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 }

Two Young Cellists

22 July 2016

Vintage photographs of
a child playing a cello are rare.
But surprisingly there were
a small number of young musicians
who played the cello professionally.
The traditional musical instruments for child prodigies
are violin and piano, but sometimes children
are attracted to other instruments.
This boy, dressed in a suit with short pants,
strikes up a tune on his cello for the photographer.
His name is written on the postcard's caption:

H. Serfling
Cello- und Xylophon- Virtuose
Ausgez. v. hoh. Fürstlichkeiten

The postcard was mailed from Berlin on 27-6-14.

His first name was Hans.
He is sitting on two cushions
and appears not much older than 9 or 10.
There are few adult artists with the talent
to master both string and percussion instruments.
He posed in a traditional sailor suit for another postcard,
this time with his brother. 

H. Serfling, Cello- und Xylophon- Virtuos
Ausgezeichnet von mehreren Fürstlichkeiten
(awarded by several Princely personages)

Gebrüder Serfling

I believe Hans is on the right, though his brother on the left, who seems about the same height, may be a fraternal twin. His name is Fritz Serfling and he played the piano, which I know from another postcard that I have yet to buy. Ensembles of family entertainers were very popular in Germany in the 1900s and often promoted the talent of the youngest children. Interestingly I have yet to see, much less find, a photo of a child playing a piano. String, wind, and brass instruments were far more photogenic in this era. 

Both boys in the lower photo seem older, perhaps 12 or 13, while the first photo of Hans playing his cello is surely a bit younger. The confusion of age between the two postcards is compounded by the postmark, 29-7-13 or 29 July 1913 from Hannover, a year earlier than the first postcard. Obviously the age of the boys does not correspond directly with the postmarks.

The same image of Hans Serfling holding his cello
was printed on a separate postcard using just his name as a caption.
Notice the medal on his sailor's tunic. That's likely one of those princely honors.

This postcard was sent in an envelope
but the writer dutifully added a date, 19/7/13,
just a week before the other postcard. 

Just behind Hans is a table with his xylophone. However it's not the familiar rectangular kind with bars arranged like a piano keyboard. This is xylophone is made in a trapezoidal shape with the bars arranged crosswise like the strings of a hammered dulcimer, or a cimbalom, as it is known in Central and Eastern Europe.

Recently I acquired a postcard of German wind and string ensemble called Serfling's Künstler - Orchester. The orchestra leader is the violinist with the grand mustache standing center. He directs a group of 14 musicians, all male, with three trumpets, two horns, a trombone, two clarinets, a flute, three violins, and a contrabass. And on the front right is a young boy standing in front of a trapezoid xylophone. (Note the herald trumpeter on the far left with a straight trumpet about seven feet long. There is an interesting curved handle to balance it when held out.)

This boy has short hair and is clearly only six or seven years old. He has the look of an accomplished professional musician. Is it Hans? The name Serfling and the unusual instrument leads me to think that it is, even though the resemblance is not close. Perhaps it is another brother. Or maybe just an entirely different family. Unfortunately this postcard has no postmark to date it. The printer was Verlag v. Max Kästner, of Bad Blankenburg in Thuringia, Germany. The small orchestra was typical of the kind of Germanic musical entertainment performing as the resident theater orchestra to accompany variety acts, or as the feature group appearing at a high class hotel or restaurant.


This next postcard of a young cellist and her look-alike violinist
might be mistaken as a kind of trick photography.
But these two girls are clearly identified as:
Yours truly.  The Twin Sisters Riponi.

The two girls are dressed in short white frocks with white stockings and shoes, and both have long Italianate hair tied with a white bow. They are obviously identical twins, one with a cello and the other a violin. Between them is small table displaying two mandolins, the quintessential instrument of Italian musicians, most often Naples. This is another pair of professional entertainers, perhaps age 9 or 10.

The name Riponi sounds Italian,
but the postcard was printed
by the Imperial Publishing Co.
of Longstaff, Staffordshire, England.
There is no postmark.

There were more sisters.

Dumfries and Galloway Standard
17 June 1914

On June 17, 1914 a Scottish newspaper, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, reported on the show at the Electric Theater. There were two dramas, "Thor, Lord of the Jungle" and "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle", and two comedies, "Fooling Uncle" and "How Old are You". In between the silent films were several artistes beginning with The Sisters Riponi, vocalists and dancers.  They were followed by Rene, lady juggler; Vimp and Vera, assisted by Ena, in a smart comedy act.

And the Dumfries and Galloway Standard also reported on the number of washings, 171, at the Baths and Wash-House. 1st class baths, 113; 2nd class baths, 21.

Dublin Daily Express
19 April 1915

In April 1915, the entertainment at the Empire Theater of Dublin, Ireland was given a review in the Dublin Daily Express. Besides a few comic vaudeville sketches, there werre several pleasing numbers including:

The Four Sisters Riponi, instrumentalists, vocalists, and dancers, in a refined drawing room act, introducing violin, mandoline, piano, violincello, and banjo solos, should please everyone who cares for a really high class musical act.

Those who are fond of step-dancing are well catered for by the inclusion in the programme of the Eight Lancashire Lads, who will present several smart eccentric up-to-date dances; while Melville (vocalist) completes a bill that leaves nothing to be desired.

In September 1916, the Palace theater of  Yeovil, England advertised its weekly show. The film was "Cabiria", the unwritten masterpiece of Gabriele D'Annunzio. A Film Triumph – the £40,000 Production. The varieties began with the Four Sisters Riponi, charming vocal and musical act in a delightfull drawing room scena

Western Chronicle
18 September 1916

The Sisters Riponi toured the British Isles from 1914 to 1917. I've found very few references of their name in the newspaper archives, so I would judge that they had limited success and played only the small regional theaters. None of the theater reports or advertisements mention any first names, so it is impossible to make further identification. The coincidence of the name Riponi and the town of Ripon, England is suspicious. I think it is likely a made-up stage name with an intentional allusion to a familiar English place name. They might be daughters of an Italian bandmaster or they might equally be the talented children of a North Yorkshire farmer. In any case they were children of the stage and for a time made a musical career of singing, dancing and performing on mandolins, banjos, piano, violin, and cello.

I've emphasized the dates on these postcards because there is a strange coincidence that the first postcard of Hans Serfling was posted on June 27, 1914 and the Sisters Riponi performed at the Electric Theater in Scotland on June 17, 1914. Just one month later a terrible war set Europe ablaze in what would become a global conflagration consuming millions of people over the next four years. It is impossible to ignore the monstrous calamity that awaits the characters in these old postcards in the summer of 1914. What happened to the Serfling brothers? Did the Riponi sisters change their drawing room program to endorse the patriotic propaganda that swept the British Isles? Did Hans Serfling put away his cello to serve in the Kaiser's army? Did one of the Riponi twins fall in love with a soldier and split up the act?  It is unlikely we will ever know the answers, but I find imagining the questions to be the most valuable part of placing these obscure young children into a real historical context.
That last advert for the Yeovil Palace theater was printed right next to a long column on the latest reports from the war. In September 1916 the newest frightening threat to British civilians came from the bombing raids by German airships , the Zepplins. One recent raid involved 13 of these huge flying gas cylinders. Engaged by anti-aircraft guns and aeroplanes the German bomb attack inflicted only comparatively little damage. One Zeppelin was brought down by a brave pilot, Lieut. Wm. Leefe Robinson. of the Royal Flying Corps, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. The civil authorities considered their campaign of obscuration of lights in the countryside to be very effective in misleading the German Zeppelin pilots and minimizing casualties.

It was a terrible time.
Music helped ease the anxiety and anguish.

Western Chronicle
18 September 1916

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more bedtime stories.


Wendy said...

Twins! Darn, why didn't I think of that?!

I don't think the boy at the xylophone looks at all like Hans, but I do find that xylophone interesting having never seen one like it.

I kept waiting for Six Sisters Riponi, Eight Sisters Riponi.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

What was a second class bath? I hate to think it was used bathwater? It boggles the mind to think of
their lives once the war broke out and of all the misery that was to come.

Barbara Rogers said...

Musical performances in the age of innocence, perhaps. At least they were children, though I'm sure their rigorous hours of practice and performances made their lives different from other children of the times. And you are right, we know the next years would change their lives drastically, though we can only guess how.

Jo Featherston said...

I'm always amazed by your wonderful collection of postcards! That last advertisement from September 1916 was only 2 months after the battle of Fromelles. I wonder if Leslie Breguet (see my post) got to go to any musical events or other entertainment while he was in England recuperating from his wounds.

Little Nell said...

And I’m always amazed by the number of pictures of musically talented children you have - twins or not. I do enjoy poring over the details of their costumes, and reading the newspaper accounts too.

La Nightingail said...

When I was in 4th grade, I wanted to play the violin in the school orchestra but all the violins had been given out to other students so I was given a cello. I wasn't exactly thrilled about lugging that thing while walking 5 blocks to & from school which I had to do because my mother didn't drive at the time. So after a couple of weeks, I decided to give up the cello and stick with singing in the all-school chorus!
And by the way, I think the young fellow behind the xylophone in the Serfling orchestra could very well be Hans at a younger age than he appears in the first photo. He has the same slanted eyebrows, closely matched ears, & is wearing his hair with bangs as he appears in your first photo perhaps a year or so later.

Tattered and Lost said...

When I read these vintage articles you find I can't help but think how dismal the future will be if Tweets and Facebook reviews are what people find when doing research 100 years from now. The angry and flippant comments people leave knowing their identity is hidden. I can only hope the ugliness today is a blip on the road to eventual kindness.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

While the postcard images of the children are beautiful, the historical context makes it very sad. At 12-13 it's highly likely the boys went to war. Did they survive? Were they maimed and unable to play when they returned? The girls are younger but their lives would change dramatically with the arrival of war.


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