Monday, June 20, 2016

Conrad with Gilmore's Band, 1889

As I continue to research the life and musical career of Herman Conrad, the first Sousaphonist, I am learning a great deal about the great bandmaster who came before Sousa - Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.

Conrad emigrated from Prussia to the U. S. in late 1887, and within months he had joined Gilmore's Band - which means he must have been a hot-shot bassist already, probably with one of the military bands of the Prussian Army (I'm still trying to track that down).

Had Gilmore summoned Conrad, having heard that he was already an accomplished bass player? I have learned that Gilmore kept track of the best bandsmen in Europe, and often successfully recruited them into his band. He always wanted the best players, so at the very least, we have to assume that Conrad was as good a player as any, and Gilmore was able to add him to the group.

Here is Gilmore's Band a year or so later, in 1889, on the steps of the St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall, and you can see Conrad in the upper right, holding a massive helicon bass (but check out some of the other interesting instruments in the band - the other helicon, which has rotary valves, and seems to have a slightly curved-up bell, the bass saxophone, the sarrusophone, the antoniophones, and more!).

Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.
That huge BBb bass was built by Henry Gunckel of Paris and referred to as a "Monster" (and it was imported into the U. S. by Lyon & Healy from as early as 1880). Whether Conrad brought that horn with him, or it was given to him by Gilmore when he arrived, we simply can't say. But here's a closer look at the instrument:

And here's that same horn, advertised nine years earlier, in the 1880 Lyon & Healy catalogue.

Note the price - a whopping $330! By comparison, the second Conn Sousaphone, built almost 20 years later, sold for a mere $250. That helicon must have been some horn! And Conrad played it not only during his time with Gilmore, but also for the first few years he was with Sousa's Band.

But Sousa was not a fan of helicon basses - even expensive, well-crafted ones like this one (assuming it was both of those things)! In 1892, he pitched the idea to J. W. Pepper for a modified helicon that turned the huge bell straight up, and in 1895, Pepper finally made the very first one. From that point on, as far as we can tell, Conrad only ever played a Sousaphone during his remaining years with Sousa (ending after the 1903 season).

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