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 Kaiser's Band

15 March 2013

"An army marches on its stomach," said Napoleon Bonaparte.
He might have added, "but always with music!"  

Every nation has a military band tradition. The U.S. Marine Band dates to 1798. The Royal Artillery Band of Great Britain dates officially to 1762. But it is Prussia that first perfected the army wind band, and this was its premier band which provided the household music for the Kaiser, the Musikcorps I. Garde-Regiment zu Fuss.

This Souvenir postcard of the Music Corps of the 1st Guards Regiment of Foot was never posted, but I have seen another copy that was clearly mailed in 1898. The 47 bandsmen are artfully arranged in tiers like a wedding cake, each wearing a dress uniform of a German foot guard regiment with its distinctive tall hat and  mitre plate.

Sanssouci - Potsdam, Prussia 1900  ~ Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Family of Prussia, and then, after 1871, of Germany, kept their official residence in  Potsdam, east of Berlin, in the state of Brandenburg, Germany. The band appears to be in formation on the garden steps of the Kaiser's summer palace, named Sanssouci, which was built for Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. The photographer used a bit of clever theatrics and maybe an early version of Photoshop, as the musicians were instead posed in small groups and then pasted in front of a painted backdrop.

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Last week I used this widget from and was pleased that everyone
was able to use it for a large format photo.
This time I will try an enlargement of the smaller postcard image.

UPDATE: I am sorry but this widget no longer works.
However any image on my blog should enlarge for more detail whenever you click on it.

More of the history of this band can be found at this German website Traditionsmusikkorps. If I have understood Google's translation correctly, the music director, standing front center with sword, is probably Fritz Möller who was first Stabshoboist and then Music Director with the 1st Garde-Regiment Band from 1887 to 1909. 

Note that there are several woodwind players - clarinets and saxophones, but all the brass players are holding only natural trumpets, that is trumpets without valves. There are also a few of the peculiar long straight trumpets which are held up using a metal prop not unlike a folding music stand.

There were only three German Emperors, and the third was Kaiser Wilhelm II who would have the most significant effect on world history. In this next postcard, a guards band marches pass the Kaiser (marked with an X). The postcard must have been sent in an envelope as someone has written on the back, "Unter den Linden" - Berlin   The Goose Step. The numeral II on their collars may signify that this unit are members of the 2nd Garde-Regiment.

There are no bandsmen in this next postcard, but it shows the honor guard of the 1st Garde-Regiment zu Fuss standing at attention while the Kaiser and his new daughter-in-law, Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Oldenburg (1879 – 1964) walk pass in review. Sophia married the Kaiser's second son, Prince Eitel Friedrich of Prussia  on 27 February 1906, and this postcard was mailed (without message) to Miss Edith Still of Ridley Park, PA on 15 March 1906. This photo was probably taken during the elaborate three day wedding ceremony which had over 1500 guests. But the Princess would not have a happy life with Eitel Friedrich. Their marriage was soon marked by scandal and they divorced in 1926.

The guardsmen seem uniformly tall, so I would think that soldiers were selected in part for their height which was then accentuated by their tall metal helmets. The regimental nickname was "Erstes Regiment der Christenheit"  or "First Regiment of Christendom". I believe the one short soldier on the left is  Prince Joachim (1890 – 1920), the youngest son of the Kaiser, who was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Garde-Regiment zu Fuß.  He's the only guardsman not looking dead straight ahead.

Following the end of the war when his father abdicated and moved to Holland. Joachim became severely depressed and committed suicide in Potsdam in 1920.

In 1945, the victors of the war with Germany - Churchill, Truman, and Stalin met at the  Potsdam Conference which as held at Cecilienhof, the former residence of Kaiser Wihelm's eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm Hohenzollern.  Here is Der Kronprinz with the band of the Garde zu Fuss as they march past the famous Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Note the bassoon and horn on the second rank left, followed by the glockenspiel, and some very tall guardsmen on the right. The Crown Prince is the one on the horse. Some readers may remember a story from last year which included a postcard of his four young sons playing with a machine gun.


Fortunately there are still musicians in Germany who preserve the musical heritage of the old German military bands. The Traditionsmusikkorps Ertes Garderegiment zu Fuß is a band that performs concerts dressed in the uniforms of the military bandsmen of Imperial Germany. In this video they play the Petersburger March.

But after you click the YouTube video above, Go ahead and click the next video below.  

This is a short silent film made in 1913 during a parade in Berlin for another royal wedding, this time of the Kaiser's daughter and youngest child, Princess Viktoria Luise to Ernest Augustus, heir to the title of Duke of Cumberland, The film uses a early color process that though primitive, still recreates the hue and colors of Germany's Imperial Age. It just needs some German army band music to give it the best effect.

The 1st Garde-Regiment zu Fuss makes an appearance at about 00:33. Supposedly the yellow streets are correct as they were covered with sand to give the horses better traction.


The Great War of 1914-18 brought tremendous revolution to the nations of the world. It toppled governments, changed international borders, divided populations, and invented new horrors that the world had never known. It also ended a culture of extravagant pomp and spectacle that had been dominant in Europe for centuries.

The music that came out of Germany, as well as Austria and the other former monarchies, is filled with reference to military bands. It's in the trumpets and tympani of Haydn and Beethoven. Its in the horns and woodwinds of Bruckner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. The Music Corps of the 1st Guard Regiment of Foot was part of a musical color that abruptly stopped in 1918. It is as if someone removed a pitch, a note from the musical scale, that we will never hear or see again.

There is one instrument in the Musikcorps of the Garde-Regiment zu Fuss that caught my attention. It is just in front, to the left of the bandleader, propped up between two tubas. It resembles a saxophone or an ophicliede, but it is actually a Sarrusophone,
<INCORRECT - SEE UPDATE BELOW>  an unusual hybrid brass and woodwind instrument that combined the double reed of the bassoon with the coiled metal body of a saxophone. It was invented in 1856 by Pierre-Louis Gautrot, but he named it after the French army bandmaster Pierre-Auguste Sarrus (1813–1876). Though it supposedly came in 9 different sizes from sopranino to contrabass, the most common usage was the deep contrabass Sarrusophone. It never caught on for use in military bands like the saxophone, and is no longer manufactured. Because the Garde zu Fuss band had at least 4 bassoonists, this may explain why they had this rare double reed instrument.

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Through the magic of YouTube we have a splendid demonstration of the Sarrusophone with music that the Prussian musicians could never have imagined. If you watch to the very end, this fine musician will reveal the single most important quality necessary to properly play a sarrusophone. It is one that the Prussian bandsmen of the 1st Garde-Regiment zu Fuss would surely have understood!

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is standing around a table in Potsdam
in 1945 and wondering, "What do we do now?"

  <<     UPDATE: 20 MARCH 2013     >> 

By an amazing coincidence, just a few days after writing this story, I met a good friend at a nearby university, who is an accomplished bassoonist and contra-bassoonist. He also collects unusual instruments, and showed me his Contrabass Sarrusophone and his Reed Contrabass, also known as a Contrabasse à anche. These two instruments are both made for a large double reed sounding through a very long metal conical bore. They both also use mechanical keys to change pitch and serve the same position in a band as the lowest of the bass instruments, the Reed Contrabass can play D1, the lowest note on the piano. But here the similarities end, as they are different musical species just as a Mammoth is not a Mastodon. 

Reed contrabass. Nominal pitch: E♭.
The Reed Contrabass was developed in the 1860 by the Belgian instrument maker Mahillion. Like the Saxophone and Sarrusophone, it was designed for the military band which required a durable metal construction and a compact design that allowed it to be carried while marching.

But the keys on this instrument operate the opposite way from other woodwind instruments, where the pads stand open and it is only when the player presses all the keys down that the lowest pitch is produced. Releasing keys uncovers successively more holes on the bore which thereby shortens the instrument length and raises the pitch in a musical scale.

With the Reed Contrabass the pads are all closed, so the lowest note is the natural keynote, and pressing a key opens an individual pad. This means that each musical pitch requires only one key, not a complicated combination like the fingering found on clarinets and saxophones. This makes for a very odd sequence of keywork, as the lower notes begin on the pinkie of the upper left hand and the highest finish on the lower right pinkie, just as a piano keyboard arranges low to high pitch for left and right hands. In the 1860s this may have seemed logical, but for a modern woodwind player it is as if a computer keyboard switched from the QWERTY layout into a strange foreign alphabet.


The museum database also includes this next instrument from the German National Museum but it is labeled as a Kontrabaß Sarussophon in tief C or Contrabass Sarrusophone in low C.

It appears nearly identical to the instrument in the Edinburgh collection and very like the instrument displayed by the Kaiser's band, and yet it is described on the museum website as a Sarrusophone.

I think it is mislabeled and that it is actually a Reed Contrabass, as it has the same wide tuba flare and the same extra large pads.



Here is the back side of the same instrument, which shows the unusual  key mechanism and is similar to the Reed Contrabass in the University of Edinburgh Museum collection. 


Contrabass Sarrusophone
by Conn (c. late 1850s)

For comparison, here is a Contrabass Sarrusophone that shows the narrower and taller bell flare and more connected keywork.

Like the giant prehistoric mammals, the Reed Contrabass and Contrabass Sarrusophone are now extinct and have been replaced by the modern contrabassoon. In the 19th century, composers, bandleaders, and musicians were always seeking new sound colors to make their orchestras and military bands more distinctive. The instrument makers saw an opportunity for money and fame, and developed these unusual inventions as "improvements" to music.

This extraordinary boom in musical instrument manufacturing in this era was a cutthroat business which needed more novelty for marketing hundreds of different kinds of instruments, most of which are no longer played. Darwin was right, the rule of survival of the fittest applied to industrial design too, and the Reed Contrabass and the Sarrusophone could not compete successfully against more practical instruments like the saxophone family.

I'm not sure how the bandsmen marched with a reed contrabass, but I am fairly certain, that like the Sarrusophone, the proper performance of the Contrabasse à anche required lots of beer.


Comparison of Woolly mammoth and American mastodon


Little Nell said...

I did enjoy this post Mike; I can see why the musician needed the extra lubrication for the sarrusophone! That experimantal colour film really brought those people into our century. The colour was a bit patchy, but it's amazing what difference even a splash makes. Who'd have thought we'd both have examples of goose-stepping in our posts this week? I wonder if anyone else will.

Wendy said...

I thought for sure I saw Beldar, Prymaat, and Connie in that first picture!

Mike, your observation on the timing of war's end and end of the pomp and extravagance of European music and culture is quite sobering. The paragraph following that statement is beautiful.

Bob Scotney said...

It beats me how a goose stepping band
can keep in time and play music as well.
I have added 'sarrusophone' to my vocabulary.

Brett Payne said...

I had my first read of this last night, but it was late so I came back this morning for a proper look. I was fascinated by the colour silent movie. The uniformas, and particularly the hats/helmets are extraordinary - indicative, like the music which you can't hear, of an era which was already long gone. I have a large format book of military uniforms, and that style I associate with German armies of a century earlier.

What a shame that we'll never hear that style of music again, but I see shades of the pomp and ceremony in every Royal outing that happens in the UK, and former Empire. What wonderful, evocative post - I'm off to listen to the music now, thanks.

Postcardy said...

I am wondering how you determined that the band on the first postcard was photographed in groups and pasted against the backdrop.

The 1913 video is quite impressive.

Howard said...

I love the Sarrusophone - to my ears it sounds like a minimoog. I've always been fascinated by the concept of military music, musicians usually being the least aggressive people imaginable. A bassoon-playing friend joined the territorial army some years ago just for the opportunity to play his bassoon with a band. He didn't last long.

Karen S. said...

Oh absolutely pour another one please! Very nice video, and excellent images, and again I wonder about their lovely head-gear- and I try to imagine what the designers thought, how they felt as they pieced them together, simply amazing, at least back in the day!

Emma Major said...

what an amazing collection of photos

Wibbo said...

Great photos - particularly the first one.

Alan Burnett said...

As always, quite fascinating. The example of the early Photoshop techniques was particularly interesting. We forget that all these tricks used to take place, it is just that Photoshop makes things so much easier.

barbara and nancy said...

I was fascinated by the early color film. It was so interesting to watch all that pomp and ceremony. I've been watching the old "Rome" series and it's amazing how nothing much changed over the centuries - pomp, tyrants, dictators, carving up territories.


I love how you generally manage to be on theme while remaining in your comfort zone. You've certainly covered the Potsdam topic admirably!! That video was a revelation and the man certainly has a sense of humor...


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