Friday, December 4, 2015

The Sousaphone's direct ancestors

When the Sousaphone first appeared in 1895, the idea of a large brass instrument that wound around the body and rested on the shoulder was nothing new. The concept goes way back to the early Roman Empire, when the cornu was used in the military, and for various state occasions.

Cornu players on Trajan's Column in Rome, dedicated AD 113. This instrument was used "in the heat of battle . . . to inspire the Romans and to strike fear in the enemy," which sounds like my tuba section in college! (Photo is from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 6, p. 490; quote is from vol. 25, p. 861).

Interestingly, it is back in those days that we find the first use of the word tuba, although at that time it referred to a straight, trumpet-like instrument (much like the plastic stadium horn, or vuvuzela, of today). The cornu was essentially a modified tuba, made larger and longer, and curved into the 'G' shape you see above. It was revived 17 centuries later as the tuba curva during the French Revolution.

Now, of course, tuba is the name of a whole family of wide-bore valved brass instruments, including the Sousaphone. I'll let John Philip Sousa explain (from his article, "The Strange Instruments of the Military Band," The San Francisco Call, October 12, 1902, p. 13):


Did you catch that? The "Sousaphone" is essentially a modified helicon, "adapted to concert purposes" (a surprise to most people - it was not designed for marching!). But what do we know about the helicon bass? I've touched on it briefly here and here in this blog, but let's dive in a little deeper.

Long before Herman Conrad was playing the Sousaphone in Sousa's band, he was playing the helicon in Gilmore's band, in which he performed from 1888-1892. Here he is with his massive "helicon tuba" back in 1889:
This is the lead photograph in a fascinating article by Leon Mead in the September 28, 1889 edition of Harper's Weekly, titled, "The Military Band of the United States." Mead goes on to explain that

(NOTE: Henry Gimckel is probably Henry Gunckel)
While the concept for the helicon may have roots in Russia, the horn was apparently first produced around 1845 by Ignaz Stowasser of Vienna, who eventually patented the new instrument in 1848. Early versions looked a bit clunkier than the "ponderous bass" we see Conrad wielding above - 40 years later:

Bb helicon by Stowasser, 1850 (from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 11, p. 339).
But the concept remained the same - a large, coiled bass instrument, similar to the cornu, although with valves and a much wider bore. This design proved convenient for playing while marching, and on horseback, but the instrument also found it's way into concert settings, as is the case with Conrad.

Quite curiously, around the same time that Stowasser first produced the helicon (again, 1845), Belgian instrument-maker Adolphe Sax came up with his own version of a valved bass that was inspired by the cornu. Referred to now as the Saxtuba, it never really caught on like the helicon did. But here is one of only two surviving examples from early on:

Bass saxtuba in Eb, 1855 - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Google had some fun featuring this obscure bass horn last month, as they celebrated Sax's birthday, which was November 6, 1814. Coincidentally, Sousa was born on the same day 40 years later - go figure!


And speaking of Sousa, let's fast-forward to his band shortly before the arrival of the Sousaphone. When Gilmore suddenly passed away in 1892, Conrad was one of many top-notch musicians from Gilmore's band that signed on with the newly formed band led by Sousa. And he brought with him his massive helicon, as we can see from this photo of Conrad with the Sousa Band at the St. Louis Exposition in October 1893:

Courtesy of the U. S. Marine Band Library
But here's a curious discovery: there appears to have been a second helicon used in Sousa's band around that time - one built by J. W. Pepper, exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and supposedly played by George Barbour during the band's stay at Manhattan Beach (but a year later, it seems, as Barbour apparently wasn't in the band until 1894). At least that's what we read on page 2 of Pepper's Portraits of Great Artists:


I have yet to find any photograph showing this horn in action with Sousa's band, but I did come across a classified ad in Pepper's Musical Times and Band Journal, vol. 16, no. 183, which was published in 1899, listing this giant helicon for sale (the ad remained through edition no. 191):


More importantly, we know that shortly before Sousa formed his new band, he pitched the idea for a modified helicon to Pepper. He simply didn't like the way a standard helicon sounded in a concert setting. As he put it years later, the horn
was all right enough for street-parade work, but its tone was apt to shoot ahead too prominently and explosively to suit me for concert performances, so I spoke to Mr. Pepper relative to constructing a bass instrument in which the bell would turn upwards and be adjustable for concert purposes. He built one, and grateful to me for the suggestion, called it a Sousaphone.
The initial conversation about creating this new horn occurred in 1892, and for three years, it seems, Sousa tolerated one or possibly two helicons in his band. But finally, in late 1895 or early 1896, Pepper delivered the replacement:


The body may very well have been patterned after the helicon that Barbour used - we can't say for sure, without getting a closer look at both instruments (and I'm not aware that the first horn still exists). But from this point on, the modified helicon dubbed the "Sousaphone" began to grow in popularity, ultimately becoming the most commonly used shoulder-borne bass horn in America. And today, sadly, the standard helicon has gone the way of the cornu, becoming little more than a footnote to the history of the Sousaphone.

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