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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More Ladies in White

31 December 2010

Here is a special photo for the close of  2010 - Seven ladies in matching white dresses, awaiting an audience for their chamber music.

Once again, an anonymous photograph that offers no clues for place or date except their smiles. This is a very large studio print from an American photographer who had a very good camera to capture all the detail of such wonderful gowns. My guess for a time frame, based on their hairstyles, is the 1890's. Note the wooden flute on the left.  The string bass is also an unusual instrument for such a small chamber ensemble. Perhaps they are a school "orchestra".

What kind of music repertoire did they play?

Werner Fuetterer

19 December 2010

What makes a successful soundtrack for a Hollywood blockbuster? The sound of the horn. Film music draws from operatic traditions, and no instrument conveys more  dramatic emotions than the horn.

But how many movies actually have a character who plays the horn?  This trivia question has no easy answer. But if you knew German film history, you'd say, "Der Sohn der Hagar - with Werner Fuetterer of course."

This photo is a promotional postcard published by the Ross Verlag company of Berlin. They produced thousands of cards depicting the many celebrities of the early German film industry of the 1920's and 30's. The last production of Ross Verlag cards ended, perhaps understandably, in 1944, but people still try to collect them all! History of Ross Verlag Cards
Werner Fuetterer was number 1925/1 on this card from the 1927 silent movie, Der Sohn Der Hagar - The Son of Hagar, directed by Fritz Wendhausen. It was Werner's 13th film appearance and one of 11 movies he made in that year! And he was only 20 years old. Werner Fuetterer (come on, let's say it 3 times fast!) was born in 1907 and successfully capitalized on his handsome looks to negotiate the transition of silent films to sound. Until his death in 1991, he made over 97 movies, the last in 1976.  Wikipedia - Werner Fuetterer

In this photo, Werner portrays Robert Winter, a traveling musician in Der Sohn  der Hagar (1907) a novel written by Paul Keller. The title refers to the Bible story of Hagar, the Egyptian servant girl given to Abraham by his barren wife Sarah, so that she might give him a son. That boy is named Ishmael, and years later when Sarah finally bears a son, Isaac,  Abraham casts off Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. You can look it up.  It's complicated.

Keller's tale is set in 1900 Silesia, a region of central Europe that was once part of Prussia and is now part of Poland and the Czech Republic. The story revolves around Robert, a horn player, who with three fellow musicians, wanders the countryside in search of work. But Robert carries the burden of a tragic past. His unwed mother died at his birth, and he does not know his father. 

His small band arrives in Teichau, where a kindly doctor tries to find them work. Robert is placed in the household of a man who is actually his father. And just like in the movies, there is a beautiful girl - Lore. She is the man's niece, and of course Robert falls in love with her. But it is not to be. 

Denied his love, Robert leaves for the big city; works in a toxic factory; catches a terminal lung disease; discovers his true parentage; tries to start up the band again; learns that Lore, now married, still loves only him; makes a vain effort to see her one last time; and dies.  Maybe I paraphrase a bit. Find more about it here: Der Sohn der Hagar

Here are two pages taken from the December 1931 issue of Filmwelt that give a retrospective on Werner Fuetterer's body of work up to that year, around 37 films. It shows the same photo but reversed for the aesthetic layout.

Not too shabby for an actor. Perhaps playing the horn gave him that sophisticated, classy air. Portraying a musician in the days of silent film should  have been easy, but what about the cinema orchestras? Did they have an accompaniment score for the movie that called for a real horn player?  Even finding a piano score would be a wonderful find. I'll keep looking.

You can find the original Paul Keller novel on Goggle Books. Der Sohn der Hagar was only published in German but  I ran parts of it through Google Translate. After the band splits up, Robert's three companions realize than they really need him.

A melody on the trumpet is "hard,"said the conductor. "By smashing pieces she is good, but for the love songs they attack (tättert) too much. Since the horn is better. We might find in a city hostel more horn blowers. Meanwhile, we manage with the trumpet."

For anyone interested in German Film history,
I found the FilmWelt magazine at

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
where the theme this weekend is a picture of Claude Raines from 1912.

My other contribution is a current February 2012 post on The Verdi Sextette
which is about a group of vaudeville musicians.

A Picnic Band

11 December 2010

Many years ago, my wife and I visited Beaufort, SC for a summer festival that celebrated the Gullah culture of the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands. The afternoon highlight was a concert by a traditional African-American brass band, what they called a Picnic Band. The band was not local but came from somewhere in the region, perhaps Orangeburg, SC if I recall correctly. They had about 10 brass players on cornets, trombones, and sousaphone along with a snare and bass drum. The group was of various ages but included two very elderly musicians who described their vanishing southern tradition that provided music for outdoor events like dances and church socials. Hence the term "Picnic Band".   More on Gullah

Years later, I came across this photo post card with a nearly identical band posing with their cornets, tenor horns, "trom" horns, and "bass" horns (as termed by the leader of the SC band),  along with two drums. Standing at the back right is the preacher too. The card was never posted and there is no writing on it, so it could be anywhere in the US but most likely is in the South. The stamp box is an AZO with corner triangles up and down so that gives an approximate date of 1910 to 1930. My guess is 1920 or so. The card is very faded, cracked and marked with tape residue, so I have corrected the image.

This lost musical form has a connection to the roots of jazz, but the band I heard did not play or improvise in a jazz manner. They played tunes more related to songs and dance styles of southern black churches. It was all memorized and mostly followed a formula of call and refrain, using unvarying tempos with solid march-like percussion. I remember the sousaphone was missing two button caps on the 2nd and 3rd valves, but since the player only used first valve the whole concert anyway, key changes were not important. It was definitely not dixieland but had more elements of ragtime and gospel styles. They made a wonderful kind of authentic folk music that seemed uncorrupted by any modern influences of jazz and pop music.

Did the band in this photo sound like that? Perhaps, but here they have music folios on their instruments. Were they playing a concert for a church social or perhaps it was a funeral or a wedding? Black musicians had a very restricted musical path in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. There was some work in circus and carnival bands, but for the most part they were excluded from theater and concert halls, and certainly so in the southern states.

The term "picnic band" is not a standard musical phrase. It's not in Wikipedia. But I think it accurately describes this kind of brass band tradition in African-American cultural life, and ought to be recognized. But finding photos and records like this are pretty rare.

Springfield (Mass) Boys

05 December 2010

The post this week is another duo. A studio photo of two young boys, undoubtedly brothers, dressed in short pants and high top shoes with violin and alto saxophone. It came in a nice presentation card folder marked Belkin's Studio, Springfield, MA. No other identification attached but it offers an exploration of another branch of photo history - the emigrant photographer.

Belkin turns out to be Mitchell Belkin, born in 1888 in Odessa, Russian. He emigrated to America in 1908 and the 1910 census shows his name as Mitchel Belkens. He set himself up as a photographer in Springfield, Massachusetts. His wife Sophia joins him in 1909, and by 1912 they are both listed as photographers in the city directory. And within a decade he has three locations in Springfield as shown in this clipping from the 1921 directory.

By the 1930 US census he and his family are no longer in Springfield but are found in Brooklyn, NY. His business in Springfield seems to have been sold but it still retained his name. His death in 1955 is recorded for Los Angeles, CA.

In the Brooklyn census, both Mitchell and Sophia are curiously listed as photographers, Jewish, and their "mother tongue" as Yiddish. A great example of the interesting details one can find in census records. They succeeded in the classic way of emigrants from Eastern Europe, finding a specialty market and providing a desirable service, in this case family photographs.

I think these two brothers are from a family of recent emigrants too. Maybe even Jewish. Though I like the fun mixture of the short stout violinist with his taller brother, I like even more the look of confidence that shows a very assured musician. It's how I imagine a young Issac Stern might have appeared, though I have no idea if Isaac Stern was such a cupcake when he was this age!

Recently I read a really great book - Violin Dreams by Arnold Steinhardt, who is the principal violin of the Guarneri String Quartet. It is a terrific autobiography of a concert violinist's education and musical development, describing his mentors and his lifelong quest for an instrument with just the right sound. It also includes a beautiful essay on Steinhardt's study and performance of Bach's Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor.

A section early in the book describes his family's love of music and in particular the Jewish heritage of being a violinist. When I was reading it, I immediately remembered this photo. This is the same kind of boy, coming from the same tradition of music. OK, perhaps he is not Jewish , maybe Italian instead. But I still think there is a visible passion for music in this photo, and one that comes from an emigrant experience that put a very high value on music education.

Stoelzer & Blodeck - The Mozart Symphony Club

01 December 2010

Two musicians pose for a promotional photograph, but their instruments are not the typical violin and cello but something very different - a Viola d'Amore and a Viola da Gamba -  two antiquated string instruments that went out of fashion in the late 17th century. The players are Richard Stoelzer and Mario Blodeck from New York City, who were founding members of a chamber music group called the Mozart Symphony Club. This photo, by Geo. Schmitt of Cincinnati, OH was taken sometime around 1891-92, and probably used as a concert advertisement or souvenir.

Richard Stoelzer (1864 - 1947) was from Leipzig, Germany and came to the United States on tour in 1885 with the Royal Saxon Orchestra playing viola and clarinet. Unfortunately the orchestra tour failed and musicians were given a choice of returning to Germany or remaining in the US. Stoelzer stayed and found work in theaters and then with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Club. In 1891, he and Blodeck, who was also a German emigrant, formed the Mozart Symphony Club which played concerts programed around their novel instruments. Much more on Stoelzer and photos of his instruments can be found at this website. Richard Stoelzer Collection

The viola d'amore has 14 strings of which only 7 are played with the bow, while the others run below the finger board for sympathetic vibration. It has a flat back and no frets on the fingerboard. It was one of many varieties of early bowed string instruments that were popular during the renaissance and baroque periods.

The viola da gamba, or bass viol, goes back to medieval times and has 6 strings and a flat back. It was typically played in a consort of viols that came in different sizes from treble to bass. A  renaissance viol would have frets made of gut twine, tied around the fingerboard, but Mr. Blodeck's fingerboard is more like a cello without frets. Also both bows are not the style used during the baroque period and Blodeck holds his in the modern overhand position. These instruments, while suitable for music of their time, could not compete with the violin and cello for range of expression and dynamics and they were discarded by the early 19th century.

These two musicians are unique not so much for their instruments, but as  important pioneers in the development of chamber music in America. For 15 years they played theaters and halls in countless small towns and big cities. Concert announcements for the Mozart Symphony Club show up in hundreds of newspapers across North America:  Richmond, VA; Paducah, KY; Yakima, WA; Fort Worth, TX; Omaha, NE; Bismark, ND; as well as San Fransisco, Atlanta, Winnipeg, Boston and many others.

They traveled with an ensemble of about 10 players including vocal, violin, harp, flute and cornet soloists from 1891 to 1906. The musicians and programs seem to remain constant over the years, doing a medley of popular opera and light classics. Other instruments included in some programs were the Roman triumphal trumpet alpine echo horn, and saxophone. Given the hundreds of performances, I would bet they played from memory.

Occasionally they played with others, such as the famous violin soloist Maude Powell in Washington DC in 1891.  This clipping is from an 1891 Washington Sunday Herald.

The Mozart Symphony Club was promoted similar to the Chautauqua and Lyceum lecture concert series that were part of a growing educational and intellectual movement in 19th century America. Every group tried to distinguish itself from other traveling groups by using novelty and a great deal of hyperbole in press releases. But the two viol players represent the beginning interest in virtuoso Chamber music rather than "Early music", which came later in the 20th century. None of the programs include renaissance music or even much baroque music. No music of Purcell, Handel or Bach and really not much Mozart either. The goal of Stoelzer and Blodeck was entertainment, not historic performance practice. This clipping is from Daily Courier, Waterloo, Iowa in 1894.

This newspaper clipping comes from a Richmond VA Times of  1893 and includes brief bios of the performers and a description of  their instruments.

Herr Theodor Hoch, was the cornet soloist of the Mozart Symphony Club and continued with the group until it disbanded in 1906. The excerpt below  from a 1905 Paducah KY newspaper offers a glimpse of the personality and flair of these musicians. It describes how Hoch played at the 1896 Berlin exposition:

"Mr. Theodor Hoch has just returned from Berlin where he had been engaged at the exposition. Besides he gave other concerts in his native city, and everywhere he met with the warmest reception. The last day he went up 6,000 feet in a balloon, playing a cornet solo, starting with the "Star Spangled Banner", "Dixie Land" , etc. While descending he played the German national airs, but when he reached the ground he again played "Home Sweet Home". The applause which greeted him was deafening, people from far and near having gathered to hear him. His object in going into the balloon was to be able to judge the distance his instrument might be heard. Musicians who had come to hear him said every note could be heard distinctly, the effect being wonderful at times.


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