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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Postcards of German Ladies Orchestras

21 October 2011

The photo record of women brass players in 19th and early 20th century America shows that women performed in community bands, professional orchestras, and even in vaudeville acts. But with rare exception, these were segregated groups exclusively for women. But the roots of female musicians in brass and wind bands goes back to the old country, specifically the musical traditions of Austria and Germany. And in these ensembles, women are often shown as equal performers with men.

This first promotional postcard is of Herm. Brandt's Damen-Trompeter-Corps und Streich-Orchester or Herman Brandt's Ladies Trumpeter Corps and String Orchestra. Herman is clearly the bandleader seated in the center, and three men are in the back row with flute, clarinet, and tuba. In the middle row are 4 young ladies playing herald trumpets, a popular instrument in German bands. This style trumpet has no valves and is played like a bugle with a limited set of notes. Seated in the front are 4 more ladies, one with a cornet and three wearing helicons. Two are the smaller tenor helicons very like the one shown in the photos of my recent post on the Vaudeville Girl.

This second postcard of H. Brandt's Demen-Streich und Blas-Orchester shows 4 men with 10 women, 8 playing brass instruments. Herman now stands in the center back row playing a cornet, just behind a woman holding a baton. One could assume that Frau Brandt is conducting but of course it may not be his wife. Maybe his sister. Since they were called a string orchestra too, they must have been very adept at switching to violins, cellos, and basses.

The card was sent from Wien - Vienna, Austria on July 4th, 1900, but Herr Brandt's orchestra probably didn't perform in honor of America's  Independence Day, perhaps instead they celebrated the marriage on July 1st, 1900 in  Reichstadt, Bohemia of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary to Sophie Chotek von Chotkova.

This genre of the Damen Blas Orchester or Women's Wind Band was a very popular ensemble in Central Europe to judge by the great number of damen musiker photo cards from this era. As with most ladies bands, there was usually a man acting as the band leader, but unlike the American bands, these German and Austro-Hungarian ensembles frequently had men as supporting musicians. These small bands were advertised as women's musical groups so that was certainly part of their novelty, but how much equality was present is hard to say. Until only a few years ago, women musicians in Central Europe had continued to struggle against the gender barrier, but are now finally accepted in major orchestras.

I tried to find on YouTube some contemporary examples of the music one might have heard played by one of these bands. There are thousands of examples but unfortunately very few with women brass players. But I found one from an Austrian Television Show with a woman on tuba, though in a smaller group.

The music repertoire for these bands was undoubtedly a mixture of popular songs and dances from the many different Germanic regional cultures. It's important to remember that in this period the unification of  Germany had a different meaning, Prussia had only recently brought together the various German states and principalities into a confederation in the 1860's, and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Germany stretched from Alsace in the west, in what is now France, to central Poland in the east. And Austria was not the small land-locked country of today, but a vast multilingual empire that included Hungarian, Czech, Bohemian, and Slavic people as well as German speaking Austrians. Music was the common thread weaving all these cultures together and songs and dance music crossed borders more freely than any other art form. It's interesting to think that some of these German and Austrian women may have emigrated to the United States and contributed to American music culture.

This postcard shows a smaller band called the Damen-Trompeter-Corps "Diana" with O. Iboldt, the director in the center back row. The Prussian style mustache figures prominently in all these bands. Here three men stand behind five women dressed in more ethnic style costumes. They all have rotary valve brass instruments, including a helicon on the lower left. It was postmarked 7 August 1908 from Berlin.

Another card dated from 1908 shows the Damen-Blas-Orchester "Tannhäuser", director Jos. Brunet, in a band of 5 men and 6 women. Note the herald trumpets in the foreground. Many of the groups have these nicknames, which may be a kind of marketing gimmick by the booking agents as a way of distinguishing the different ladies bands.

The Damen-Trumpeter-Corps "Stefanie", director H. Förste, sport nautical costumes to go with their brass instruments, but only for the women. Curiously, in contrast to the women's dress, all the men in these bands are in ordinary business suits. In this postcard from 1909, seven women and four men make up the musical group. Again note the herald trumpets and mustache. Herr Förste holds a role of music, usually a symbol of a pianist.

Here is another YouTube video of a traditional Bavarian band. They are a mixed group of men and women playing woodwind and brass instruments similar to those shown in these vintage postcards. The band features some tubular bell chimes in music that probably resembled the music of an early  Damen Blas Orchester.



The bands may have played music hall theaters similar to American vaudeville, but I suspect they played more for large restaurants and outdoor beer gardens. Beer has always been a staple food of brass players. The larger bands may have marched inside the larger Oktoberfest style tent shows, but probably not in parades. These ladies don't look dressed for that.

This last group, the Janietz Elite Damen Blas Orchester must have been very popular as they produced many different photo cards including some more expensively colored ones. I will have to devote a future post just for them. This large ensemble of ten women and seven men added more instruments including saxophones of various sizes and some exotic percussion instruments. The glockenspiel in the center is a feature common in a many German band photos of this period. Note also that there are two women horn players seated on the right.

Instead of herald trumpets they have four very long trumpets, something like a brass alphorn with valves. I can't believe they were played without assistance to hold them up unless, like alphorns, the bells rested on the floor. But perhaps the most novel part of this group are the costumes. The ladies are dressed in long Scottish kilts and tam o'shanters. I recently read a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which described his lifelong love of all things English by virtue of his English mother, Princess Victoria, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. I can understand how royal influence changed musical entertainments, just look at the mustaches, but how Scotland got pulled into the German Ladies Brass Bands is a mystery lost in translation. And why the women are wearing a Sporran which is man's item of utility is also a mystery best left alone.

I finish with one more YouTube video which best demonstrates how these women brass players might have sounded, in this case on solo trombone. There's a joke in the middle if you are patient.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link to find more enthusiasts of vintage photographs.


Christine H. said...

I reacted like Pavlov's dog to the videos you included. All of a sudden I have a craving for German food and something frothy to wash it down with. These are beautiful cards. Their costumes are really wonderful.I'm going to a postcard show tomorrow. Perhaps I'll look for some like these, although I suspect they're beyond my price range.

Alan Burnett said...

Only you could write with such interest - and such authority - on a subject as esoteric as "Postcards of German Ladies Orchestras". The post is worth a magazine article, but I suppose this is what blogging and things like Sepia Saturday have become. If nothing else you have established the authoritative piece on the subject on the internet. And thanks for the music - I am off to Munich in a few weeks, it has got me in the mood.

Linda said...

What a terrific group of pictures and videos, and an informative narrative. This is quite special.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

It's interesting that men and women performed equally in German and Austrian bands. The Janietz Elite Damen Blas Orchester look a little odd in kilts, especially their headgear. It can't have been comfortable.

Postcardy said...

You have a fantastic group of postcards for what seems like an unusual topic to me. It seems that women brass players and orchestras must have been much more popular in Europe. When I played in a school band, I don't think there were any girls playing brass instruments.

North County Film Club said...

Now I know where Billy wilder who was a German, got his inspiration for the film Some Like it Hot. But why did he have Marilyn play a ukelele instead of a tuba?
Nancy Javier
Ladies of the grove

Unknown said...

Oh that was wonderful. I have never seen a harp played that fast and jaunty before. Who knew. The girl in the last video was precious. Great post.

Little Nell said...

You have to take your hat off to all these women making their way in a what was essentially a man’s world. I lived in Germany for three yeart and visited Austria several times; why is it we can’t get away from the ‘oompah band’ tag?

My daughter learned the trumpet at school and became quite accomplished, playing in her local youth orchestra. It alway gave me a particular thrill.

Bob Scotney said...

There aren't enough superlatives to describe this post. It's so authorative and I'm sure it's worth its place as an article in many magazines. Fascinating postcards and videos that interested a non-musical type like me.
I have bookmarked this so that I can return to it easily again.

Brett Payne said...

I fear I have reacted in the same way as Christine and Alan, and now I have a craving for the atmosphere engendered by that second You Tube video, not to mention the Alt beer, bolstered by the memories of just such an evening in a restaurant in a converted wine cellar in Linz. It was 20 years ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday, apart from the musicians and instruments (blame the Alt for my poor memory in this regard), but I'd like to think they were in the mould of those you've so eloquently pictured and described here. Thanks for another instalment in my musical education series - once again, most enjoyable.

Nancy said...

You write such interesting posts about subjects I never thought about. Who knew there was so much to learn about German Ladies' Orchestras! I appreciate that you included video clips. They made your descriptions about the music all the more clear. Thank you.

PattyF said...

Wow! Such a comprehensive and entertaining post. You taught me a lot today. My genealogical background is almost entirely German, so I find this music and these photos especially compelling. You've struck a chord in me (if you'll please pardon the pun) and I now have an urge to find out which of my ancestors, besides my father, played instruments. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I find myself wishing that I had read this yesterday before attending a talk on the German breweries of Cincinnati. It would certainly have put me in the mood!

Bruno Laliberté said...

I prefer the first pic, aesthetically speaking, and how the women bring their instrument to their lips, instead of just standing there, holding it. a great dynamic photo.
and the last one displays such a large variety of instruments, many i've never seen myself..

great post!!


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