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 }

Hungarian Boys Bands – part 1

25 March 2016

This is a drummer with an attitude.
He looks confident, even cocky, because he knows
his drumsticks keep the band on the proper beat.
That kind of bold self assurance is not typical
of a boy who might be at best 10 years old.

His fellow musicians on piccolo and trumpet seem less certain,
maybe a bit apprehensive. Both boys need to know the tunes
because the sound of their instruments
always be easily heard.

A young horn player gazes off into the distance.
He might be age 11 or 12 but his poise
shows the maturity of a musician who knows his instrument.

The other wide-eyed horn player — maybe not so much.
One of the first lessons that brass players learn
is to keep a firm grip on your horn and not drop it.

His mates on trumpet and piccolo are aged 7 or 8,
surely not more than 10.

The rest of the band are older, around 12 to 15.
The bass trombonist might be 16.
All the brass instruments have rotary valves
which were the common design for central European brass bands.

Every boy wears a smart military uniform
with a tall shako hat and
collar badges of a musical lyre.
Two men sit in the center, a younger man with a trumpet,
and an older man dressed in a lighter colored coat,
whose stout baton embellished with silver bands,
and fierce upturned mustache marks him as the bandleader.

This is not an ordinary school band.
The tasseled lyre, or glockenspiel in German,
was a special instrument associated with military bands.
These boys are like cadets, or army bandsmen in training.

 But from where?   

{click the images to enlarge}

The answer is – somewhere near Budapest.
This postcard photo was postmarked from there
but the date is partly illegible. If it follows the
date style of Hungary with year/month/day
then it was mailed 1912 JUL 1.
There are several names scrawled in the message side,
and in the center is another date 1912 Jun 30
which corresponds well with the postmark.

Do the signatures belong to some of the boys in the band?
I can't really say. But it seems fair to say this wind band
is a group of young Austrian-Hungarian boys
from two summers before the onset of World War 1.

That might be the end of this story except that in my research,
I stumbled across a small thumbnail image on the internet.
It's the exact same photo including even the signature.
Die Schilzony-Kapelle 1909 [Robert Rohr]
It is labeled Die Schilzony-Kapelle 1909 [Robert Rohr] and is part of a short biography of a musician from the Danube Schwabian area of eastern Europe. His name was Nicholas Schilzonyi. According to this history written by Jody McKim Pharr, the bandleader pictured in this photo was Nikol Schilzong, also known as Niklas Schilzonyi, who was born in 1872 in Billed, Hungary as it was then called.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Austria-Hungary as it is more properly called, was a union from 1867 to 1918 of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary, often referred to as the Dual Monarchy under Kaiser Franz Josef. In German it was abbreviated to k.u.k.kaiserlich und königlich for Imperial and Royal. The empire encompassed hundreds of different cultural, religious, and national groups. Though German was the official language, there were many others within this vast nation. This colorful map shows the mixture of Austria-Hungary's principal ethnic populations in 1910 when the photograph of the boys band was taken. I've marked the small town of Billed in the Banat district near the southeast border. Today the town is part of Romania. 

Ethnic Groups of Austria-Hungary, 1910
Source: Wikimedia

Niklas Schilzonyi was evidently a very gifted musician, whose talent was recognized at an early age when at just 13 years old he was appointed bandmaster of a state military band. He developed a music academy in Billed where in 1897, he secured permission, and possibly sponsorship, from the Kaiser to take his boys' band, a Knabenkapelle in German, on a grand tour of the United States. The band had 40 musicians from the Billed, Banat area and they presented concerts as Kaiser Franz Josef's Magyar Hussaren Knabenkapelle — The Hungarian Boys' Military Band. Surprisingly the first city to promote them in the US was San Francisco in August 1897.

This poster, found on the biography of Schilzonyi, comes from that 1897 tour and shows the boys dressed in splendid blue and red uniforms embellished with fancy embroidery, cloaks, and plumed hats. Schilzonyi stands on the right and a vignette of his portrait is in the top left corner.

Schilzonyi and his famous
Hungarian Boys' Military Band
Source:  Danube Swabian Biographies

The band boys ranged in age from 7 to 15, and traveled with a tutor named Michael Nussbaum who provided them with a regime of proper scholastic study. In the afternoons, Schilzonyi gave the band its musical training. In October 1897, the San Francisco Call newspaper published a delightful story describing the military precision needed to organize 40 boys into a musical band representing Austria-Hungary.  This illustration of the drum major and a little drummer was taken from that article.

San Francisco, CA Call17 October 1897

By November 1897, the Hungarian Boys' Military Band had moved onto southern California to give concerts. The cartoonist with the Los Angeles Herald sketched the boys in rehearsal. The sunny climate and plentiful oranges must have agreed with the boys as they stayed through the winter into 1898.

Los Angeles, CA Herald
14 November 1897

The tour continued into the next year with July concerts in Kansas City, MO.  

Kansas City, MO Journal
25 July 1898

By the third year on tour, the band dropped any reference to Kaiser Franz Josef, and instead called themselves Schilzonyi's Hungarian Boys' Military Band. The advertisements for concerts in New Orleans praised their music as of the highest order. But the concerts were often booked for fairs or vaudeville theaters where they competed with all kinds of distracting novelties and entertainments.

New Orleans, LA Times Picayune
05 August 1899

Brooklyn, NY Daily Eagle
28 January 1900

By January 1900, Nikclas Schilzonyi's band of Hungarian Boys were in  New York City. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle included a sketch of Schilzonyi with its report, which notes that their hometown was Billed, Hungary. The band's musical repertoire consists of over 500 pieces of music of the most difficult kind.

The band gave performances in Rochester, NY in February 1900 where a reviewer noted that the concert was limited to 50 minutes due to the youth of its musicians.  The program included a Hungarian march composed by Schilzonyi; the popular overture to Mignon by Thomas; Sousa's Star and Stripes march; and ragtime music, Georgia Camp Meeting.

At this point Schilzonyi probably took his band back home to Hungary, as references to their concerts disappear. After three years some of his musicians had likely reached the age for real military service. It may have been time to get newer and fresher kids for the band.

But Schilzonyi was not gone for very long. In November 1904 his band returned to Syracuse, NY.

This second tour would last until 1909.

* * *

Over the next 5 years, Niklas Schilzonyi's Knabenkapelle Hungarian Hussar Band played Boston; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Washington D.C.; Harrisburg, PA; Portland, OR; Vancouver B.C., and Winnipeg, Manitoba. The band's size occasionally changed, sometimes 30, as many as 50, but usually about 35. They were not always the headliner as they often toured as  an act within a traveling minstrel show. Steady summer work came by playing a couple of weeks at an amusement park, with two, sometimes three, shows a day. But novelty wears thin and Schilzonyi's band would have to move on to another city.    

Winnipeg, Manitoba Tribune
02 March 1907

Winnipeg, Manitoba Tribune
02 March 1907

They were a big hit at Winnipeg's Bijou Theater, as the booking was extended another week. A reviewer praised the youthful musicians who displayed marvelous ability as executive artists, and their playing is of a very high order of excellence. The tone masses are powerful and effective and the unity of attack extraordinary.

The Monday program, it changed each day, was:
  1. Autro-Hungary Armee March.
  2. Poet and Peasant, by Suppe.
  3. Sextette from Lucia da Lammermoor, by Donizetti.
  4. Second Regiment, March Militaire.
  5. Eight Fanfare, Trumpet solo.

* * *

The March 1907 Winnipeg Tribune report included a photo of the Hungarian Huzzar Band.  It's a grainy reproduction but we can see about 35 musicians, mostly young boys, all dressed in the same Austro-Hungarian style military uniforms.

Winnipeg, Manitoba Tribune
02 March 1907

The last report of Niklas Schilzonyi's Hungarian Boys' Military Band was a set of concerts in November 1909 at the Chutes amusement park in San Francisco. Again it seems likely that the band had overstayed America's enthusiasm for Hungarian boys' bands and it was time for them to return home to Billed, Hungary.

However the biography of Schilzonyi has a newspaper clipping that shows he was in Reno, Nevada in April 1912, performing as a "quick change artist" impersonating several great composers. He applied for citizenship in 1913 and took residence in  Whittier, CA near Los Angeles. He remarried and had children born in California. After the war years, he changed his name from Schilzonyi to Schilzony, but continued to teach music and direct bands. He took out patents for an invention of a double bore clarinet.  In 1927 his family life came apart and he divorced, moving to the east coast. His name was found in the 1940 census for New York City, but the date of his death is not known. 

So because the postcard's 1912 date seems in conflict with what is known of Schlizonyi's life history, I can't say with complete certainty that my postcard photo of a Knabenkapelle is Niklas Schilzonyi's boys' band. It's quite possible that the identification of this photo on the Danube Swabian biography of Schilzonyi was in error. A big handlebar mustache does make a very good disguise. But the photograph may date from earlier, perhaps in the period between 1900 and 1904 when he was back in Hungary recruiting a new band. Who knows for sure, one hundred years after the camera took the photo?

But for my purpose it does not matter. The postcard of the cryptic Hungarian boys band and the story of Niklas Schilzonyi are both perfect examples of one of Hungary's signature exports – musicians. Before the tragic events of 1914 intervened, the US tour of Schilzonyi's Boys' Band introduced America's youth to a level of extraordinary Hungarian musicianship that surely inspired boys from San Francisco to New Orleans to New York to aspire to play a band instrument. And as I've tried to show in the deconstruction of the postcard, the proud expressions of those young boys are of skilled musicians who knew how to play music.

To prove my point, this is only part one of my story on Hungarian Boys Bands.
Next weekend I'll have more.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where other boys play marbles.


Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Breathlessly waiting the next installment!. It's hard to imagine boys this young traveling such long distances, for
such long periods without parents. Your research is superb, as usual, and I personally enjoyed the review from
my home town Winnipeg. I hope some of my relatives had the opportunity to enjoy the band. Thanks for a very
entertaining read.

Alex Daw said...

And I shall be waiting with bated breath for Part II. Such beautiful faces in those photos. Don't you just wonder what happened to them? Then again - maybe not.

Alan Burnett said...

As so often your post has everything. Some superb images (and you zoom in to reveal hidden works of art) and some fascinating history wrapped up in research that just adds to our enjoyment of the subject matter. Mister Mike doesn't fit the bill. Master Mike - that's more like it.

Jo Featherston said...

An amazing and totally fascinationg story behind a photograph, despite the date discrepancy. Can't wait to see what more you have discovered about the boys in the band.

La Nightingail said...

I always love to see how you bring everything together! And as always, a very entertaining post. Wish it were possible to hear them play. :)

Little Nell said...

I'm glad you concentrated on the individual expressions of each boy. I wonder if their wistfulness was because they were so far away from home. Seven is very young to be on tour.

Tattered and Lost said...

Okay, question. How was it that families allowed their kids to be gone this long to a country so far away? Did they sign contracts? Did they just hand them over as if they were apprentices? Did they lose kids along the way, send them home and replacements showed up? The logistics alone for the time period seem overwhelming of their were parents back home awaiting word of how things were going.

Wendy said...

Bandmaster at 13? Amazing. I love the quirkiness of this story with our hero becoming a quick-change artist.

Titania Staeheli said...

A wonderful account of this famous Band. Some of the boys were so young to be separated from their families. Therefore probably the apprehensive looks of some of the smaller boys. At least they had schooling and the performance time was limited. Still they must have done a lot of musical training while travelling. I guess quite a hard life for a little boy. At an early stage my ancestors moved from their native Galicia to Boehemia and later settled in Austria.
I loved to read this very interesting story about this Band. Amazing that they traveled so far over the oceans to make a name in America. Many Kudos to you for all the research.

Francis Griffin said...

My French isn't that brilliant, but the problem with the postcard is the script the writer uses, which although quite like modern French script, renders some parts of it illegible to me.

So this is the best that I can at present.

My dear friends
In response to your letter which I have just received , it appears that there is a great improvement in your health. Our greatest desire is that you get better and better. I hope for a real second youth. I'll just tell you that we are leaving Nice on Friday, we are going to Challes. The water is so good that I cannot go by there without going to drink. We have had in Nice for some days really hot weather, but the cloud has come everywhere cooling the temperature quite a bit. I don't know what it will be like in Challes. It's more ...(illegible)... that it will be more cool than hot. Tomorrow morning I am going for a walk, and we will see the villa in question, and I hope ...(can't translate this!). Ernest joins me in sending you our best wishes

Jody Pharr said...

I stumbled across your blog about Schilzonyi and his boys and see you used photos & information from my ongoing research: Common practice is to receive permission to do so and provide credit sources for each item, photos and information. Corrections would be appreciated.

Your readers may find our summary of updates interesting to read:

Kind regards,
Jody McKim Pharr

Unknown said...

These boys certainly had to be extremely talented. The combination of smug and tired faces is a perfect reflection of it.

I recently stumbled into sheet music for a Hungarian march from this era, Kinizsi. This type of music is quite difficult and the instrumentation is fierce. This band appears to be roughly outfitted for the sheet music, aside from being short a couple of Horn players.

Pity the Trumpet players, especially the two young boys in front. They are playing Trumpets in low Eb and expected to play in the same range as modern Bb Trumpets. Hiding behind the conductor are a couple of boys given the unenviable task of playing Trombone parts on their Bass Trumpets. The man to the right of the conductor looks smug holding his prized 4 valve Flugelhorn. He certainly plays the Bb Trumpet part because he's the only one that can reach the low F. The Helicon players have a larger load on their shoulders than just their horns. They have to carry the bottom of the band while matching the technical prowess of the more nimble instruments!


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