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 }

Hermann Torggler's Great Composers - part 1

28 November 2020

This portrait is identified by a simple caption,
J. Brahms.

With his direct gaze and long grey beard
he might be mistaken for some biblical patriarch.
Yet those whiskers are undoubtedly
the most recognizable beard in classical music.
He is, of course, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897),
one of the titans of music.


The artist's full name was Hermann Torggler, (1878-1939) and he was born in Graz, Austria. If you follow that link, you can see another version of Brahms by Torggler that is nearly identical but with subtle differences in the hair and eyes that give Brahms a more serious, even somber, visage. The dimensions of that oil painting are 50 x 37 cm , which was probably a postcard standard required by Torggler's publisher, F. A. Ackermann's Kunstverlag of München.

Over the past few years, I've featured a number of Torggler's charming postcard etchings on my blog. I first discovered his work when I was attracted to several of his pictures that depicted women playing musical instruments. But today I wish to showcase Hermann Torggler's formal portraiture of six great composers, which I am dividing into a two part series. I've chosen to begin with his painting of Brahms because it happens that Brahms is my favorite composer. 

There is no need to give a lengthy biography of Johannes Brahms. He was born in Hamburg in north Germany but made most of his professional career as a pianist and composer in Vienna, Austria. In the 19th century, Vienna was not only the capital of the immense Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but also the center of art and music for central Europe. There is speculation that when he was a young art student, Torggler may have met Johannes Brahms in Vienna and could have sketched him before Brahms' death in 1897. There are a good number of photographs of Brahms with his beard, but it is not known if he ever sat for an artist's brush.

Johannes Brahms, photo with signature, 1889
Source: Wikimedia

I'm unsure when Torggler first produced his portraits of Brahms and the other composers in this series. The postcards have only the publisher's print numbers and no date. I suspect they were made before WW1, but it's difficult to confirm using only postmarks. However these great composers remained popular postcards for many decades and were sold throughout central Europe. This card has a German postmark dated 13 February 1939. 

Torggler's choice of composers in this series is surely taken from his own love of their music, and part of the reason I have collected his artwork is because I share his admiration for these same six composers. Brahms' music was a particular influence for me wanting to take up music, even before I learned who he was. It started because of the notes he wrote for my instrument, the horn.
Our home always had music. My mother played the piano and both my parents enjoyed listening to the radio and recorded music. In the late 1950s by dad became fascinated with audio technology. It was helpful that the military post exchanges where he was stationed in the U.S. Army offered all the latest hi-fi gear at a tax-free discount, and he soon acquired a large library of jazz and classical music records. When I was six, my mom subscribed to a supermarket promotion for a huge album of stereo LPs (i.e. "long plays" for those unfamiliar with the term) of great masterpieces of orchestral music. Every record came with detailed commentary about the music and the composer. It was my first introduction to a symphony orchestra, and I can distinctly remember being captivated by the sound of the French horn even though I had not yet seen a horn, much less tried to play one.

Eventually I acquired my own library of music and learned to love Brahms' music as both performer and listener. Of all his music, his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op.68, was the piece that sparked my desire to play the horn. There are brilliant horn parts in all four movements of this symphony, but it is in the last movement where Brahms gives the horn a truly noble tune. It was inspired by a holiday Brahms took in the alps where he heard the call of a shepherd's horn echoing off the mountainside. A dark and menacing slow introduction swells into a frightening storm. Suddenly the alpine wind clears the air and the alphorn is heard, restoring calm. 
Here is the solo that follows the thunder of timpani. The  two horn players are Stefan Dohr and Fergus McWilliam of the Berliner Philharmoniker under its then music director Sir Simon Rattle.

I've had a chance several times in my career to play this solo in Brahms 1st Symphony. The most memorable was many years ago in South Carolina with the Hilton Head Orchestra. During the concert a thunderstorm blew in from the Atlantic. As the orchestra began the introduction to the last movement, a deafening torrent of rain pelted the church building's roof. The conductor had no choice but to pause and hope the storm would soon pass. After a moment the noise subsided and we resumed, giving my horn solo a very special character of peace. 

In 2012 I got another opportunity to play it with my Asheville Symphony Orchestra. By this time I had acquired my own alphorn, and our conductor invited me to demonstrate Brahms' famous tune to the audience before we played the symphony. At twelve feet long the alphorn took up a good part of the stage and caused some concern for our concertmaster who didn't get the memo that I would play this instrument at the front. For technical reasons I had to transposed the tune up to the key of F. In Brahms's score, the part is in the key of C major, which would require a longer 15 foot alphorn!

* * *

The next composer
is another giant of music.
L. Van Beethoven

He has no beard
but with his dark eyes and scowl
it can only be Ludwig van Beethoven, (1770 – 1827). 

Beethoven was a native of Bonn, Germany on the banks of the Rhine River, but for most of his life he lived in Vienna on the Danube. As he died before the invention of the camera there are no photographs of Beethoven, but Torrgler, who lived for a time in Vienna, likely modeled his rendition of Beethoven from other Viennese paintings and sculpture of the composer. The best one that matches Torggler's portrait is a bust carved in 1812 by Austrian sculptor Franz Klein, (1779 – 1840). It was commissioned by Johann Andreas Streicher, a pianist and piano-maker, who was a friend of Beethoven. Streicher had a private concert hall in Vienna which he wanted to decorate with statues of composers. He arranged for Klein to make a life mask of Beethoven. This method required spreading plaster on the face to make a casting mold. Klein's first attempt failed, as Beethoven feared he was about to suffocate. However he permitted a second attempt which was successful and it produced the most realistic documentation of Beethoven's face. In Torggle's portrait the artist has changed the Beethoven's hair and age, but the chin and mouth are shaped very similarly.

Ludwig von Beethoven
bust by Franz Klein, 1812, Wien
Source: Wikimedia

This postcard was sent on 10 March 1919 by Berta Schober to Fräulein Cäcilia Pfleger in Graz, Torggler's birthplace. By coincidence Fräulein Pfleger lived on a Haydngasse, named for another great composer, Franz Joseph Haydn, (1732 – 1809), a contemporary of Beethoven. The stamp is a leftover from the Hapsburg monarchy which ended in November 1918.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, is at the top of my list for the greatest symphonic music of all time. It was scheduled for our season here in Asheville until the Covid19 shut everything down. That happened a lot around the world, as many orchestras in 2020 had programed Beethoven's symphonies in celebration of the 250th anniversary of his birth.

Beethoven assigned several grand themes to the horns in his score to the 7th Symphony, but my favorite music is actually the 2nd movement. This section, marked Allegretto, conveys the tremendous pathos of death and life that words can not adequately describe. To me it is a perfect example of how music transcends national boundaries by speaking to all people in a universal language. Here is a video of the entire movement of Beethoven's Symphony No 7 with the Wiener Philharmoniker under the conductor Christian Thielemann. At 2:40 the full woodwind and brass sections take up the principal motif in a collective cry of anguish that seems most appropriate for our troubled time.

* * *

The third composer's portrait
is entitled
F. Schubert.
He may lack a frown or face brush
but those spectacles mark him as
the singular composer, Franz Schubert, (1797 – 1828)

Schubert was a true born native of Vienna. He was a child prodigy who produced an astounding amount of music. Like Beethoven, there are no photographs of Schubert, who died in 1828 at the age of 31. Torggler's portrait borrows on the work of other artists who knew Schubert and painted him from a life study. This painting by Austrian painter Wilhelm August Rieder (1875) was said to be the best likeness of the composer.

Oil painting of Franz Schubert
by Wilhelm August Rieder (1875),
made from his own 1825 watercolor portrait
Source: Wikimedia

I think Torggler painted Schubert in a reverse profile of Rieder's painting, and perhaps used a lithograph by Josef Kriehuber (1846), another Austrian artist who produced over 3000 engraved portraits of notable people of his era. Schubert's spectacles are correctly drawn in all three portraits.

Lithograph of Franz Schubert
by Josef Kriehuber (1846)
Source: Wikimedia

Torggler's postcard was mailed in a letter so it has no postmark, but the German writer neatly dates it to 6 August 1924. I can't work out enough of the words, but I sense that there may be some musical references in the note.

Schubert's music is a link between Beethoven and Brahms. Schubert takes the orchestral colors of Beethoven's classical era and adds an intensity that leads to Brahms' romantic drama. Over the past several seasons I've not played much Schubert as his music is not programmed as often as it once was. His later symphonies still have power though, and I found my inspiration in his last work, the Symphony No. 9 in C major.
It has a nickname: the so-called Great C Major to distinguish it from Schubert's Symphony No. 6, the Little C major. But the music makes it worthy of that title for other reasons. It was never performed in Schubert's lifetime. It might have been lost forever except that by a quirk of fate the German composer Robert Schumann visited Vienna in 1838, ten years after Schubert's death, and was shown the manuscript of the symphony. Schumann returned to his home in Leipzig with a copy of the score and arranged to have the entire Symphony No. 9 performed publicly for the first time in 1839 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus with the orchestra led by Felix Mendelssohn. 
The opening to Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major begins with a simple solo phrase for two horns. Schubert then spins it out into a march that pays homage to his idol Beethoven. This video of the entire movement is performed by Deutsche Radiophilharmonie under conductor Christoph Poppen. The opening horn tune returns at the end (14:30) when the whole orchestra proclaims a glorious song of hope and faith.

Click this link to see my collection of other postcards created by Herman Torggler.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where warm and fuzzy
can take on a different meaning.

The Zampogna

20 November 2020


My three dearlings. Yesterday evening we arrived
so tired to Genua that we did not write more.
The next morning my first trip (?) was on the
post office, and on the thelegraph. God be
thanked I found after so long time a card of my
dear Edithe. I thank God to know that you
are all well, then I lived  the whole time in so
great sorrows. Only I fear that my dear husband
and children have already quite forgotten
me, then my dear William does nothing write
my angel Margrite wrote me only once since
I am away, and my Edithe writes me a
cool card, where I find not the least
news of my house. I wanted to know
if this person is yet in my house, per-
haps she is there in my place, and
you dont think more at all at
your poor mother, what cannot attend
the day to press you all on my heart. I am
indeed very very sorry, this night when
mother sleeps I will weep to make quiet my heart. I will
be neither all contented, when I hear all good of you. Genua
is very nice, the next letter you send to Lugano for me in
postal. We go for some days to Mailano

then to Lugano
to visit the Italian sees, and we come always nearer to my
dearling go

if you
will make
me happy
then write
a long
to your

4 X 98

All Signor Do. W. Pollak
Zeltner Gasse 18

Dudelsack (bagpipes)

This colorful postcard of a strolling Italian bagpiper was sent from Genoa, Italy on 15 September 1898. The writer provides us with a short scene from a much longer soap opera. The anxious mother traveling through Italy, separated from her husband and two daughters, bemoans the scarcity of news from her family. It's like a classic folk tale.  Her husband, William Pollak, and presumably her children, are in Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and received the card on 4 October 1898. The Italian honorific "Do." translates as doctor, which would suggest he is in Prague for professional reasons.

There are a few words that remain cryptic because of the writer's handwriting. The final salutation, "sorry Jenny" is not clear and might be another name. I welcome any suggestions. The surname Pollak might be American, British, or even Bohemian. My wife thinks that English is not the writer's native language, but I'm not convinced. I think it's just the sloppy spelling of a someone cramming onto a postcard as much motherly scolding as she can. We can only imagine the warm reception she will get when her family is reunited.

My interest, of course, was in the quaint illustration of the folk musician. The postcard dealer was German and penciled a category label, Dudelsack – bagpipes, under the address. Many regions of Europe developed a bagpipe-type instrument that became characteristic of the region's folk music. In Italy it was the instrument pictured here, the Zampogna. The enormous bag is sewn from the skin of an entire goat or sheep. The hide is turned so the hair/fleece is on the inside. Fixed to one leg is a mouthpipe that the player uses to inflate the bag. Attached to the neck is a wooden stock where several pipes of different length are inserted. Each pipe has a single cylindrical cane reed to make the Zampogna's sound. Two pipes have finger holes so the player can make high notes on the short chanter, and bass accompaniment on the other longer pipe.
Here is video to demonstrate the sound of a Zampogna.

* * *

The Zampogna originated in southern Italy and Sicily, and was an instrument played by shepherds while watching over their flocks of sheep or goats. The organ like sound of the multiple pipes is very strident and carries a long distance. It also was a favorite instrument for Italian folk dances. The Zampogna has limitations for the number of melodic notes it can play, so it was usually paired with a small instrument  called a piffero, or  ciaramella or pipita in Southern Italy. This shawm instrument uses a double reed like an oboe and has a slightly larger range. In this next postcard it is played by the young boy on the right while an older boy plays the Zampogna.

This wonderful watercolor sketch by A Vallez (?) is captioned Zampognari, the Italian name for such street musicians. It was sent from Napoli – Naples just before Christmas, 21 December 1906 to a Gentleman and Signorine Tommy Casal (?) staying initially in St. Blaise, Switzerland, on Lake Neuchâtel west of Bern and then forwarded 100 miles east to Frauenfeld, beyond Zurich.

The music played by the Zampogna and the Piffero are not sophisticated tunes but they have such a distinctive pastoral quality that many composers through the ages have imitated their sound. In 1898 and 1906 these two postcards were depicting real peasant buskers that a tourist might have encountered when visiting Genoa or Naples. This next video gives us an idea of what they might have sounded like on Christmas morning in Napoli outside your hotel window.

There are a LOT of videos
of Zampogna players on YouTube.
Very often it seems like they are all playing the same tune, too.
So a little goes a long way.
But it's impressive that so many people
in Abruzzo, Latium, Molise, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, and Sicily
continue to enjoy a musical tradition
that remains an important part of their Italian cultural identity.
These next two videos of Zampognari
demonstrate the infectious way
these instruments have influenced Italian folk dances.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday

which always provides relief

from the daily weekday grind.

The Noss Family Band - Practice Makes Perfect

14 November 2020


This is Bertha Noss.
When this photo was taken
Bertha was about age 11-12 years old.
She was the youngest of six children,
with two brothers and three sisters,
to get any attention she learned to make a big noise.
Which Bertha did very well because,
besides the cymbals and bass drum,
she had a talent to play
many other musical instruments too.

Yet even though she looks very young in this photo
she was already a seasoned entertainer.

As was everyone else
in her Noss family band,
one of the hardest-working families in show business.

But before we get to Bertha, let's begin with introducing her family.

On the left, seated at a reed organ with her feet barely able to touch the foot pedals for the instrument's bellows, is Charlotte Noss, or Lottie. She played piano and bass in the family orchestra, alto horn in their band, and was a vocalist too. Next to her was Ferdinand Noss, or Ferd. He played violin (primo) in the orchestra, cornet in the band, and sang tenor in the vocal numbers. Standing behind them was their father. Mr. Henry Noss, the musical director and cornetist in both the band and orchestra. He also sang bass in humorous songs and gave recitations in character sketches.

To the right, nearly as tall as her father, was Miss Flora Noss the oldest child. Flora played violin (secondo) and piano, as well as bass horn in the band. She was also a solo vocalist. Beside her was her younger brother, Master Frank Noss, who covered cello and side drum in the orchestra, and tenor horn in the band. He also sang and participated in the group's character sketches. On the far right was little Mary Noss, or May, who was skilled at the bass, violin, alto horn, cornet, organ, piano, triangle and side drum. She also sang soprano in the vocal numbers.

The only ones missing from this studio photo are Mrs H. Noss, that is Mary L. Noss, and little Bertha Noss. But they were not very far away. They may actually have been in the same room when the photo was taken, since the photographer of the musical Noss family was none other than Henry Noss of New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Negatives retained for future orders. Enlargements up to life-size by his new process. In this case the print would have to expand a great deal, because it is a tiny carte de visite photo, 2 ½ inches by 4 inches.

Henry Noss was born in 1837 in western Pennsylvania of immigrant parents from Bavaria. They settled in the borough of New Brighton, which is on the Beaver River as it flows into the Ohio River, about 30 northwest of Pittsburgh. The area has abundant resources of coal and clay, and in the midd-19th century New Brighton developed many industries producing pottery, bricks, sewer pipe, glass, flour, twine, lead kegs, refrigerators, bath tubs, wall paper, steel castings, nails, rivets, and wire. Between 1860 and 1870 its population doubled from 2,001 to 4,037 residents. In the 1860 census Henry listed his occupation as Painter, but by 1870 it changed to Photographer. He was also an accomplished musician, and in 1861 served in the band of the 63rd regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

With his first wife, Mary Anna Noss, they had five children: Flora Jeanette Noss in 1865, Ferdinand P. Noss in 1866, Charlotte E. Noss in 1868, Frank W. Noss in 1870, and Mary "May" Noss in 1872. Sadly their mother Mary died in 1872, possibly at the birth of May. 
Henry soon remarried to another Mary, Mary Lowrimore Noss and together they added Bertha Noss to the family in 1877. As was typical of many large families with a musical father, Henry recognized the potential ensemble he could make with his six children and began teaching them music. Before long all the Noss children displayed real talent on several instruments. 
In the 1880 census, Flora is age 15, Ferd is 12, Lottie 10, Frank 8, and May is 6 years old. I think these ages fit neatly with the appearance of the children in the cdv photo, so I estimate it was taken in about 1880-81. Bertha would have then been only age three, and as I'm sure Henry knew well, keeping a toddler still long enough for a camera to capture an image was very difficult. The date of 1880-81 also fits with the closing era of the carte de visite which was replaced in the next few years by the larger cabinet card photograph.
The first report of the family as a musical group that I could find was a brief mention in the New Castle, PA newspaper in May 1881 that the Noss family "has acquired considerable fame in western Pennsylvania as musicians".  New Castle was then a large town with a population of around 8,500. It was 22 miles upriver from New Brighton, and not far from Ohio. It was just the sort of place for Henry Noss to arrange a short concert tour to show off his children's musical talent. And selling souvenir cdv photos would be just the thing to pay for the trip.

Over the next few years the Noss family band increased the number of their performances, and the number of different concert venues beyond their home region in western Pennsylvania. By the summer of 1884 the Noss Family Concert Troupe, 7 in Number 7,  were on stage at Hancock Hall in Ellsworth, Maine on the Atlantic coast, 800+ miles east of New Brighton.  By this time "Baby" Bertha Noss, now age 7, had joined their program, playing triangle in the orchestra and bass drum in the band. She also played piano, organ, and sang solos, duets, and choruses. 
In the winter of 1885-86, the Noss family traveled south to Wheeling, West Virginia. Then Frostburg, Maryland; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and Freehold, New Jersey. They were now the famous Noss Family Novelty Concert Co. presenting musical and sketch entertainment. Mirth and music for everybody. Endorsed by Press, Public, and Pulpit. A FULL BAND, A FULL CHORUS, A FULL ORCHESTRA. Admission 25 cents, children 15 cents, reserved seats 35 cents.

Freehold NJ Monmouth Inquirer
25 March 1886

In October 1885 the Indiana, Pennsylvania Progress, quoted a review of the Noss family in the Alliance, Ohio newspaper.

The delightful entertainment given in the Opera House, on Saturday evening, by the Noss family, certainly entitles them to more than passing notice. The family consists of seven musicians, a fine band and first-class orchestra, a peculiarity of which seems to be that each member of the family is master  of any instrument that is placed in hand. The musical selections were very fine and artistically rendered.  As vocalists we may have seen the equals and even the superiors of the elder members of the  Noss family, but we do not say too much when we say that there never was placed before an Alliance audience a music entertainment with more variety or which gave the audience more genuine satisfaction than the Noss family.

The singing and acting of little May and "petite" Bertha, the latter only 8 years of age, was marvelous, considering their years. They are really prodigies in their line. The medley overture was a fine selection to test the qualities of the little artist Bertha. She manipulates a canary whistle, cuckoo, fires a pistol, rooster crows, and beats snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals at the same time, police whistle and rattle, castanets, bells, metalaphone, pop gun, imitation clog dance with mallets, imitation thunder on bass drum, eliciting a storm of applause from the large audience.

The Dutch characteristic duet "Charlie and Katrina," by Misses May and Bertha elicited rounds of applause and was decidedly the neatest little piece of acting we have seen for many a day. Mr. Noss' parody on Barbara Freitchie was also a winning card, showing Mr. Noss to be a comedian of superior merit. This was the second visit of the Noss family in Alliance and the appreciation of the public was shown in the large increase of their audience over that in attendance at their former visit. We have no doubt but if the Noss family will favor Alliance with another visit, they will be greeted with a much larger audience than ever before.

The venue in Alliance was called an "Opera House", but it was nothing like a formal European-style opera house. It was a common title applied to a town's civic theatre in 19th century America. Often the town's city council occupied the same building as the theatre stage, as was the case in Ellsworth, Maine. The booking fees from traveling shows like the Noss Family Concert Co. were an important source of income for a small community that could not rely on property taxes. 

Reading the reviews and notices, it is clear that Henry Noss was a creative entrepreneur who knew how to please his audiences. In Indiana, PA the Noss family played to a full house in 1885 and returned again in 1886. Mr. Noss used reviews from previous shows in other towns to pump up the ticket sales. It was also at this time that he engaged an agent to book shows and arrange for advance publicity in the newspapers. Little Bertha was proving to be an attractive draw.

Here she is at about the same age, seven or eight, as she would be in the performances of 1884-86. Mr. Noss has placed Bertha front and center next to the bass drum, which is properly decorated with the name Noss Family. The family group is now eight as Mrs. Noss is also in the picture with her husband. It's a carefully arranged arch with everyone else, except mother, holding a brass instrument. Along the bottom of the cabinet card photo are captions of everyone's name. From left to right: May, Flora, Mrs. H. Noss, H. Noss, Bertha, Ferd, Lottie, and Frank. The three youngest daughters wear coordinated ruffled dresses, while Flora, the oldest at about age 20, is dressed in a fashionable gown with a corsage pin to her collar. Mrs. Noss wears a more dignified dress in a patterned velvet fastened with at least 19 buttons. The brass instruments are the typical consort of piston valve saxhorns from Flora's bass to Frank's tenor and then Lottie's and May's alto horns. Ferd holds a standard cornet in B-flat, while his father has the higher pitched cornet in E-flat.

The back of this photo has a long presentation of the Noss Family Musical Novelty Co., Musical, Character and Sketch Entertainment, Brass Band, Chorus and Orchestra. Each member of the ensemble is described, from "Petite" Bertha to Mrs. H. Noss – stage manager. Two new instruments have been added: slide trombone, and clarionet (sic). Cabinet Photographs were available for purchase from Mr. Noss at 25 cents apiece, or $1.00 for a set of six. This suggests that five other different photos were produced at the same time as this group shot.

The Noss Family Band were not the only musical family playing a concert tour in the 1880s. I've featured a few on my blog. Four Plus Three was about the four Simm sisters.  The Thomas Family Concert Co. was an African-American family band that toured in the 1890s. And The Harry Sisters who were exact contemporaries of the Nosses and performed for a several years in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1886 and 1887 the Noss Family played shows in Carlisle, PA, the hometown of Prof. J. B. Harry and his three talented daughters, and I would expect they attended those concerts. 

There are other family bands in my photo collection whose stories I've not yet told. Several were much larger ensembles than the Noss family of seven, and played just as many different instruments. In general the family bands/orchestras of this time only played arrangements of poplar music and nothing that resembled formal compositions from composers like Mozart or Beethoven. Since the performers were children, even if talented, the shows were designed around short pieces with no complex parts. Essentially family friendly fare.
But what set Mr. Noss' family apart was his programing of comic "Character Sketches". There are few descriptions of the Noss shows, but I expect they consisted of a series of short musical numbers interspersed with humorous skits. They used lots of costumes and make-up, and their jokes were likely based on comic stereotypes which would not pass the so-called "enlightened" standards of our 21st century. This was after all, the age of when minstrel shows were the dominant traveling entertainers, so it's quite possible that the Noss family may have performed some racist character sketches in blackface makeup.

Green Bay WS Press-Gazette
25 October 1889

Most of the family bands of this era only managed a short number of seasons on the stages of America's highly competitive theater circuits. Their wholesome music programs were not always worth a repeat visit the following year, and of course as children grow older, their cuteness fades. Yet by 1889 when the Noss family played Green Bay, Wisconsin, they were just hitting their stride. The advertisement  announced a Noss Family "Ladies Gold-Silver Cornet Band, in their latest musical absurdity written especially to make you laugh. 'A Quick Match,' better than ever, everything new, immensely funny." They also featured a "Spanish Mandolin Orchestra" and a "Saxaphone (sic) Quintette", an band instrument that was then not familiar to the American public. 

In 1889, Mr. Noss took his family band on a breathtaking concert tour of the United States. Just using the newspapers that published notices of their shows in 1890 from January to December, the Noss Family appeared in at least 85 towns. Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana again, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri again for New Years Eve. 

But wait, they weren't ready to go back home. January 1891 found them in Newman, Georgia followed by Troy, Alabama; then Asheville, NC; Albany and Savannah, GA; Barlow, FL; Morristown and Knoxville, TN; Norfolk, Roanoke, Staunton, and Richmond, VA. By then it was only mid-March. After more shows in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, in August 1891 the Noss Family Band headed back to Wisconsin again. From September to December it was cities and towns in Minnesota, Montana, Manitoba, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. They rang in the new year of 1892 in Los Angeles, California followed by Tucson, AZ; Las Vegas, Nevada; and El Paso, Texas in January. Altogether the Nosses played over 42 cities and towns in 1891. 

It was exhausting to just compile this list. With more time for research I could probably add another couple dozen stops to their tour. What I found most interesting about the places where the Nosses performed is their tour of the Southern States. It was a surprising choice for Henry Noss who was a Union Army veteran.  

It was about this time that Pennsylvania took census of its Civil War veterans for its pension accounts. In the 1890 Pennsylvania Veterans Report, beginning in August 1861 Henry Noss served 11 months, 15 days as a musician in the band of the 63rd regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The band was dissolved by the War Department in August 1862 as a cost saving measure as Lincoln needed more riflemen and less musicians. But the following summer in June 1863 Henry reenlisted, joining the 56th regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers as a private. It was a fateful choice as only a couple weeks later on July 1-3 his regiment fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. 

There is no indication in his military record that he was wounded, but he left that unit in mid-August after serving 1 month, 16 days. The next year, in September 1864, he joined up again, perhaps to get a bounty bonus, and was a private in the 5th regiment of Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. He was discharged in May 1865, one month after President Lincoln's assassination. I think taking his family on a tour of so many southern cities like Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Savannah, Norfolk, Staunton, and Richmond was an effort to explain the Civil War to his children. I also suspect he took his camera and recorded this grand trip in some gigantic photo album.  

This was a family of eight people traveling by train for over two years on the theater circuits of America. Not many families could last two weeks! Bertha Noss, the youngest, was now age 13-14. Flora Noss, the eldest, was age 25-26. Henry Noss was 53-54 and his wife Mary was 50-51. The image of Bertha which opened my story came from this last cabinet card photograph which I think was taken during this period of their family life on the road. 

There are no names captioned but they are not much older than the previous photo. From left to right are May, Frank, Mrs. Mary Noss, Mr. Henry Noss, Bertha, Ferd, Flora, and Lottie. The fashions are a bit more sophisticated, better suited for the young adults. Mr. Noss wears a formal suit. Ferdinand has on a white tie and probably tailcoat. Mrs. Noss seems attired in the same 19 button dress that she wore in the older photo. Notice that Mr. Noss has carefully chosen the same tropical forest backdrop.  

By 1892, the Noss Family Band had been performing for 10 years. Hundreds of concerts, maybe a couple of thousand if we count matinees. How the children got a proper education is not known. At least they had seen more our country than most Americans. How long could Mr. Noss sustain a band like this? Something had to give.

Maybe a heartstring?

On August 24, 1893 Flora Jeanette Noss, age 28, occupation musician, married James Lawrence Autenreith, age 29. a prominent merchant of New Brighton. Over 300 people attended the wedding at the Presbyterian church. Following the ceremony, the couple left for the world's fair in Chicago and afterwards would "spend several months traveling" before returning to New Brighton.

But the theater rule is that the show must always go on. So it was reported that a "New York lady" would replace Flora in the Noss family company. 

_ _ _

Coffeyville KS Daily Journal
29 January 1895

By 1895 the Noss Jollity Company,  as they now called themselves, still toured the country. Whether Mr. and Mrs. Noss accompanied them is unknown, but I suspect they stayed home in New Brighton. Their programs were now more of a musical comedy than just renditions of instrumental music. They advertised their new show, a Fantastic, Burlesque Musical Comedy, The Kodak, In Three Snap Shots, by Mark E. Swan. A positive novelty, all fun, no sorrow. 

Hear the Musical Tennis Club
The Mandolin Troubadours
The Fairy Bells
The Saxaphone (sic) Quintette

See Baby Helen
Harry B. Roche
The Musical Donkey
The Rooster Dance.

* * *

Fresno CA Morning Republican
18 November 1900

On the 1900 census records for New Brighton, Henry and Mary Noss are listed with all their children except Flora who was now married with children of her own. All the children were single and listed their occupation as Theatrical Performer. 

But there was a new name, Helen L. Noss, a daughter born in 1889, age 11, ten years younger than Bertha. She was "at School", but surely this was "Baby Helen" listed in the Noss programs of 1895. In the next census of 1910, Helen was the only child left at home with Henry and Mary. She was then age 21, single and listed no occupation. Curiously, the census records asked women the number of their children and how many still lived. Mary Noss listed 2 children, but with only one living. These were the same numbers recorded in the 1900 census too, and the living child was surely Bertha Noss.

After looking at various family trees, not always an accurate source of family history, I believe Helen L. Noss may have been an adopted child of Henry and Mary Noss. She is not listed in the Noss family's cemetery where all the other children are buried. It's a mystery relationship that will have to remain unresolved until I learn more.

Over the next few years the family band evolved once again. Even though the Noss siblings pursued individual careers in theater, they still toured together on the vaudeville theater circuit as the Five Nosses. The Fresno, CA Morning Republican ran a clever vertical engraving of them promoting a concert. I believe Bertha Noss is at the top with Frank, May, Ferd, and Lottie Noss below her. 

* * *

Detroit Free Press
08 June 1902

The Five Nosses found light comic material that allowed them to dress in costume and have reason to break into song or play numerous musical instruments. In 1902-03 they were pictured in the Detroit Free Press in something they called "A Venetian Serenade." They were praised for their sweet singing and colorful costumes. The vaudeville program also included Austrian acrobats, an "educated" dog and monkey act, a magician, and a couple of comedians. Sometimes these collected acts traveled together, playing under a larger contract, but there must have been a lot of turnover.

In June 1902, shortly after the Five Nosses played in Detroit, Bertha Noss married George Donn Russell, an attorney in New York City. Like her sister Flora, the wedding was in New Brighton. But unlike Flora, Bertha was soon back on stage, both as a saxophone soloist and an actress in musical comedy. Evidently her independent career still allowed her to schedule work with her brothers and sisters.

Buffalo NY Times
16 September 1906

In 1906 the Five Nosses were in Buffalo and the paper ran a vertical photo of the siblings that matches the engraving used in Fresno in 1900. There is one subtle difference though. Can you spot it?

If you get stuck, the answer might be right under your nose.

The Nosses were playing in a "comic opera" entitled "Captain Careless". It had a very large cast and they were not the headliners only a supporting act. The operetta had 24 singing and speaking parts and the full ensemble with chorus numbered 80 people. The Nosses contributed the instrumental numbers.

* * *

Allentown PA Democrat
15 September 1908

In 1908, the Five Nosses became the Six Nosses. Lottie, Ferd, and Frank Noss remained from the original Noss family band, but the new members were not kin. As far as I can tell, Bertha and May may have continued to participate in some shows, but not Flora or Helen. The act was part of a typical vaudeville variety show with something for everyone. There was a short play called "The Dude Detective"; a pantomime hoop act; a character study from life, "The Little immigrant"; a double trapeze act; a singing comedian; an acrobatic comedian; a couple of Kinetograph silent films entitled "Purchasing and Automobile" and "Gypsy's Warning."  The Six Nosses got headline billing with a musical act called "In Old Seville."

 * * *

Bryan TX Eagle
20 January 1913

In the 1910s Bertha Noss-Russell career was intermittent, sometimes with the Five or Six Nosses, but more often cast in a larger musical. In 1913 her husband sued for divorce citing her insistence, despite his objection, to play "Flora Dora Dean" in a musical entitled "Forty-five Minutes From Broadway"  He alleged that she had become "too friendly" with another actor in the show.  The newspaper in Bryan, Texas ran a photo of Bertha Noss in her role as "Flora Dora Dean" that shows a hint of that same simile she gave to her father's camera.

Dayton OH Daily News
27 July 1916

In July 1916, the Six Musical Nosses were performing in many cities where their Noss Family Concert Troupe had played 30 years before. The newspaper in Dayton, Ohio ran a photo of the new group dressed in lavish Spanish costumes with an assortment of guitars and mandolins. The few reviews they received were short and approving, but the Nosses were sometimes called "the oldest musical act on the American Stage." Not necessarily the best compliment for a group of entertainers. For 1916 the Nosses also introduced a solo cornet player named Miss Beatrice Farrow. Her claim to fame was an ability to hit a high C, supposedly an accomplishment that no other female cornetist in vaudeville had achieved. 

Salt Lake City Tribune
03 July 1918

In 1918 the Six Musical Nosses were at the Pantages theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah to celebrate July 4th. The newspaper ran a picture of them, four women and two men dressed in clown costumes, playing long fanfare trumpets. 

The age of vaudeville was not totally finished yet, but the Great War of 1914-18 was changing the nature of theaters and music. The word "Jazz" started to appear in theater advertising, and many groups like the Nosses struggled to keep up with the change in musical fashions. Somehow they managed. The Six Nosses returned to Five Nosses in 1919, promoting an act with "Class, Ginger, and Jazz."  They continued for another 5 years, returning to The Six Nosses in 1923, presumably with Ferd and Frank, and four women, some of whom might have been related to them. In their instrumental act, "Melodies of 1923, a Revue that is different", they played trombones, saxophones, and string instruments on popular tunes like "the Song of Love", "Roses of Picardy", "Marchita", and the jazzy "Your Lips Tell Me, No, No."

By 1925 all the members of the Noss Family Band seemed to have retired from the stage as their names were no longer in the newspapers. Their mother, Mary Noss, had died in 1911, at age 69. Their father, Henry Noss, passed away in 1925, age 87. Bertha Noss Lingwood died in 1941. Flora Noss Autenreith died in 1948. Frank W. Noss died in 1951. Mary Noss McDonald died in 1952. Charlotte E. Noss died in 1956. And "Ferd" - Ferdinand P. Noss died in 1965 at age 99. 

The musical family of Henry Noss enjoyed an amazingly long career of nearly 45 years as entertainers during the golden age of American theater. Only someone with fine musicianship and real programing talent could have trained children to perform so consistently well. I can't help but imagine the constant sound emanating from their home as the Noss children practiced their many different musical instruments. But how he and his wife managed those long tours with 6 children and dozens of trunks filled with costume and instruments will have to be left to our imagination. 

We really can't know what qualities Henry and Mary instilled in their children, but they certainly learned to play well together. Nor can we know how profitable their show business was. They were never a headline group, just a novelty act. Yet the Noss Family Band must have pleased their audience and sold enough tickets to justify remaining performers. And there must have been some personal satisfaction and even pride at enduring the tough work playing one-night stands over and over for so many years. It is a testimony to Henry's training that most of his children decided to stick with a show business life. I expect he and Mary kept a scrapbook album filled with newspaper clippings of their shows.

The first photo in my story invites us into a single moment of time. We only know what we see. A bright young girl with a shy but confident smile poses with a bass drum labeled Noss Family. Around her are her parents and brothers and sisters. It's clear they are a musical family. What the camera does not allow us to see is love. An enduring love of music and family.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday

where the rule is

always listen to nurse

or run the risk of something worse.

Man and Machine and Music

07 November 2020


It was an age of machines.
Factories across the nation
turned out everything
from watches to cornets
using the industrial power
of countless machine tools.

It was an age of ingenuity.
Enterprising inventors took advantage
of modern manufacturing methods
to mass-produce new improvements to domestic life
like better mouse traps or adjustable chairs.

It was also an age of folly.
Not all innovations
were solutions to real problems.
Some newfangled designs
were just crazy contraptions
designed to entertain.
This is a story about a creative musician
from late 19th century North America
who contrived a musical novelty
hoping that people would pay money to see it.

I present for your enjoyment,

Prof. McRae
King of all Musicians !

Richmond IN Item
29 December 1893

Prof. McRae
Michigan's Musical Wonder:

Who Represented Michigan at the
World's Fair in the Musical Line.

He Plays a Whole Orchestra Alone.
Viz: First and Second Violin, Bass Viol,
Cornet and Piano, all at once, making
a first-class string orchestra alone. The
Exhibition is for Ladies as well as gen-
tleman.(sic) At No. 19 north 8th st, E. B.
Lake Manager.   Admission 10cts.   La-
dies Free.                          

Seated on an upholstered piano chair atop a very large trunk, a man is engaged at playing simultaneously a cornet, two violins, a cello (or "bass viol"), and an upright piano. He does this by using an apparatus constructed out of wooden sticks and metal wire. His cabinet card photo has worn edges and has endured some abuse, but through the magic of digital imagery software, I have restored the contrast so we can better appreciate this remarkable performer.
The photographer was the studio of Kern Bros., Instantaneous Portraits, at 314 Second St. in New York City, and it's a typical entertainer's promotional photo from the 1890s. Many New York photography studios in this era did a very good business mass producing hundreds or even thousands of photos of theatrical celebrities and circus performers. For many entertainers, a good portrait was an invaluable investment easily worth more than a thousand words of newspaper reviews. Certainly this artist's picture instantaneously describes his musical act better than any written account.
Stamped onto the back of the photo is his name:

Prof. McRae
Musical Wonder

The Professor used a common honorific adopted by many musicians of this era, but it did not confer any academic degree. It was more a self-claimed appellation, like maestro, to denote special artistic mastery, which may or may not have attested to real skill. This was just the way show business works. Unfortunately I have not yet  discovered the professor's full name, only that on other examples of his promotional photos he left a signature, Prof. D. McRae. He also originally called himself Ontario's Musical Wonder, giving his address as Strathburn, Ontario, Canada. The earliest performances I could find were advertised in the summer of 1892. Shortly afterwards he must have moved to Detroit, Michigan, which is less than 100 miles west of Strahburn, and rebranded himself as the Michigan Musical Wonder.

Prof. McRae's invention was a kind of framework contrivance that positioned a cornet in front of his lips allowing him to hold a violin and bow in the standard way. Wires connected three levers atop the cornet let him control the instrument's valves with his feet. Attached to the sides of the wooden frame was a cello and another violin. More levers and wires moved their bows, also controlled by foot pedals. Roughly the width of an upright piano, the apparatus had even more intricate levers that were positioned above the keyboard permitting him to play the piano too. All of this assembly must have required careful adjustment and a high degree of physical coordination in order for Prof. McRae to make music on five different instruments at once. Sadly we can only imagine what he sounded like.
There are many photographs of Prof. McRae and his novelty machine that have survived into the 21st century, a testimony to the American public's abiding taste for anything strange and unusual. He would surely be amazed that his photos, which he probably sold for a nickle or a dime, can now command very high prices in the hundreds of dollars. Yet despite the number of different photographs, Prof. McRae surprisingly received very few newspaper reports on his performances, and most were obviously in his own of his agent's words. He presented his act mainly at fairs and vaudeville theaters from 1892 to 1894, with brief notices in 1899 and 1902. While it's possible that he joined a traveling circus or a dime museum where he was not given any billing, Prof. McRae essentially had only a very brief and unnoticed career in show business.
Yet McRae's musical wonder apparatus enjoyed a longer life on the stage.


This young clean-shaven man is not Prof. McRae, but he sits on piano chair in front of McRae's musical apparatus. He is turned toward the camera and holds a violin. A framework very like the one in the previous photo supports another violin, a cello, a cornet, and is placed in front of an upright piano. The only difference with Prof. McRae's photo is that here everything is at floor level. The position of the frame reveals a complex arrangement of wires and lever controls. It does not convey sturdiness.

This photo has no mark of the man's name, but many of this performer's photographs have also survived and are sometimes stamped or signed Prof. Wm. Chisholm. Beginning in 1893 he appeared in numerous small towns using nearly the identical words as McRae to announce his performances. This notice from East Liverpool, Ohio ran in June 1897 and describes Professor Chisholm as "the musical wonder, who represented Michigan at the World's Fair, playing a whole orchestra alone, viz: first and second violin, bass viol, cornet and piano, all at once."

East Liverpool OH Evening Review
30 June 1897

There are photos, which I do not own, which show Prof. McRae with a second man who looks very like this man. My guess is that McRae either sold his apparatus or had another one made for Prof. Chisholm  to produce a kind a franchise of his novel invention. The photographer was Wendt of Boonton, New Jersey, another studio that specialized in theatrical entertainers. In other photos of Chisholm, the apparatus is displayed very like McRae's photos, and Chisholm often has a top hat like McRae's. On a few copies of this same photo of mine there is a stamped name of Prof. W. A. Dobie, Detroit, Michigan.  However I have found no newspaper notices that have used that name. Prof. Chisholm's act appeared in just a few newspaper notices from 1893 to 1898.
At the top of my photo is a note written in ink, "Played all these instruments in Fair Ground." 

I rarely display photos that are not in my collection, unless they are from fair-use archives. But today I make an exception with this next image because it shows a musician posed before a very similar "musical wonder" contraption.

Source: the internet

This man sits on a piano stool in front of a mechanism very similar to those in Prof. Chisholm's and McRae's photos. Like them, he holds a violin next to a framework where a cornet, violin, and cello are attached and is next to an upright piano. The wooden struts here are more stout, and the levers are larger and fewer than McRae's device, but it is basically the same design. This photo is unmarked and the photographer is unidentified.
But the reason I include this image is that this fair-haired young man is a perfect match for the young man on a similar unmarked cabinet card in my collection. His photo was featured in my story from January 1914, The Multitalented Mr. Jensen and Mr. Johnson.

At the time I described him as a multi-instrumentalist and his second photo illustrates the reason why in my photo he is holding a cornet and violin with another violin, a crude cello, and upright piano arranged around him. Notice the top hat. I can't prove anything as his name is unknown, so I will call him Prof. Jensen until I learn otherwise. I think Prof. Jensen in another enterprising entertainer with sufficient skill, if not talent, to play cornet, violin, cello and piano. My suspicion is that like Chisholm, this man also bought the right to Prof. McRae's multi-instrument apparatus. He looks like another "musical wonder" too.

And yes, I did look for McRae under Google's search engine for U.S. patents and did not find his name.

Chicago Cottage Reed Organ
Source: Musical instruments
at the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

The reference in Prof. McRae's advertisement to the "World's Fair in the Musical Line", was to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. This extravagant event, held from May to October 1893, was promoted as a celebration of Columbus' arrival to the New World. The festival was a grand and expansive affair with numerous exhibit halls which brought hundreds of exhibitors from around the world. There was one enormous building constructed just for the display of musical instruments from major manufacturers from around the world. Besides the United States, there were musical representatives from many countries including France, Great Britain, Austria, Germany, Russia, Japan, Argentina, and even Siam. 

Every exhibitor was included in a special book made for the exhibition entitled Musical instruments at the World's Columbian Exposition: a review of musical instruments, publications and musical instrument supplies of all kinds, exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, May 1 to October 31, 1893. In this 310 page catalog it seems that every exhibitor received some kind of award for merit. The exhibitors from Bangkok, Siam were given an award for "For an interesting historical and characteristic display."

Neither Prof. McRae or Chisholm was mentioned in the book. For that matter, neither Ontario or Michigan, had any official state representative at this exhibition of musical instruments. But there were musical wonders galore. Pictured above is a reed organ, or parlor pump organ, made by the Chicago Cottage Co. just one of many organs and pianos displayed at the Columbian Exhibition. The factory was described in the exhibition book.

The Chicago Cottage Organ Co. possess the most extensive reed organ factory in the world. The plant of this department occupies a whole block at the corner of 22nd and Paulina Sts. and embraces three immense buildings, besides dry kilns, small buildings, lumber yards, etc. The factory has several acres of floorage and gives employment to more than 400 men, who turn out more than 18,000 organs per year, or at the rate of one organ every ten minutes. To dispose of these instruments requires a staff of some twenty salesman and twice that number of office employees, in addition to the regular officers of the Company. Already more than 150,000 organs have been sold and the demand is increasing each year. This record surpasses all others in the line of manufacturing reed organs. No expense is spared to make them the best in the world. To produce this enormous output requires more than 100 different kinds of machinery, many of which are of special design and construction. The instruments have proved themselves to be as near perfection as human skill, ingenuity and money can make them. The great satisfaction they have given to purchasers and the unqualified endorsements they have received from eminent musicians determine their status beyond question. While building up this enormous business in the manufacture of organs, the company interested itself in the wholesale and retail piano trade which soon assumed immense proportions

Many years ago, in return for free room and board, I restored a reed organ very like this one. Beneath the ornate casework was an intricate control system of levers and pulls that used a foot-operated bellows to send air through several banks of small brass reeds like those on a harmonica. The instrument produced a marvelous variety of different sound textures.  A reed organ very like the Chicago Cottage Co. organ cost $27.45 in the 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog. 

So from personal experience I can say that these popular home keyboard instruments were true marvels of craftsmanship and innovative musical design. The mechanisms used to actuate the organ reeds were far more complicated and made with more precision than Prof. McRae's device. Certainly his "musical wonder" apparatus required a lot of careful thought to build a working device. And all three performers surely had good musicianship to play recognizable tunes on such a contraption. But the novelty of a multi-instrumentalist who "plays a whole orchestra alone" only went so far. Audiences preferred a real orchestra with multiple musicians to a a one-man-band playing a crazy mixed-up musical gadgetry.

The Welte Columbian Exposition Organ
Source: Musical instruments 
at the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

One of the German musical instrument companies exhibiting at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 was Welte & Sons which made pianos, organs, and a new kind of automated musical instrument. Among the several large instruments the company brought to Chicago was one huge organ-like instrument they called an Orchestrion. This type of music machine used perforated paper rolls to activate the machine's numerous sound producing mechanisms. It was capable of playing hundreds of different kinds of prepared music and needed no musical skill to operate. Though the larger Orchestrions used electric motors power the pneumatic blower system, the smaller ones had weight-driven clockwork spring motors. These musical machines marked the pinnacle of German engineering and industrial technology.  

In 1914 the  Ludwig Hupfeld company of Leipzig, Germany produced an instrument called the Phonoliszt Violina. Here is a video of this fantastic Orchestrion machine which could play three violins and a piano at the same time, as preserved at the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht, Netherlands. I'm sure the clever designers at the Hupfeld factory could have easily added an automated pneumatic cornet and cello too.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where some sew what they also rip.


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