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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Oh Ophicleide, Ophicleide!

01 April 2011

Oh what a marvel is the Ophicleide! A brass instrument of the early 19th century that most of the world had abandoned by the 1870's, it somehow remained part of French musical culture and appears in early 20th century photo postcards.

Here  M. le curé répétant un solo = Monsieur the curate repeats a solo, perhaps with ill effect. But it shows an instrument and performer clearly familiar to the French public so fond of humorous postcards.

The Ophicleide is a bass instrument from the family of keyed bugles, and uses a mouthpiece like a trombone but with keys similar to a saxophone. The name comes from the Greek for "keyed serpent". A more detailed description can be found here: Ophicleide

The instrument was invented in 1817 and used in early opera orchestras and military bands, but the piston and rotary valved saxhorns proved more practical and colorful to musicians. So by the 1870s the ophicleide was obsolete, replaced by more popular technology. Except in France, where it found a useful niche in the Catholic church, supporting the tenor and bass vocal  lines in the musical service. 

But there were a few other performance opportunities for an ophicleide player, but not on the big stage (or even in the pit) of the opera house. In this postcard, two comic actors imitate typical French street buskers -

Chanteurs des Cours or 
Singers of the Court.
Jeunes filles, gardez bien
Ce qui vous appartient. = 
Young girls, Keep well 
What is yours.

It is part of a set of comic postcards published by A. Bergeret in Nancy, showing clowns and actors from the French vaudeville stage of the 1900s. Again, the instrument and performer was understood as part of the prevailing culture, the humor was in the buffoonery.

Check out my previous post on French postcards. The Serpent and The Ophicleide

The postcard was sent in 1903 and I include it only to show the wonderful handwriting, a kind of calligraphy that we rarely see anymore. Alas, one more beautiful art form knocked out by new technology. OMG LOL

And finally a YouTube video with the sound of an actual Ophicleide. The clip comes from the excellent collection of instruments at the Edinburgh University and the performer is Clifford Bevan.



My contribution to Sepia Saturday


Karen S. said...

Mister Mike lovely post filled with such delightful info. I too am a huge fan of humor in postcards...and well most postcards of any sort...but this instrument was cool...thanks for the facts and the photos!

Alan Burnett said...

Oh magnificent and I want an ophicleidel immediately. But given that I can't play an instrument perhaps I will merely lust after those postcards. Equally magnificent. Mike, you have added to the sum of human knowledge.

Betsy said...

What a hilarious post! I see I'm not the only one looking for a sepia smile this time around! :)

Kristin said...

i like the musical touch.

barbara and nancy said...

I've learned so much today On Sepia sat. But aside from fish creating April fools day, this instrument is the weirdest. Love the funny post cards. The you tube version completed my curiosity about the sound. Why's the player wearing gloves? Seems like that would make the playing so much more difficult.
Ladies of the grove

Christine H. said...

Is it too late for me to name my first daughter Ophicleide? Probably, but I have such clear visions of me chastising her: "Ophicleide, if I told you once, I told you a thousand times, clean up this room!"

(Queenmothermamaw) Peggy said...

I had never heard of such an instrument and how wonderful that you had a video to demonstrate the sound. Loved it. Thanks for sharing.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Mike,

Cool! I've never heard of this instrument before just now. I love the expressions on their faces in these pictures, and the video is great.

Thanks so much for stopping by to say hello.

Kathy M.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing instrument - and to think there's one just up the road at Edinburgh University! I love the second card - very amusing :-) Jo

Leah said...

How interesting! I had never heard of this before.

Tattered and Lost said...

Though a strange looking instrument I find it hypnotic to watch the "valves" opening and closing.

Stunning handwriting.

Bob Scotney said...

I hadn't heard of the ophicleidel either. Great cards; can it be good for your health if it reallt does make your eyes bulge when playing it?


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