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 }

Austrian Plumbing

05 May 2016

A man of pride.
That's the person I see in this photograph.
It's in his self-confident stance with one arm akimbo.
It's in his simple but crisp uniform complete with medals.
It's definitely in his tall bowler hat worn with a jaunty tilt.
And if you look close, it's in the three signet rings on his right hand
that steadies the bell of his great brass instrument,

the helicon.

My estimate is that this proud helicon player posed for his photograph sometime between 1865 to 1875. The photographer of this small carte de visite was J. A. Sequardt, printed on the lower border. On the back is the photographer's elaborate imprint showing a checkered imperial eagle and medallions celebrating three pioneers of photography: Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), and Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).

Herr Sequardt's photo studio was at No. 159. I. Stock in Prossnitz, also known as Prostějov, which is now in the Czech Republic. In the 19th century, Prostějov / Prossnitz was a small city in Moravia, a Czech province of Austria, hence the use of two languages in the imprint. Wikipedia notes that it is known for its fashion industry.

The Coat of Arms of Moravia
Source: Wikimedia

The Helicon is a bass brass instrument made with the same length of tubing as the more compact tuba. Typically the B♭ helicon is 18 feet (5.5 m) long. Four rotary valves add more tubing for another 12 feet that allows the instrument to reach all musical pitches. Unlike the tuba, the helicon's plumbing is designed to be worn around the player giving him a comfortable position for marching or while riding a horse in a mounted band. This musician's uniform coat has epaulets, but I would not label him a military bandsman as he may be a member of a civilian town band. Notice that there is a high shine on the helicon and the musician's shoes too. At the top of the bell is a shield emblem for the instrument manufacturer.

 Kaiser Franz Joseph I. von Österreich , 1877
by Edmund Mahlknecht (Austrian, 1820–1903)
Source: Wikimedia

Today Austria is a small country, but for centuries it was the largest nation in central Europe, ruled by the House of Habsburg and containing dozens of ethnic peoples and languages. Kaiser Franz Josef was its ruler from 1848 to his death in 1916, which covers both the beginning of photography and the development of modern brass instruments with valves. To judge by this 1877 painting of Kaiser Franz Josef wearing hunting garb and a bowler hat, he and the Prossnitz low brass musician shopped at the same haberdasher.

This young Austrian boy, aged 12 or maybe 14, is wrapped inside a helicon that is less circular and shaped more like a smooched doughnut. The instrument has four rotary valves and a bell with a straight conical flare. He stands in the photography studio of A. Obersteiner of Graz, which is a large city in the Styria province of Austria, about 240 miles southwest of from Prostějov/Prossnitz. The capital city Wien is about halfway between. It is known for its six universities.

At the lower left corner, someone wrote the year and possibly month, 1879 Julie (?). It is one of the oldest photos in my collection. The studio imprint on the back of the cdv has a simple design for the initials of A. Obersteiner at Annenstrasse No.12, Graz. Only a short walk from the studio and across the river Mur, is the Akademisches Gymnasium a grammar school founded in 1573 by Charles II, Archduke of Austria. The boy's suit and tie gives him the look of a young scholar, so he may a low brass player in a school band.

The lad looks somewhat self-assured
as he grapples with his ungainly instrument.
The helicon has a bit of polish but mostly has a dull patina of tarnish.
The bell looks like it was made of a red copper metal

and has a large medallion of the manufacturer
I imagine Herr Obersteiner asking the boy
to play a tune on his helicon.

Ommpah, ommpah, ommpah.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where a good shepherd always keeps close watch over his sheeps.


Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Is the helicon played anywhere any longer? I can imagine it would have a
great sound. The hat similarity is a great match....I guess people have always
tried to emulate royal fashions. Interesting as always.

Barbara said...

Henry Fox Talbot rang a few bells with me, and then I remembered a visit to Lacock Abbey, which houses (or did when we visited) a museum commemorating his life and work. Visiting Lacock village is like stepping back in time.
I agree the man in the first photograph looks very proud and very smart.

La Nightingail said...

Okay, I'm just a bit confused. You said: >> Unlike the tuba, the helicon's plumbing is designed to be worn around the player giving him a comfortable position for marching << But I've seen many modern tuba players in marching bands 'wearing' their tubas around them as they play. There are tubas, and there are tubas, however - those you generally see in parades, and those played in concert bands. Are the latter the ones you were referring to in regard to the difference between the helicon and the tuba?

Little Nell said...

That’s a grand instrument indeed; one can see why the players look so proud and self-assured. I’ve been to Vienna a couple of times in my youth, and seen portaits of Franz Josef, who kept those distinctinctive whiskers all his life.

Dara said...

You won't believe it, Mike, but Kaiser Franz Joseph served me my dinner the last time I was in Vienna, or maybe it was his doppelganger :-)

North County Film Club said...

It was all so interesting and informative...and then you had to mention that the young boy's helicon was shaped like a smashed donut and I remembered my last uneaten donut and got distracted. I did go back and finish your post, though.
It's been quite awhile since I've been to Sepia Saturday and I've missed it, especially your always interesting posts.

Barbara Rogers said...

Since the whole photo of the boy is a rather warm sepia tone, why would you think his helicon is copper rather than brass? Just a thought...not that I would know a helicon from a tuba, but I think I know copper from brass.

Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

Every picture tells a story, the faces are mainly unsmiling, it seems posing for a photo was a very serious business. Probably also a bit daunting for some. That's quite a big instrument, I wonder how its tone was, probably well suited to the military marches they were fond of at the time. Manners and behaviour were strict and regulated.

Bob Scotney said...

Superb photos here and Franz Joseph had an impressive beard. I have never heard of a helicon but it is an impressive instrument.

Joan said...

As always, an interesting read. I was fascinated by the gentleman's ringed fingers. In the top version, he is proud and looks a bit military in stance, but in the close up his ringed fingers held the insturment with a sense of familiarity --- or perhaps it's just me. Thanks,


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