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 Snare Drum and Cornet

22 November 2011

A short fiction seen through the lens of an old camera.

"That's you?", asked the boy.

"Yes, that was me. It was a very long time ago," he said. "I played in the band at school." It did seem like another world. After two wars and so much change, it seemed like a picture of someone else.

"G... G... Gosh, I never thought of you as a ... a ... you look shorter than me," stammered the boy. "Who's the other fella?"

He looked at the photo again. "That would be Louis. He and I were best friends. We both lived on the same street, just a couple of flats apart. We made quite a noise practicing." He could hear the sound of the cornet and the drum now, mixing into the calls and shouts from the tenements and the rumble and rattle from the street.

The boy handed the photo back. "Where'd you get the instruments?"

"Oh, these were brand new. Father McDonnell got a special deal from a music store over on 48th St. Everyone got to pick out one and then we started lessons everyday at school. Father Mac led the band himself." He could remember little of the music they first played. But he could recall the concerts. Playing for the rest of the school; parades for the special saint days and church pageants; once even for the governor and the mayor. Music for almost every purpose, and he and Louie played it all.

He saw that the boy was still watching him closely. "So what happened to him?" 

"Louis? He almost finished out at Our Lady's School, but times got hard for him. His dad had a bad accident down at the docks and lost his job, and with a big family, Louis had to go out and get work. But the work he found was with some pretty rough people. Before long he was involved with some gang running whiskey and rum. It didn't end well". That day he read the newspaper report on the murder, and Louie's name jumped from the page, was a moment that still stopped his heart. 

"Father Mark?" The boy hesitated. "Do you think I could play an instrument?"  

"Sure you could. I bet you'd make a great drummer or cornet player. I'll have a word tomorrow with Sister Rose" He patted the boy on the back. "Run down and tell Sister Mary that I'll be down in a moment."

"Gee, you mean I get to choose?" The boy's eyes were wide with excitement.

"Yes, you get a choice. The snare drum or the cornet."

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

A Detroit Contrabassoon

18 November 2011

Detroit - a name attached to teams like the Red Wings, the Pistons, and the Tigers; to  brands like Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors; and to one of America's great musical institutions, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1946 a Detroit News photographer went to a rehearsal of the Detroit Symphony and focused on the imposing features of the Contrabassoon to take this picture of musicians at work.

The lowest of all orchestral instruments, the contrabassoon or kontrafagott is approximately 18 feet long. The modern instrument is folded into a more compact form with the bell nearly touching the floor, but this contrabassoon is from an earlier design and places the bell at about the same height as the regular bassoon. It uses a double reed that is larger than the bassoon reed and gives it a unique sonority that supports not only the woodwind instruments but the entire bass sound of an orchestra. It can make a pretty overpowering honk and I believe the fuzzy pineapple thing at the bottom of the photo is a mute for the contrabassoon. 

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this special sound of the orchestra, is to watch this YouTube video of a duet for bassoon and contrabassoon.  The music is by P.D.Q. Bach, a.k. Peter Schickele, and is performed by students at Western Washington University. Part 2 is also worth a listen.

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* *

The back of the photograph has two dates stamped: NOV 10, 1946 and 1946 OCT 21 3PM.  In 1939 the Detroit Symphony succumbed to the financial challenges of the depression and gave up using their original Orchestra Hall. After trying other concert venues, in 1946 they took over the Wilson Theatre and renamed it the Detroit Music Hall.  The first subscription concert was on October 24, 1946 with Karl Krueger, conductor.

The program was:
Beethoven ~ Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72A
Brahms ~  Sym. No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
Barber ~ Adagio for Strings
Liadov ~ Kikimora, Op. 63
Delius ~ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Ravel ~ Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé

Though there is a contrabassoon in the Brahms, only the Ravel has 3 bassoons and contra. So the sound you can almost hear in this photo is from Ravel's 2nd Suite from Daphnis and Chloe.


The musician is labeled on the photo as Gerold A. Schon. The 1930 US Census, the most recent available to the public, recorded a Gerold A. Schon, living in Detroit, born 1893 Chicago, wife's name Gertrude Schon, who listed his profession as Musician, Music Professor. But in my search of the internet, there was also a Gerold Schon listed as a cellist who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1918-20. The same name also turned up as a cello soloist in concert programs for the US Marine Band from the 1920's.

As luck would have it, offered up a US passport application from 1923, complete with a small photo of Gerold and Gertrude. He even signed it too. Could this be the same man, 23 years younger? The 6 ft+ height, the glasses, and the receding hairline would seem a close match, but the applicant asks for the passport to be sent to a Mancini U.S.M.B. - the United States Marine Band in Washington D.C.

The Reading PA Eagle from NOV 16, 1922 has a concert review of the Marine Band and mentions cellists Fritz Mueller and Gerold Schon. So I think the photographer got the wrong name and this man is not the bassoonist, but is instead Gerold Schon - the cellist who played with the Marine Band, and probably with the Detroit Symphony. It seems very unlikely that a cellist would abandon that instrument to pursue a career as a bassoonist.

* *

This past year, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra were engaged in a lengthy labor action with its board and management, which shut down concerts from October 2010 to April 2011. They have now resumed performances for this season but their struggle is shared by many musicians around the country, whose orchestras are also threatened by debt and even bankruptcy.

So far I have been unable to get a musician roster from the archives of the Detroit Symphony which would give me a definitive answer, but if you lift enough stones on the internet you can sometimes uncover some interesting clues. In the Fall, 2006 issue of Michigan Jewish History (p4 -16), there was a story on the Little Symphony of Detroit, a chamber orchestra started in 1948 by Bernard Rosen, bass clarinetist of the DSO. His idea was to create a small orchestra performing without a conductor to add to the concerts of the Detroit Symphony.

But in 1949, the DSO faced difficult contract negotiations, with harsh concessions demanded that would reduce the season from 20 weeks to 16, cut the $100 a week salary, and even terminate all 90 musicians for the 1949-50 season. In the end that is what happened, and the DSO folded, leaving the musician-run Little Symphony as the only orchestral concert group in Detroit. It's a great story about commitment to music, labor, and the city of Detroit. And on the last page of the article is a photo of a wind octet of the Little Symphony of Detroit, giving all the musician's names including a Gerald Schoen, bassoon.

The bassoonist in both photos is clearly the same man. Though there is a possibility that the man in the passport could have changed his instrument and the spelling of his name, it seems very unlikely. So I believe the gentleman with the contrabassoon is Gerald Schoen, though  when I get confirmation I will update this. And if indeed Gerold Schon was a cellist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the personal manager must have struggled to keep the names right on the paychecks.

UPDATE: 30 NOV 2011
I've received some information from the archivist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that confirms that Gerald Schon was indeed the contra-bassoonist in the photo. The other bassoonists were: Leonard Sharrow, principal bassoon, William Kruse, and Hugh Cooper. Mr. Schon seems to have spelled his name Schon and not Schoen. He was also listed in the DSO musician roster for the 1927-28 season as G. Schon. But what makes for more confusion is that in that season there was also a G. Schon in the cello section, undoubtedly the Gerold Schon who played with the Marine Band, and a J. Schon also in the bassoon section.  Now who was HE related to? Gerold or Gerald?

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
whose theme this weekend was a 1930's Chevrolet.
Click the link for more enthusiast of vintage photographs and good stories.

The USS Florida and USS Arkansas Navy Bands

11 November 2011

Today, 11 November, 2011 is Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day in commemoration of the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  So it seems appropriate to honor veterans with a couple of vintage photo postcards of military musicians. This photo of a U.S. Navy band from the battleship USS Florida (BB-30) dates from the relatively peaceful period between WWI and WWII. Standing in front of one of the great 12-inch guns, the 16 bandsmen, to judge by the bright white uniforms, are in very warm sunshine.

The card was sent to Miss Mary Kobinsky of Middletown, Conn. in March, 1921 with a note that would still be current for a sailor today.

Dear Mary
Droping you a few lines to let you know that I am well and happy, hoping you're the same. I was thinking of droping you a letter sometime ago, but it's so hot down here in Guantanabo (sic) Bay that a feller looses all his Ambition, will get leave soon. Chas.
P.S. Remember me to all.

But what makes this band photo a unique historical image is the complexion of the navy bandsman standing on the left holding a clarinet. Despite some efforts to end discrimination and improve civil rights, America remained a very segregated society after the First World War, and the Navy during this period had very few black servicemen. This came from a policy of exclusion of black personnel based on a reasoning that segregation on board a ship was impractical. According to one history of the Integration of the Armed Forces, by 1940 the Navy had only 4,007 black personnel, or  2.3 percent of its nearly 170,000-man total, and almost all were employed as stewards. So it is exceptional to see this dark skinned clarinetist as a member of the band.

The USS Florida was one of two 21,825-ton battleships commissioned before WWI in 1911. She served mostly in the western Atlantic and Caribbean, but was decommissioned and scrapped at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1931. The sender of this postcard, postmarked 1913, remarks on the compliment of 200 sailors aboard her.

The first postcard came with a companion card showing another navy band, this time from the battleship USS Arkansas (BB-33). This larger band of 22 bandsmen, who seem to be out in bright sunlight again, has three men of color in the center: one clarinet, one euphonium, and one whose instrument is hidden. It is very difficult to judge ethnicity in sepia photographs, and it's possible that some of the bandsmen are of Asian origin, perhaps of Filipino heritage. But the euphonium player looks distinctly dark and of very African descent. Again this is a very unusual mixture for a navy band of this period.

In 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military, though the end of discrimination and segregation of all units throughout the US Armed Forces still took many more years. Of course today's navy bands do not discriminate on race or for that matter, on gender either. For a photo of a black bandsman from before WWI look at my post on US Navy bandsmen 1914.

The USS Arkansas was a 26,000 ton Wyoming class battleship and like the Florida was commisioned before WWI in 1912. She was part of the Atlantic fleet and after the war was a training ship for navy midshipmen.  After being refitted she saw service in WWII, participating in the Normandy invasion and later after joining the Pacific fleet,  helping in the assaults on Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. This postcard is from the 1920's era.

The second band card was postmarked February 1922 and addressed to Mr. Edward Svihovec of Deep River, Conn. The message is short like a cell phone text message.

Dear Folks,
Few lines to let let you know that I've read your letter and to cut this story short will say good night and write later. 
Your son, Chas
Just a bit longer than the emails I get from my own son.

The handwriting of the name - Svihovec - created a real puzzle, as the letters did not immediately make sense. But eventually I found the service record for Charles F. Svihovec (1903-1976) who served in the Navy from 1921 to 1925. Charles was the second son of Edward Svihovec who immigrated from Bohemia with his family in 1911. Charles returned to Connecticut after his tour and married not Mary but Helen, making a career in the State Highway Department.

I have no way to determine if Charles was a musician in these bands, as his service record did not include his rating. The cards may have been just souvenir cards available through the ship's post office. But in the 1920 census for Deep River, CN,  Charles is living with his parents and two siblings. His father Edward Svihovec's occupation was listed as polisher, Piano Factory, and Charles and his older brother Edward also worked for the Piano Factory. 

This was likely the Pratt-Read Player Action Co. which had a factory making piano keyboard actions and player pianos in Deep River. The adjacent town of Ivoryton, Conn. also had a long industrial history making combs, buttons, toothpicks, billiard balls, and other items out of ivory, including piano keyboards. Here is the Wikepedia image showing the Ivoryton keyboard factory.

My guess is that in 1911, any Bohemian immigrant with machine skills would likely have had musical skills too. And if Edward played a brass instrument in the factory band, certainly his son, Charles would learn a musical instrument too. And what 18 year old wouldn't pass up an opportunity to see the world and play music on the deck of two battleships. If only he had thought to make an X over his sailor cap in the photos.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday 
which is a weekly meme which encourages bloggers to publish and share old images and photographs. This weekend it is celebrates its 100th post anniversary. 

Stoelzer & Blodeck, the Mozart Symphony Club Part 2

05 November 2011

We have met these two musicians before. They were introduced here last December as Stoelzer and Blodeck or more properly Richard Stoelzer and Mario Blodeck of New York City.  They toured the country as performers on two unusual string instruments of the baroque and renaissance, the Viola d'amore and the Viol da gamba in a group called the Mozart Symphony Club.

Stoelzer (1864 - 1947) was the leader of this small chamber music ensemble of 4 to 8 musicians which played all over America and Canada from around 1891 to 1905. The Richard Stoelzer Collection at the Adelphi University Library in Garden City, New York has more on his biography, but he and Blodeck serve as two examples of the many immigrant German musicians who helped to develop classical and orchestral music in late 19th century America.

This cabinet card photograph is a recent discovery which I acquired after the first photo, which is its obvious companion. The photographer was George Schmitt of Cincinnati, Ohio who is cited in Artists in Ohio working from 1893-1895.

His use of the German word Fotografer is no surprise when you go through a 1888 Cincinnati city directory and find page after page of Schmid, Schmidt, Schmit, and Schmitt in what was arguably the most Germanic of American cities. In 1888, the only photographer listed for 56/58 West 5th St. was named E.B. Core, so perhaps  George Schmitt worked there and then took it over, but he had a lot of competition as there were over 11 photographers on 5th St. alone and 6 more on 4th St.

The Mozart Symphony Club played from New York to Toronto to Seattle to Jacksonville, FL to Charleston, SC and seemingly everywhere in between. The University of Iowa has an online exhibit of Traveling Culture - the Circuit Chautauqua which describes the hundreds of different artistic and musical  groups that toured America from the late 1800's through the 1920's.

In this collection I found a promotional brochure of the Mozart Symphony Club from their 11th season, 1901-02 which describes Stoelzer, Blodeck and two other musicians, Miss Marie Stori a violinist and soprano; and Theodore Hoch, a virtuoso on the cornet and alpine echo horn.

This image from the back of that brochure shows how the group emphasized novelty but no doubt in a serious and educational manner. In addition to the viola d'amore and viol da gamba, the quartet displays the alpine echo horn with its two bells, a herald trumpet, a lute type instrument, and a violin, viola and cello. Though Stoelzer and Blodeck were demonstrating instruments that came from previous centuries, their repertoire was arrangements of 19th century opera tunes and light classics and not at all representative of the music originally played on these instruments. Nonetheless they brought a very unique and unusual ensemble to many cities and towns that had very limited exposure to quality chamber music performances.

The modern Early Music movement is usually credited to the British instrument maker Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 - 1940) who popularized music from the 18th, 17th and earlier centuries by setting up his own workshop to make harpsichords, lutes, and recorders. But his efforts were in the first decades of the 20th century, so it's possible that Stoelzer and Blodeck were the first musicians to reproduce early string instruments that had otherwise been left out of the modern orchestra. Despite their non-historical repertoire, they still deserve to be recognized for promoting the distinctive sounds of these forgotten instruments.

Here are some media examples of the instruments Stoelzer and Blodeck played. First is the sound of the viola d'amore as played on this YouTube video by the group PRATTICA TERZA with Maria Krestinskaya - Viola d'amore, Omay Bayramov - violoncello, and Georgy Blagodatov - harpsichord. At the beginning you can see the viola's upper playing strings and lower sympathetic strings that are under the fingerboard.
The viol da gamba was made in different sizes from treble to bass, similar to the violin string family but it was played da gamba - between the legs. A consort of viols was the precursor to the string quartet and from the Renaissance to the Baroque period it was the standard bowed string instrument of musical ensembles. Mario Blodeck had a wonderfully decorated viol with inlay and carved figurehead on the pegbox, but his instrument left off the most important feature of viols - the frets. These were made of gut tied around the fingerboard. Presumably Blodeck, as a cellist, preferred using modern cello technique and kept his viol like Stoelzer's viola without frets. I found a great video on YouTube which explains the difference between the cello and viol da gamba. The musician is Craig Trompeter from the Chicago early music ensemble The Baroque Band.


This week on Sepia Saturday the theme is an antique photo of the Lighthouse Workers' String Band from Måholmen, Sweden. You'll have to click the link to see the full photo and links to other enthusiasts of vintage photographs, but here is a clip of one of the musicians. His instrument is not an ordinary violin but a Norwegian instrument called a Hardanger Fiddle . Norway was actually part of Sweden for much of the 19th century until it gained independance in 1905. The Hardanger fiddle is similar to the viola d'amore in having extra sympathetic strings that run under the finger board. Like the viol, it is also ornately decorated in a Scandinavian style with inlay and sometimes carved figureheads, as seen in this image from the Wikipedia entry.

It continues to be played in folk ensembles and can be played at a virtuoso level. I found this stylish video on YouTube of a solo Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele played by Sindre Vatnehol. With the same concept of tuned sympathetic strings that resonate to the melodies and chords played on the upper strings, the sound is very similar to the viola d'amore.


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