Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Herman's horns: an emerging history

Herman Conrad, who I have dubbed "the forgotten giant of the tuba," can be seen with at least eight, and perhaps nine, different horns over his illustrious music career in America (1888-1920). Here they are, in the order of their appearance:

Conrad with a monster helicon in Gilmore's Band, 1889
When Conrad emigrated to the U.S. in late 1887, it was only a matter of months before he became part of Gilmore's world-famous band. The instrument we find him playing, which may have been used in the band prior to his arrival (I'm looking into that) is a BBb bass "Monster" helicon built by F. Sudre and imported by Lyon & Healy under the trade name "Henry Gunckel of Paris."

We don't know much about this horn, and I have yet to find one that has survived the ravages of time, but it had a 21 inch bell, "celebrated French piston valves and improved light action," and sat very strangely below the left shoulder (notice in the photo above, which is how it looks in every photo I have found of it being held; frankly, I'm baffled!). According to a Lyon & Healy catalogue from 1880 - eight years before Conrad started playing it - the helicon sold for $330, which translates to about $11,400 today. So I would imagine it was a pretty decent horn.

Conrad appears to have used this massive helicon for all five years he played with Gilmore's Band (1888-1892), as well as the first three years he was with Sousa's Band (1893-1895). But Sousa was not a fan of helicons, so he had J. W. Pepper modify a helicon into what became known as a "Sousaphone." In 1896, the Sousa Band went on tour with the very first one:

With the very first Sousaphone, built by J. W. Pepper in 1895
This historic horn can be seen today at the J. W. Pepper headquarters in Exton, PA. It is a BBb modified helicon with three valves, a bell diameter of 24 inches, a bore of .680 inches, a height of 4 feet 5 inches, and a weight of 24.9 pounds. Engravings on the bell include a portrait of Sousa in his 1894 uniform, and the words "SOUSA" and "PHONE" laid out separately.

Just how long this new instrument was played by Conrad in Sousa's Band is uncertain, but in early 1898 we see him playing a completely different Sousaphone - the first one built by C. G. Conn:

With Conn's first Sousaphone for Sousa's Band, 1898
This historic horn has yet to be found, but it was likely built in the latter part of 1897 and then introduced to the world in January 1898. Very little is known about it, other than what we can see - that it had four valves instead of three, and a lot of engraving on the bell, including the word "SOUSA" (or perhaps "SOUSAPHONE") in large capital letters. One newspaper article claimed that it had a bell diameter of 26 inches, and a height of 5 feet.

The second Sousaphone built by Conn, which came out barely a year later, was purchased by Joseph Dupere, who was not connected with Sousa's Band. He allegedly paid $250 for the horn, which is around $8,300 today, or, interestingly, about what a Conn Sousaphone sells for now.

By 1900 we find that the Conn Sousaphone played by Conrad had been modified into what we will refer to as version 2:

With Conn's second version of his Sousaphone for Sousa's Band, 1900
This version had a very different valve cluster, although still with four valves. One report, coming from a London newspaper, revealed that this horn weighed 33 pounds. It was likely played until 1903, when we find Conrad playing version 3 of Conn's Sousaphone:

With Conn's third version of his Sousaphone for Sousa's Band, 1903
Once again, the valve cluster is different than either of the previous two versions, but the bell also appears to be different. Whether this horn still exists today is uncertain, but there are numerous examples of this model of Conn Sousaphone still around. Eventually two of these four-valve monsters, along with 2-4 smaller three-valve Conn Sousaphones, were featured in the Sousa Band until the great bandmaster died in 1932.

Conrad played this horn with Sousa until he left the band in late 1903 to join Arthur Pryor's new band and, shortly after that, to become part of the newly formed Victor Orchestra, which served as the "house band" for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Here is what might be a photo of him with Pryor in 1904 (it does look a bit like him, but we can't be sure):

With what appears to be a CC Sander rotary-valve tuba in Pryor's Band, 1904
If this is indeed Conrad, then it is the first time we see him with a standard tuba, and it may be a CC horn built by German maker Rudolf Sander. Tubist and collector Sam Gnagey owns a unique Sander CC tuba that looks very much like what we see Conrad holding in the photo above. Check it out:

Sam Gnagey's CC Sander - possibly the very same tuba
It is perhaps significant that August Helleberg played a Sander tuba, and we think that Helleberg is one of the tubists in the full version of the Pryor Band photo above.

However, Sam has another photo of this horn from the early 1900s, and it is being held by someone who is definitely not Conrad. Sam understands it to be Fred Geib, who, incidentally, was subbing in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1904-05, while C. Stanley Mackey was touring Britain with Sousa's Band (Mackey played tuba with the Philadelphia Orchestra from its founding in 1900 until his death in 1915 - with the exception of his brief stint with Sousa). So, it may very well be Geib, rather than Conrad, in the photo above. We just can't say for sure.

But what we can say is that Sam's CC Sander tuba has a 16 inch diameter bell, a .807 inch bore, a weight of only 14 pounds, and a height of 35 inches. He describes the sound as "rather dark but with a good focus and core."

This is the only rotary-valve tuba connected with Conrad at this point. He seems to have preferred front action piston valves, as we shall see, which is one more reason to question that it is Conrad in the photo above.

By 1912 Conrad can be seen playing a unique Holton Mammoth BBb Bass:

With a custom Holton Mammoth BBb tuba at Victor, 1912
This horn appears to have been custom built for Conrad in early 1912 by Frank Holton of Chicago. The two had been in the Sousa Band together in 1893 (Holton played trombone), and had perhaps remained friends ever since.

Tubist and collector Mike Lynch owns what appears to be this exact horn:

Mike Lynch's BBb Holton  - possibly the very same tuba
The serial number is 20192, which squares with 1912, and it has a bell diameter of 20 inches, a bore of .750 inches, and a weight of 27 pounds. According to Mike, the sound is "somewhat between the very pillowy sound of later Holtons, and the crisper sound of the 60's versions."

With an unknown BBb recording bell tuba at Victor, 1913
At around this same time there appeared another photo of Conrad with a very different tuba - one much smaller and with a recording bell - the latter making sense, given that he was recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company!

At first glance, it looks very much like a Conn 48j CC "New Wonder" Phonograph Model, although that horn came along later, as far as I can tell. But according to master tuba technician Matt Walters, there are enough differences to suggest that it was perhaps another Holton, and more likely a small BBb horn.

With another (custom?) BBb Holton tuba at Victor, 1918
The last horn that I found connected with Conrad was from a school poster produced by Victor in 1918 (two years before Conrad's untimely death). Whether he actually played this horn in his work is unclear. But according to Matt Walters, it appears to be another unique Holton BBb tuba with a likely bore of .656 inches. And according to another technician, Robb Stewart, the valve cluster may have come from a Sousaphone, which was not uncommon for front-action American tubas.


  1. Very nice--thank you for all your work.

    Something to consider regarding the odd way the French helicon was held. Perhaps the photographer asked him to hold it that way so the mouthpiece/neck wouldn't obscure his face. Having been in what seems like a million of these photos here at the Naval Academy, I've been asked to do some strange things that are completely unnatural to playing just to get a "better" picture. Are any of the other photos you have of him holding it taken while he's playing?

    Again, thanks for your work--I enjoy tuba history, especially these old photos.