Who's Copying Whom? (Long)

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Posted by Rick Denney on June 13, 2003 at 15:03:58:

In the current "tubas for sale" thread, someone posted a web page showing pictures of the Conn Orchestra Grand Bass they have on offer.


From what I recall of the catalog page in Stauffer's book, the Conn Orchestra Grand Bass was offered at least as far back as the 1920's. I have a printed scan of a Conn catalog dating from 1934 that shows the "DeLuxe Recording Model Bass" and designated 36J. It is a front-action tuba just like the one in Dave's pictures except for having interchangeable bells.

Here is the current Hirsbrunner HB-50 (Yorkbrunner), as it is presented on the Custom Music site


There are differences between the "York" and the Conn. One is that the first-valve branch on the York doesn't have a lower loop, and another is a double upper loop on the third valve. The Conn's valve tubing is like a sousaphone, while the York untangles it a bit.

Here is a picture of my Holton BB-345 (ca 1970), showing quite a bit of similarity with the York and its replicas:


Here is where I'm going with this:

We have come to think of the York as an archetype, but I have long wondered at the history of the grand orchestral tuba with large size and front-action pistons. How did these instruments come to be?

Looking at these pictures, it seems likely that Pop Johnson, York's designer, was actually just taking another step in an evolution. What is that evolution?

Donitelli, who commissioned the York, endorsed Conn in that 1934 catalog--a year or two after he sold the York to Jacobs (if I'm remembering correctly). Donitelli had been endorsing Conns for a while and supposedly using them since 1907, and it seems to me quite possible that Johnson was trying to do exactly the same thing Hirsbrunner is doing--build a copy of an instrument while trying to improve some of its characteristics. In fact, that may be why Donitelli went to York in the first place. Just possibly, Donitelli's request followed the lines of, "I want a big tuba to please Stokowski that sounds like a Conn 36J but that doesn't have a flat third partial--I asked Conn for one and they say the 36J is what I need--but I want the instrument pitched in C to help with those tuning issues, and now I'm coming to you".

Clearly, Donitelli didn't think the York was magic--he sold it in barely used condition for $175, when the Conn 36J in satin silver was over $300 new. Who among us would sell a magic tuba just because the leadpipe was too short, making the tuba conflict with our belly? Just about any of us would try to solve that problem.

I think the history of the grand orchestral tuba is starting to come into focus a little, at least at a speculative level. I can't recall ever seeing a lap tuba with front action piston valves that predates the invention of the sousaphone, and their first appearance doesn't seem to occur until after the turn of the last century. Therefore, here is my speculative chronology:

~1900: John Phillip Sousa asks Conn to build a helicon with a bell pointed up instead of to the side, and Conn builds the first sousaphone, using the piston valve body they used on their helicons.

~1900-1920's: Tuba players like the popular (and money-making) sousaphone sound, but some need a lap tuba. Conn builds the 3xJ series, with the front-action tubas using a variation of the sousaphone valve section and the top-action series carrying on previous top-action traditions. The valves are arranged vertically for more comfort, but still use basically the same valve branches as a sousaphone. Some smaller Conn front-action tubas used the same diagonal arrangement as a sousaphone.

~1900-1920's: Other manufacturers are following the same line as Conn, including (in particular) Holton, Martin, and York. The York Monster Bass used the diagonal arrangement, and the valve section was just like a sousaphone.

Late 1920's to 1940's: The large front-action tubas are popular with some (but by no means all) orchestra musicians and conductors. Donitelli needs a big tuba and for whatever reason goes to York for it. York adopts the 36J vertical valve arrangement, but simplifies some details, like taking out the lower loop on the first valve and the upper double loop on the third valve.

Late 1940's to 1950's: Jacobs establishes a reputation, based on his skill and the musicianship of the CSO brass section, his pedagogical skills, and the fame brought to the CSO by Reiner.

1950's-70's: Holton builds a grand orchestral instrument, using their own outer branches from previous monster basses but following the same valve-tubing arrangement as York, to try to fill the market niche established by Jacobs's influence and by York's and Conn's abandonment of the small professional market. The big competition for this niche is from Europe's kaiser-size rotary tubas. Most other American manufacturers stayed with school bands after the decline of professional bands, rather than courting the far-too-small orchestral market. The niche for extra-large orchestral horns is small in any case, even among orchestral players, but growing because of Jacobs's growing influence.

1970's to present: On the demise of Holton's interest in these instruments, Jacobs agrees--almost disastrously--to allow Hirsbrunner to copy his York. Hirsbrunner tries to fill the market niche further expanded by Jacobs's influence and by Holton's departure from this niche. Conn, by this time, had even stopped production of top-action BATs. The popularity of loudly reproduced recorded music encourages orchestras and their musicians to look for ways to play louder, and this fuels the popularity of the large tuba.

1980's: The continuing spread of the Jacobs influence, bolstered by the popularity of the Holtons with some players, the success of Hirsbrunner, and the broadening desire for louder instruments, encourages Meinl-Weston to compete in this expanding but still tiny market niche with the 2165, which is a synthesis of several grand orchestral designs.

1990's: The market for these instruments continues to grow, attracting Nirschl, who had limited production capacity in any case and therefore who didn't mind a small market for his best instruments. Nirschl and Cooley seek to make more of a replica, as had Hirsbrunner, rather than a variation on the same theme, as had Holton and Meinl-Weston.

2000's: Yamaha shows interest by experimenting with prototypes but needs a large market to be willing to tool up for production. Gronitz, who is another small shop with no need for a big market, makes another variation on the theme.

During this time, the most traditional European manufacturers followed their own path, though with increasing influence from the developments in the U.S., which represents a large and important market. Some, of course, are listed above, but many are still committed to the kaiser-tuba concept. The 5/4 Rudy Meinl, the Cerveny 601, the Miraphone 190, the Alexander kaiser, and many others are examples. The difference between the rotary kaiser tuba and the grand orchestral is more likely to be historical rather than musical, but I think they stem from a completely different tradition.

There are some instruments that are a complete synthesis of the two concepts, and the Willson seems like one. Willson seems to have taken elements from both traditions.

The more I think about it, the more clearly it seems to me that the "grand orchestral" tuba really is a lap sousaphone, though only modern... (I almost used the word "elitists" but that would be insulting, and I don't mean to be insulting)... -ists would think of that as a deprecation.

Rick "interested in history" Denney

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