Saturday, January 30, 2016

Getting Sousaphone history right

If you Google the phrase "Sousaphone history," the first website in the list says the following:
THE ORIGINAL SOUSAPHONE For many years there were claims and counter claims about who invented the Sousaphone. The conventional wisdom has held that the instrument was invented by the C. G. Conn company. Indeed, Conn instruments were in use by the Sousa band by 1898. In the course of researching the history of the Pepper company we have found reason to believe that the first bell upright, bass brass instrument was built by the J. W. Pepper Co. in 1893 and displayed at the industrial exhibt [sic] in Philadelphia of that same year.
Close, but not quite right. It was 1895, not 1893, that Pepper built the first Sousaphone. And I have found nothing about it being "displayed at the industrial exhibt in Philadelphia." But this understanding of the origins of the Sousaphone, with the same misspelling of "exhibt," seems to have made the rounds. For example, I found it on a document at the Sousa archives, as well as on an eBay page that provides the history of the tuba. It's also noted here, with the spelling fixed. Just where this story started is unclear, but it's not accurate.

The wikipedia page for "Sousaphone," as well as the website "," perpetuate the wrong date of 1893, but say nothing about the "industrial exhibt." But other inaccuracies appear on both pages that need to be fixed (I'll have to look into working on the wikipedia page).

Other websites are way off on the history. For example, the Vienna Symphonic Library states that "Conn made the first Sousaphone in 1908, an instrument invented by the composer John Philip Sousa primarily for outdoor use." Conn did make the first bell-front Sousaphone in 1908, although it was called a Wonderphone, not a Sousaphone! And that was 13 years after Pepper built the first Sousaphone.

Even the Library of Congress, on its website, says "In 1893, Pepper built an instrument that allowed the bell to be pointed upward for the concert setting and forward for the march and called it a sousaphone in honor of the prolific conductor and composer." Not only is the date off,  but the bell was not so flexible - and Sousa wasn't trying to create a new marching instrument anyway.

Musical reference books also get the history wrong. For example, The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music (revised and enlarged, 1994), says the Sousaphone "was designed by J. P. Sousa for use in his marching bands," and that "they were first made in 1898." Nope! It was a concert instrument first made in 1895.

And The Harvard Dictionary of Music (fourth edition, 2003) says that "Either Pepper or one of his suppliers made the first model in 1892." Pepper, yes, but 1892, no.

Coming very close to the truth is the massive, and recently published Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (second edition, 2014). In the article on "Sousaphone" it states that
The earliest sousaphones, made to Sousa's specifications in the 1890s, had the bell pointed upright and (as described in Sousa's autobiography, Marching Along, Boston, 1928) 'projected the sound upward and mushroomed it over the entire band and audience.' This model, nicknamed 'the rain-catcher,' never became popular, though Sousa favoured it for his concert band, usually in combination with upright tubas.
Interestingly, while the Sousa quote captures the gist, it isn't an actual quote from the book! What Sousa wrote, when recalling how he pitched the idea for the Sousaphone, is this: "I suggested to a manufacturer that we have an upright bell of large size so that the sound would diffuse over the entire band like the frosting on a cake!"

Plus, the idea that the original Sousaphone design, with its upright bell, "never became popular" may be misleading. The bell-front version, which eventually supplanted the bell-up version, didn't appear until 1908, and until that time - and for many years after - the original design is seen in all kinds of bands. But Sousa did stick with the original design, long after it stopped being produced.

The article goes on:
The question of who built the first sousaphone was for many years part of an intense rivalry between the J. W. Pepper and C. G. Conn companies, both of which claimed credit for the instrument. Sousa himself recalled, in an interview published in the Christian Science Monitor of 30 August 1922, that while he was still conductor of the Marine Corps Band (i.e. before August 1892) he suggested the instrument to J. W. Pepper of Philadelphia, who made and named the first Sousaphone. An instrument believed to be the first sousaphone - made by Pepper and dated 1893 - came to light in 1992. . . . By 1898 the Conn Co. had built its own sousaphone and had given it, along with other Conn-made instruments, to Sousa for use in his band. The Conn Sousaphone subsequently became the more commercially successful instrument.
This comes very close to nailing the history. All that is needed are a few date adjustments: Pepper built the horn not in 1893, but in 1895, and it resurfaced not in 1992, but first in 1973, and was ultimately sold back to the Pepper company in 1991. As far as we can tell, Pepper never built another Sousaphone. It was indeed Conn who made the first "commercially successful" horn in 1898. And from that point on, Conn Sousaphones are the only kind seen in the Sousa Band.

The important points that we need to get right about the first Sousaphone are as follows:
  • Sousa gave Pepper the idea for the new horn in 1892.
  • What he suggested was essentially a modified helicon bass.
  • Pepper built the instrument in 1895 at his factory in Philadelphia.
  • He dubbed it "The Sousaphone" to honor Sousa.
  • It was a concert instrument - not a marching horn.
  • Its huge, detachable bell pointed straight up.
  • That historic horn never went into production.
  • It found its way back to the Pepper company in 1991, where it can be seen today.
The original Sousaphone in concert, May 3, 2015 - 120 years after it was built!

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