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 }

How to Make an Oboe

29 November 2019

"Some assembly required."
It's a familiar phrase of modern life
usually written in 12 languages
on the side of a carton of Swedish furniture.

Yet those words can apply to a musical instrument too.
In this case it is illustrated in a postcard photo
showing an oboe being newly fitted
with the complicated finger system
that enables the instrument to play different pitches.

As the caption on the back of the postcard explains,
it was a task of "seven eight-hour days
to make and mount a set of oboe keys
from 355 small castings and other bits of metal."

The skilled craftsman entrusted with this work
had been employed in the woodwind department

of the C. G. Conn Musical Instrument Company
of Elkhart, Indiana since 1906.

The oboe occupies the elite position in the woodwind section of a band or orchestra. Its French name hautbois means "high wood", and though its range is not as wide as the clarinet or as high as a flute, its soprano tone quality is so penetrating that composers have given it some of most beautiful melodies. Usually constructed from grenadilla, also known as African blackwood, the oboe's narrow double reed and conical bore demand robust breath control from its player. And a good oboist requires fearless courage and nimble dexterity to handle this difficult instrument.

In my experience as a collector of antique photographs of musicians, images of solo oboists are the rarest instrumentalists to find among the common musical instruments. And certainly this postcard of an oboe craftsman, probably printed in the 1940s by the thousands, is an especially unique image to show a rarely photographed instrument being assembled. (One day I hope to find this same postcard with a postmark, which will make it doubly rare!)

Which is my way of introducing
two more postcard rarities of one oboist
in two different uniforms.

The first image shows an oboist
impeccably dressed in formal white tie and tailcoat.
Clipped to his nose are Pince-nez spectacles
that are attached to a small chain behind his ear.
Likewise his oboe is attached to a thin neck strap.

The second postcard shows the same man with his oboe,
but now he wears a neat military-style band uniform.
His cap has a badge marked:


The orchestra oboist stands in front
of a painted studio backdrop
with classical architectural details.
The keyboard of a grand piano is just visible to the side.
Notice that his shoes are two-tone with buttons instead of laces.

The photographer was Root of Chicago,
started by William J. Root in about 1909
and continuing until the 1930s.
The studio originally had two locations
on Wabash Ave. near Chicago's
central business and theater district.

 * * *

The second photo shows a bandsman with oboe
in a three-quarter length pose
in front of a plain dark background.
The name Philippini on his cap
refers to the band of Don Philippini,
one the many Italian bandleaders
who immigrated to America in the 1900s
as part of an infusion of Italian music into American culture.

Washington D.C. Times
10 June 1906

Philippini's band first appeared in theater advertisements in 1906. His first name was Salvatore and though he was born in Milan he claimed Spanish ancestry and marketed his ensemble as "Don Philippini's Spanish Band" even though most of the musicians were Italian. Like many of the other Italian bandmasters I've written about, (see An Atlantic City Love Story, part 2) Don Philippini had a dark debonair quality and was known for his "acrobatic and contortionate movements" on the conductor's podium. His band toured the country playing two week dates on the amusement park circuit in the summer, and the vaudeville theaters in the winter. In 1907 the Pittsburgh Press described him as Don Philippini, the emotional bandmaster, at Luna Park.

Pittsburgh Press
23 June 1907

By American standards Philippini's band of 45 pieces was large, though Italian traditionalists probably thought it was just a medium size ensemble. In July 1910 the band made an appearance in Salt Lake City, and the newspapers provided a list of the instrumentation.

Ten clarinets, one E-flat clarinet, twp bass clarinets, one oboe, two flutes, two bass strings, two bass horns, two baritone horns, six cornets, four French horns, four saxophones, five trombones, and three bass drums. 

At the opening concert of the band, an audience of perhaps 4,000 persons had assembled in the lawns of Lagoon to listen to the program, and they were not disappointed at the volume and quality of the music produced.

Salt Lake City Deseret Evening News
18 July 1910

In this era American bands did not typically use oboes, but Philippini, like the other Italian bandmasters, programed lots of arrangements of opera overtures for his band. This kind of music is filled with oboe solos, so at least one very talented oboist was required. I think my oboist is pictured in this next photo published by the Salt Lake City Herald-Republican on 24 July 1910. There is enough detail to see that the band's uniforms and caps match what the oboist in my photo is wearing.

Salt Lake City Herald-Republican
24 July 1910

By around 1911, Philippini dropped the notion of a Spanish Band, and only occasionally promoted his family's Spanish heritage. His band toured until about 1917 but in the post-war years, American taste in music dramatically changed and bands had competition. Don Philippini obligingly changed with the times and became a theater orchestra conductor. His Strand Symphony Orchestra toured the country and accompanied silent movies in the new grand cinema theaters. In 1917 he was based in New Orleans and in 1922 moved to Los Angeles to be part of the Hollywood movie industry.
Kansas City MO Times
25 May 1911

In August 1915 Don Philippini's band program included on number for an oboe and flute duet. The name of the oboist was Signor Rossi. I haven't found any proof yet, but I'd like to think Signor Rossi is the bandsman in the Philippini hat and that he moved from being an oboist in a band to playing in a theater orchestra. My guess is that his band photo is from roughly 1910 and his white-tie photo is later about 1916 or 1920.

Anyone with soulful eyes like this has to be Italian.

I wonder if he played an oboe made by the C. G. Conn Company?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is hard at work.


Barbara Rogers said...

Yes, you've managed to get spot on with the meme, and still go with the music and band theme which you know so much about. Thanks for another educational post! And with a bit of humor tucked in as well.

Avid Reader said...

What a terrific way to incorporate your blog's theme with the week's. Fascinating post.

Jofeath said...

Perfect match in your first postcard, and as usual, great accompanying research. Thanks too for the welcome back.

ScotSue said...

I do admire your skill, coming up with such an apt response to this week’s prompt, yet still remaining true to your key musical theme. Very inventive and backed up with your trademark research.


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