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 }

The Big Brass

09 March 2018

Piccolo and cornets can play the catchy melody.
Trombones and clarinets may add pretty harmony.
Cymbals and drums might make you tap your toes.
But only one sound really  brings you to your feet,
ready to holler and march along.
 It's the bass horn.

 This gentleman with his handsome imperial goatee
waits patiently for the photographer
as his hand rests
on an early version of a marching tuba.
It was the bottom end of a series
of unusual brass instruments
called over-the-shoulder saxhorns.
This family of conical brass instruments
developed in America
in the decades before the Civil War
to provide a new sound for marching bands.

The photograph is a small tintype (60 mm × 90 mm), more properly called a ferrotype, as it is made of iron sheet, not tin. The metal rectangle was coated with a dark lacquer or enamel and then painted with a photographic emulsion just before being put into a camera. Consequently the ferrotype records the original image just like a mirror. With digital software it is easy to reverse the image and show the subject as he truly was, with his waistcoat buttonholes on his left.

It also puts his instrument in the correct orientation as a right-handed instrument. It is an E-flat contrabass, I believe, and stands about 58 inches tall.  What makes this instrument unusual to our modern eyes is that when played the contrabass bell rested on the players left shoulder projecting backwards.

The over-the-shoulder or OTS brass instruments came in a variety of sizes that followed the patterns of the Belgian instrument maker, Adolphe Sax. His saxhorns were devised with the bell pointed up. But the Americans innovation was to make the bells aim to the back so that a brass band could march at the head of a parade and the sound would then be heard by the troops following behind. Here is a page from the 1872 catalog of the John F. Stratton musical instument company showing three sizes of bass horns.

1872 John F. Stratton Musical Instrument Co. catalog

The Stratton company also made five smaller sized OTS horns. The highest treble sounding instrument was the E-flat cornet, followed by a B-flat cornet, an E-flat alto horn, a B-flat tenor horn, and an E-flat baritone horn.

1872 John F. Stratton Musical Instrument Co. catalog

The instruments could also be made in the French fashion with bells up. Here is a set manufactured by the Boston Musical Instrument Co. in 1869. They correspond to Adolphe Sax's design in shape but he used piston valves, while the American makers primarily used the German rotary valve design with a clever twist in the finger keys.

1869 Boston Musical Instrument Co. catalog


This second ferrotype shows another OTS contrabass saxhorn that was shared as an arm rest by two uniformed bandsmen. I have also reversed this image to properly show the verity of the two men and their instrument, though we will never know which young bandsman was the bass saxhorn player. The embroidery on their jackets is typical of band uniforms of the 1870s to 1880s. Even though the jackets have shoulder bars, I think they are decorative and not a military insignia. Their caps have a wreath badge with initials, but the camera's focus was too poor to read them clearly. The first letter is obscure but the other two read C.B. which likely stands for Cornet Band. This is one of the difficult problems for tintype/ferrotype photos. Unless they survived with the photographer's protective paper wrapper, there is no indication of origin or date. The black metal also precludes any useful marks on the photo's back, so it's all guesswork when trying to identify the subjects or location.

The ferrotype photos were also impossible to reproduce, as the photo was its own negative so to speak. Some photographers did have cameras with multiple lens that could take up to twelve individual prints at a time, but these were still limited and not common in the early decades of photography.

A closeup gives us a better view of the keywork. The OTS instruments were fairly heavy and yet the practicality of playing one on the shoulder is not really surprising when we consider how common it was then for men to carry sacks of grain or wooden kegs on their shoulders.


The other challenge with ferrotypes is that they are generally very dark, even when considering the effects of time on the silver emulsion. This is an uncorrected image of an original tintype of a bandsman holding his bass saxhorn in a formal "stand at ease" position. 

The process for making ferrotype photographs was faster than with the older daguerreotype or ambrotype photos, but the chemical reaction with light did not produce very good contrast unless there was a lot of light. Some photographers arranged their subjects in faux studio rooms that were really taken outdoors in sunlight. The camera's exposure time still took too long to consider any kind of flash lighting. Fortunately we live in an age when anyone can digitally alter photo images, so here is my attempt at correcting the ferrotype's contrast and mirror image effect.

This man's uniform is much more elaborate than the style worn by the previous duo. The photographer has hand painted gold color on the bandman's fringed epaulets, buttons, belt buckle, and  cap badge, which I presume that cost extra. He certainly has an extravagant livery, especially with the feather plume on his shako and the braided cords draped under his shoulder bars, that looks like a dress uniform for an army regimental band. However in this era there were no regulations for military band uniforms. He might easily be a member of a state militia band, or a professional civilian band. My hunch is that he is a member of a military band, but which one, and where and when, is only a guess.

It's difficult to follow all the plumbing but I believe this is a B-flat OTS bass saxhorn with rotary valves. Since the photographer refrained from applying any gold color to the instrument, it may be made of German Silver, i.e. nickle silver, a copper alloy with nickel and often zinc. This silvery metal gave rise to the popularity in the 19th century of "Silver Cornet Bands."  The material is still used in manufacturing brass instruments today as it is superior, and less costly, to silver plate.

In the 19th century, the evolution of musical instruments, and music too, followed fashions determined by many factors. The older 18th century military bands used trumpets and horns without valves as they were not invented until the 1820s. Since early brass instruments lacked an ability to play a full chromatic range, they could only play simple tunes in a single key. Any complex melody was performed on woodwind instruments like flutes, oboes, and clarinets. The only marching bass instrument was the bassoon, which while agile enough to play in any key, it was not very loud. And it didn't like getting wet.

Composers from previous centuries had plenty of choices for treble, alto, and tenor sounds. But a powerful bass vibe  was really only available in pipe organs or achieved with a number of massed string basses or bassoons. None of which were very practical for a marching band.  In the 1840s, instrument makers took advantage of new machine tools and cheaper brass sheet, to invent a new kind of brass instrument that used a plumbing mechanism, either French piston or German rotary valves, to easily change the length of the instrument and thereby give it a complete set of chromatic pitches. This musical subset of the industrial revolution not only introduced the treble pitch of cornets into music, but also the bass pitch of tubas too. This was like adding a new color of sound to a composer's orchestration pallet, and the course of music was changed forever. The invention of modern brass band instruments created a new sonic texture that inspired composers like Berlioz, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler to expand the dynamic range of an orchestra.

Today we can't get enough. Everyone knows the visceral enthusiasm of cranking up the BASS. Yet it's an energy that took time to evolve and for musicians to modify and improve. The patent for the first tuba was granted in 1835 to a German makers,  Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Moritz. In 1845 Adolph Sax patented his consort of saxhorns in Paris, but his most successful instruments were his saxophones, which were a hybrid of conical brass and woodwind technology.

By the 1890s, the OTS saxhorns were out of favor, replaced by lighter piston valve brass instruments that were not as ungainly and whose bells pointed forward or upward. (Only the French horn retains the backward sounding bell.)  The Sousaphone, which descended from the older bass helicon, was not perfected until 1900 and still took decades before it became the dominant bass instrument of marching bands. Today a Sousaphone section might number 10, 12, or even 24 players or more. The forerunner of that impressive sound wave wall was the OTS bass saxhorns.

The sound of over-the-shoulder saxhorns may have been superseded by modern brass instrument designs, but it has not disappeared entirely. There are a number of small bands performing the music of saxhorn bands on period instruments. And in period costumes too. Here is a short video of a parade at the Gettysburg Remembrance Day in 2009. The band is the Federal City Brass Band playing Hail to The Chief to President Grant and then marching towards the camera. The OTS contrabass section leads the first rank of the band.



This second video from the same event in 2007
is longer and has three bands,
as well as President Grant too.
(Where exactly is he buried again?)
The first band uses the bell front and bell up instruments.
A fife and drum band follows,
and the Federal City Brass Band marches past at about 2:40



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
which always calls out the best in vintage photos.


Barbara Rogers said...

What a grand history of those horns, and I loved the 2 videos of the bands marching and playing. They are truly dedicated band musicians. Plus you gave history for the photo technique being displayed. Above and beyond... Thanks.

tony said...

Interesting what you say about size/weight and carrying/holding.
I guess in the days of Heavy manual labour ,Instruments mirrored this.
More sediatary lifestyles resulted in lighter instruments....basically,we are all wimps now!

smkelly8 said...

Truly sepia. Fabulous photos of musicians and their instruments.

La Nightingail said...

As always, an enjoyable, entertaining, and instructional post! So I'm assuming the bass horn was a forerunner of the tuba? The next biggest instrument I've ever seen is a bass saxophone. I had no idea they came that big, but a little 5' tall gal plays one (and very well!) in the band my daughter plays in. It's not a marching band, however - otherwise I don't know how that gal could manage that sax bass!

Molly's Canopy said...

An excellent history of the contrabass/saxhorn. Quite an impressive instrument. Although they were heavy and eventually replaced by other instruments, they certainly look and sound impressive leading the Gettysburg remembrance band -- bright beacons even on an overcast day.

Wendy said...

I am not familiar with ferrotype, so I enjoyed learning about it. As always, I'm amazed by some of those old instruments that seem too unwieldy to have gained popularity.


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