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 }

A Bassoon from Down Under

27 May 2017

Subject, Place, and Singularity.
Those are the qualities that make
a premium collectable photograph.
The unusual subject here
is a gentleman holding a bassoon,
an instrument rarely seen
in cabinet card portrait photos.

The curious singularity
is his magnificent long mustache
curled like the bocal on his instrument.

But it is the unexpected place
where the image was taken
that makes this a unique photograph.


The man sits in a relaxed pose,
cross legged on a low chair,
gazing to his right.
He is dressed
in formal white tie and tail coat,
with a boutonniere on his lapel.
His oiled hair is short
and carefully groomed,
and his imperial style mustache/beard
gives him a debonair almost rakish air.
His bassoon lays diagonally
at rest across his thigh
showing the double reed, bocal, and keywork
but not the bell.

It is the work of a skilled photographer,

Instantaneous Portraits
496 George St. Sydney.


There are countless cabinet card portraits from the 1880s and 1890s of gentlemen with impressive hair styles. But very few of those men also played bassoon. And even fewer lived in Sydney, Australia's largest city. This musician's photo wins the trifecta of exceptional qualities for a collectable photograph.

In the 19th century Australia did have very fine photographers in the big cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth, and  vintage Australian photographs can be found on the American antique market, though not in any great number, usually dozens rather than hundreds. This musician's portrait was taken by Melbourne-born photographer Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934) who trained in London. In 1887 he returned to Australia and opened Falk Studios on George Street, Sydney where he became renown for his photo artistry, and expensive fees. Ten years later Barnett left for London again to establish an upscale portrait studio at Hyde Park Corner where his customers included the royal family and prominent members of English society. With Barnett's studio work so well documented, it seems safe to date this gentleman's cabinet card in the decade from 1887 to 1897. Yet clearly he paid handsomely for a quality photograph from a leading Sydney photographer.

There is no marking on the photo's back. No studio imprint, no name or date. If the man played the violin or cornet it would not be an unusual photo, but it is his bassoon, the bass instrument of the woodwind family, and the fact that he is in Australia that makes this a remarkably rare vintage photo. Australia is a very big place, but in the 1890s its population was proportionately very small, and well-dressed bassoonists could only be a very, very small fraction of that number.

So how many bassoonists got their name in an Australian newspaper?

In the 1890s? 
Not surprisingly, very few.
But curiously one bassoonist
was mentioned more often than expected.

Sydney Morning Herald
10 October 1891

In October 1891 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an advertisement for a Grand Invitation Matinee Concert given by Signor Angelo Casiraghi, cerrtified teacher of Violin and Harmony from the Conservatoire of Music, Leipzig. The afternoon concert included violin solos by Signor Casiraghi, several vocal numbers, a few works for orchestra, organ and harp, and two bassoon solos. performed by Mr. Phil Langdale (late Soloist of the Cowan Orchestra). The titles, "Lucie Long" and "Carnival de Venise" were arrangements made by Mr. Langdale of popular tunes set with variations.

The National Library of Australia is a wonderful historic archive with a free searchable newspaper database. Between 1888 and 1896 there were over 225 citations of "Phil Langdale, bassoon". Even for a noted violinist or pianist of this era this would be an exceptional amount of newspaper coverage.

But Mr. Langdale played the bassoon.

Melbourne Argus
16 October 1888

The reference to "late Soloist of the Cowan (sic) Orchestra" was to the orchestra employed for the 1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition. This event was organized to celebrate a century of European settlement in Australia. It was held at the Royal Exhibition Building which was built for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880–81. For this earlier world's fair the western nave of the main building had a specially built orchestral platform complete with a grand pipe organ, and enough choir tiers for 700 to 750 voices.

Event organizers for the 1888 Centennial Exhibition anticipated that this concert feature would be a major attraction, so in 1888 they engaged the services of Frederic H. Cowen (1852-1935), a well-known British pianist, conductor, and composer. In 1888 he had just been made conductor of the Philharmonic Society of London, succeeding the famous composer Arthur Sullivan. His fee to go to Melbourne for the Centennial Fair was £5,000, an amount considered at the time especially extravagant for any musician. His terms included the hiring of 15 principal musicians from Britain for the Exhibition Orchestra. One of those musicians was the bassoonist Phil Langdale.

On the 15th October 1888 a smaller group of the orchestra presented an afternoon recital of solo pieces. On the program was an Air, with variations for bassoon, by F. Godfrey and played by Mr. Phil Langdale. Most of these fine solo performances were re-demanded and repeated, and the whole musical performance was found to be full of interest.

* * *

Melbourne Australasian
4 August 1888

The Centennial International Exhibition opened in Melbourne on 1 August 1888 and continued to 31 January 1889. Frederic Cowen's exhibition orchestra numbered 73 musicians, including Signor A. Casiraghi in the first violins and P. Langdale, principal bassoon.

Orchestra musicians roster for
the Centennial International Exhibition Melbourne: 1888-1889
Source: Official Record 

The 15 principals imported from Britain with Mr. Cowen were paid £10 per week. The exhibition commission also agreed to defray the cost of a second-class ticket for the steamship voyage to Australia and a return ticket, if desired. In 1888 the estimated travel time from London to Sydney was 50 days. The remainder of the orchestra was hired from musicians resident in the Australian Colonies. Their salaries varied from £3 10s to £12 per week. The 708 men and women in the Exhibition Choir sang for gratis - without pay, though they got free passes into the Exhibition.

Orchestra musicians' pay rate for
the Centennial International Exhibition Melbourne: 1888-1889
Source: Official Record 

The Exhibition ran for a bit over 26 weeks during Australia's spring and summer seasons. Over the course of the festival the orchestra and choir performed for 211 Orchestral, 30 Grand Choral, and 22 Popular concerts under Mr. Cowen's direction. This is in addition to many vocal, piano and instrumental recitals, and countless concerts of military bands that provided music throughout the rest of the exhibition area and amusement park.

Concert hall and grand organ for
the Centennial International Exhibition Melbourne: 1888-1889
Source: Official Record 

Among the Grand Choral works were two performances of Beethoven's Choral 9th Symphony; four of Händel's "Messiah" oratorio; two of Haydn's "Creation" oratorio; four of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" oratorio; two of Rossini's "Stabat Mater"; and  twelve performances of Cowen's choral music, his "Ruth" oratorio, "Song of Thanksgiving", and "Sleeping Beauty" cantata.

List of choral works performed at
the Centennial International Exhibition Melbourne: 1888-1889
Source: Official Record 

The orchestral concerts included the remaining eight Beethoven symphonies; Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique; Brahms' Symphony No. 3; Liszt's "Les Preludes"; Mendelssohn's Sym. No. 3 "Scotch"(sic), Sym. No.4 "Italian", and Sym. No. 4 "Reformation" Symphonies; two Schuber symphonies; and three Schumann symphonies. Nearly all were performed more than once. Beethoven's 6th Symphony the "Pastorale" was played five times. The programs also included an astonishing number of overtures, 91 opera overtures including nearly all of those by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Schubert, Wagner, and Weber. There were also a few violin concertos and several piano concertos, along with numerous incidental pieces, opera selections, songs, ballets, marches, rhapsodies, ballads, and serenades. 

Quite a lot of this music was new and unfamiliar to both musicians and Melbourne's audience. For example Brahm's 3rd Symphony only had its premiere in December 1883. Over 50 musical works programed on concerts at the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition were first performances for Melbourne and probably for Australia too.  

Concerts were scheduled twice a day at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, six days a week except on Sunday. Presumably mornings were reserved for rehearsals. That's roughly 7 to 8 hours of music making each day, or 36 to 48 hours a week not counting individual practice time. In comparison, modern orchestra musicians typically work a 20 to 24 hour week.

List of orchestral works performed at
the Centennial International Exhibition Melbourne: 1888-1889
Source: Official Record 

The Melbourne Exhibition Hall was modified to seat 2,500 people. Over the six months that the exhibition was open,  an average of 1,915 tickets were sold for each concert, making a total attendance of 467,2999. Of course, there were many other non-musical activities and sights for the public to see at the Melbourne exhibition park. but the musical arts were the chief attraction. It made for a daunting, if not exhausting, marathon list of music for any musician. For bassoonist Phil Langdale it meant easily a half dozen difficult bassoon solos to master each day. Only a well trained musician could survive that level of intense music. Someone who knew how to wield a bassoon as a defensive weapon if the music so demanded.

Someone who had been a member
of Her Majesty's Cold Stream Guards Band.

Dublin Irish Times
13 April 1875

Philip Langdale was just 20 years old in 1875 when he performed a Bassoon Solo (with variations) in Dublin's Exhibition Palace as a member of the Band of the Coldstream Guards. He was born in 1855 in Sevenoaks, Kent and probably joined the band at around age 16. His instrument, the bassoon, had long held a place in military bands, providing a sonorous bass voice that was also capable of great musical agility. 

The Coldstream Guards Band had a long musical tradition that dated back to 1785, and it held a reputation as one of the best in the British Army, which had a great number of military bands. This band provided music for any ceremonial duties to Queen Victoria, as well as for other military events. But by the 1870s, military bands also were an important unit for the British government's public relations, traveling the country performing at innumerable flower shows, exhibitions, and civic affairs. Between 1873 and 1881 there were over a hundred newspaper references to Mr. Langdale's bassoon solos (with variations) at concerts by the Band of the Coldstream Guards. The band's programs were regularly published and Langdale's bassoon received much praise in the reviews. The music that the band played included an immense number of popular overtures, songs, and solo instrumental works arranged for wind band from orchestral scores, as well as the standard military marches. This disciplined musical training would have given young Philip Langdale a good grounding in all the current styles of European music.

After 1881 his name appears less often as he seems to have left the Coldstream band for civilian life. In July 1883, Mr. P. Langdale appeared at London's Adelphi Theatre playing a bassoon solo "Lucy Long".  In February 1885 another Langdale bassoon solo was advertised by Her Majesty's Theatre where an orchestra of 100, assisted by the Band of the London Rifle Brigade, played a concert of various opera overtures, solo vocal pieces, dances, and a Descriptive Fantasia: "A Voyage in a Troop Ship."  In July 1885, Mr. Langdale demonstrated a bassoon made of ebonite, a man-made material, at a musical instrument exhibit of the Rudall, Carte, and Co.  

But the only thing that this research proves
is once upon a time a talented British bassoonist
could boast of a surprising prestige
on the Victorian era concert stage.

It doesn't convincingly establish that
the bassoonist with the wonderful curled mustache
is Mr. Phil Langdale, the late bassoon soloist
of the Melbourne Exhibition Orchestra.

If only there was another photo.

* * *

The 1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition was an international exposition attracting elaborate displays from all around the world as well as Australia. Thousands of representatives of industry, trade, and the arts booked space at the exhibition to demonstrate their newest and best products. The planning also required hundreds of contractors and staff to operate the fair's activities. Concerned about maintaining security the Melbourne Exhibition Commission decided to have individual photo portraits compiled of all persons employed at the exhibition. Many of these identity photos survive in the archives of the State Library of Victoria.

The musicians of the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition Orchestra worked 6 days a week through the entire event, so of course, they were photographed too. The State Library of Victoria has a souvenir collage of the orchestra with 68 musicians' ID photos surrounding a photo of their music director, Frederic H. Cowen. There are no instruments and no names, but the archive offered a high definition image to download.

1888 Centennial International Exhibition Orchestra
Paterson Bros., photographers
Source: State Library Victoria Archives

The musicians' photos, all men of course, illustrate the amazing variety of mustaches, beards, and hair styles that were the male fashion of the 1880s. This era might better be called the golden age of barbers. 

The faces of many men were easily eliminated as too old, too, fat, etc. But a few grainy images made promising matches. These two men, center row, 2nd and 3rd from right bear a good resemblance to my bassoonist, and the one on the left has a similar impressively long mustache.

This man, third row from bottom, 2nd from left, has a similar imperial style beard and a receding hair line.

But the man pictured on the bottom row, 4th from right, made the best match to my bassoonist.
His mustache may lack the twirled extensions but it has the same shape.
I think his hooded eyes, high forehead, thin hair, and cheekbones
  makes him a ringer for the man in my photograph.
The two men also share an inclination for rumpled suit coats.

The bassoonist Philip Langdale declined the Melbourne Exhibition Commission's offer of a steamship ticket to return to England, and instead stayed in Melbourne working as a professional musician. He played bassoon solos in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and even New Zealand that were commended in reviews for their wit and musical facility. Then as now, the sound of the bassoon is associated with musical humor, even though it is very capable of producing many other profound and beautiful emotions.

But as time passed the Australian audience's acclaim was not enough to meet a musician's financial challenges. By 1894 Langdale was evidently struggling to keep afloat in show business and hinting the he would soon leave for Britain.

Melbourne Table Talk
23 March 1894

Mr. Phil Langdale's "benefit" concert on Thursday night last, at the town hall, drew a fairly large and, as his many good qualities deserve, a sympathetic audience. Mr. Langdale has, ever since his first appearance here with Mr. Cowen been consistently a public favorite, and this quite as much on account of his amiable disposition and the ready sympathy he has always shown to his fellow artists, as on account of his mastery over his instrument. 

He had certainly no reason to complain of the warmth of the greeting offered to him when he first appeared upon the platform, nor of the applause that followed his first solo, the "Carnival de Venice." And of the floral tributes offered to him nothing could have been more appropriate than the one woven in the form of a bassoon. The warmth of feeling shown him should be a guarantee to Mr. Langdale that he bears with him the best wishes of his friends and admirers. 

But the programme was inordinately long, and was not, on the whole as readily carried out as usual. Apart from the performance by Mr. Langdale, who was naturally the central figure of the evening...

* * *

Langdale managed another year in Australia
before finally making his farewell concert in 1895.
A Melbourne wag wrote an amusing tongue-in-cheek tribute
that says a lot about Langdale and the friendships he made in Australia.

Melbourne Punch
11 July 1895

Mr. Phil Langdale, the eminent bassoon player, who is leaving the colony for England almost immediately, is doing so in consequence of the small demand for bassoon playing in this country. He attributes this lack of interest in the instrument to the political management of the colony. It would be worth while for him to clearly explain what sort of political administration ought to prevail in order to make bassoon playing popular and profitable. 

What is there that is anti-bassoonical in our present politics? Wagner, if we remember rightly, called the bassoon the "clown of the orchestra," on account of its appropriateness for producing comic effects. There are so many clowns in politics that we should have expected them to take a fraternal interest in the instrument, if they had any inclination to interested in any instrument of music whatever. 

We are, however, really sorry Phil Langdale is going, and hope that the state of politics, of which he complains will bas-soon altered.

* * *

This photo detective has tried to connect an unmarked portrait of a musician with a name that has no likeness, but regrettably it is not conclusive proof of identification. However, circumstantial evidence sometimes is sufficient too. So I'm convinced that a musician like Phil Langdale, whose talent on the bassoon was so frequently recognized during his years in Australia and whose wit and charm had endeared him to many friends, would very likely invest in a handsome photograph like this as a gift for his admirers. It the sort of thing one does when taking leave of a place and setting out on a long voyage to a distant land.

* * *

The following year, December 1896, Phil Langdale was on stage in London as a bassoon soloist with the Inns of Court Orchestral Society. His name appears much less frequently than when he was with the Coldstream Guards Band, probably because he was working in theater orchestras and seaside pier bands. In around 1900 he begins touring England with the "London Wind Quintette", an early instance of a professional wind chamber group. During the war years his novelty bassoon solos were occasionally worthy of note in newspaper reviews. The last mention of his name was in 1921 as principal bassoon of the Tonbridge Orchestral Society.

I've left out his family history mainly because it was never mentioned in the Australian newspapers and is not pertinent to my case. However I have documented his name in the UK census and other records and know that Phil Langdale, born in 1855, married Selina Campbell, age 19, in 1885. Whether she accompanied him to Australia, I do not known. They had two daughters, Nina, born in 1887 and Phyllis, born in 1903.
Philip Langdale, bassoonist, died on 22 October 1929 at age 74.

Curiously his name appeared
in the 1933 U.S. official catalogue of copyright entries
for a bassoon solo with pf. acc. (pianoforte accompaniment)
It was entitled
We won't go home till morning;
by Phil Langdale;
©Feb. 7, 1933 by Hawkes & son (London) ltd.

1933 United States Catalogue of Copyright Entries

As a special musical homage
for his story

let's listen to a rendition
of one of Phil Langdale's favorite bassoon variations.

This video comes from a March 25, 2012 concert
at Edinborough Park, in Edina, Minnesota
featuring Alex Legeros on bassoon

with the Edina Sousa Band, playing "Lucy Long."



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the batter is up and the basses are loaded.

Fashion Styles for Lady Cornetists

19 May 2017

A skilled photographer knows the power of a glance,
understands the allure of a neckline,
appreciates the graceful line
of arms and torso.
It's the art of seduction,
and the unknown photographer
who captured the elegant beauty of
Madeleine Le Bihan
Virtuose of the Cornet
was a master.

Her translucent gown
shimmers with pale light
and swirls onto the studio floor.
Lowering her instrument
she looks directly at the camera
as if to acknowledge
our applause
with a solo bow.

Not surprisingly, she is on a French postcard. But there is no date or other mark. It's a very modern promotional image but the postcard style comes from the first decades of the 20th century. My best guess is that Madeleine Le Bihan was a music hall instrumentalist performing in France or Belgium around 1908 to 1914. I've been unable to any more information on her and suspect that Le Bihan was her stage name.


The glamour pose in this postcard is similar
but the woman's costume is much less flattering. 

Mary Bernow,
Instrumentalistin, Schnellmalerin und Concertsängerin
Instrumentalist, Speed Painter and Concert Singer

The top half of Mary Bernow's attire is a grand bodice with plumed hat and short cape, while her  bottom half is circus-like ruffled pants with very long hose. She holds a side action rotary valve trumpet. Evidently she was fond of pearls. Presumably her act involved singing and playing the trumpet while quickly painting portraits of people selected from the audience.

Her postcard was mailed from Apolda, Germany on the 28th of December, 1901. The sender filled all the available space on the front of the card with a lengthy message, but alas the handwriting is too difficult for me to read.


For this next postcard, the photographer
adjusted the overhead light,
placed his subject in a part turn,
directed her gaze to the camera lens,
and took a fine publicity photo
of cornetist,
Jessie Millar.
Yet the attraction is not the same
as that of Mlle Le Bihan.

She wears a more decorous shirt waist,
over a striped dress. Perhaps red or blue?
Her hair is bound in the back
with a large white bow
and in the front with a regal star pin.
Pinned to her blouse are several medals.
Her arms are relaxed, extending down
with her cornet at her side.
She has the look of a professional entertainer, and though her postcard was never mailed I was able to determine that she worked the British music hall circuit from around 1905 to 1912. She may have started in 1890 as a child act as I found an advertisement in the theatrical trade magazine, The Era, for the Sisters Kate and Jessie Millar, character duettists and banjoists. This postcard likely dates to 1908-10. In April 1907 she was playing at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in Belfast, Ireland. As a lady cornetiste, Jessie Millar worked with the American juggling eccentric Alburtus the First. Their act involved juggling clubs during a comic skit  which kept the audience in a continual roar of laughter by the funniosities, while the cornet playing of Miss Millar was really excellent and artistic.    

Belfast News Letter
16 April 1907


Stylish clothing was an important part
of any entertainer's show business image,
but sometimes the fabrics chosen
seemed better suited for furniture upholstery
than for an artiste's wardrobe.
Like Mary Bernow, the trumpet player
Miss Wandina,
 dressed in a two part costume.
The upper portion was made of
elaborate embroidered satin.
Are those monkeys?
She also wears
an enormous feathered hat
and a heavy velvet cape.
But what captures our eye
are her curvaceous legs
as her dress hem
is raised much higher
than any respectable woman
of this era would wear.

This German postcard was sent on 26 May 1907 from Berlin to a soldier serving in Potsdam.


Sometimes a photographer's skill
was not up to the task,
and an image needed retouching.
Such was the case with
Marta Grottke
Pistonnistin (Solisten)
Piston Valve Cornet Soloist

Marta's dress is a gauzy lightweight fabric
perhaps in white or pale yellow.
She stands holding her cornet at the ready
but an attempt was made to "improve"
her face and instrument with darker outlines
that was less than successful.

When Marta Grottke's postcard was produced there was a war going on, so quality printing was not available for the general public. It was sent from Erfurt, Germany on 29 July 1918 to Fräulein Lina Wolf from her brother Richard Wolf. In German bands at this time, the standard trumpet used rotary valves. Marta's piston valve instrument was considered a bit exotic, even French, and used in Germany mainly for solo instrumentalists. I suspect she was a member of a family band that performed on the German variety theater circuit.


If fashion style is a personal statement,
especially from a woman,
what does this over-the-top outfit say?
Kätie Ibolt
Dirigentin u. Kapellmeisterin
des Damenorchestrers „Diana“
Director and Bandleader
of the
Ladies Orchestra „Diana“

 She combines the direct gaze
with a tougher stance
of a trumpeter with attitude.
Her shortened dress shows
some calf and high top shoes,
and the beads, sash, and plumed hat
add an indescribable exoticism,
that suggest an ethnic or national identity.

Her postcard was posted on 24 September 1910 from Völklingen, a town in the district of Saarbrücken, Germany. Kätie Ibolt was a member of a Damen Trompeter Corps, which was originally directed by her father O. Ibolt (In German a capital J is sometimes used for the letter I.) My collection has other postcards of this German brass band which had between 8 and 10 musicians, not all of whom were female. One gets the sense that Kätie Ibolt cut a striking figure around the German theater districts.

So who wears it better?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where sometimes photos come in camouflage.


A Night at the Opera

11 May 2017

Der Sepp im Theater

Beim Lustspiel

The Yokel at the Theater

At the Comedy

 * * *

Der Sepp im Theater

Bei der Posse
At the Farce

* * *

Der Sepp im Theater

Im Zwischenact
In the Interact

* * *

Der Sepp im Theater

Beim Ballet
At the Ballet

* * *

Der Sepp im Theater

Beim Trauerspiel

At the Tragedy

* * *

This series of five charming postcards depicts a country yokel's night at the theater, or perhaps even the opera, and were produced around 1903. The first postcard was sent to Fräulein Helene Breier from Salder in Lower Saxony, Germany to Lebenstedt which is just a short walk north of Salder.

The last four were posted from Muenchen, aka München, Bayern, or Munich, Bavaria on 31 July 1903 and all were sent to Wohlgeb. Frau Marie Steiner.  The honorific Wohlgeb. Frau is an unusual German abbreviation that I believe is an archaic title meaning Wohlgeboren Frau or Honored Woman. My interpretation it that it is used for a woman of a noble or royal family. But please leave a comment if there is a better translation or meaning.   

This type of German comical humor was very popular when postcards first came out as  the social media of the early 20th century. I suspect what made this fellow so amusing is that people in 1903-4 recognized his type of rural bumpkin whose innocent unpretentious ways were unfiltered by sophisticated manners. Recently I've expanded my postcard collection to include examples of these funny German characters that I believe also had an influence on the development of American humor.

To prove my point,
compare Der Sepp's hat to Chico Marx's iconic hat
in his solo piano performance
from the Marx Brother's 1935 movie,
A Night at the Opera.



And we certainly can't skip
Harpo Marx from the same film.



And of course there is always mayhem
in the opera pit when all the Marx brothers
start playing around with the music.



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where all the world's a stage
and all the men and women merely players.

Toni Vary, a Café Musician

05 May 2017

Remember that time we went to...?
What was the name of that place?
Wasn't he grandpa's uncle's cousin's son?
Oh, yes, I remember now!

Why does someone save an old postcard?
How can such small photos
retain a magical power
that compels a person to preserve it?
What mysterious voice
gives it this seductive charm?
A kind of siren's call that whispers,
"Save me! Protect me!"
forcing the possessor to entomb this paper relic
into some shoe box or desk drawer.  

These are questions I often think about
as I search the websites of postcard dealers.
And the only answer that makes sense to me
is memory,

because I collect the ephemera,
the talismans, the amulets
of forgotten people's memories.

So skipping over why I would collect it,
why would someone save a photo postcard
of a smiling young man in a bowler hat?

Because he was once someone's sweetheart.

Michen's Liebling!

Michen's Darling!

The postcard was mailed on 29 November 1909
from Tilsit in East Prussia,
now known as Sovetsk, in the Russian oblast of Klaliningrad.
A non-postal souvenir stamp
of Tilsit's Deutsche Strasse, and Deutsche Kirche.
was affixed to the front photo.
One hundred years on, in this Russian enclave
of the Baltic States,
bordered by Lithuania and Poland,
the German population
has now nearly vanished. 

It was addressed to:
Freulein (sic) Minchen Hamacher
of Grefeld, Rheinl. (Krefeld, Germany)

                     Tilsit 29.11.09
Deine liebe karte mit bestem
Dank erhalten bin aber ganz
erstaunt, dasschau(?) mich nicht
mehr wiedersehen wilst pc s! (?)
jedoch, deshalb grüsst dich
erst recht der umseitig abgebildete
Abs. Toni Vary   Deutschland postl.
Your love card received
with great thanks but am quite amazed,
(?) no longer
see me  again wilst pc s! (?)
However, that is why
the man pictured on the other side greets you.

Toni Vary

{better translations or corrections always welcome} 

The young man with the pencil mustache and wide grin was a violinist with the Original Schrammel Quartet „Fidele Geister or „Jolly Spirits”.  He and his fellow musicians, Mich'l Hüsten on accordion, Sepp'l Pessi on contraguitar, and Franz Helige on 2nd violin appeared on a promotional postcard for their group. They were available as first class artists, playing Schrammelmusik, a Viennese style of lighthearted instrumental music popular in cafés, restaurants, taverns, and wine gardens. The contraguitar, a kind of harp guitar with an added neck and mulitple strings, provided the basso continuo accompaniment to the more melodic voices of the violins.

The postcard was never mailed and is otherwise unmarked
except for a stamped imprint of the:

Orig. Schrammel'n
Toni Vary

It seems that Toni Vary was the leader of the quartet. On another postcard D' fidelen Geister posed in their traveling clothes, instruments in cases, as they get ready to board a train to their next gig..

Neither of these cards has a postmark but Toni seems about the same age 19-21, maybe even a bit younger, as he was in the first photo card of 1909.

Let's pause to have the Philharmonia Schrammeln Wien play some typical Schrammelmusik.  



A few years later, Toni Vary moved up to a elite level of salon music, changing from a quartet to a trio. Exchanging his casual Schrammelmusik folk costume for a formal white tie and evening jacket. he stands in the center without his violin, holding just a roll of music. The two other men do not have instruments but the one on the right resembles the accordionist Mich'l Hüsten from the Fidele Geister quartet. The gentleman on the left might be a cellist or a pianist.

The postcard has a printed caption on the front:

Salon–Terzett  Toni Vary

The postcard was sent from Cöln, an archaic spelling of Köln, Germany
on 6.2.12 – 6th February 1912.  

By a curious coincidence,
it was sent to Herrn Hermann Hamacher of Willich, Germany
which is just 10 km from Krefeld, the address for Minchen Hamacher.
The handwriting is very different
so I was unable to decipher the message,
but I believe the name Minchen, a diminutive of Wilhelmina,
is written in the center.
Is there a connection?

But before we answer that
let's reconsider my theme.
Why would anyone save an old faded blue postcard,
an image of three men in formal wear,
that's not even a real photo, but a half-tone print?

A century later,
after two catastrophic wars,
after divided nations,
after redrawn borders,
it's now secure
in a binder of similar postcards
on a bookshelf in my studio.
Yet in this long tumult of history,
how did these simple paper postcards manage to survive? 

Memory is a powerful force.

So why on earth
would I want to have
these postcards in my collection?

Because Toni Vary once worked with
a second violin who was a very unique musician,

a woman of color.

She is seated to his left, dressed in a frilly white blouse with embroidered vest and shiny satin pantaloons. She has a violin resting in her lap. Her costume is a folk style not unlike the female musicians of Eastern European musical ensembles from Croatia, Hungary, or Romania. Except that her complexion is distinctly darker. Surely she is not originally from a European race but is of African descent. How/why/when did she get into this little band with Toni Vary? 

Seven musicians pose in a photographer's studio, five men and two women. The men wear fancy military style band uniforms with embroidered cuffs and button braid. One man has a snare drum, another a trombone, another a double bass, and one is without instrument. The second woman is of middlish age, a bit stout, and dressed in a vaguely European folk fashion that matches the violinist. She holds a roll of music, the symbol for the piano player. Toni Vary sits in center front with his violin.

It's a photo postcard of a musical group that resembles countless other small ensembles that played in Europe's salons, restaurants, and cafés in the years before World War One. The striking difference is that one musician is a woman of color. How she got there remains a mystery.

The postcard has no marks, not even a printing logo, so I can't definitively say that it is Toni Vary's orchestra. Unfortunately I've lost the original proof which was a sale listing of the same photo which included a caption with Vary's name. But I am confident it is the same man. It's what made me go look for more corroboration. It's what made me wonder how ephemera like this gets preserved. 

This postcard is a promotional portrait of Toni Vary with violin. A typical artist's publicity shot with his name angled into the lower corner. The half-tone print has faded so I've improved the contrast. The brown color of the cheap rag stock paper is typical of postcards made during the war years.

There is no postmark
but the words
Wien Schrammel Musik
Klavier & Violine

are written in the upper right corner

And curiously the address reads:
c/ Krefeld

The handwriting looks very similar
to the writing on the blue postcard.
Another connection?

Once upon a time,
music was a common color of urban life.
It added a dimension of sound
to a stroll in the park,
to an afternoon tea at the café,
to a evening supper after the theater.
Toni Vary's orchestra was part of that musical culture.

Here he stands on a small stage leading a chamber orchestra of seven other musicians. On the left are some string players and on the right is a flutist, a drummer, and another obscured instrument. The violinist seated just left of Vary looks like the uniformed musician standing without instrument in the septet photo. Behind Vary is a large cabinet stacked with music. In front of the stage's wooden rail are restaurant tables and chairs, and the walls are lavishly decorated. This is no cheap beer hall, but a proper high class establishment.

The postcard's back has a penciled note,  

Orchester Toni Vary im Café Grosse, Frankfurt/Main

There is no date but it's likely the photo was taken during the war years. Even though the German public endured many hardships, there was always live music in German restaurants and theaters throughout 1914-1918. Toni Vary must have been very popular there as in October 1919, nearly a year after the war ended, Café Grosse honored him with a special postcard commemorating his 350th concert at the restaurant.

Sonnabend, Den 4. OKTOBER 1919,
8 UHR Abends
Ehren = Abend
für den beliebten, genialen Geiger
nd Dirigenten Herrn Kapellmeister

anläklich seines 350ten Konzerts im


Toni Varz wird an diesem Tage mit
seinem verstärkten Künstler Orchester dem
hochverehrten Publikum und Stammgästen
einen besonders genukreichen
Abend bereiten
Besondere Getränke Karte liegt auf.
Tischbestellungen beim geschäftsführenden
Herrn Direktor, den Kellnern und am Büffet
Die Direktion
Saturday, the 4th October 1919
8 o'clock in the evening
Honorary evening
for the popular, brilliant violinist
and conductor Mr. Kapellmeister


On the occasion of his 350th concert at


On this day Toni Varz
will be presenting a special
genius evening to the
highly esteemed audience and guests.
Wine order required
Table orders with the managing director,
the waiters and the buffet

It was a special delight to discover this bit of ephemera showing that my musician had made it beyond the devastating years of war, and the tragic Great Influenza epidemic too. The fortunes of war can be good and bad, so the implication of his 350 concerts means that for much of 1918 if not earlier, Toni Vary was playing at the Café Grosse in Frankfurt. Though it's very likely that he did army service during the war, with his talent Vary may have been assigned to a military band or orchestra. Yet even those units were not entirely safe from incurring casualties.

* * *

We started with Toni Vary's story in 1909, jumped to 1919, and now enter a fog of time. For most of the photos in my collection there is just a single moment of a camera's shutter. Sometimes I find a few more that let me measure time in years, but rarely a decade, and never more. Yet somehow the magic of memory shields ephemera from harm. Eventually a postcard dealer puts it up for sale with enough description that a photo sleuth like me can find it on the internet. 

Now we jump ahead two decades to April 1939. 

It's a modern collage of photos making a promotional postcard. A violinist in white tie and tails stands on one side, four vignettes of women's faces on the other, a pile of musical instruments – drum set, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, accordion. The caption reads:

Toni Vary
mit seinen Künstlerinnen

Toni Vary
with his artists (female)

The card was posted from Iserlohn, Germany and addressed to:
Café u.Konditorei

The message is typewritten. 

Iserlohn, 26.4.39
Sehr geehrte Direktion!
Freitag 1. Juni erstklassiges Trio
2 junge fesche Damen 1 Herr
mit hervorrangender Sängerin!!!
Lieder, Arien, Stimmungsgesang
beider Damen. ganz erstklassige
Musik bis schwerstes Konzert
u(nd) mod Tanz und Stimmungsmusik !
eleg(anz) Auftreten in schwarz und
grau. größtes Notenrepertoir.
arrangieren von dekorativen
Sonderabenden, gute Reklame!
überall prolongiert, Hier im
2. Monat. Refr. die Direktion.
Mit Deutschen Gruß
Toni Vary, Iserlohn i/Wwest
Haus Schulte"

Dear management!
Friday June 1st first-class trio
2 young ladies 1 Mr.
with outstanding singers!!!
Songs, arias, mood songs
of both ladies. Very first-class
music to the most difficult concert
and modern dance and mood music!
Elegance appearance in black and
gray. Largest musical repertoire.
Arranging decorative specials, good advertising!
Everywhere prolonged, Here in the
2nd month. Refr. the direction.
          With German greeting
Toni Vary,
Iserlohn i/Wwest
          Haus Schulte"

Four months later
on September 1st, 1939
Germany invades Poland
and another Great War begins.

This is a story with only questions
and no real answers.
Each postcard was found separately
over several years from different dealers.
The coincidences seem as remarkable to me
as a paleontologist finding rare fossils
in unexpected geological stratas. 

I don't know if Toni Vary survived
the terrible storm that we know will
soon envelope all of Europe.
And I really know nothing at all
about his life or his family.
His music making is just a guess. 
Did he ever perform in British music halls?
Did he have a favorite café in Wien?
Did he ever learn to play
American jazz music on his violin?
Answers to these questions are locked up in time.

Yet we do know something about Toni Vary.
He was a talented musician
who looked pretty sharp in a white tie and tailcoat.
And he once played music in a Viennese style
with a female African-German violinist.
And once long ago he was Minchen's Liebling!
The rest belongs to memory.

* * *

For a coda I offer a video of
the Neue Wiener Concert Schrammeln
playing in a café for an old woman
who knows a thing or two about the power of memory.



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can always find something good on the menu.


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