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 }

Xylophon Kinder part 1

09 September 2017

Emil Jahn
der kleinste Xylophon-Virtuose der Gegenwart
5 jahre alt

the smallest xylophone virtuoso of the present
5 Years old

Dressed in a military bandsman's uniform,
little Emil stands proudly behind an instrument
that he called a Xylophon.
But it is 90 degrees different
from the modern percussion instruments
we know as xylophones and marimbas.
Those instruments arrange
the pitched wooden or metal bars
with the longer bass tones on the left
and the higher tones ranked progressively to the right
just like the keys of a piano.
Emil's xylophon has four columns of wooden bars
arrayed into trapezoidal shape
with the lower tone bars closest to him
and the higher ones farther away.
It's a bewildering system that does not follow
the familiar keyboard pattern of white keys for naturals
and black keys for sharps and flats.
It looks very difficult to play.
But once upon a time
it was easy enough
for little kids to master.

The postcard was sent to Fräulein Elsa Lantsch
and postmarked from Leipzig on 13 June 1914


Emil Jahn posed for another souvenir photo
dressed in a sailor suit, a popular boy's fashion of the time,
but with the edges of his collar and cuffs embroidered in scallops
and his jacket and short pants made in a velvet fabric.
He is holding a pair of curious shaped sticks
that are different from the ball-end mallets
used by modern xylophone players.
These are more like the spoon shaped hammers
used to play a Cimbalom or Hammered Dulcimer.
Both of these wire strung instruments
are similarly arranged into a trapezoid
with the strings stretched left to right
and having the low notes closest to the player.
Like xylophones and pianos
they belong to the percussion family
as the musical tone is produced
by being struck with a stick or hammer.

The postmark is not legible,
perhaps 1913 or 1914,
but it was sent to Fräulein Babbette Poptr(?)
Münchberg in Bavaria, Germany.


Die kleinste Xylophonvirtuosin
Gretel Link

This young girl appears to be about age 12.
Dressed head to toe in white,
Gretel stands before a trapezoidal xylophon
set upon a table that looks purpose made
to fold and carry her instrument.

This type of xylophone links the wooden bars together
with string cleverly knotted to space the bars.
They rest on tracks that were sometimes made of straw,
which gave the instrument its folk name,
Strohfiedel or Straw Fiddle.

It is also called
the Hölzernes Gelächter or Wooden Hilarity (?),
and was an instrument popular with musicians
of the alpine Tyrol region of western Austria.

Gertel Link's postcard was sent
from Nuernberg, Germany
on the 14th of January, 1913.


Elsa von Borstein
7 Jahre alt!

Xylophone Virtuoso
7 years old!

Little Elsa wears a feminine variation
of the sailor suit
as she concentrates on keeping
her xylophon sticks
from getting tangled in her long hair.
Her instrument is placed
on a heavy ornate table
but she still needs to stand on a box,
cleverly disguised with a carpet,
in order to reach the bars.


Her postcard was never mailed
but likely dates from around 1910.

The trapezoidal xylophon,
or Hölzernes Gelächter, or Strohfiedel,
was once a very common percussion instrument
in musical groups from Central Europe.
It was this type xylophon
that European composers
of the 19th and early 20th century
knew as a folk instrument.
I have many postcards of German/Austrian folk bands
that show one draped over a chair or placed on a small table.
Yet today this kind of pitched mallet percussion
with its baffling system of musical tones
is rare to find and largely forgotten
as it has been replaced by the improved xylophone
in the modern percussion world.

But for some reason it was once a very popular instrument
for talented small children
to play as soloists
in family musical ensembles.

Since I've found enough of their postcards
to display this interesting musical history,
this post is just the first
of a series I call
 Xylophon Kinder.

Stay tuned for more.

Now it's time to hear
what a
Hölzernes Gelächter sounds like.
Here is a YouTube video
of a performance by the Familienmusik Servi
that features some fast handwork on the Xylophon.

* * *

* * *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the kids are always up to something.


tony said...

It's very sad to think that instruments such as the Strohfiedel are a kind of endangered species.
'Good to know your research is keeping them alive .

Mollys Canopy said...

I agree with Tony. My mom is a retired music teacher and instilled in us children an appreciation of a wide range of music genres and instruments. Important to keep an awareness alive of these culturally important instruments. Great photos and video -- I could almost hear the horses galloping along listening to the music!

La Nightingail said...

A great and interesting post as usual. The video was amazing. How do people play things so fast?!! An interesting combination of instruments.

Jo Featherston said...

You can always tell us so much about the instruments in the photographs. I wonder how many of these child musicians survived the approaching war.

ScotSue said...

I knew that you would have an imoressive display of young musicians - and you did not disappoint me.

Barbara Rogers said...

Poor Elsa von Borstein...she could either look pretty or play music. I hope she could tuck her hair behind her back when a camera wasn't aimed at her.

Little Nell said...

I was mesmerised by Elsa’s flowing locks but these young xylophonists are very appealing. I had a toy zither as a child and learned to play the theme to the The Third Man, which is about as far as my musical talents stretch, so I’m very impressed.

L. D. said...

Wonderful photos in response to the theme. The instrument is used here now more than ever in Jazz Bands as well as regular school bands.


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