), occupied by his troops in 1799" (currently in the recently inaugurated Music Museum in Paris).

Antoine Courtois

In 1803 (possibly after the decease of the founder) various sons and nephews set up shops (with varying degrees of success) under various different names and addresses ("The elder Courtois Nephew", "The 3 sons of the Courtois nephew", "Auguste Courtois"). But the most interesting line is that of Antoine Courtois (1770-1855), one of the sons of the founder, who created the famous "Courtois" brand of today. Setting up a shop in the "rue du Caire", he made use of the most important research and acoustical techniques of the area, and was the trusted partner of many principal players of the Paris Opera. But the Army was the main customer. Many instruments (cornets, keyed flugelhorns, horns, ophicleides, trombones) produced under his name, can be found today in museums and prestigious collections. He gave a trombone to Antoine-Jean Simon (1807-1883), first prizewinner in 1838 of the newly opened trombone class of Dieppo at the Paris Conservatory. Simon then became a member of the Paris Opera Orchestra. In 1841, it was Paul Delisse (1817-1888) who received a trombone for his prize. Delisse played trombone with the major Parisian orchestras, and in 1871 succeeded Dieppo as professor at the Paris Conservatory.

Antoine Courtois Junior
In 1844, Antoine (Denis) Courtois (junior) (ca. 1800-1880) succeeded his father. In 1856 he moved to the rue des Marais, where he remained for a long time. Continuing the work of his father, he was able to interest Jean-Baptiste Arban with whose assistance he created the famous Arban Cornet - a noted success. The slide trombone was also a great Courtois specialty. Antoine Courtois junior died in 1880 without leaving a descendant, so it was Auguste Mille (1838-1898), engaged in 1856 and becoming head of the workshop in 1878, who succeeded him. In 1881 the enterprise had 25 employees. Mille continued to give special attention to improvements in the trombones, but also built a quadruple piston cornet (1886) invented by the Italian Alexander Scuri. Upon the death of Mille, the Courtois company passed into the possession of his associate E. Delfaux, and in 1908 went to his sister Marguerite, who lost no time in teaming up with Mr Legay. Legay created the tenor and bass trombones with rotary valves, giving the instrument new pedal tones.

Gaudet and Workers

On October 1, 1917, the Courtois company was bought by Emmanuel Gaudet (1860-1933), who secured the services of P. Deslaurier as managing director by generously offering him free shares in the company. Both "breathed new artistic and commercial life" into the company. In the workshops, work was done using pulley-turned lathes connected by long drive belts to a central rotating axis fixed to a platform, which had the effect of shaking the whole building. Paul Gaudet recalls: " At the top floor of our building lived a clairvoyant. One day, distraught, she came to beg my father to stop the vibrations, which were keeping her from reading coffee grounds and was causing her to lose clients. I suppose she had to choose between going broke or moving away".

When Emmanuel Gaudet died in 1933, Deslaurier took over sole control of the firm, but times were hard and Courtois company soon found itself on the brink of ruin. In 1937, Paul (*1911), son of Emmanuel Gaudet, bought out Deslaurier's shares and took the helm. But war soon broke out and Paul Gaudet was immediately drafted and had to close the shops. Valuable stocks of metal and instruments of historical value were stolen during this period.

The Courtois Shop

Paul Gaudet, during his captivity in Stalag XXB in Gotenhafen (Danzig) succeeded in founding and directing an orchestra. Thanks to the Red Cross, he obtained authorization to retrieve instruments from the Courtois workshops in Paris for his musicians. The orchestra was broken up in 1944 by the German authorities after the refusal of the musicians to perform on a propaganda broadcast by Radio Danzig called the "Prisoners quarter-hour". In this same year Paul Gaudet was liberated, and Courtois was open for business again. In 1956 he decided to decentralize his enterprise and had a production factory built in Amboise (a small city of 12 000 inhabitants located 220 km from Paris on the Loire), where Courtois instruments are still being made today. Jacques Gaudet (*1948), son of Paul, got his start in the business in 1967, and quickly made a reputation for himself for his tact, competence, and aptitude for contact with the great artist of his time with whom he tirelessly continues to improve and develop Courtois models. Jacques Gaudet succeeded his father in 1980.

The Courtois Workers

In the 1990s, the economic upheaval felt through out the world has driven countless businesses to the wall. The global commercial battlefield was so tough that only the biggest concerns have the means to compete. In Germany, the young Gerhard Meinl, heading his ancestral family enterprise, also understands this very well. He is taking over, restructuring and revitalizing the factories of the en-GDR in Markneukirchen and others, particularly in France (S.M.L. Strasser-Marigaux, Antoine Courtois) and is forming a large European group for musical instrument manufacturing. In 1994 with the same goal in mind, the Gerhard Meinl group became part of the German giant TA (Triumph-Adler AG) under its department of "Recreation and Leisure" (one of 4 branches that TA manages). It is a top organization, which offers an excellent strategic economic network to many small and middle-sized companies in taking over as majority stockholder and then offering them a powerful world distribution network. The result is the creation of spectacular economic power. Under this umbrella Jacques Gaudet can now continue his creative activities with more serenity, which is today leading to important renovations in the whole line of Courtois instruments. For almost two centuries the strong suits have always been the trombones, the trumpets (cornets) and the tubas. So it's almost a given that the renovations commence on these instruments, beginning with the trumpets.

The Ophicleide

The name ophicleide means keyed serpent (Greek: ophis = serpent; kleis = key), the instrument deriving its ancestry from the side-holed, cup-mouthpiece family which started with the comett and includes the keyed trumpet, for which Haydn wrote his concerto. The ophicleide rejected the serpent's sinuosity and instead adopted an upright shape, doubled back on itself, owing something to the form of the bassoon. The bass instrument in C is of conical bore expanding from about 15mm to a bell diameter in the region of 200mrn. The nine to twelve keys are proportional to the bore at the point they are mounted, and resemble the larger keys of a tenor saxophone. The difference between the ophicleide and woodwind keywork is that, apart from the large first key, mounted on the bell, all the keys are closed, there being no open finger holes. An eleven-keyed bass in C has a fully chromatic range from the fundamentals to the eighth harmonic, giving a range from the third B below middle C to the first C above middle C.

The timbre is highly individual, giving a hollow, euphonium-like quality, but resembling a full-blooded contrabassoon when played forte; and yet, because of the mechanics of the instrument, and the fact that only the notes of the B series employ the bell, the overall effect cannot really be likened to contemporary instruments. The ophicleide was invented by the Frenchman Halary in 1817, and yet patent was deferred until 1821 because the instrument was thought to resemble the basse-guerrière of Dumas, which was in fact a bass clarinet. Some of the finest ophicleides were made in the second half of the century by Gautrot Aîné and Courtois. The English virtuoso Samuel Hughes, who was professor at the Guildhall, used some remarkable twelve-keyed Courtois instruments which are still extant today. The instrument was never really accepted in the German and Austrian states, largely to due it being unknown by mainstream composers.