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 Christmas Canary

24 December 2020

It's a very curious postcard photo.
A well dressed gentleman is seated in a parlor room
holding a vintage telephone receiver to his ear.
Next to him is a small bird cage
which has a set of headphones
stretched over the bars of the cage.
There is no explanation,
only a caption that reads:

Mr. Geo. R. Sims and his pet canary.

Is the man actually placing a call to the bird?
What kind of conversation can one have with a canary?
Is the bird even listening?
Maybe it's a scientific experiment.

I can find no references to this image on the internet.
All I can say is what the caption tells us:
Mr. George R. Sims and his pet canary, name unknown.

But Mr. Sims turns out to be, in his time,
a renowned English journalist, poet, dramatist, and novelist. 
His full name was George Robert Sims (1847 – 1922). 

George Robert Sims (1847 – 1922)
circa 1910
Source: Wikipedia

After the publication of his first works in 1874, Sims quickly established himself as a prolific author in many forms from plays to poetry. He was best known in Victorian times for his weekly column of light-hearted humorous sketches called "Mustard and Cress", published in The Referee, a British Sunday newspaper. Beginning in 1877 Sims wrote a story every week for 45 years until his death in 1922. His subject matter was "sprinkled with neat little epigrams in verse, patriotic songs or parodies, with jokes, puns, conundrums, catch-words. He talked of politics... philanthropy, amusement, reminiscence, food and drink, and such travel as so confirmed a Cockney could enjoy. ...he would champion the cause of the unfortunate middle classes.... He took his readers into his confidence, and told them all about... his friends... his pets.... And he contrived to do this without ever becoming egotistical or a bore."

This quote from his obituary in The Times, 6 September 1922,  gives a succinct description of George R. Sims.

"so attractive and original was the personality revealed in his abundant output—for he was a wonderfully hard worker—that no other journalist has ever occupied quite the same place in the affections not only of the great public but also of people of more discriminating taste.... Sims was indeed a born journalist, with the essential flair added to shrewd common sense, imagination, wide sympathies, a vivid interest in every side of life, and the most ardent patriotism.... He was [also] a highly successful playwright... a zealous social reformer, an expert criminologist, a connoisseur in good eating and drinking, in racing, in dogs, in boxing, and in all sorts of curious and out-of-the-way people and things."

Clearly George R. Sims was a familiar enough writer in his time to be easily recognized from a photo. Which may explain why this postcard of him with his pet canary was chosen for a Christmas greeting in 1904.

With Best wishes for a Happy
Xmas & Prosperous 1905   hoping all
are well, we are alright,  love to all from
Arthur & Lottie

Not quite forgotten.

It was sent in December 1904
to Mrs. G. Johnson
of 64 Northcote Road
St Margarets
in London.

In addition to his regular column for The Referee, George Sims wrote several novels, thirty plays, and numerous collections of short stories, essays, and poetry. However, despite Arthur's quip on this postcard, most of Sims's output is now forgotten. But one ballad, Christmas Day in the Workhouse, stands out as it became popular enough to be imitated by other writers for many decades. It was first published in 1877, just when Sims was starting to write his column for The Referee. It is in the form of a dramatic monologue where a poor man criticizes the harsh conditions found in the English and Welsh workhouses of the period.  

"Christmas Day in the Workhouse"
a postcard c1905
Source: Wikipedia

These workhouses were the result of the 1834 Poor Law. This act passed by the British Parliament placed a severe limit to the social assistance given to the poor.  Food and shelter could only be dispensed at the workhouse. Paupers were separated into different classes and by sex. The institutions were purposely designed to be so disagreeable that only people who were truly destitute and indigent would demean themselves to apply for relief. By the 1870s, the state of poverty was so shameful that Sims, a young journalist campaigning for social reform, felt compelled to respond in a public way by writing a ballad about how severe hardship affects the human spirit. 

It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
  And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
  And the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
  In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables,
  For this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies,
  Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
  To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
  Put pudding on pauper plates,
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
  They've paid for—with the rates.

The full text for George Sims's "Christmas Day in the Workhouse" can be found at this link. But a better way to understand the poem is to hear it recited by the great American actor, Robert Cochran Hilliard (1857 – 1927), also known in his day as Handsome Bob. 

Robert Cochran Hilliard (1857 – 1927)
Source: Wikipedia

Hilliard recorded Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
lightly abridged to fit the time constraints of early records,  
for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey on 8 November 1912.

Workhouses no longer exist in our modern era and most governments provide many different kinds of social welfare to people in distress. But I feel the Dickensian melodrama of Sims's ballad carries a poignant quality that resonates with our present time in a way that I don't think it would have had last Christmas. As this dreadful year 2020 draws to a close, everyone in the world has surely reflected on the immense challenges that face humanity. Poverty remains a serious issue, especially with the plight of  unemployment, evictions, and privations brought on by Covid19. Even now with the miracle of vaccines, millions of people around the world will continue to suffer for many months from the consequences of this horrible scourge. If there is anything we need in this holiday season of 2020, it is more charity and good will to all mankind. 

But back to Mr. Sims's canary.

George R. Sims wrote many observations about life in East London.
One of the places he described was the bird market on Sclater Street.

"On Sunday nothing but bird-cages are to be seen from roofs to pavement in almost every house. At first you see nothing but the avenue of bird-cages. The crowd in the narrow street is so dense that you can gather no idea of what is in the shop-windows or what the mob of men crowding together in black patches of humanity are dealing in."

Surely this was the place where he acquired his pet canary.
Likely it was there that he saw
many birds that could whistle complicated melodies,
as since Elizabethan times London's bird sellers
had expertly trained
warblers, canaries, black birds, etc. to sing.

I think that is what George Sims is doing in this photo.
Teaching his canary to sing
via a dictaphone or gramophone recording.

We can only speculate if the tune was Jingle Bells.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where I wish everyone a peaceful holiday
and joyful new year.

The Rain in Austria

11 December 2020


It's raining.
Nothing to be done
except complain.

Misery may not actually love company,
but it feels better when it's shared.

This humorous postcard was produced
by the
Austrian artist Fritz Schönpflug (1873 – 1951),
whose work I have featured several times now.
A native of Vienna, or Wien,
he was a keen observer of humanity.
This postcard's caption
roughly translates as,

Verichnupßte Kurgäßte
Sniveling Spa Guests.

It must have been a common scene
of tourists on holiday in Austria,
hence it's popularity as a postcard.
"Having a miserable time.
Wish we were back home."

Perhaps that was Rolf's sentiments
when he sent this to Fräulein M. Schaffer
of Wien on 6 July 1910.

But nothing compares to the misery
of a soldier marching in the rain.

Here a column of infantry
plod through the mud,
led by their regimental band.
The rain forces the poor tuba player
to bail out his instrument.

On this postcard Fritz Schönpflug adds a caption
in Hungarian, which was then one of many languages
in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It reads:
Az egyenruha varázsa
The charm of the uniform.

It was never mailed but Schönpflug
puts a number 909 next to his signature
which stand for the year 1909
using the central European convention
of leaving off the 1000.

One century later,
here is what Wien looks like
in an Austrian rainstorm.
The video is called:
Überschwemmung 13.05.10,Wien,Lerchenfelderstraße Ecke Kaiserstraße !

Watch for 1:00.

And here's another rainy day in Wien
but with a better accompaniment.

I think Fritz Schönpflug
would have laughed at this happy fellow.
It was filmed on 21 May 2013,
Wien ist anders - "Singing in the Rain"

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it rains only virtually
and stays mainly on the screen.

Hermann Torggler's Great Composers - part 2

05 December 2020

With his long hair tied back
and his high collar and wispy cravat
this is plainly not a man from our time
but from an earlier century.
The caption reads:
W. A. Mozart

His face may not be familiar but his name should be.
It is a portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (1756 – 1791),
undoubtedly the most famous name in all of music.

The painting was the work of Austrian artist Hermann Torggler, (1878-1939), who created several portraits of great composers which the publisher, F. A. Ackermann's Kunstverlag of Munich, Germany, reproduced as a set of postcards. This post is the second of my series on Torggler's artwork. Readers can find the first part by following this link to Herman Torggler's Great Composers - part 1.

It is no surprise that of all the musicians and composers an Austrian artist might chose to paint, Mozart would be a top priority. Born in Salzburg, Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus began performing and writing music at a very young age. In July 1763 his father Leopold Mozart, a violinist and composer with the court orchestra of the  Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, arranged to take Wolfgang, age 7, and his talented older sister Marianne, nicknamed Nannerl, age 12, on a grand concert tour of European courts. The trip last three years and took them to  Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, Geneva, and the Netherlands, until they finally returned to Salzburg in November 1766. 
The tour not only established Wolfgang's reputation as an astonishing child prodigy on violin and piano, but it gave him a unique worldview for a composer of his time. By his teen years he was fluent in Italian, French, and English and had been introduced to more places and people than many people might know in a lifetime. He would go on to write some of the most beautiful music of all time, producing a prolific output of operas, symphonies, concertos, and chamber music that are now admired throughout the world. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
medallion in wood
after Leonard Posch
Source: Wikimedia

Hermann Torggler, of course never met Mozart, but as an art student in Munich and then Vienna he undoubtedly came across some of the many portraits of Mozart made during his lifetime. The one shown above was actually a small relief bust of Wolfgang carved in 1789 by Austrian artist Leonhard Posch  (1750–1831). Posch was employed as an assistant stone sculptor by Salzburg's Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo at the same time as young Wolfgang was engaged in the court orchestra. They became lifelong friends perhaps united by a strong desire to escape the conservative town and repressive control of the Archbishop. The both found a more promising artistic court in Vienna – Wien, the capital of the Austrian empire. There Posch gave up the strenuous work of stone carving to find more success in carving miniature relief portraits in wax which he could reproduce casted in metal or plaster. This example was carved in wood, and was considered the best likeness of Mozart by his wife Constanze. 

Torggler animates Posch's sculpture by turning Mozart's head slightly and adding a few years to his age as well. I suspect this painting was made around 1910, possibly on commission by the publisher F. A. Ackermann. It's a thoughtful portrait of the beloved composer whose music was surely a favorite of Torggler's. More historical examples of pictures of Mozart can be found at

This postcard was sent from Lucerne, Switzerland on 6 March 1915.

Mozart was a virtuoso on piano and wrote numerous pieces and concertos for himself. But he also wrote for other solo instruments including 4 concertos for the horn. I was first introduced to them by my high school biology teacher, Mr. Arthur Koeppen, who was an amateur horn player and mentor to the Fine Arts Club. One day after classes he came to our bandroom to coach our horn section. He brought along some records of the British horn soloist Dennis Brain playing Mozart's music. I was instantly captivated and for the next few years most of my allowance went to buying records of any horn soloist I could find. 

I love all of Mozart's music but if I had to pick just one for a Desert Island playlist it would be the Rondo movement from his Horn Concerto No.4, K495. This is a 2017 live performance by the Croatian horn soloist Radovan Vlatković with the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Tromsø and Bodø, Norway. It's a wonderful performance that conveys all the humor and singing qualities that typify Mozart's music. And Radovan also happens to play the same model horn that I play.

* * *

This next portrait shows an old man in profile
with a careworn countenance of someone
who has seen a lot of the world.
This postcard is captioned:
Franz Liszt

This is the only card in Hermann Torggler's set of composer portraits
that prints the full forename instead of just an initial.
It is of course, the great Hungarian pianist and composer,
Franz Liszt, (1811 – 1886)

Liszt was a native Hungarian but in the 19th century Hungary had been part of the Hapsburg empire for centuries. Most of his early professional life was spent on the road as a concert pianist. The early 19th century was the era when the grand piano transformed into a very different instrument from what Mozart and Beethoven played. The action, tone, range, and dynamics of the improved piano developed a new kind of concert performer. Liszt was only one of several phenomenal pianists/composers like Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, (1809 – 1847); Frédéric Chopin, (1810 – 1849); and Robert Schumann, (1810 – 1856), who developed exciting new music for the Romantic movement in art.

Liszt made his home is several places, but often stayed in Vienna at the Schottenhof, (which by strange coincidence is now occupied by the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence which includes a department for Intelligent Music Processing and Machine Learning.) A commemorative stone plaque celebrates his stay there from 1869 to 1886. It has a relief carving showing Liszt in a similar left profile. I don't know for certain that it was in place during the years Hermann Torggler lived in Vienna, but it might have served to inspire his portrait of the composer.

Franz Liszt, memorial plaque,
Freyung 6, Schottenhof, Wien, Austria

My postcard of Franz Liszt was posted on 5 February 1932 to Gunther Wagner of Dresden. No doubt Gunther had to endure a never ending question, "Are you related to Richard?"

The music of Franz Liszt had tremendous influence on many composers who followed him. It is filled with imaginative drama and lush romance. Probably the first music of Liszt that I heard was his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, which is the ultimate cartoon soundtrack. But the first major work of Liszt's where I encountered his use of the horn was in his tone poem Les Préludes. Here is the soli section for four horns played by the Staatskapelle Weimar under conductor Christian Thielemann.

* * *

This next painting by Torggler shows
another man's distinguished nose in profile.
The caption reads:
R. Wagner

In the late 19th century this face would be easily recognized
by anyone with even a passing appreciation of musical theater.
He is the great German opera composer, Richard Wagner, (1813 – 1883).

According to a brief biography of Hermann Torggler, he was strongly influenced in his style by the portraiture of the German painter Franz von Lenbach, (1836–1904), who studied art in Munich where Torggler later got his training. Lenbach became one of the most successful German portrait artists of his era and he painted Richard Wagner several times. This one from 1882/83 shows Wagner in a similar right profile.

Portrait of Richard Wagner, circa 1882/83
by Franz von Lenbach  (1836–1904)
Source: Wikimedia

Wagner was also photographed many times during his life and those photos were reproduced for sale as souvenirs. This cdv was made in the 1880s by the London photography studio of Elliott & Fry.  It shows Wagner in the same right profile.

carte de visit portrait of Richard Wagner, circa 1880, 
by Elliott & Fry, London
Source: Wikimedia

After Wagner's death in 1883, his music continued to build his reputation as a dominant force in musical theater. Sometime before 1895, Lenbach painted another portrait of an older Richard Wagner. Though this puts the composer in a full direct pose, the darker tone is similar to the pensive viewpoint that Torrgler took with his portrait.

Portrait of Richard Wagner, before 1895
by Franz von Lenbach  (1836–1904)
Source: Wikimedia

The postcard of Wagner was sent from München on 13 August 1912 as a note in a letter. This is the earliest date that I have found on any of Torggler's composer series, which leads me to date their production to around 1910/11. Though all six composers are very deserving of being idolized as music icons on a postcard, it is the composers that Torggler left out that I find curious. He may have considered Johann Sebastian Bach, (1685 – 1685), the great master of the fugue, as too much an old-fashioned composer. Joseph Haydn, (1732 – 1809), who wrote 104 symphonies, and was Austrian and a contemporary of Mozart too, was perhaps no longer a celebrated figure in Vienna. Anton Bruckner, (1824 – 1896), whose symphonies stand like a mountain range as tall as the Alps, may have been too recent. However it's more likely that Torggler's publisher had a very short list of musical greats that it knew would sell at the newsagents and stationary shops.

As a student I first learned of Richard Wagner's music from recordings and playing a couple of his overture transcriptions for band. I regret that in my professional career I have only played a few of his opera overtures, and none of his full operas. Many years ago I did play a concert that showcased orchestral excerpts from the four operas in Wagner's Ring Cycle, but that was as close as I've come to playing his most famous music. The orchestration for these operas requires an enormous force of musicians, including 9 horn players with 4 of them doubling on small Wagner tubas. Only a few opera companies have the stage, orchestra, singers, and money to produce these gigantic works of musical theater. 

This next video has the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti rehearsing Siegfried Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung, the final opera in the Ring Cycle. It will give a taste of the gargantuan sound Wagner demanded of an orchestra. Notice the six (!) harps on either side behind Sir George. And remember that singers are supposed to be heard through this dense musical texture. 

* * *

This last painting by Hermann Torggler
shows two men in profile.
One sits at a piano while the other man
sits by his shoulder looking at the sheet music.

There is no caption, 
but because we've seen both composers
in Torggler's previous portraits
in nearly the same pose,
they are recognizable as Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. 

The two composers first met in 1853 when Richard Wagner had not yet started on his great Ring Cycle of operas. Franz Liszt was then arguably the most famous piano virtuoso in all Europe after years of concert tours. He had also produced a wide variety of music for piano, organ, voice, and orchestra which inspired many composers of his time, including Richard Wagner.

Both men were prone to scandalous behavior, especially in regards to women. It's far too complicated to explain in detail here, so this is a short synopsis. In 1857 Liszt's daughter, Cosima, (1837 – 1930) married Hans von Bülow, a talent piano student of Liszt who became a noted advocate and conductor of Richard Wagner's operas. 

In 1863 after Wagner became estranged from his first wife, Minna, he began an affair with Cosma. They produced three children before Hans would grant Cosima a divorce, allowing her to become Wagner's 2nd wife in 1870. The happy couple posed for this formal photograph in 1872. 

Richard and Cosima (Liszt) Wagner, 1872,
by Fritz Luckhardt  (1843–1894)
Source: Wikimedia

By the 1870s, Franz Liszt had retired from the concert stage and renounced his worldly life, in part due to the untimely deaths of his other two children. A devout Catholic, in 1865 Liszt took minor orders in a monastery outside Rome. Afterward he was often called Abbé Liszt, which is why in Torggler's painting he wears a white clerical collar. 

I'm not certain if this postcard of the two composers, son-in-law and father-in-law, was part of Torggler's series of composer portraits. But it was painted at around the same time as this card has a postmark from Berlin of 20 January 1914. It was sent to Herrn Karl Krendel(?) with the honorific of  Hochwohlgeboren  which stands for "High Well-born", a German form of address for someone from a noble family. 

* * *

When I first discovered Herman Torggler's charming postcard etchings I was impressed with his sentimental depiction of German/Austrian culture and fashions from the turn of the 19th to 20th century. They included musical elements that matched many of the musician photographs in my collection, and I liked Torggler's simple unpretentious characters, devoid of any overt advertising imagery. 

When I found his portraits of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Liszt, and Wagner, which I've featured in my series here and last week, I realized Torggler was  much more than a commercial artist. I believe these works are more representative of his mature artistic output as a portrait painter. I've tried to connect his portraits to those of other artists and photographers in order to demonstrate Torggler's perceptive skill and fine craft. Any artist's eye always involves their personal interpretation and I think Torggler chose to render each composer in both a realistic manner and a respectful way as his tribute to their music, the sound of which can not be painted. 

I am also intrigued that the faces of these six musicians needed no introduction or explanation on the postcards. I think the publisher felt it was unnecessary because they expected the people who purchased the cards to know who the composers were. Their market was for the music-loving audience of Europe who could only enjoy the music of these six great composers in live performances. What better way to remember a performance of a Mozart opera, or a concert of Liszt's piano concerto than to buy a souvenir portrait of the composer?

Writing this series also made me appreciate how I came to love the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Liszt, and Wagner through the magic of recordings. My parents gave me much to be grateful for, but it was their love of music which led me to become a musician and ultimately to be writing this blog. Likewise I am beholden to my biology teacher for generously sharing of his love of horn music, and grateful for my other teachers and colleagues who all played a part in guiding me to discover more about the art of music. My path through life would have been very different had I not received these many gifts. Thank you.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no thread can not be untangled.

The theme image for this weekend's Sepia Saturday challenge
is a group of Mennonite church women working on a large quilt.
I can't pass this opportunity by
without showing off an example
of my maternal grandmother's quilting talent. 

As long as I can remember,
my grandmother was always sewing, knitting, or crocheting.
She made many quilts, but this one is a true work of art.

It is a "Cathedral Pattern" quilt
with small squares of colored fabric
framed by folded muslin. 
There are 1,480 squares,
each skillfully handsewn by my grandmother.
She completed it on June 17, 1980
and it now hangs in the stairway of my home.

In 2010 created a tribute blog for my grandmother,
Blanche Elizabeth Shaw Dobbin,
entitled Remembering Dobbin.


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