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
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Kräusel Family Virtuosi

24 June 2011

The Virtuosen-Familie Th. Kräusel are an example of a popular European tradition of the late 19th and early 20th century - the family band. Music was like any other family-run craft or trade, and a musician's children were expected to excel at music and participate in the family business. So naturally, a prolific family would offer public concerts of their household orchestra.

Most photographs like this one emphasize the variety of instruments, or the number of children,  or both. String instruments are just as varied as brass band instruments, and suggest a more refined musical repertoire. The formal white tie and tails suggest a professional class too. And as always, the youngest child is the star attraction.

This photo postcard is nicely dated Sunday Oct.31, 1909 and provides a printed name of Th. Kräusel, likely Theodor Kräusel.

On the back are the names Edward, Kalle, Ernst, & self.  Could it be the mother's or the father's writing? Who else but parents would not bother with a spouse's name? Presumably Edward is the older boy in the back with a cello, next to sister Kalle on cittern, and Ernst in front holding a violin.

The advent of the picture postcard proved a useful new convenience for marketing a musical group like this. There are hundreds of similar musical bands in German and Austrian postcards of this period. This one might even be a first printing saved by Herr Kräusel.

Unfortunately the name Kräusel with its ümlaut offers too many German spelling variants, so I have been unable to find any records on this family. Without knowing their precise background, they may have come from almost anywhere in central Europe.

But I have found more of their photos.

This larger cabinet card size photograph shows two more brothers, but no sister. Along the bottom is printed the same Virtuosen-Familie Th. Kräusel and penciled on the back is:
Zur Freundlicher Erinnerung von Nan Kräusel
For Friendly Remembrance from Nan Kräusel. 
A younger family is here with wonderful costumes that have lost their colors to the sepia-tone. If the first date is correct, this photo is perhaps 1902-4, but mother Nan certainly ages. No doubt from the trials of managing such a large band.

The photographer is Alfred B. Nilson, Helsingborg which is in Sweden so perhaps there is a Swedish connection. Many Germanic names cross over the complicated boundaries of 19th Century Europe, which makes finding good identity matches very challenging. Or maybe this was taken on tour.

And finally an even older image from the Historische Bildpostkarten Collection from the University of Osnabrück. This was one family band that worked hard on music promotion. And haircuts too.

Imagine traveling in 1900 with steamer trunks full of of instruments, music, costumes and of course the children. Maybe the slower pace balanced out the challenges of railway timetables, bad hotels, and poor roads. Did they perform at hotels or beer gardens? Were they playing for strictly German-speaking audiences or was their music tailored for Danish, Swedish, or even Hungarian tastes?

The string instruments include violins, a violincello, mandolins, a cittern, and the Harp Guitar which was a favorite instrument of German folk ensembles of this era. It has a fretted neck for playing complex chords and an unfretted neck for bass strings played separately in the manner of a harp. There are many kinds of Harp Guitars using different arrangements for strings, necks, and sound box, but it was probably used to accompany the voice. Did the children sing too?

There are also some woodwind instruments, some herald trumpets, and a few percussion too, including a kind of xylophone.

But the reason that this is a unique musical group is found in the first photo. The arrangement on the floor has two unusual instruments crossed on top of two wooden xylophones: an oboe (L) and a Heckelphone (R) with its characteristic side holes in the bell. The oboe is exceptional enough in photographs but the Heckelphone is beyond rare. An obscure member of the oboe family, it was invented by the Wilhelm Heckel GmbH  in the 1880s after a suggestion by Richard Wagner for a stronger bass oboe for his operas. Wagner had already "invented" the Wagner Tuba to cope with the special demands for a bass horn in his immense opera productions. This was a similar concept of reinforcing the bass timbre in the double reed instruments: the oboe and the bassoon. Few orchestra musicians today have ever seen or heard a Heckelphone, and usually its part is played by a contra-bassoon bassoon. (see comments of Robert Howe below)

Here you can see the full consort of the oboe family from small Musette (bottom) to largest Heckelphone (top), which is an octave lower than the standard oboe ( 2nd from bottom). A modern orchestra typically has two oboes and and English horn. The Heckel company, famous for its bassoons, never completed the design of the Heckelphone in Wagner's lifetime, and the first instrument was only finished in 1905. Richard Strauss used it first for his opera Salome and later Elektra, and An Alpine Symphony.  Gustav Holst scored for one a bass oboe (2nd from top) in The Planets. (see comments of Robert Howe below)

Because it is such a very uncommon instrument, there is a Heckelphone List of every single instrument that has been made and that reaches to only 148. In the first decade of the 20th century only 29 were produced, and Herr Kräusel has one at his feet! Could he be an oboist in an opera orchestra who premiered this odd bass instrument in one of Strauss's operas?

Arthur Grossman
Univ. of Washington

In January, 2001, Music Professor Arthur Grossman of the University of Washington presented a special Heckelphone Concert. His photo from the university magazine shows what an ungainly instrument it is. Click the link for the story of how he acquired his Heckelphone.

But how did the Virtuosen Familie Kräusel get their instrument? Certainly only a professional oboe player would know of such a thing. Theodor Kräusel probably put in a special order to the Heckel factory. At this time there were hundreds of opera houses around the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but only a few of them could stage the grand operas of Strauss. Herr Kräusel surely must have played in one of them.

I can not imagine the Heckelphone providing an accompaniment to a medley of German children's songs, but I can imagine that great mustache wrapped around the little double reed. His children must have laughed.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more enthusiasts of vintage photos.


Christine H. said...

Another fascinating post. I'm particularly interested in Wagner's propensity for inventing (or requesting) new instruments to suit his music, when it appears to me that most other composers composed their music based on the instruments available. Is that a false impression?

Mike Brubaker said...

I think Wagner had one of the most vivid imaginations for orchestral color of any 19th century composer, at least until Richard Strauss. Like a modern composer experiments for sound colors in an electronic synthesizer, Wagner heard sounds in an orchestra that did yet exist. He designed the opera house at Bayreuth as more a sound stage for the vocal drama, and the orchestra pit was very different, putting musicians far beneath the stage. I think he then heard a deficiency in the early bass instruments which were less than dominant. Since by this time, 1876, he was already a celebrated composer, he could ask for new varieties of instruments without seeming to be a crackpot. I don't know of any other composer who did this to the same fanatical degree as Wagner.

Brett Payne said...

What an entertaining and educational post, thank you. Perhaps the demise of the ungainly heckelphone had something to do with its unfortunate name. I thought - from ignorance - that the double-necked guitar was a relatively modern invention, but obviously not.

Tattered and Lost said...

Absolutely fascinating. I wonder how many children went on to perpetuate this family business.

And the name heckelphone almost sounds like a name that would have been a vaudeville prop.

My word verification: flubt

This also sounds like an ungainly instrument or perhaps the sound it makes.

Karen S. said...

Such an interesting post, love the photos as well! They sure look to have enjoyed the music they made don't you think! I have a photo that may interest you in my mix this week!

Jinksy said...

I'd have loved being part of a family band! LOL

Little Nell said...

My eye was drawn to the youngest family member in each picture. As you say travelling with all that gear in tow, and young children...doesn’t bear thinking about. And now I have gleaned yet another piece of knowledge; until today I too had never heard of a heckelphone.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

Fascinating post but I can't help but think of the Von Trapp family.

Postcardy said...

It was very interesting to see the family at different ages and learn about the Heckelphone.

Bob Scotney said...

I'm no musician but I found this post absolutely fascinating.Such a variety of instruments with some designed especially for a sound wanted by composers.
Slightly irreverently could you describe today's mobiles (cell phones) as hecklephones?

Rosie said...

I wish there was a audio of this group, would love to hear what came out of all those instruments....

Howard said...

Wonderful! I've always lusted after a harp guitar.

Robert Howe said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you Mr Brubaker for your diligence.

It happens that I am one of the authors (with the estimable Peter Hurd, who is acknowledged on the Heckel website) of a comprehensive paper on the heckelphone, published in the J. American Musical Instrument Soc in 2004. We printed a more rigorous listing of all known HPs, including and expanding upon the data at the Heckel website. From this research I can tell you several things of interest relative to the Krausels.

First, Krausel had a model 36 heckelphone, this was the first type made and the only one with a range to low B (most go to A, or to Bb). This is evident from the mechanism.

Only four of this model were sold, serials 1, 2, 5 and 30. #1 is now in Scotland. Number 5 was sold 3/9/05, the location is not known. #30 was sold 1/7/7, again the location is not known. The most likely HP for the Krausel band is #2, which is listed as having been "sold in Sweden" on 12/14/04.

Given the Swedish links--the photographer and the costumes--I think it is reasonably likely that Krausel’s HP was serial #2.

Some more data for youHP lovers.
Heckel introduced the HP on 8/11/4 (not in the 1880s) at Wagner’s Villa Wahnfried.

The instrument was immediately popular with opera composers.
41 (not 29) HPs were sold in the 20th century’s first decade.

The part for an absent HP is usually played on a standard bassoon, not a contrabassoon; the HP plays in a higher register than either of these instruments.

The part for Holst’s The Planets is for bass oboe (next to the top in your illustration), not heckelphone.

Mr Brubaker's supposition that Krausel was an opera oboist is entirely reasonable, although one would expect the opera company to own such a rare expensive instrument, not the musician.

If anyone wants a copy of our 2004 paper, send me a private e-mail.


Robert Howe

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks Robert for the extra information. I just checked a score for The Planets and it does indeed say bass oboe. I've corrected my post, as someone actually found my blog this weekend while Googling: Holst Planets Heckelphone.

The idea that Kräusel was in Sweden is very intriguing. The Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm did a first performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle in 1907 and Strauss's Salome in 1908. This may be just the clue to establishing the identity of Herr Kräusel and his family orchestra.

Anonymous said...

Love the Kräusel photos, and how exciting to have 2 of the family to see! Would love to know more about them myself! I did a double take at the youngest in the photo as he resembles a child in a photo Im working on, I pulled it out to see if they were them! haha, but the small children look a lot alike, the photo I have is late 1890s the family is from Austria/Dad born in Russia, Ill have them up soon! Thanks for sharing the great post.

tony said...

Yes, fascinating.And I have never seen this type of photo before.It's atradition that still lingers (a little)in Folk Music today.I just wish I Could Hear The Music They Played!

Andrew said...

Belated thanks for this. I'm a postcard collector who has another Kräusel postcard that I was wondering about. "Kalle" is just a Swedish nickname for "Carl" -- I don't think there ever was a sister, just a boy with longer hair in the first picture. Kalle would be the young one, most likely; perhaps explaining the use of the diminutive name. My postcard has the father with five boys appearing to range from about 8 to 18 and was posted in Sweden on August 22, 1903.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP