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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A Young French Maestro

02 September 2011

One genre of musical photograph that I have neglected is that of the orchestra conductor. Though it is rare to find one in an early photo, frankly they are mostly glamor photos and not very interesting. This French postcard series titled Le Chef d'orchestre ~ The Conductor is an exception. 

The two cards posted in September 1904 are addressed to Mademoiselle Madeleine Mercier from Remy and sent to Bry-sur-Marne, France an eastern suburb of Paris.

The humor suggested in the subtitle M├ętier Ingrat ~ Ungrateful business lies in the playful comparison between the melodramatic behavior of a music director and the child's tantrum-like antics, which are actually quite realistic at times. What interests me is that in 1904 the French public knew enough about orchestra performances to appreciate the subtle humor. This was not just a picture of a cute toddler mimicking a conductor's gestures.

The captions translate from the French as follows:

1. Suivez la mesure! (a part) Triples sots!
~ Follow the action! (aside) Triples fools!

2. Sombrioso (A part) - Abrutis!
~ Sombrioso (aside) - morons!

3. Allegro vivace. (A part) - Limaces! marchez done!
~ Allegro vivace. (Aside) - Slugs! march on!

4. (A part) - Ah! les braillards! La seule chose qu'ils sachent faire n'abusant pas, du fortissimi.
~ (Aside) - Ah! the loudmouths! The only thing that they know not to abuse are the fortissimos.

This same child also appears as a temperamental violinist in another postcard series by the same publisher. So it's possible he may have had some musical talent, as there were a number of different youthful maestros promoted at the turn of the 19th century. Almost all sported flamboyant long hair. Some were children of band directors like Roy Deforest and the New York Orphans Band. Italian bands, almost always from Naples, were very popular and also used the marketing hook of a young conductor to set themselves apart.

In 1914 a young conductor named Willy Ferrero, 7½ years old, was making news in London appearing at the Albert Hall leading the New Symphony Orchestra. He had already appeared in Italy, France, and Russia and clearly was a phenom. Though he conducted with musical talent, in other reports he was described as being unable to read music. In this advert from the London Daily Mail of April 25, 1914, notice that the concert proceeds were in aid of the Children's Hospital at Great Ormond St. 

A special podium must have been constructed to help the orchestra musicians see such a diminutive boy conductor.

But this wunderkind was actually an American citizen.  Born in Maine of Italian parents who were theatrical people, probably on tour in the US, the family returned to Turin, Italy when he was age two. Ferrero showed an early understanding of music, perhaps instinctively recognizing musical pitches and rhythms and no doubt demonstrating a high level of memorization. He spoke several languages too.

This wire report which appeared in an April 1914 edition of the Indiana Weekly is from St. Petersburg, Russia and describes his conducting an orchestra there for the Tsar. It remarks that Willy's first public concerts were in Paris at age 4, about the same age as the little Chef d'Orchestre.

Following his London concert, there was a report in the London Daily Mail that Willy was accorded an invitation to meet Queen Alexandra the Queen Mother.


Willy Ferrero, the seven-year-old symphony conductor, whose performance at the Albert Hall on Tuesday astonished orchestra, audience, and critics, is to be received by Queen Alexandra this afternoon. He bears a letter to her Majesty from the Dowager Empress of Russia.

A medical correspondent writes: " There are none of the signs of neurotic precociousness or nervous instability about this prodigy. During the impromptu football game I witnessed in the flat of his friends in Welbeck Street, the only characteristic that marked him from the half-dozen children playing with him was his superabundance of animal spirits. In all other respects than in his innate appreciation of music, Willy Ferrero, as far as one can judge from a casual observation, is just pure boy."

But the dark clouds of war would envelope the world later that summer in 1914, and public attention was diverted from the novelty of musical prodigies. Fortunately too young to serve in WW I, Willy Ferraro seems to have returned to Italy and continued his musical education there, becoming a composer as well as a conductor. He died in Rome in 1954.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
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Bob Scotney said...

The resemblance to childrens' tantrums caught my eye as soon as I saw the cards. I've always envied those with musical talent - but never thought about conductors despite Sir Malcolm Sargeant and Michael Tippet being old boys of my school.

Anonymous said...

Loved these cards and would also love to see the violin versions, having studied violin as a child. I have seen my fair share of conductor's tantrums and have thrown a few myself while trying to learn a very difficult instrument. My sister is the one with the true talent and it is a joy to listen to her play!

L. D. Burgus said...

A wonderful contribution you have created.

Christine H. said...

Those cards are so amusing. What a find! I also enjoyed reading about Willy and was glad to hear that he didn't die in the war.

Brett Payne said...

What a performer, but he gives it away in that last shot of the sequence of four, with the quick glance, perhaps seeking approval?

Howard said...

completely bonkers! wonderful cards.

Postcardy said...

That was a fascinating post. It was interesting seeing both humorous and serious versions of child conductors.

Pat transplanted to MN said...

Oh the first sight of that ferocious little conductor made me laugh out loud. Lots of interesting information that you shared...

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

Really fascinating! I've never seen cards anything like these before. I think the French are more appreciative of the arts and culture in general. School outings are to art galleries rather than the seaside even now. said...

What fantastic cards. Never seen anything quite like these before, particularly dating back over 100 years.

Martin Lower said...

I noticed the sly look to the camera in the last photo as well! They're fantastic; never seen anything like this before...


an unexpected spin on the theme and what a delightful story. these cards are sure funny, even if the language is somewhat inappropriate for a child, in my opinion, but these cards were [thankfully] not meant for kids.

great post!!

Karen S. said...

Oh my goodness this takes the cake for best child acting, totally darling child and so glad you shared it wih us!

Tattered and Lost said...

Absolutely fascinating. There's just so much to draw from this post that's great. Thanks for the continued musical education!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I wonder what "superabundance of animal spirits" means? He's cute ... so into his work. Very interesting!

Kathy M.


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