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 }

Toni Vary, a Café Musician

05 May 2017

Remember that time we went to...?
What was the name of that place?
Wasn't he grandpa's uncle's cousin's son?
Oh, yes, I remember now!

Why does someone save an old postcard?
How can such small photos
retain a magical power
that compels a person to preserve it?
What mysterious voice
gives it this seductive charm?
A kind of siren's call that whispers,
"Save me! Protect me!"
forcing the possessor to entomb this paper relic
into some shoe box or desk drawer.  

These are questions I often think about
as I search the websites of postcard dealers.
And the only answer that makes sense to me
is memory,

because I collect the ephemera,
the talismans, the amulets
of forgotten people's memories.

So skipping over why I would collect it,
why would someone save a photo postcard
of a smiling young man in a bowler hat?

Because he was once someone's sweetheart.

Michen's Liebling!

Michen's Darling!

The postcard was mailed on 29 November 1909
from Tilsit in East Prussia,
now known as Sovetsk, in the Russian oblast of Klaliningrad.
A non-postal souvenir stamp
of Tilsit's Deutsche Strasse, and Deutsche Kirche.
was affixed to the front photo.
One hundred years on, in this Russian enclave
of the Baltic States,
bordered by Lithuania and Poland,
the German population
has now nearly vanished. 

It was addressed to:
Freulein (sic) Minchen Hamacher
of Grefeld, Rheinl. (Krefeld, Germany)

                     Tilsit 29.11.09
Deine liebe karte mit bestem
Dank erhalten bin aber ganz
erstaunt, dasschau(?) mich nicht
mehr wiedersehen wilst pc s! (?)
jedoch, deshalb grüsst dich
erst recht der umseitig abgebildete
Abs. Toni Vary   Deutschland postl.
Your love card received
with great thanks but am quite amazed,
(?) no longer
see me  again wilst pc s! (?)
However, that is why
the man pictured on the other side greets you.

Toni Vary

{better translations or corrections always welcome} 

The young man with the pencil mustache and wide grin was a violinist with the Original Schrammel Quartet „Fidele Geister or „Jolly Spirits”.  He and his fellow musicians, Mich'l Hüsten on accordion, Sepp'l Pessi on contraguitar, and Franz Helige on 2nd violin appeared on a promotional postcard for their group. They were available as first class artists, playing Schrammelmusik, a Viennese style of lighthearted instrumental music popular in cafés, restaurants, taverns, and wine gardens. The contraguitar, a kind of harp guitar with an added neck and mulitple strings, provided the basso continuo accompaniment to the more melodic voices of the violins.

The postcard was never mailed and is otherwise unmarked
except for a stamped imprint of the:

Orig. Schrammel'n
Toni Vary

It seems that Toni Vary was the leader of the quartet. On another postcard D' fidelen Geister posed in their traveling clothes, instruments in cases, as they get ready to board a train to their next gig..

Neither of these cards has a postmark but Toni seems about the same age 19-21, maybe even a bit younger, as he was in the first photo card of 1909.

Let's pause to have the Philharmonia Schrammeln Wien play some typical Schrammelmusik.  



A few years later, Toni Vary moved up to a elite level of salon music, changing from a quartet to a trio. Exchanging his casual Schrammelmusik folk costume for a formal white tie and evening jacket. he stands in the center without his violin, holding just a roll of music. The two other men do not have instruments but the one on the right resembles the accordionist Mich'l Hüsten from the Fidele Geister quartet. The gentleman on the left might be a cellist or a pianist.

The postcard has a printed caption on the front:

Salon–Terzett  Toni Vary

The postcard was sent from Cöln, an archaic spelling of Köln, Germany
on 6.2.12 – 6th February 1912.  

By a curious coincidence,
it was sent to Herrn Hermann Hamacher of Willich, Germany
which is just 10 km from Krefeld, the address for Minchen Hamacher.
The handwriting is very different
so I was unable to decipher the message,
but I believe the name Minchen, a diminutive of Wilhelmina,
is written in the center.
Is there a connection?

But before we answer that
let's reconsider my theme.
Why would anyone save an old faded blue postcard,
an image of three men in formal wear,
that's not even a real photo, but a half-tone print?

A century later,
after two catastrophic wars,
after divided nations,
after redrawn borders,
it's now secure
in a binder of similar postcards
on a bookshelf in my studio.
Yet in this long tumult of history,
how did these simple paper postcards manage to survive? 

Memory is a powerful force.

So why on earth
would I want to have
these postcards in my collection?

Because Toni Vary once worked with
a second violin who was a very unique musician,

a woman of color.

She is seated to his left, dressed in a frilly white blouse with embroidered vest and shiny satin pantaloons. She has a violin resting in her lap. Her costume is a folk style not unlike the female musicians of Eastern European musical ensembles from Croatia, Hungary, or Romania. Except that her complexion is distinctly darker. Surely she is not originally from a European race but is of African descent. How/why/when did she get into this little band with Toni Vary? 

Seven musicians pose in a photographer's studio, five men and two women. The men wear fancy military style band uniforms with embroidered cuffs and button braid. One man has a snare drum, another a trombone, another a double bass, and one is without instrument. The second woman is of middlish age, a bit stout, and dressed in a vaguely European folk fashion that matches the violinist. She holds a roll of music, the symbol for the piano player. Toni Vary sits in center front with his violin.

It's a photo postcard of a musical group that resembles countless other small ensembles that played in Europe's salons, restaurants, and cafés in the years before World War One. The striking difference is that one musician is a woman of color. How she got there remains a mystery.

The postcard has no marks, not even a printing logo, so I can't definitively say that it is Toni Vary's orchestra. Unfortunately I've lost the original proof which was a sale listing of the same photo which included a caption with Vary's name. But I am confident it is the same man. It's what made me go look for more corroboration. It's what made me wonder how ephemera like this gets preserved. 

This postcard is a promotional portrait of Toni Vary with violin. A typical artist's publicity shot with his name angled into the lower corner. The half-tone print has faded so I've improved the contrast. The brown color of the cheap rag stock paper is typical of postcards made during the war years.

There is no postmark
but the words
Wien Schrammel Musik
Klavier & Violine

are written in the upper right corner

And curiously the address reads:
c/ Krefeld

The handwriting looks very similar
to the writing on the blue postcard.
Another connection?

Once upon a time,
music was a common color of urban life.
It added a dimension of sound
to a stroll in the park,
to an afternoon tea at the café,
to a evening supper after the theater.
Toni Vary's orchestra was part of that musical culture.

Here he stands on a small stage leading a chamber orchestra of seven other musicians. On the left are some string players and on the right is a flutist, a drummer, and another obscured instrument. The violinist seated just left of Vary looks like the uniformed musician standing without instrument in the septet photo. Behind Vary is a large cabinet stacked with music. In front of the stage's wooden rail are restaurant tables and chairs, and the walls are lavishly decorated. This is no cheap beer hall, but a proper high class establishment.

The postcard's back has a penciled note,  

Orchester Toni Vary im Café Grosse, Frankfurt/Main

There is no date but it's likely the photo was taken during the war years. Even though the German public endured many hardships, there was always live music in German restaurants and theaters throughout 1914-1918. Toni Vary must have been very popular there as in October 1919, nearly a year after the war ended, Café Grosse honored him with a special postcard commemorating his 350th concert at the restaurant.

Sonnabend, Den 4. OKTOBER 1919,
8 UHR Abends
Ehren = Abend
für den beliebten, genialen Geiger
nd Dirigenten Herrn Kapellmeister

anläklich seines 350ten Konzerts im


Toni Varz wird an diesem Tage mit
seinem verstärkten Künstler Orchester dem
hochverehrten Publikum und Stammgästen
einen besonders genukreichen
Abend bereiten
Besondere Getränke Karte liegt auf.
Tischbestellungen beim geschäftsführenden
Herrn Direktor, den Kellnern und am Büffet
Die Direktion
Saturday, the 4th October 1919
8 o'clock in the evening
Honorary evening
for the popular, brilliant violinist
and conductor Mr. Kapellmeister


On the occasion of his 350th concert at


On this day Toni Varz
will be presenting a special
genius evening to the
highly esteemed audience and guests.
Wine order required
Table orders with the managing director,
the waiters and the buffet

It was a special delight to discover this bit of ephemera showing that my musician had made it beyond the devastating years of war, and the tragic Great Influenza epidemic too. The fortunes of war can be good and bad, so the implication of his 350 concerts means that for much of 1918 if not earlier, Toni Vary was playing at the Café Grosse in Frankfurt. Though it's very likely that he did army service during the war, with his talent Vary may have been assigned to a military band or orchestra. Yet even those units were not entirely safe from incurring casualties.

* * *

We started with Toni Vary's story in 1909, jumped to 1919, and now enter a fog of time. For most of the photos in my collection there is just a single moment of a camera's shutter. Sometimes I find a few more that let me measure time in years, but rarely a decade, and never more. Yet somehow the magic of memory shields ephemera from harm. Eventually a postcard dealer puts it up for sale with enough description that a photo sleuth like me can find it on the internet. 

Now we jump ahead two decades to April 1939. 

It's a modern collage of photos making a promotional postcard. A violinist in white tie and tails stands on one side, four vignettes of women's faces on the other, a pile of musical instruments – drum set, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, accordion. The caption reads:

Toni Vary
mit seinen Künstlerinnen

Toni Vary
with his artists (female)

The card was posted from Iserlohn, Germany and addressed to:
Café u.Konditorei

The message is typewritten. 

Iserlohn, 26.4.39
Sehr geehrte Direktion!
Freitag 1. Juni erstklassiges Trio
2 junge fesche Damen 1 Herr
mit hervorrangender Sängerin!!!
Lieder, Arien, Stimmungsgesang
beider Damen. ganz erstklassige
Musik bis schwerstes Konzert
u(nd) mod Tanz und Stimmungsmusik !
eleg(anz) Auftreten in schwarz und
grau. größtes Notenrepertoir.
arrangieren von dekorativen
Sonderabenden, gute Reklame!
überall prolongiert, Hier im
2. Monat. Refr. die Direktion.
Mit Deutschen Gruß
Toni Vary, Iserlohn i/Wwest
Haus Schulte"

Dear management!
Friday June 1st first-class trio
2 young ladies 1 Mr.
with outstanding singers!!!
Songs, arias, mood songs
of both ladies. Very first-class
music to the most difficult concert
and modern dance and mood music!
Elegance appearance in black and
gray. Largest musical repertoire.
Arranging decorative specials, good advertising!
Everywhere prolonged, Here in the
2nd month. Refr. the direction.
          With German greeting
Toni Vary,
Iserlohn i/Wwest
          Haus Schulte"

Four months later
on September 1st, 1939
Germany invades Poland
and another Great War begins.

This is a story with only questions
and no real answers.
Each postcard was found separately
over several years from different dealers.
The coincidences seem as remarkable to me
as a paleontologist finding rare fossils
in unexpected geological stratas. 

I don't know if Toni Vary survived
the terrible storm that we know will
soon envelope all of Europe.
And I really know nothing at all
about his life or his family.
His music making is just a guess. 
Did he ever perform in British music halls?
Did he have a favorite café in Wien?
Did he ever learn to play
American jazz music on his violin?
Answers to these questions are locked up in time.

Yet we do know something about Toni Vary.
He was a talented musician
who looked pretty sharp in a white tie and tailcoat.
And he once played music in a Viennese style
with a female African-German violinist.
And once long ago he was Minchen's Liebling!
The rest belongs to memory.

* * *

For a coda I offer a video of
the Neue Wiener Concert Schrammeln
playing in a café for an old woman
who knows a thing or two about the power of memory.



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can always find something good on the menu.


Wendy said...

I always enjoy watching your stories unfold into so much more than what they appear to be at first glance. As I listened to the music in the first clip, I thought about how difficult it would be to eat with that tempo.

Deb Gould said...

It's amazing that you found all those postcards...piecing together Toni Vary's history. You're such a great detective, it!

Kristin said...

Amazing how you were able to follow him from a very young man, though one world war and to eve of the next. I hope he made it through.

La Nightingail said...

As always, an interesting and amazingly collected story of a successful musician back in the day. But what is that double-necked, guitarish instrument played in both videos?

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

How many postcards do you have? I agree with Wendy and look forward to these posts every week.

Mike Brubaker said...

@Ngail - It's called a contraguitar, aka harp guitar, and is the instrument in front of the accordion player in Toni Vary's quartet.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP