This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Men with Sticks

06 December 2019

An orchestra conductor's baton
seems to have special powers.
With a wave of his hand,
like a magician he flourishes it
to conjure up a bevy of musical rabbits.

But it's an illusion.
The baton is really just a stick.

For a bandleader
a baton acquires a more military bearing
as he wields a stout staff
in rigorous beats.
But it's still a stick.

Some conductors
prefer a longer baton
to slash the air like a pirate's cutlass
fending off an onslaught of menacing notes.

Yet despite the sharp point,
it's a thin wooden stick.

For other conductors
a baton is a scepter of musical authority
embellished in silver and gilt
commanding the attention of both musicians and audience.

But notwithstanding the tap on the podium stand,
a baton is incapable of making music by itself.
It's just a stick
 pointing at invisible sounds
and directing the traffic of musical noises.

* * *

The first image shows an orchestra conductor dressed in classic formal white tie and tailcoat. He is wearing white gloves with a baton that is no slender switch but a short cane, not unlike a percussionist's drumstick. This cabinet card photo was produced in the studio of Vernon in London, at 28 Jubilee St., off of Commercial Rd., about halfway between Limehouse and Whitechapel in east London. The gentleman's wonderful handlebar mustache and the photograph's style date it to around 1895.

* * *

The second conductor is a bandleader who wears a military frock coat and forage hat typical of a British bandmaster. The style of coat is identical to the formal uniform of a member of the British Royal Household Cavalry, the Blues & Royals.

1900 Tunic and Frock Coat, Household Cavalry
Source: Two Nerdy History

This photo was also made in London by one of the studios of Hellis & Sons, probably at their head studio at 160 High Street, Camden Town, NW, London. This location is a short walk northeast from Regent's Park which features a popular bandstand near the boating lake in the south corner of the park.  

On 20 July 1982 the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) detonated two bombs during  pubic events in Hyde Park and Regent's Park. The first explosion came from a car bomb set off along the route into Hyde Park by the daily changing of the guard procession going from their barracks in Knightsbridge to Horse Guards Parade. Four soldiers of the Blues & Royals died and several other soldiers and a number of civilians were severely injured. Seven horses were also killed.

The second bomb exploded beneath the bandstand in Regent's Park while the band of the Royal Green Jackets was performing for a crowd of 120 people. Of the 30 bandsmen, seven were killed while the rest were wounded. Eight civilians were also injured. These horrific acts of terrorism happened shortly after my first arrival in London, and only the day before I had walked along with the cavalry procession near Hyde Park.

I estimate this bandmaster's photo dates a few years later than the previous cabinet card, perhaps around 1905. The print now has a dark green cast rather than a faded sepia tone. But through the magic of digital processing I was able to restore the contrast to bring out the shiny black satin of the bandmaster's ribbon festooned coat.

* * *

The third conductor is another unknown orchestra director dressed in white tie and tailcoat. His baton is about 28"-30" long, a style no longer in fashion as a conductor's instrument. Maneuvering a long baton needs plenty of free airspace. Conductors can accidentally clip a baton on a music stand, or worse on a soloist, losing control of the stick and sending it flying into the air. It's also been known for a conductor, while passionately gesturing their hands in counter motion, to stab themselves in the left hand with the sharp point of the baton.

This photo is a small 4"x6" sepia tone print that I believe dates from around the 1920s-30s. He is a young man, in his twenties I think, with an American face, but his mustache may make him British.

Another curious thing about "baton" is that the word has two pronunciations in English. Americans say "bah-Ton" with the accent on the second syllable, but in Britain it "Batt-on" with the stress on the first, similar to the French pronunciation of "baton" which ironically translates as "stick". In German it is called a "Taktstock", or "clock stick".

* * *

The fourth conductor is another band director. He is dressed in a quasi-military uniform with fancy brocade and shoulder bars in gold braid, but he is a civilian and not a member of a service band. He also wears white gloves holding a wooden, or maybe ivory, baton with ornamental silver grip and tip.

He is seated in large chair at the Knrapp photography studio of 32 North Pearl St., Albany, New York. This is a slightly over large cabinet photo that I think dates from around 1905 to 1915.

Besides the absence of a mustache, what makes this man different from the other conductors, is that he does have a musical instrument with him. On the table next to him is an unusual cornet with what looks like a muffler attached to one side. It is an Echo Cornet, a novelty brass instrument that combined a regular cornet with a plumbing extension for a muted effect. Using an extra valve depressed by a finger on the left hand, the sound is diverted from the bell into a can with a small exit hole, essentially a muffler, that lets the musician instantly play in "echo" mode. It's a musical effect that horn players regularly do using just their right hand in the bell, but evidently cornet players are less adept and need mechanical help.

Here's short video of the "Echo Cornet" as demonstrated by the great trumpet/cornet virtuoso, Crispian Steele-Perkins. The piece is the  'Tit Willow' song, from The Mikado (1884-85) composed by Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900). 



In America during the 19th and early 20th century, many band directors, self-titled "Professor", also played a solo instrument like the cornet. In photographs such doubling conductors felt a need to display both their baton and their instrument. Because of this man's unusual cornet, I'm hopeful I might one day discover his name in a newspaper review.

For more youthful variations
on this theme of conductors see:

Boys with Sticks

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where good photos are always available over-the-counter.


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