Sunday, December 16, 2018

German-American Trombones by Wunderlich

Hello cyclists, sorry we are off the subject again...


Hello trombone geeks, here are two instruments from an early Chicago "maker," Richard Wunderlich:
Both instruments are made of brass with nickel trim, typical of high-quality instruments even today.  The snake decorations on the slides are traditional to German horns, as are the thin bell brass, turned stays and ferrules, large bores, floating slide brace, and the nickel bell rim and leather valve hook of the bass horn.  Most of these features have been dropped from modern instruments, however the large bore continues to be standard for orchestral trombones.  Both instruments have tuning slides and water keys, which are found on all modern trombones.  The original mouthpieces are lost.  Both horns are beautifully crafted, with seamed tubing throughout, and finely detailed; you can make out the snakes' scales, eyes and nose holes, and fangs!  Wunderlich was an importer of instruments at the time but also employed immigrant workers from Germany, including the respected horn maker Carl Geyer.  I do not know if these horns were imported whole or built from parts locally; the decorative styles and physical scale of the two are quite different, and they are made from different alloys, yet the snakes and waterways are identical.



The instrument on the left, a tenor trombone, is built in high pitch with a dual bore of .525/540 and an 8-inch bell.  This bell is very thin and fragile and super-responsive, and the whole instrument is very lightweight.  Its sound is intimate and colorful and voice-like and runs off the rails pretty quickly when pushed.  I think it plays a ballad well, but it's not what I would use on Ride of the Valkyries.  The slide is surprisingly good.  It's fun and instructive to play at home, but I can't envision a use in the modern ensemble; it doesn't do everything well, and you struggle to keep the pitch down.  Almost every component is made from rolled and brazed metal sheet, right down to the ferrules and braces and inside slide tubes.  The brass (bronze?) components are oxidized to a delightful bluish brown.

The instrument pictured on the right is a "tenorbass" trombone.  Its valve works well and is very comfortable on the thumb, however the small diameter of the rotor is the source of some restriction.  It is built in low (modern) pitch with a bore of .508/.551 and a 9.5-inch bell.  While pedal notes are quite playable, I think the valve is useful mostly in limiting the necessity of longer positions; the slide is fairly smooth in positions 1-4 but starts to drag in 5, and sixth position is awfully sticky.  Seventh-position notes better not be followed up by others because you have to rattle the slide back in from that extreme distance and it completely upsets everything.  A 'benefit" is that the player is unlikely to toss the slide because it gets stuck in seventh!  Aside from this the instrument plays much like a modern large-bore instrument; free-blowing, with a big wide spready sound and you can really lean into it! I have been tempted to take this one to rehearsals, but aside from the slide problem, it's a struggle to get the right sort of core and projection on principal parts (it sounds a little baritone-y, with the stepped bore and big bell), and the high range is more precarious than I am willing to risk.  Also, it has wolf tones, on C and G, which cause the whole instrument to vibrate and hum.  It's weird, and it gets in the way of phrasing sometimes, but  I think it might work fine for some middle parts, or as a lightweight bass trombone.  This bell has very nice engraving of a style that I have only seen on American horns:

Extremely similar engraving appears on a 1914 Holton, a 1915 Holton, and also on a 1912 Harry B. Jay in my collection (all Chicago horns); I suspect they were all done by the same person traveling from factory to factory.

As there are no serial numbers on the instruments, we cannot precisely date their manufacture, however Wunderlich conducted business from 1891 until 1916/17, when the U.S. entered WW1.  It might be that anti-German sentiment at the time contributed to the company's demise.  Richard Wunderlich himself is said to have gone on to work with Conn.

Cheers!