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 }

Kun Arpad - A Violin Prodigy

24 September 2011

On April 26, 1901 a weekly newspaper in Utah, the The Coalville Times, carried the following telegraphic wire report on Kun Arpad, a young Hungarian violinist:

Seven-year Wonder

At one of the interesting "five o'clocks" of the enterprising Paris Figaro a little 7-year-old violin virtuoso from Hungary was on the program, who promises to be the musical sensation of the world for some time to come. There is only one objection to the youthful artist, and that is his very unmelodious name — Kun Arpad, which is not a nom de theater. Still, it has a familiar gypsy sound, not by any means as unpronounceable as Bjornstjerne Bjornson and the names of other men who have become famous despite their patronymics.

Kun Arpad is a juvenile virtuoso par excellence. His repertoire embraces some of the most classical pieces of renowned composers, and he plays with wonderful feeling. The musical critic of the Figaro says that during some of the pathetic selections there was not a dry eye in the audience. The little fellow seems transformed into a celestial being while playing, and when away from the stage and romping with his little companions he is as mundanely  mischievous as any urchins of his age. He will make a tour of Europe and America with that excellent Viennese musician, Rodolphe Berger, who will accompany him on the piano. Kun Arpad's forte at the Figaro "five o'clock" was a "Romance," by Mendelssohn, and "Le Mouvement Perpetuille" of  Paginini, which the little violinist executes with wonderful alacrity, not losing a note and beating time with his feet. I predict from what I have read in the Paris papers that Chicago will go wild over the diminutive chap during his season here.

SS Kronprinz Wilhelm
Coalville, Utah whose population in 1900 was 1252 citizens, was unlikely to play host to such a musical prodigy. But the editor obviously thought the local coal miners and farmers would want to keep up with the current fashions and celebrities making news in the rest of the world.

In fact the report on this young violinist playing an American concert tour was a bit premature, as Kun Arpad, accompanied by his mother and grandmother would not reach the US until June 1903. They arrived in New York on the SS Kronprinz Wilhelm from Cherbourg, and as Kun's concerts in France were less profitable than they had hoped, they traveled steerage class to save money.

Within days they had made the newspapers, but not in the way they may have planned. Kun's mother, Mrs. Maria Arpad had signed a contract with a promoter, named Siegmund B. Steinmann, to handle concerts of her son in return for a third of the proceeds. But when the man began to take the child away, she regretted her decision and tried to recover her son. This led to charges of kidnapping and stolen scrapbooks and then counter-charges of broken contracts, and undoubtedly created a small summer sensation in New York City's theater district. One imagines that there was some element of language miscommunication too.
By July 3rd, Kun and his mother had either changed managers or resolved the difficulties with Steinmann, and Arpad was booked to appear at Madison Square Garden in a summer variety show called Venice in New York for ten concerts at $100 a night. The attraction featured splashing fountains and cool gondola rides, as well as quaint folk songs, with mandolin and zither accompaniment .. encored nightly.

There were several theater "gardens" like this in the city, each in competition for new vaudeville acts. After advertising Madison Square Garden's cooler qualities, the headliner was Duss and his Incomparable Orchestra. But Duss already had a violin soloist, Mr. Nahan Franko (1861-1930).

Franko, a native of New Orleans had made his solo debut at New York's Steinway Hall years before at the age of 8, and then toured with the soprano Adelina Patti as a child violinist. After study in Europe, he returned to New York to take the position of concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1883. Playing in a cool theater in the opera's summer off-season must have been a nice change. 

Before Kun could demonstrate his talent on the violin, the theater needed to attain a special permit for underage performers from the mayor's office. The plan was to suspend all smoking and drinking by the patrons for the short time that young Kun would be on stage. But the politics of New York in the 1900's were more complicated than Kun and his mother could ever imagine, and after his first appearance on July 3rd, further concerts were canceled.

Initially Mayor Seth Low granted the permit, but this was an era of intense struggle between labor and business interests, and one of the powerful forces in the city was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, also known as the Gerry Society. Named after after one of its co-founders, Elbridge Thomas Gerry , this organization had been fighting for children's rights and establishing protective services in New York since 1874. One of their missions was to guard children from the immoral influences of theaters and other amusement activities. Kun Arpad, child violinist, now became a political pawn in a larger game.

On pressure from the Gerry Society, who protested that at Kun's first appearance the theater management failed to prevent smoking or drinking by the audience, Mayor Low revoked his permission. New York City had only recently been consolidated and Low, the former president of Columbia University, had won election in 1902 as mayor on a platform of fighting the corruption of Tammany Hall which had dominated Manhattan politics in the previous century.

The theater and Mrs. Arpad engaged yet another lawyer and on July 17 made an appeal to Mayor Low. Despite the best efforts of Kun and his mother pleading their case, the Mayor was unmoved and refused to renew his consent. In Boston, the Journal of Education said: "Why should one little boy be denied the privilege of working in a shop by day while another is allowed to work at night, work that is vastly more harmful?" A 9 year-old boy playing a violin was no match for the political machines at work here.

In August, Kun's name appeared again in the newspapers, but this time in the society section, where he was described as entertaining guests at a few house parties in Newport, Rhode Island, the fashionable address for New England's wealthy elite. Yet this must have seemed a dead end for the talented violinist and his ambitious parent, and by the following year 1904, Kun's name appears back in Europe in concert reports from Paris and London.

In the November 1905 edition of The Strad , a magazine for string musicians, was this brief mention:

Another young violinist has made his bow to a London audience, Kun Arpad by name, twelve years of age, who like von Reuter and Lionel Ovenden, is also a composer. One can only hope that the dual role will not be encouraged beyond the point of discovering which career he has the most talent for. At this age it is natural to find the executive ability ahead of composition, and he played the first movement of a Concerto of his own, and Wieniawski's "Airs Russes" with an excellent technique.

But every child prodigy eventually grows up, and by 1910 Kun's short pants had less appeal and he added a more adult title of composer to his promotional postcard.

By 1912 he is listed in the German Wer Ist ~ Who Is, (bottom of page 887) as living back in Budapest, no longer a Wunderkind.

But after that year the trail goes cold. Did Kun Arpad survive the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Did he serve in the Kaiser's army with the thousands of other young men in the Great War? Was his life cut short by the influenza epidemic of 1918? The second World War? The post-war communist period? I can find no answers.

The first decade of the 20th century saw many musicians from Europe trying to expand their careers in America. The free market of America's numerous concert halls offered opportunities for making money that were constrained in Europe by older conservative traditions. The number of young musical geniuses was also very competitive. Every generation seems to produce dozens of shooting stars trying to capture the public's attention. The story of Kun Arpad is an example of how challenging that could be.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday 
Click the link to find more enthusiasts of vintage photographs. 

The Hornblower of Ripon

17 September 2011

With the invention of the small 35mm camera in the early 20th century, amateur photographers could now record the unusual  and curious things they saw on holiday. No longer dependent on picture postcards, the camera equipped tourist could capture any image that seemed  memorable or remarkable for the friends and family at home. Such a camera was taken to the market town of Ripon in North Yorkshire, England in the early 1930's by a German family on holiday. Somehow two strips of 9 negatives were preserved and I acquired them because they recorded a unique English heritage - the Horn-blower of Ripon.

Since the year 886, a Wakeman has kept watch over the city of Ripon, insuring the townspeople that there was someone on guard in the night. Every evening at 9:00 for the past 1125 years, the horn-blower has sounded his horn 4 times around the market cross at the Ripon market square.

The current Ripon Hornblower is Mr. George Pickles who took on this duty in 2004. Click the link for more history and photos of the present day hornblower.

* * *

* * * 

In a delightful little book called Notes and Jottings from Animal Life by Frank Buckland, H.M. Inspector of Fisheries, published in 1882, the author describes a visit to Ripon in 1863 and gives a short history of the long duty of the Ripon Horn-blower entitled Curfew and Charter Horns, (page 123 ).

The other chapter titles include:
Christmas Day With My Monkeys;
An Elephant in Albany St,;
London Birdcatchers;
and Lord Bute's Beavers.

The sound of this horn is moderately loud but is only one pitch. It must have been difficult for the many wakemen over the centuries to resist adding some musical elements of rhythm or simple melody. Undoubtedly the sound for the townspeople is as reassuring as the toll of a church bell.

Quite a few postcards have been made of the horn-blowers over the many years. but I like these for their informal snapshot quality.  They also preserve a period that would soon be disrupted by the horrific events of WW II.

I have not found any clue as to the date, but the lighting and regularity of the horn-blower's notes at 9, suggest that the season of the photographs is summer-time. The only evidence I have for a provenance is the seller's description of the estate as a German family on a world tour. Was Ripon at the start or end of their journey?

The other photographs were likely taken in Ripon but I can not be certain. They seem to be of the same picturesque street showing some very ancient store and house fronts. Taken with a quality camera I think.


See the comments and compare this with the Google Streetview of the Shambles in York, England.

Could the family group strolling down the narrow lane be the German family on holiday?

And finally a view of the Ripon square as it is today.
Unfortunately Google's StreetView camera did not swing past at 9:00 PM.

* * *

* * *

And thanks to a sharp eye from Little Nell (see comments) the Shamble Lane in York, England.
Ironically the name Shambles comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word
that came to mean slaughterhouse. A trade that might have dealt in long cattle horn.

* * *

* * *

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more enthusiasts of vintage photos.

A Show Boat Band

11 September 2011

A short fiction spun from 
the image left on an old glass plate negative c.1895

"Gentlemen, over here, if you please," called the photographer as he waved from the bluff. "I've just got to go back to my buggy to fetch another plate and then we'll proceed with the exposure."

The bandsmen began to make their way down the gangplank and onto the river sand. It was still early and the mist from the river was just rising. Their uniforms had picked up a bit of it too. Off in the distance, the Ohio embankment was just a line of gray haze.

"Why we going up there Mr. Jim?" asked the young drummer.

"Cause we're going to see if an educated chicken can count to ten, ninny," said the man. He looked at the boy's wide eyes and laughed. "The Major wants to get some photographs to print up for the next towns we play downriver. It won't take a minute and then we'll march into town, play some tunes, and see if we can pull in more folk for today's shows."

"Last night weren't so good was it? Don't think we sold half the rock candy we did last Friday."

"No, Emmett, it was a might poor crowd. Even the old rubes that showed up to gawk at the girls was half asleep by the second act." They followed the other men, some still half asleep and fumbling with their buttons, trying not to stumble on the gravel path. Atop the levee they sat down on some logs next to a chandler's yard full of bales, boxes, and timber.

Jim opened up his case and took out his cornet as the other musicians busied themselves putting their instruments together. Several started to warm up their lips and horns in the damp morning air. "Hey, Mr. Jimmy, what we goan ta play first? I doan have many good reeds left an I doan wanna waste em if we play just de marches," said the clarionetist. 


Syracuse NY Sun Herald
31 January 1904

"Well, Sal, I don't know. How bout we start with that Port Jefferson march and then the new concert polka we picked up in Cincinnati. Maybe add some old waltz tunes for the ladies, if any show up. Don't worry, I won't add the Zampa Overture this morning. Chances are we won't see many people on a Monday," said Jim. He looked over the small group and sighed. They sure were a jumble of odd fish. An Italian left over from a traveling band that went bust in St. Louis; a couple of Germans and a Czech looking for a change from factory work; an Irish boy from New York who played a nice tenor cor and could sing and dance too. The usual assortment of fellows with passable musical skills working the summer season on a show boat. The best players played for the shows, the others helped set up the lights and stage and sometimes helped rig the boat. 


Though calling it a boat was a stretch. This floating opera house couldn't swim in the water any better than this log. For that they needed the Nancy B., the smaller steam tugboat moored off the stern, to do the pushing and pulling. She also gave them the power for the electric lights too. The Great Empire City Floating Theater was 175 feet long and 45 feet wide, and could fit near 800 people inside on a good night. But the season was nearly at an end now and crowds were leaner than they had been in May.

He watched as a man sporting a fine top hat picked his way up the embankment. "Morning, Major Price," said Jim. "Bit of a chill today. Might have to fire up the boiler to heat the hall tonight, don't want the girls catching cold."

"You may be right, Jim," said Price. "All that rain this last week, we need some kind of hook to fill the ticket box over the next couple of days." He looked over the band and frowned. "You boys take good care of these new shakos. I don't want to see any plumes flying away downriver." The Major kept a tight rein over his troupe of actors and musicians. He'd run shows all along the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Mississippi, and the Missouri. Playing little towns for a day and big cities for a week, it was a bit like a military campaign. He'd brought the photographer in this morning to take photos for his agents to use when they went on ahead to paper the next port. His budget for printing was slim, but this little fellow was eager and made a fair offer for several dozen prints. He sure hoped he knew what he was doing. 


"Major, how long do you think we'll stay on the south side of the river?" asked Jim. Most of the boys were from up north and didn't take well to some of the southern sensibilities. A few years back, the Eugene Robinson Show came up from Memphis and got in a heap of trouble trying to fly the Stars and Bars up in Iowa. Couple of towns got so riled up, they forced the showboat to take it down and put up the red, white and blue. And he'd heard that one old black man even sued the owner for $10,000 when they wouldn't sell him a reserved seat. Old wounds were still painful when you poked them with a sharp stick. Tonight they'd probably get lots of requests to play Dixie.

Mansfield OH News
05 August 1904

The Major looked out at the river. "I'm thinking we'll do a show tonight and then move a bit up river. On the other side." He gave Jim a wink and a nod. "There's a G.A.R. encampment that ought to bring in some old vets and their families. We can do some of the patriotic plays and then add some light comedy. Too bad we lost that juggler to the circus last week. We could use more variety. But you boys play some today and then get to practicing that new show. Needs an overture or two to fill out the time."


Jim smiled and blew a few soft notes into his horn. It felt good to have the Major's trust on the music. He'd ordered some new band books from Chicago last month and the boys could do a read-through later today. "How's the new pilot doing on the Nancy B., Major?"

The Major shook his head. "Not too good. He didn't seem to know as much about shoals on this part of the river as he claimed. First he kept too close until he thought he saw a snag and then he'd run her way out to center. Upset my morning coffee snaking around like that. Sure wish we had Capt. Mrs. Leathers for this season"

Altoona PA Mirror
30 March 1895
The Major was referring to Mrs. Blanche Leathers who had piloted another showboat Price had run for a few years. She was as much an attraction as any of the acts in the show. People came to see the lady pilot more than the troupe of performers. All proper and prim around patrons, she could bellow orders like any navvy man and she sure could read a river. But she ended up missing her husband who was running another big steamboat out of New Orleans, so she cut loose to join him on the southern routes.

"Gus, watch where you spit that chaw!" Jim shouted. "That bass drum don't need any more spots." The big German smiled through a mustache stained a bit darker than his natural hair color. He didn't know much music but he had a good ear for keeping the band on the beat. Mostly he did all the heavy lifting for the barge crew. Jim turned around and growled, "Emmett would you kindly cut out that racket?"

"Yes, Mr. Jim," said the boy and put his drumsticks back into his belt. The photographer waved at them again and motioned over towards his tripod.

"Gentlemen, if you could all sit round here and that ways I'll get the Empire City into the background." He quickly ducked under the camera's cloth cape. "Now those in the front just look towards me, and the rest set your gaze off that a ways."

"Why's he doing that Mr. Jim?" whispered the boy.

"Talking to the chicken inside, I guess. Hush and keep quiet now."

"All very good. Hold your position if you please. Hold. And hold ... and thank you very much." He pulled the negative tray out and tucked it under his coat.

Just then came a heavy blast from the tugboat whistle. Dockhands along the pier began to yell. The mate standing atop the Empire City began flailing the ship's bell. Emmett pointed into the haze. "There's a steamboat headed right for the Empire City!" he shouted.

"Blast my eyes," said Major Price. "She's moving way too fast to stop. She's going to hit us! What's that idiot pilot think he's doing?" They couldn't get a clear sight of the pilothouse in the mist but they could hear its bell clattering now too. The whistle on the Nancy B. howled in return. Some of the deckmates had leapt into the river. Several of the actors were rushing from their cabins along the second deck and racing to the stern. 


Then they saw a remarkable sight. Down at the water's edge was Gus. He had hold of an oar from one the lighters used to restock provisions and supplies for the theater barge. The boat was empty but Gus waded into the water and using the oar, gave it a great shove into the river. They watched it skim across the water to bob just ahead of the Empire City's bow.

By this time the steamboat pilot had awaken to the impending calamity and put its screws into reverse, churning the water into a great froth and swinging to the left. It was slowing but not enough to stop. The men froze waiting for the moment of collision. Suddenly the air exploded with a terrible noise of torn metal and splintered wood. Taking the force of the impact. the lighter burst into pieces. The Empire City rolled up against the pier straining the dock lines. But the steamboat had expended its energy and lay beached on the riverbank, rocking in the waves. 

The bandsmen and Major Price quickly scrambled down to the dock. Jim pulled Gus up to the gangplank, his britches soaked and his coat torn. He grinned as they all shook his hand and slapped him on the back. Major Price grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Gus, that was the most dang fool thing I ever did see. How in tarnation did you know how to do that?"

"In Lübeck, I work as Feuerwehrmann - what you call fireman? Docks see many fires. Little boat make bumper for ships." He smiled. "Is good, Yes?"

"Good?" exclaimed Major Price, "You bet good. You saved the Empire City Floating Theater."

"Maybe good enough for an extra bonus in his packet this week?" asked Jim.

The Major pursed his lips and gave Jim a hard look. "Yes, I suppose that would be a fair ring for keeping us afloat." He paused and laughed. "By golly that was a fearsome feat. You'll see a $5 gold piece in your pay this week, though I still ought to take 15 cents out of your wages for that shako plume."

"Major, look there," said Jim pointing up to the bluff, "this town's got more folk then we thought." A swarm of people spilled over the levee to get a closer view of the accident.

The little photographer scuttled down to them. "Ma-Ma-Major Price," he stammered breathlessly, "I am so sorry. The noise startled my horse and caused my equipment to overturn. I'm afraid this negative is spoiled now and won't turn out well at all."

Major Price chuckled, "Little feller, you go write this up for your newspaper. This kind of free advertising is worth more than a thousand photos. We'll have a full house tonight and every night for a month if you can believe it. Come on Jimmy, let's get the band playing before this fine turnout loses interest." 

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more enthusiasts for vintage photographs.


Thanks to Liz (see comments) for the excellent link to the
from which I have added the extra photos of riverboats that perfectly illustrate my story. 
My choice of names for the characters and the two boats in my story is entirely invented.
However the other events were real and are part of a description
of the life of a showboat band. 

A Young French Maestro

02 September 2011

One genre of musical photograph that I have neglected is that of the orchestra conductor. Though it is rare to find one in an early photo, frankly they are mostly glamor photos and not very interesting. This French postcard series titled Le Chef d'orchestre ~ The Conductor is an exception. 

The two cards posted in September 1904 are addressed to Mademoiselle Madeleine Mercier from Remy and sent to Bry-sur-Marne, France an eastern suburb of Paris.

The humor suggested in the subtitle Métier Ingrat ~ Ungrateful business lies in the playful comparison between the melodramatic behavior of a music director and the child's tantrum-like antics, which are actually quite realistic at times. What interests me is that in 1904 the French public knew enough about orchestra performances to appreciate the subtle humor. This was not just a picture of a cute toddler mimicking a conductor's gestures.

The captions translate from the French as follows:

1. Suivez la mesure! (a part) Triples sots!
~ Follow the action! (aside) Triples fools!

2. Sombrioso (A part) - Abrutis!
~ Sombrioso (aside) - morons!

3. Allegro vivace. (A part) - Limaces! marchez done!
~ Allegro vivace. (Aside) - Slugs! march on!

4. (A part) - Ah! les braillards! La seule chose qu'ils sachent faire n'abusant pas, du fortissimi.
~ (Aside) - Ah! the loudmouths! The only thing that they know not to abuse are the fortissimos.

This same child also appears as a temperamental violinist in another postcard series by the same publisher. So it's possible he may have had some musical talent, as there were a number of different youthful maestros promoted at the turn of the 19th century. Almost all sported flamboyant long hair. Some were children of band directors like Roy Deforest and the New York Orphans Band. Italian bands, almost always from Naples, were very popular and also used the marketing hook of a young conductor to set themselves apart.

In 1914 a young conductor named Willy Ferrero, 7½ years old, was making news in London appearing at the Albert Hall leading the New Symphony Orchestra. He had already appeared in Italy, France, and Russia and clearly was a phenom. Though he conducted with musical talent, in other reports he was described as being unable to read music. In this advert from the London Daily Mail of April 25, 1914, notice that the concert proceeds were in aid of the Children's Hospital at Great Ormond St. 

A special podium must have been constructed to help the orchestra musicians see such a diminutive boy conductor.

But this wunderkind was actually an American citizen.  Born in Maine of Italian parents who were theatrical people, probably on tour in the US, the family returned to Turin, Italy when he was age two. Ferrero showed an early understanding of music, perhaps instinctively recognizing musical pitches and rhythms and no doubt demonstrating a high level of memorization. He spoke several languages too.

This wire report which appeared in an April 1914 edition of the Indiana Weekly is from St. Petersburg, Russia and describes his conducting an orchestra there for the Tsar. It remarks that Willy's first public concerts were in Paris at age 4, about the same age as the little Chef d'Orchestre.

Following his London concert, there was a report in the London Daily Mail that Willy was accorded an invitation to meet Queen Alexandra the Queen Mother.


Willy Ferrero, the seven-year-old symphony conductor, whose performance at the Albert Hall on Tuesday astonished orchestra, audience, and critics, is to be received by Queen Alexandra this afternoon. He bears a letter to her Majesty from the Dowager Empress of Russia.

A medical correspondent writes: " There are none of the signs of neurotic precociousness or nervous instability about this prodigy. During the impromptu football game I witnessed in the flat of his friends in Welbeck Street, the only characteristic that marked him from the half-dozen children playing with him was his superabundance of animal spirits. In all other respects than in his innate appreciation of music, Willy Ferrero, as far as one can judge from a casual observation, is just pure boy."

But the dark clouds of war would envelope the world later that summer in 1914, and public attention was diverted from the novelty of musical prodigies. Fortunately too young to serve in WW I, Willy Ferraro seems to have returned to Italy and continued his musical education there, becoming a composer as well as a conductor. He died in Rome in 1954.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link of more enthusiasts of vintage photographs.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP