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 }

A Horn Trio

04 October 2013

click to enlarge

It's still magic. Even when you know the trick, it remains a wonder.  In just an instant the light flashes through the camera lens and strikes the thin chemical film. Silver crystals in a gelatin emulsion capture the light and preserve that brief moment as an image. In the era before photographic film, this image was saved onto a dry glass plate as a negative that reversed the light and dark. On this glass plate a horn player, a pianist, and a violinist are forever frozen on a single musical note.

There might be dozens or even thousands of photographic prints made that reproduce that moment. But there is always only one negative. It is the original record of the raw light that a camera saw.

In the past, we would need a photographer's skill with a darkroom, an enlarger, and more chemicals to translate that negative into a positive print. But today we have a modern magic that converts the silver into numbers, and a second trick removes the confusion of tones for our limited human eyesight.

Now the three men are clear. The pianist sits at an ornate upright piano with the horn player and violinist to either side. The hornist reads off the piano score (and maybe turns pages) and the violinist plays from memory. They are in a drawing room of a private home. Fine paintings hang on the walls. Atop the piano is a porcelain vase. An elegant oil lamp sits on a wonderfully carved table. The blur of the violin bow recreates a real moment of musical performance.

A second glass plate has the pianist alone. The negative hides the details from our eyes until digital technology once again transforms the pixels into 5 million shades of grey we can understand.

The pianist may be playing solo, but the violin rests on top the piano lid, and the horn, though hidden by his back, is on a small table under the large painting. The image has an intimacy and spontaneity that is very rare to find in vintage photos. Like the first photo, we can almost hear the chord that he plays.

AGFA photografic plates, 1880
source: Wikipedia

Glass plate negatives allow no inscription or notes. With no names, no date, and no photographer's logo, we can only guess at their description. Perhaps American, but equally they might be Canadian, English, or German too. From their clothing it would be reasonable to say they lived in the decades before or after 1900. And in addition to the quality suits, I would say these three musicians have playing postures that only professional musicians could have.

But there is another detail that only a horn player like myself would see. A musical trio of violin, horn, and piano is most unusual. Though these instruments perform together in orchestras and larger chamber ensembles, there is really only one piece of music that these three particular instrumentalists would likely play - the Horn Trio in E flat major, op. 40 by Johannes Brahms.

Written in 1865, it is a monumental piece for all three instruments that has some of Brahms' most beautiful music. No other major composer of the Romantic period wrote for these three instruments, so it has long been a favorite of horn players. Though originally written for the natural horn without valves, it was soon taken up by players of the modern valved horn. This horn player uses a single rotary valve horn that is usually pitched in F, but his horn has a crook in E flat I think, which would put it in the key of this piece.  (note: Brass musicians spend a LOT of time analyzing the twist and turns of plumbing.)

But it was not until the late 20th century that other composers would again write for this combination of instruments. Brahms died in 1897, revered around the musical world as one of the greatest composers. Because his Horn Trio was the only prominent chamber music available in 1900 for these three musicians, I believe that is what they are playing.

I can't prove it, but imagination has magic too.

The Horn trio is usually played with seated musicians, but I found this wonderful video on YouTube that has the two solo instruments standing like the musicians in the photo.  It is so artfully filmed that it conveys the excitement of Brahms' great music.

It is also my favorite part of the Horn Trio.

>> <<

>> <<

This amazing performance of the 4th movement Finale of Johannes Brahms' Horn Trio was produced for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art by Stéphan Aubé. The musicians are Bruno Schneider (horn), Daishin Kashimoto (violin) and Eric le Sage (piano).

I highly recommend their recordings of the other three movements too.

My suspicion is that the musicians in my photo are really in the second movement.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link for more vintage out-of-focus photos.


Wendy said...

Only ever one negative -- now there is a bit of obvious information that I had never thought about before, but you have given it great significance that I appreciate.

I'm amused by the pianist's feet, crossed in both plates although he shifted positions, I think. No need for loud/soft? When I took piano lessons, I thought knowing when to use the pedal was a great trick.

After listening to the performance, I am surprised no one thought to compose for this trio before - the instruments seem very compatible.

Anonymous said...

What a great post!! I have yet to master the trick of reversing the negative, but you have done it well. And a beautiful send off of music to inspire the day.

Alex Daw said...

As always, I am in awe of your detective work and knowledge...sigh....if only....

Boobook said...

Impressive detective work as always.

Sean Bentley said...

Back when I was in film school in the '70s, the class was horrified when informed that silver was running out and that soon we would no longer be able to take photographs. No one had any idea about computers and digital photography.

The Silver Fox said...

Very well researched. I'm quite impressed.

Postcardy said...

Maybe if you could identify the piano, it would indicate the country.

Deb Gould said...

My grandmother had a piano stool like that: you could spin round and round and round! Those plates are just them all!

Rosie said...

Great post! Amazing what could be done by then.

Nancy said...

What an interesting post, Mike. The information about the photographs itself is interesting but to learn about the music they probably played and is amazing. I always learn something when I read your Sepia Saturday posts!


I bow to you!!
That a single composition could reunite these three instruments
at the time is impressive.
And what a lovely composition.
I love Brahms!!

Kristin said...

Really nice that you could identify the piece of music they are playing.

Sharon said...

A really enjoyable post Mike. I have a really large box of negatives (from more recent times) which need to be converted to digital.........but can't seem to find the time to do it.

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps there could be a clue to the identity of these musicians from the art on the walls. There's no question that the piece is Brahms. It is a posed picture, so the pianist's crossed feet are probably his resting position. I love this mystery!


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP