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
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The Serpent and the Ophicleide

22 August 2010

Perhaps the most evocative name for a musical instrument is the Serpent. In the family tree of musical instruments, it is but a side twig of  labrosones - musical instruments whose sound is produced by vibrations of the lips. So it is a bit like a brass instrument in that it has a tuba-sized mouthpiece to buzz the lips, but it is actually made of wood and has finger holes like a recorder to play different pitches. This is a souvenir postcard of a trip to Normandie, France in 1909.

It shows the typical use of this odd instrument, with a member of the church band playing from a book of plain chants. He is not especially tall but is actually seated on a high chair which has a foot rest for his wooden sabot or clog. The Serpent is a bass sounding instrument and had a musical utility in rural Catholic churches accompanying choirs, long after it had been abandoned in orchestras and bands.

Though often mistakenly called a renaissance instrument, it really only shows up in music books from the 1740's. It was used for a time in military bands, but it was never a popular horn. It is not very loud, it plays chromatic notes with difficulty, and being made of leather-covered wood it came unglued far too easily. Playing a Serpent whilst marching or even on horseback, boggles the mind, but bandsmen did just that. No doubt wishing they had a different instrument.

So in the 1820's it was replaced by this, the Ophicleide. Patented by a French instrument maker named Jean Hilaire Asté (who is also known by his trade names of Halary or Haleri), it belongs to the keyed bugle branch of brass instruments. Using woodwind type keys, the Ophicleide spreads the tone holes further apart than the serpent and gives a more even scale. And it is made of brass so it sounds louder and stays together better. It proved more popular and was the designated bass instrument in the brass section for several composers including Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Verdi.

Unfortunately it could not compete with the new brass instruments that used the plumbing technology of valves, both piston and rotary, to make a  horn instantly change length. The Saxhorns of Adolph Sax quickly supplanted the keyed bugle line of brass and by the 1850's, the poor Ophicleide was no longer accepted in bands and orchestras. Like the serpent it must have been challenging to play one on horseback.

Nonetheless, in France it seems to have survived as a church instrument. This novelty postcard, with no postmark, celebrates the French musical instrument company of Couesnon. It was one of the largest band and orchestra instrument companies in the world in 1900. Before WWI it had 11 factories and over 1000 employees, but like so many music instument brands, it was bought out and now survives as something very different that the great company it once was.

But a search for the name brought up a nice website in France run by a luthier named Roland Terrier:   Their website included many old reprints of instrument companies including this one from the 1912 Couesnon Catalog. 

There on page 86 we find the same choir boy promoting the wonders of the Ophicleide. Perhaps like the serpent they were used to support the tunes in church music. Note that the boy has music attached to a lyre on the bell. Can't see if he is wearing clogs.

Who could believe that in 1912 there was still a market for these odd instruments. They came in different sizes with 9, 10 or 11 keys, and for a small extra charge you could have it nickle plated!

How many ophicleides were recycled into shell casings in 1914-18?

The Music at "Churchill's" Broadway and 49th Street

15 August 2010

The sound of music is everywhere today. Recorded music of every flavor permeates the air of hotels, supermarkets, and shopping malls. Multi-speaker sound systems in cafes drown the gaps in conversations. Classic Rock assaults the ears while pumping gas. And holiday tunes subliminally steer the mind to shop and buy. But long ago it was different, and the joy of music could only be experienced if you actually saw and heard the musicians. That was real entertainment and in 1911 New York, if you wanted the best in food and music, you went to Churchill's Restaurant at Broadway and Forty-ninth St. to hear Maurice Levi and his orchestra.

This card was sent in August 1911 to Mr Stuart W. Smyth with an inside joke, "Could Mr. Blackstone beat this? E.L.H." Mr. Smyth was an editor of the Owego Times newspaper and presumably Blackstone refers to a local bandleader. Maurice Levi was one of New York's more successful performers at the turn of the 19th century and a popular composer in the growing music industry of Tin Pan Alley. His orchestra shows a typical ensemble of 15 musicians - strings mixed with solo cornet, clarinet, flute, trombone and percussion. Maurice also played solo violin too. 

But his stage is unusual, a kind of balcony band shell. Just what kind of place was Churchill's?

In 1909, Jim Churchill, a former NYC Police captain and ambitious restaurateur made a deal to buy the southwest corner of Broadway and 49th St.  More here: Jim Churchill  
There he established one of the largest and best restaurants in the expanding Broadway theater district. It soon became the place where every celebrity in the city and theater district could dine and be seen. Note the rooftop garden and the lineup of taxi cabs on the right. These postcards were printed in Germany as were most souvenir postcards at this time in America until the start of WWI. A German artist has added small cars and people into the foreground of the original photograph in order to exaggerate the size of the building. But it was still a very grand place.

In this postcard of the restaurant's interior you can see the band shell in the back left. The orchestra here is not Levi's and seem to be men dressed in Scottish kilts. (Two horns are on the very back row. But no bagpipes.) This was no ordinary dining hall. It could seat 1,200 and employed 300 staff. What was on the menu?

In a typical New York newspaper ad from 1911, we find Churchill's special dinner price of $1.25. It was higher than others but one can imagine the menu by seeing what 65¢ bought at Colaizzi's. And that included wine too! On the advert it says that Churchill's music was provided by Maurice Levi and orchestra with vocalist Elizabeth Spencer. 

Elizabeth Spencer was a famous soprano who was one of the first popular artists to make recordings for Thomas Edison. Here she is on a card postmarked 1912, and here is her voice from a 1911 Edison Cylinder recording singing My Southern Rose. 

The recording comes from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara. Cylinder Preservation Collection UCSB  The instrumental accompaniment sounds like an orchestra very similar to Maurice Levi's. And he  recorded for Edison too.

Photographs and postcards help recreate the high times of the Big Apple, but what kind of music did Maurice play? Here is Happy Days March performed and written by Maurice Levi in 1909. It is also from the Special Cylinder Collection of UCSB.

In a most unlikely newspaper from Kansas, The Hutchinson Times I found a report on the current popular music of New York City. The date was November 12, 1910.


Not since the days of Patrick Gilmore has any band master or orchestra lead­er created such a sensation in New York as has Maurice Levi, the Maestro of the excellent orchestra at Churchill's, New York's elite restau­rant. Levi begins where Gilmore left off, and Is the idol of the after theater patrons of this notable Broadway re­sort.

When he steps upon the platform and raises his baton, a hypnotic spell seems to hold every man In the orchestra for the few seconds that elapse before its descent, and once started he seems seems to sway both his orchestra and his audience at will, and the music seems to centralize  and emanate from him personally, just as the music of a phonograph comes from its horn. All eyes are centered on him and every little movement is watched as closely he if he was the star of an operatic performance.

He is constantly introducing novelties that create enthusiasm and his "by play", to use a theatrical term, is wonderful. The compositions of American composers receive his especial attention and many an unknown composer has risen to fame through the attention given his work by Mr. Levi.

His own and latest composition, "Happy Nights", is played by request only, but as this seems to be the favorite of the public, he is compelled to render it every evening.  His rendition of "The Music of the States" and the "Songs of the College" are wonderful, realistic, and from a musical standpoint artistic creations. His latest and probably most novel creation is a      musical mosaic which he has named "Our Presidents." It opens with a patriotic musical tribute to the illustrious men, including Roosevelt and Taft, and ends with a grand finale that arouses intense enthusiasm - for it is Washington, who at last carries off the honors of the musical masterpiece.

Mr. Levi Is not a fanatic on the sub­ject of classical music, and intersperses his program here and there with the popular. Thus you may hear a rhapsody or an operatic: selection followed with a potpourri from the "Chocolate Soldier" or by the latest ballad, "Love Dreams," or an aria by Verdi sand­wiched in between the "Hono-Lulu Rag" and "Silver Bell".

Mr. Levi is the highest salaried leader in New York, and the royalties from his "Happy Nights" march, and other compositions, amounts to a small fortune yearly. It Is the latest fad to go to Churchill's to dine and hear Maurice Levi and his orchestra, which by the way, is composed of the best musicians in the metropolis, every man being a virtuoso on his own instrument. 

Both Maurice and Elizabeth made numerous recordings for the Edison Phonograph Company. I found this amazing ad from a Cedar Rapids, Iowa newspaper with another image of Elizabeth Spencer. It is from 1915 and the fine food at Churchill's seems to have stretched her waistline a bit. Like the flowery prose used in the Kansas report on Maurice Levi, this advertisement is also a model of the kind of show business promotion and hyperbole that started in the 1900's. Little did our performers know that the recording industry would soon make restaurant concerts a forgotten entertainment of the past.

Jim Churchill sold his restaurant in 1921. Competition must have been fierce in the years leading up to WWI and then there was the inevitable change in public tastes in the post-war period. This postcard is from a later period and you can see that dancing and cabaret were the new fancy of New Yorkers. 

Churchill's remains a kind of antique icon in the explosion of cultural life in early 20th century New York City. Today the gigantic Crowne Plaza is on this Broadway site, but how long might that last? In 1964, David Merrick produced Jerry Herman's musical Hello Dolly! with tunes that everyone should know, in part because of the constant repetition of recordings. But the principal character is called Dolly Gallagher Levi and the main action of the second act takes place at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. Did the stories of Churchill's musicians inspire this wonderful story?  Hello!    

The Ladies in White

10 August 2010

Sixteen ladies, all in white, pose for the photographer and perhaps overwhelm his studio. This fine band is unusual in being led by a woman (back row, 4th from left holding a baton). It includes a mellophone, a valve trombone along with two slide trombones. three saxophones and a trap set (drum set) with glockenspiel. The tuba in the front may belong to the leader as she is the only one without an instrument. The drummer's castanets and decorated tambourines, along with the gay bandannas of the young girls, suggest that the repertoire of these ladies may have included some pretty spicy music.

This is a large format photo (9.5" x 7.5") and obviously professionally produced, but it has no identification anywhere. It is probably North American, but could easily be Canadian or American. The dresses suggest pre-WWI but nevertheless they could be anywhere from 1900 to 1917. I just like the happy faces.

The internet has taking the art of the photograph into a new era. Most images on my photoblog are reduced or enlarged to fit a consistent size standard that I think looks good (on my monitor at least). Many of the smaller photos would lose detail if they were reproduced on computer monitors in their original size. Also many photos have been abused or seen too much sunlight, so I generally correct the scratches and fading with the magic of photo software. Since the original negatives are lost forever that means these photos are the only artifact left from the camera's lens. And if the photographers would have played with printing the images in the dark room, then I feel that reinterpreting the image with a modern software darkroom is merely acting as the photographer's assistant.

With that in mind, I offer the same Ladies in White without my fixes so that you can judge my efforts.

Mr. & Mrs. X from Meriden CT

06 August 2010

It was a special occasion. Something that needed a commemoration. Something worthy of making the effort to walk down to Main St. in your best dress and suit and have one of the town photographers take a photograph. They were not very expensive - a cart de visite like this might cost a dollar for 4 copies. But the casual snapshot hadn't been invented yet. To make a proper photograph, one that would go into the family album, this required a studio, a photographer and a large wooden camera mounted on a sturdy tripod.

There were several fashionable backgrounds that one could chose. Perhaps madame would prefer the look of an interior salon. And given the difference in heights, the most balanced pose should have the gentleman seated. And yes hold the trombone just so, but please refrain from emptying the spit valve on the carpet.

This small photo is from Meriden, Connecticut. Mr. X holds a piston valve trombone. Note his button top shoes. It is wonderfully preserved with no wear to the gold edges, as if it had been in a family album until recently. Perhaps those other photos would identify this loving couple. But there is always another story behind every picture.

The back shows the photographers logo - Marshall of Meriden, CT. The town of Meriden is just north of New Haven. Research was challenging without knowing a first name but when the city directories came up on Ancestry.Com it became easier. William Marshall, 43, listed his birthplace as England in the 1880 US Census and must have been a recent immigrant as his wife Mary and two children, Flora and Frank, were all born in England too. His occupation in 1880 was chandelier maker, but an investment of time and money led to a new career in 1882 as a photographer on 6 East Main St. He was one of around 8 photographers listed in the Meriden City Directory. Then in 1889 his son Frank, age 23, takes over as poor William must have died in the previous year as the directory lists Mary, widow William at his home address. The business must have been too much for Frank, and in the 1890 directory there is an ad for F.S. Egirt (formerly Marshall's) Instantaneous Process Used Exclusively - 6 East Main.

This dates the photo to 1882 - 1889, but a city directory can reveal much more about a community than just names. By 1890 Meriden had a population of 25,423 which was quite a jump from just 18,340 in 1880. Searching census records for "photographers" also showed quite a large number of skilled workers: machinists, joiners, burnishers, engravers, organ tuners. Wait a minute. Organ tuners? It turns out that Meriden, in addition for being known for cutlery, silverware, and metalwork, also produced pump action reed organs. The Wilcox & White Organ Co. established in 1877 designed and crafted these popular keyboard instruments for shipment all across the country. White & Wilcox Organ Co. History

And then in 1887 the famous Aeolian Organ & Music Company established its factory in Meridan.

They were famous for a very popular invention: The Pianola. This was an amazing device that used perforated paper rolls and a pneumatic mechanism to actuate reeds and play programed music. Automatic music, easily achieved by anyone, needing no real musical skill, only strong ankles! More on this incredible technology here. Pianola History

There was an astonishing number of highly skilled people needed to build these complicated musical instruments, which were really the precursors to modern computers. Woodworkers, turners, machinists, and organ tuners too, made an educated workforce that clearly knew music.

The 1890 directory lists the Meriden bands:
  • Crowley Orchestra
  • Korn's Orchestra
  • Meriden City Band, Walter Hirschfeld, leader
  • Meriden Fife & Drum Corps, Robert Hall, leader
  • Meriden Military Band
  • State Reform School Band, John Lyons, leader
Could Mr. X be a band leader? There were over a dozen music teachers in Meriden. Perhaps he was employed at one of the organ factories. Perhaps there was an Aeolian Company Band. Who can know now? But I would bet anything that on most Sundays, there was the wonderful sound of pump organ and trombone duets coming from the parlor of Mr. & Mrs. X of Meriden, CT.

US Navy Bandsmen 1914

01 August 2010

Six bandsmen from a US Navy band, stand in front of their barracks. Five wear similar collared uniform coats, while one wears the traditional open neck shirt and sailor cap. One is odd-man-out by being in long trousers without leggings. That should make three different ranks, I think. But two musicians stand out for other reasons. One holds a bassoon, a very uncommon instrument for a band. And the other stands out not because of his instrument but because of his race. This unique photo is from 1914 and it shows a black man playing a tuba with white musicians.

The US Navy did have some African-American musicians around this time but the history is sketchy. Certainly the history of segregation in the US before WWI, made life for any person of color difficult in the extreme, and musical ensembles were just as divided on gender and race as everything else in society. Could this tubist be not a native Black-American but a Cuban musician? Cuba became part of the US after the Spanish American War and certainly islanders would have been attracted to life in the navy.

The sober faced bassoonist is unusual because his instrument has never been a popular choice for woodwind players and it features very rarely in American bands. It also seems out of place because maintaining such a long wooden instrument and the double reeds too on board a navy ship must have been a real headache. And besides they had saxophones to substitute!  Note that he and the tuba and trombone players all wear a wedding band.

Here's a link to more US Navy Musician history with another postcard image showing similar uniforms. Navy Music History

The location of the photo is unknown but because it was used as a postcard we have more of a story. The postmark is from the navy port of Norfolk, Virginia, and dates SEP 23, 1914. Perhaps. The year is smudged but I don't see an 18, more 14, or maybe 13 , or 15.

It is addressed to Miss Mae Clark of Flaxon, Oklahoma from her dear friend F.A.C. He is the cornet player between the two ink marks. Is Mae a sweetheart? If she were a sister or cousin, F.A.C. might write the salutation different. But as romance letters this is pretty tame, it actually reads like something written to a pen-pal.

Faxon is a tiny town in Comanche County in southwest OK, just below Ft. Sill and near the Texas line. It probably had only 150 people in 1914 and only a bit more now. It seems about the most remote place in America to have a connection to a sailor. But Mae made an effort to save this card.


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