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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Any Way the Wind Blows

13 November 2015

This is an uncommon photograph of a musician. His instrument, an oboe, is rare to find pictured in photographs, but it is because he is actually blowing into it that this becomes an uncommon musical image. With his lips clamped firmly on the reed, his eyes closed in concentration, we can almost hear the note he plays.

It's a small unmounted photo without any identification. His wool suit and tie gives him a vague 20th century style. There is a calendar on the wall behind him but the focus is too unclear to read a date. The room's plate rail, ornate radiator, and light fixture suggest a house style from 1900-1920. The curious phantom on the left is in the photo print and is not a paper tear.


Unfortunately we must imagine how this next man played the flute under his splendid mustache. He sits for the camera in a photographer's armchair that has elaborate carving and turnings. A flute made of African blackwood rests on his leg. He is well dressed with bow tie and dark suit that may be a bit older fashion than the oboist. The man's confident pose suggests a professional musician but not a vaudeville performer. This steely eyed flutist was not intimidated by any imperious conductor.

The musical term Woodwind refers to the group of instruments made of wood and sounded by a musician's wind, i.e. breath or air. The flute is the most ancient of this family and was originally made of wood though most modern flutes are now made of silver and gold. It is the only woodwind that does not use a reed to make the vibrating sound, but instead the whistle comes from blowing across the open tone hole at one end.


In this case we do know the name of the musician as he signed the back of his postcard.   

June 5 / 1915

Respectfully yours    | Alfred
Wm Levi                  | Levi

The postcard was also made in Canada, but despite my best efforts I've been unable to trace the name. Is the flutist William or Alfred? I think it is William Levi and the card was addressed to Alfred Levi who is perhaps his brother.

This next woodwind musician boasts a similar bold gaze. He holds a clarinet or clarionet as it was often called in the 19th century. The gentleman sports a fine mustache and goatee with a carefully groomed hairstyle that belongs to a decade that predates the flutist's postcard photo. His suit and broad bow tie are a men's fashion of 1870s-1880s.



This carte de visite or cdv has square corners, no border, and a simple imprint on the back for the photographer's studio.

Excelsior Photographic
Malone, N. Y.

The cdv fits into the type produced in the 1860s. Malone is the county seat for Franklin County in far upstate New York, very close to the Canadian Border and Montreal. In 1860, Malone's population was 6,565, and Charles Ferris, born in 1828, was the town photographer from around 1860 to 1890.

If it were not for the 50 year difference between the photos, the resemblance of this New York clarinetist with the Canadian flutist could almost make them brothers.


Here is another clarinet player with an impressive goatee and self-assured manner. Like the previous clarinetist, this man also wears a dark suit with piping along the collars and cuffs, which I think is typical of the dress of a 19th century professional musician.


This is a larger cabinet card photograph without decorative borders and only a very plain photographer's stamp on the back.

Justus Zahn,
High Street
Bet. Main St. and P.O.
Belleville, IL
All Work Guaranteed

This fits the early style of  cabinet cards that places it in the 1880s. Though the stout little clarinetist must remain anonymous, the photographer was prolific enough to be found on the internet.


Justus Zahn (1847-1918)
Source: Rosenberg Library Museum

Justus Zahn (1847-1918) traveled from Germany to the United States as a young man in the 1870s, after service in the German Army during the Franco-Prussian War. After first living in Chicago where he started work as a photographer, and then St. Louis, in the 1880s he moved just across the Mississippi River to Belleville, IL which was then a center for German immigrants. His studio there did not last long, as by 1887 he opened a new photography studio in Galveston, TX, another hub for German Americans. It was there that he made his career until the Great Hurricane of 1900 destroyed Galveston. He and his family survived, but he subsequently moved to Montana, which was safely above any ocean storm surge.

The history of Belleville, IL describes this influx of Germans. In 1880 the population was 10,683 and German was the language commonly spoken in town. In 1866, the community formed a Philharmonic Orchestra Society that remains active today. So it seems fair to say that German was probably this clarinetist's mother tongue.


The previous musicians are not dressed in band uniforms though they undoubtedly played in a band from time to time. However the next two woodwind players were members of military bands, specifically French army regimental bands. This oboist sits in a photographer's studio chair with his instrument, le hautbois or "the high wood" neatly resting in the crook of his arm. The oboe's double reed is clearly visible too.

The collar of his long great coat has his infantry regiment number 97 and his epaulets are in the style of a military bandsman.

This is another cdv and the style is similar to the late 1870s to 1880s. The photographer was H. Perla of Avenue du Verney, Chambéry, France. Monsieur Perla won an award in 1879 for his photography skill. Chambery was also noted for a base for the French army. I've found several similar photos of French soldiers by Perla that fit an 1870 to 1885 date.


This last musician also wears the uniform of a French military bandsman, but he holds a bassoon, which he is only pretending to play. His collar is hidden so his regiment number is unknown. He does have a military musician's lyre shoulder patch.

In earlier centuries, before the advent of valves for brass instruments, military bands depended on the double reeds of oboes and bassoons to carry the march tunes. As brass instruments became the dominant sound in the 19th century bands, the use of the oboe diminished and the small piccolo E-flat clarinet replaced it as the treble woodwind instrument.  However the bassoon retained its position as the bass woodwind instrument, and one or two bassoons were still commonly used in military bands until the First World War.  

For a bonus, at his feet lies another instrument, an alto saxophone. This instrument is usually associated with woodwinds because it has a single reed and key work like a clarinet, but it was never made of wood and was originally manufactured in conical shaped brass metal, making it a kind of hybrid instrument. It was patented in Paris in 1846 by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax.  This instrument came in several sizes corresponding to soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass, which made it more versatile and adaptable for band music.


This cdv dates from a later decade that the French oboist, perhaps 1890s or possibly 1900s. The photographer was E. Verry of 53 Boulevard de la Liberté, Rennes, France.  Whereas Chambéry is in the Rhône-Alpes region of south-eastern France, Rennes is in northeast Brittany.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is going
Up, up, and away
in a beautiful balloon.




Jo Featherston said...

My first boyfriend was a flautist, back when we were teenagers but he didn't have a mustache and I'm sure he never looked as elegant as any of your fellows. I wonder if anyone has ever played the flute while riding in a hot air balloon?

Postcardy said...

You made a good choice of instruments and song to fit the theme.

La Nightingail said...

Clever - linking woodwinds to a prompt feature needing wind to get anywhere. I'm always curious to see how you're going to link bands and instruments to the prompt picture each week. Fun. :) We're a musical family. One daughter played the flute, another plays alto sax, our son played trombone, my husband plays drums and guitar, I play the piano and sing, my father played clarinet, and my mother sang with a band in her late teens and early 20s.

Alan Burnett said...

And a fascinating contribution it is. Like others I love your link to the theme. But it is not just the photos I enjoy looking at - it is the descriptions and explanations. You are a music teacher, Mike - you certainly teach me about music.

Sharon said...

The first photo has so much personality and to me, it is real! A pity we cannot read the calendar!

Deb Gould said...

That second shot is actually pretty funny -- the ornate carved chairback looks like a headdress on the musician...your first man is just fabulous; even his hair!

Rosie said...

Yes, the man in the first picture did not seem like he would be intimated by a conductor or anyone else for that matter!!!!

Kathy Morales said...

I do like that first photograph! And beyond that - what Alan said!

Little Nell said...

Some very determined expressions there and I much prefer the more natural photograph at the top to the formal studio shots.

FishBone911 said...

After consulting with my wife, who is a preeminent oboist in Minneapolis
we both believe the first photo is the Australian-born composer, arranger and pianist
Percy Grainger.
On 9 June 1917, after America's entry into the war, he enlisted as a bandsman in the U.S. Army with the 15th Coastal Artillery Corps Band in New York City. He had joined as a saxophonist, though he records learning the oboe: "I long for the time when I can blow my oboe well enough to play in the band". In his 18 months' service, Grainger made frequent appearances as a pianist at Red Cross and Liberty bond concerts. As a regular encore he began to play a piano setting of the tune "Country Gardens". The piece became instantly popular; sheet music sales quickly broke many publishing records. The work was to become synonymous with Grainger's name through the rest of his life, though he came in time to detest it. On 3 June 1918 he became a naturalised American citizen.

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks for the possible identification, FishBone911, but I've just looked up Percy Grainger on Wikipedia which includes a photo of Grainger in his US Army bandsman uniform. In that image he is clearly younger than the gentleman in my photo. Moreover, my oboist has spiky straight hair and a mustache, while Grainger's hair is very wavy and his face clean shaven. As far as I can tell this was his appearance throughout his life, so I don't think this oboist is Percy Grainger. But I do have photos from 1914-1920 of US Coastal Artillery bands and US Army saxophonists, so you've given me a new celebrity face to look out for.


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