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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Music by the Seaside

01 August 2015

Why did a symphony orchestra have four harp players?
It's simple —
one harpist to keep the other harps out of tune;
one harpist to miscount the measures rests;
one harpist to distract the conductor with flirtatious smiles;
and one harpist to actually play the notes at the right time.

With all due respect to harp players, most symphony orchestras get by just fine with a single harpist. Sometimes a composer might feel a need to have two harps provide an angelic interlude within an orchestral piece. But four harps? At one time? In the front rank of the orchestra? Unheard of.

Unless you were listening to the Orchestra of the Kursall in Ostende, Belgium. Because with 120 musicians packed on top of each other in 6 narrow tiers, and with 12 double bassists stretched along the back, and with a massive pipe organ hanging on the wall behind, four harps were the least excessive section of this symphony orchestra.  

The year was 1907, and Ostend, Belgium (or Oostend in Dutch, or Ostende in French and German) was the holiday seaside destination for the fashionable people of Northern Europe. The Kursaal was an extravagant casino and concert hall built on a sandy beach of the North Sea. 

Originally a small fishing village in the Flemish province of West Flanders, Ostend took its name from its first location on the East End of an island that in the Middle Ages was reattached with dikes to the mainland. In the 19th century it became an important port when it was linked by a rail line to Brussels. The ease of travel consequently made this coastal resort popular with British tourists as well as Belgians, French, Dutch, and Germans looking for a seaside holiday.  

Kursaal, Ostend, Belgium circa 1895
Source: Wikimedia
In the 1890s the Ostend casino was considered second only to Monte Carlo for its gambling revenue. Its gaming tables were a favorite attraction for the high end society of the various European royal courts. Ostend was also the summer retreat of King Leopold II  of Belgium (1835-1909). Known as the "Builder King", Leopold spent a fortune on commissioning many grand public buildings in Belgium and acquiring several enormous private parks. Even though Belgium was a very small country and had only recently become an independent nation in 1831, Leopold became enormously rich from his personal control of the Congo Free State in Central Africa. From 1885 to 1908, Leopold profited from the rubber, ivory, and other natural resources taken from the Congo region. This devastating exploitation caused the deaths of millions of Congolese people impressed into forced labor camps. The tragic history of Belgium's African colonial era places a dark shadow behind images of Belgian society in the 1900s.

The Kursaal orchestra was arranged in a special gallery high above the main floor of the hall. The patrons sat around small cafe tables where liveried waiters would bring them refreshments during a performance. This second postcard view of the orchestra moved the camera from the floor to a higher gallery giving a better view of the hall's fantastic chandeliers and ornate columns. The orchestra's stage has at least six main risers with possibly two more shorter ones in the upper corners. All the musicians seem to be playing in this photo. Note that the harpists are the only female musicians and that they are wearing rather large hats. I think the conductor is not the same man as in the first postcard. This card was postmarked 1916 during the war but the image dates from pre-war.

The first Kursaal was built in the 1850s and then replaced in 1877 with a larger venue with a ballroom, exhibition area, reading rooms, and a concert hall surrounded with glass windows. Unfortunately the hall never had satisfactory acoustics and it was often difficult to hear the music over the clatter of coffee spoons and conversation, which might account for the need of a very large orchestra. In the 1900s the concert space was improved and remodeling added sumptuous decorations. The resort season was from May to October, but I understand the North Sea is still very cold in the middle of the European summer. The vacationers in this 1908 postcard view of the Kursaal seem more interested in watching the sea rather than attempting to wade in it, or much less swim in it.   

An excerpt from Punch magazine of August 27, 1898

There are several ways of getting through the day at Ostend, where the day is about as long as at other seaside resorts. or perhaps rather longer. The simplest plan is to sit in the morning on the terrace of the Kursaal and chatter till it is time to go to dejeuner, to do the same in the afternoon, till it is time to go to dinner, and to repeat this amusement in the evening, till it is time to go to bed. The next morning you begin again. In this way you avoid all needless exertion. 

Another plan is, in the morning to stand in the sea. If you are very brave you go in up to your waist, and if you are very strong you splash a little water on your chest, but you never wet your head for fear of hurting your hair. You may wear a straw hat as a protection from the sun, and, if you are a German, you may add a pair of spectacles. The only disadvantage of this plan is that about four thousand people want the four hundred bathing machines. If you are a woman, you flounder about on wet sand and never get a cabine at all. If you are a man, you take off your boots and socks, wade in up to your knees, and pursue the machine in the water. The chasse aux cabinet is fine exercise, but it is hardly luxurious. 

By standing in the sea you begin the day comfortably cool. In the afternoon you stand on the racecourse, the pigeon shooting ground, the pier, or the promenade, or you can sit down if you like. These pastimes make you considerably warmer. In the evening you have a choice of two places to stand in. One of them is the dancing room of the Kursaal, where the temperature is about ninety degrees. You can dance if you wish. The other is the gambling room, where the temperature is about one hundred and fifty degrees. You stand here in a dense crowd, reach over the heads of the few who have obtained chairs, and lose as many louis as you like.

A third system is to linger over your café-au-lait till it is nearly time for dejeuner, to prolong your dejeuner with coffee and liqueurs until about the time of the fivocklock, when you have a glass of port, or a scherry gobbler, and, beginning dinner soon after seven, to go on with this till half past ten, or later, when all the other diners have left the restaurant, and the weary waiters have piled all the other chairs upon all the other tables. But this system will ruin your system after a time.

It is believed by some that there are excellent concerts in Kursaal every evening from 7.30 to 9. But to hear them at an impossible time one must go without dinner altogether, which no one can do. In fact, there is reason to believe that no one ever did get to these concerts. Once when VANDERBLANK and I had rather hurried over our coffee and cigarettes in his véranda – the vérandas of Ostend are very pleasant in hot weather – we  arrived at the Kursaal just in time to see some men with violins disappearing from the orchestra. Since then I have considered myself rather an authority on the Ostend concerts, having been as near hearing one as that.


The previous card was sent by Carlo from Ostend in August 1908 to Miss KatieWexzel of London. The profile of King Leopold II is on the stamp.

Ostend provided activities like sailing regattas, horse racing, pigeon shooting, and golf during the season. There were theaters and dancing halls, as well as fine dining, and of course a promenade along the waterfront, but the Kursaal did not develop into an amusement park of thrill rides and carnivals games. This was a holiday place for genteel society. 

Source: Musica, Paris
September 1906

The celebrated orchestra of the Kursall in Ostende was put together from the best musicians in Belgium, France, and Germany. Many were music professors at the conservatoires and held positions in prominent orchestras of Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.  And clearly a harp quartet was a popular feature of the orchestra. By my count there were over 120 musicians perched on the perilous stage of the Kursaal. By comparison, in 2015 the New York Philharmonic can boast of only 101 musicians (with just one harp) and the London Symphony Orchestra has a mere 87 musicians. Very few symphony orchestras carry more than 8 double basses. Only opera orchestras retain larger orchestras, and then such musical force is used only for grand musical spectacles like those of Wagner and Verdi.

This image came from Musica, a Paris music journal of 1906. It lists dozens of famous pianists, violinists, opera singers and composers who appeared in concert with the orchestra. There were two performances each day at 2:30 and 7:45. The organ was featured in two recitals each week. The music ranged from arias of light French operettas to scenes from Wagner's operas, from the tuneful waltzes of Johann Strauss II to the dramatic tone poems of Richard Strauss. Many leading composers like Camille Saint-Saëns visited Ostend to have their music performed. In 1908 Sir Edward Elgar was honored by the Kursall Orchestra with a festival of his music which he conducted.    

Leon Rinskopf (1862-1915)

The principal conductor of the Kursaal Orchestra was a Belgian musician, Leon Rinskopf (1862-1915) who became its music director in 1891. It was due to his artistic leadership that the orchestra was renown for its high quality musicians and refined programing. He introduced audiences to the latest symphonic music and was responsible for promoting many Belgian composers. He took the orchestra on tours to Berlin,  St. Petersburg, and London where they received tremendous acclaim. 

In August 1914 Ostend's music and high society life came to an abrupt halt as the army of Kaiser Wilhelm marched through Belgium on the way to Paris. The Great War would close the resort for four long years.

* * *

The Times of London
July 25, 1919

Rinskopf and his orchestra managed to leave Ostend safely for exile in Paris. Meanwhile Ostend as a port city became an important base for German submarines and the Kursaal was converted into a military headquarters. It was the target of British bombing raids during the war. 

The Kursaal Orchestra played a benefit concert in London in February 1915 where many Belgians took  refuge during the war. All the music was by contemporary Belgian composers It proved too much for Leon Rinskopf who would never see the Kursaal again. A few months later he died in Paris in June 1915.

In July 1919, Ostend re-opened its seaside resort. People all over Europe certainly needed a holiday, but Ostend was never the same. And of course in 1939 there was a reprise of German occupation, this one more terrible than the first.

In 2015 the Kursaal Oostende continues to operate as a modern venue for touring theatrical shows and orchestra concerts. But the facility is no longer the grandiose cultural center of 1908.

And today it is probably very rare to see four lady harpists on stage with 120 men.

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone has gone to the coast for the summer.


Alex Daw said...

Dear Mike - you never fail to amuse and entertain. I loved the Punch article....the first article is funny enough on its own but it just gets better, the more you read. When I saw the four harps I immediately thought of Saint-Saens - although the last performance I saw this year only had two harps and I thought that was amazing. Oh how I wish I could have seen the original looked fantastic, in the true sense of the word.

La Nightingail said...

Robinson The Rover's remarks in the excerpt from Punch magazine are such fun! What a sense of humor. I pity those poor orchestra members sitting high in the back of the balcony at the Kursaal. Depending on the weather, it must have been stifling up there. I wonder that they could even play?!! I also wonder if some might have fainted? It happens. Maybe they had fans to maintain at least a modest air flow. Wouldn't want them blowing too hard though or there'd be sheet music all over the floor or wafting out into the audience. I was singing in a choral concert one time when that happened to the director! A woman in the audience calmly picked the music sheets up and handed them back to him as we sang on. :)

Postcardy said...

Interesting post about the orchestra and resort. Also very interesting name to match this week's Sepia Saturday prompt.

Karen S. said...

Ah yes to stay by the seaside, and music too, fabulous idea! Four harps that is something too. I especially like the design of Kursaal, Ostend, Belgium circa 1895, and such a lovely postcard photo too!

Jo Featherston said...

Wonderful research as usual, and I was hoping someone might post about the real Ostend. Thought I might have been there but no, we caught a ferry to the UK from the Hook of Holland, as did my parents on their 1954 trip. The Kursaal and its orchestra look amazing, despite Mr Robinson's remarks.

Alan Burnett said...

A thoroughly enjoyable Sunday morning read - as always. But I consider it a challenge for me to find a theme with such an obscure location that even you can't come up with not only a band from there, but a set of fine photographs of them and a detailed biography of the conductor! Just give me time.

Joan said...

I'm with Alan on this one. The full photograph of the Kursaal Orchestra, the special gallery, along with the magnificent chandeliers and the the general elegance of the place --- just took my breath away.

Barbara Fisher said...

Hello Mike, I’m so impressed with all the research you did for this post. The postcards are wonderful and give an entirely different view of Ostend. We’ve visited it very briefly in the past but only because it’s a ferry port – perhaps we should find the time to take a proper look around next time.

Barbara Rogers said...

Ditto what everyone else has said...I do admit to laughing out loud when reading the Punch article. You have created yet another extraordinary historical review in this post.

anyjazz said...

It's always a treat to find related photographs of a location or event. Good research on this one. The Punch article was a fun read.


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