Friday, January 8, 2021

German Symphony Trombone by Holton 1915

Here is a rare bird, a "German" trombone made by an American firm, Holton, in 1915.  Some orchestra conductors in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century were asking for bigger trombone sounds to suit their tastes and literature, and nothing makes big sounds like big instruments.  German-made trombones of the time, often having a wider bore and larger bell than equivalents from French, English, and American makers, thus came into use.  At first, these instruments were carried to the U.S. by immigrants and copied in small numbers (ie: Lehnert, Moennig, Martin).  Later, as demand increased, they were imported, branded by the maker (ie: Penzel, Heckel, Schopper) or by the distributor (Wunderlich).  Without a doubt there was a growing call for this instrument, and Frank Holton Co. of Chicago would offer the type as a domestically-produced option.

Looks like business

Holton "Special" trombones were produced in multiple sizes, the largest, #6 "large" bore with 8-1/2 inch bell, being offered as early as 1904 (Holton Harmony Hints 1/1).  These instruments were recommended as "especially well-adapted for bass trombone in band."  Endorsements by members of Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony are printed in Holton literature as early as 1911 (H.H.H. 8/8), encompassing tenor and bass trombonists and conductors.  At that time it was claimed "The Holton German Symphony Model is the only American-made trombone that has made good in the principal symphony orchestras."  L.S. Kenfield, bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony, endorses this instrument built with "F" attachment.  In a 1924 Holton catalog the F attachment is listed as an option for $25.

In Exposition Year Catalog of Holton Band Instruments (1915), the "Special Symphony Model" is listed as having a #6 bore and sold for $48 in brass finish without a case.  It is presumed that the present instrument is that model or a variation thereof.  It is unknown what relation the "German Symphony Model" of 1911 has to this "Special Symphony Model" of 1915, but one could surmise that anti-German sentiment in the years running up to WW1 had been considered by the marketing department.

BSO members around 1920.  Carl Hampe's instrument is clearly visible;
it has a wide slide, and his right hand is resting on the tuning slide brace.

This horn was made in Chicago, Illinois, USA.  It plays in Bb, modern pitch, is built with a dual .530/.559-inch bore, and has a 9-inch lightweight bell.  Abandoned from the traditional German model are the wide, floating slide, and cork barrels with springs (it is interesting to note that modern orchestral trombones have wide slides with cork barrels, and sometimes springs).  A wide nickel garland on the bell is occasionally added by German makers; this horn does not have one.  Also, the often-outrageous nickel snake decorations on the bell and slide bows have been dropped in favor of small knobs.  Additions to the traditional model include a tuneable slide, a lead pipe/receiver, and a spit valve (in all fairness, some of these features were also appearing on German-made instruments of the time).  There is no bell nut or slide lock; you must hold the horn together with your left hand at all times.

no snakes


The mouthpiece is not original; it is a (fairly) modern Mirafone E56 with a medium shank.  This is not the "euro" shank as found on British and Willson euphoniums; it is slightly smaller and longer, for Mirafone eufoniums.  Fortunately, it seems a good match for this instrument; besides having the correct taper, it is reasonably wide and deep like you would expect of a orchestral mouthpiece.

The slide goes in-and-out alright, I guess, for an old horn, maybe I would rate it a 5/10 for playability, and of course it could be improved with a slide job, but even then it will have one main, glaring, terrifying, fatal, flaw:  it doesn't stay connected to the bell.  The huge, tall, heavy, bell, with no nut, and no counterweight, and a taper that only overlaps about an inch, will. not. stay. attached. to. the. slide.  You put the horn together, and it seems tight, but it's not, it slips.  You screw it on tighter next time and you think it might be OK, and it comes loose.  Surprise!  Right before your big entrance.  You have to keep your thumb on the bell brace at all times, or it falls off your shoulder KLANG onto the floor.  It waggles loose while you're maneuvering the slide back in from long positions.  Pick it up off your trombone stand and it closes KLINK on the slide and leaves a dent.  Indeed, as I look at the slide closely I see a bunch of parallel dents, some ironed-out, extending along the top of the outer slide, from bell-position back, from this fun folding action.  

left:  period German slide (.551/.551); wide and long, with a generous tenon
right:  Holton slide (.530/.559); narrow, with a dinky tenon

But there's more; the slide is narrow, so you have little leverage over that big bell.  It hurts your entire left arm to hold the instrument; it's tipping over, pulling forward, falling apart, and hurting your wrist, and your shoulder is tired, and your thumb is going to sleep, and your fingers are cramped together so they don't get bitten, and that slide, arg.  KLANK.  This may be how the horn has survived for one hundred and five years; it's barely playable, really.  Only by the slimmest chance it hasn't been thrown out a window.

Two 1915 Holton trombones

How does it play?  The sound, it has it; heroic, wide, projecting, prone to over-volume.  A full, robust, tenor voice.  High notes are playable but precarious.  Soft passages have a miraculous, airy sound when you can get the notes to speak; despite the thinness of the brass and light bracing, the huge bell seems to take a moment to start up, so it is not the most "responsive."  You have to think a little ahead to play in time.  And there is a panicky quality to the sound as you play louder; the instrument is resistant, so you have to play super-focused otherwise the sound get chiffy and every third note splits.  It improves with practice, as usual, and certainly a more-refined mouthpiece would also help.  I like to play some Wagner excerpts on a horn like this, also Mahler.  When playing the Mahler 3d Symphony "sentimental" solo on a period horn (this and ACTUAL German instruments), I discovered: playing the final notes (B-b-F) you can't get the slide from seventh to fourth and then back to sixth, Etwas Drangend, without completely disrupting your face and turning it into a splat-chiff-claaaaaaam.  We in 2020 are accustomed to perfect slides, but with an instrument of the time the maneuver is barely possible, mechanically; once you are in seventh you have to stay in seventh until there is a space to move.  The passage must be played in positions 7-7-6.  Mahler likely knew these three notes had to be played a certain way, which gave the passage a certain sound: terror, desperation, abandon, finality?  What are those three notes, what do they mean?  Try it this way with your modern horn (7-7-6), and you'll know something new about how it can sound.  The low range is very nice on this horn, big and round, with pedal notes that are easy to fake.

This promising but rather clumsy first effort showed the way for manufacturers of post-WWI years, as Holton, Olds, King, York, Martin, and others offered large USA-built tenor instruments.  Evolution took its course, and with refinements to tuning, ergonomics, and mechanics, ultimately there developed a modern American type of orchestral tenor, typified by Conn 8H and Bach 42.

left: German tenor trombone, anonymous ca. 1900
center: Holton Symphony, 1915
right: Bach/Shires 42, 1983

left:  Holton Symphony
right: Bach 42

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Denver Protest May 30

A little before the curfew started.  Something is going on by the capitol involving explosions and smoking projectiles being tossed back and forth.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Wintertime Year-round

July 2019 Denver Hail

December 2019 Denver Snow
Powder Day

Friday, August 30, 2019

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

REI Flagship Confluence Park

Confluence Park, looking North from the Speer Blvd bridge.  In this view, Cherry Creek flows into South Platte River, and their respective trails converge as well.  Globeville is just down the river, Auraria sprawls across the bottoms to the south, Lodo is near, as are Coors field and Broncos stadium and the Capital.  Also, I25 and an old rail line.  The feeling of "place" here is strong; I suspect humans have been meeting at and living in and passing through this spot for thousands of years. You can get anywhere from here; to the left is a bike trip south up the river all the way to Waterton Canyon, which connects to the Colorado Trail, Leadville, Durango, etc.  Turn right here for Sterling, Ogallala, Lincoln, all points East.

Northeast Portal.  Add a bell tower and some stained glass and you have a Romanesque cathedral. 

Waterton Canyon Bear

August 2018

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thoughts on Great Bikes

A new Waterford and an old Gordon, a day at the shop working on great bikes.  I am reminded that a great bike is always a great bike. What made a bike great thirty years ago still makes the same bike great today. Craftsmanship. Care. Design and proper use of materials. Hand Work, not machinery or computers. Newness doesn't make a bike great, Carbon Fiber doesn't necessarily make a great bike. Steel doesn't always make a great bike. Great bikes aren't cheap, but expensive bikes aren't always great. If you buy a great bike today it will still be a great bike in thirty years. A mediocre bike today will still be a mediocre bike in thirty years, if it lasts that long. Who wants to ride a mediocre bike for thirty years? Who among us has bought a mediocre bike thinking it was great? Who among us has sold a great bike in order to finance a new bike, only to find out the difference between "great" and "new?"

What makes a great bike?

1. Fit. The rider can embrace the machine without strain, and function with it as if one.

2. Design. The bicycle has features demanded by its intended use.

3. Handling. The frame is straight. The fork is straight and complements the geometry of the frame. The bike goes where you look/lean/steer.

4. Execution. Craftsmanship. Attention to detail. The closer you get the better it looks. Even this beat-up old Bruce Gordon is beautiful when you get right up close to it.

5. Feel. The final personal judgment. The bike feels good when you ride it. Every time. At the end of the ride just as at the beginning. The flex of the frame is matched to the weight and style of the rider. A bike which is great for one rider might be merely good for the next. No particular feature or characteristic sticks out-you can't describe it as "light" or "heavy" or "rough" or "quick" or "chattery" etc. Any single dominant trait will detract from another. The bike is balanced. A great bike is both heavy AND light, depending on the demands put on it in use. A great bike is both quick AND stable. A great bike disappears to you in that it has no distracting manners, it does just exactly what it is expected, when it is expected, as many times in a row as necessary, without drawing attention to itself. It is quiet, competent, sublime.

You can't tell a great bike by riding it once. You have to own it. Use it repeatedly, in different situations, and come to know it.

One of the good bikes that I own, all I can think about when I use it is, "stiff." When turning, "stiff." Accelerating, "stiff." Rough pavement, "stiff." Twenty miles later, "stiff." Looking at the bike, seeing the components, weighing it, you'd think "great bike." But no, merely good.

Another of my bikes at a distance looks like a third-world castoff, scraped paint, dirty tires, saggy old leather saddle, bleached and chipped bar tape. Fenders. Kickstand. Dull corroded old sidepulls. But get closer: Phil hubs, Record headset, 531 tubing, Bluemels, Brooks, Nitto, AmClassic, Chorus. And you begin to doubt the battered finish and the dirt and the corrosion. And what doesn't show, evident only after much use: perfect handling, absolutely neutral. Straight. Ride figure-eights in the parking lot no-handed. Comfortable right away, comfortable an hour later. Absolutely trustworthy and predictable, it has become my foul-weather bike that goes out for the worst, coldest, frozen and most dangerous commutes. Great bike.

A fancy expensive bike I had beat the hell out of me. Seventeen pounds of torture. Rides I couldn't wait to end. I took this machine on Triple Bypass, which turned out to be one of my worst rides ever. My opinion became that it is useful for short rides only, in dry sunny weather. It eventually cracked and went to warranty heaven. All the hype and marketing and Tour de France pedigree said it should have been a great bike, but actual use exposed it as much less. Overpriced piece of caca, good riddance.

Sometimes it takes a discovery. Another bike I have was never comfortable. Straight, fast, quick, lively, damp, a good bike generally, but somehow hard. Hard. Wanting only wider tires to be great. And once I discovered that it became a bike that I might never sell. A very similar bike was reviewed in a journal I respect, which declared it to be among their most-favorite bikes ever, once the wider tires mounted. That gave me a feeling of vindication.

There aren't many great bikes out there.  Is yours one?