Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Brief History of the Sousaphone...and its predecessors

Conn 50th Anniversary Grand Jumbo Sousaphone

There is a minor amount of debate surrounding this topic. According to an early C.G.Conn catalog, "The first Sousaphone Bass ever made was built in the Conn factories more than a score of years ago. It was built as a 'to order' instrument, and several experiments were necessary to adjust the proportions to secure the desired quality of tone and accuracy of scale." C.G.Conn Catalog, p.36 ca. 1926. 
This isn't entirely true. The first instrument was actually developed by the J.W. Pepper Company of Philadelphia at the request of John Philip Sousa, who helped design it. The result is the first Sousaphone we know as a "rain catcher." 
above: J.W. Pepper "Raincatcher" ca. 1893
From an interview with John Philip Sousa in The Christian Science Monitor from May 30, 1922.
"...the Sousaphone received its name through a suggestion made by me to J.W. Pepper, the instrument manufacturer of Philadelphia, full 30 odd years ago. At that time, the United States Marine Band of Washington, D.C., of which I was conductor, used a BBb bass tuba of circular form known as a "Helicon". It was all right enough for street-parade work, but its tone was apt to shoot ahead too prominently and explosively to suite me for concert performances, so I spoke to Mr. Pepper relative to constructing a bass instrument in which the bell would turn upwards and be adjustable for concert purposes. He built one and, grateful to me for the suggestion, called it a Sousaphone. It was immediately taken up by other instrument makers, and is today manufactured in its greatest degree of perfection by the C.G. Conn Company..."

While the actual first horns produced were by the J.W. Pepper Company, Conn did invent and perfect the modern or recording bell Sousaphone in 1908, at the request of Sousa.
So there is the technical history, but where did the Sousaphone come from? The Sousaphone is in the low brass family, evolving from Tubas. The missing link between Sousaphones and Tubas in the evolutionary lineage is the Helicon.
above: an old H.N.White (King) catalog. The upper horn is a Helicon, the lower horn is a rain catcher.
A Helicon is very similar to a Sousaphone except that the bell is fixed on most horns, and only faces the one direction. American made Helicons are virtually identical in design to their Sousaphone counterparts, but European Helicons frequently had rotors in stead of pistons, nickel silver trim, and non adjustable necks. The Helicon was originally used in Europe in military bands. The Helicon evolved from the Tuba and Saxtuba which looks like this:
above: Adolphe Sax's drawings of the Saxtuba from his 1849 patent.
The Saxtuba was patented in 1849 by Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the Saxophone. They were designed with the military band in mind. From Cliffor Bevan's article The Saxtuba and Organological Vituperation in the Galpin Society Journal p. 135 "Sax claimed that the brass instruments which were the subject of the patent would confer greater unity on the sound of a military band, since all pitches faced the same direction. They would also enhance the pomp of public ceremonies by being based on instruments illustrated on Ancient Greek and Roman monuments." Don't get too excited about playing one of these in the near future. There are fewer than half a dozen of these known to exist today. Sax's claim seems to be what John Philip Sousa wanted for his band. Too bad Sousa wasn't the leader of a French military band.
Contrabass Saxtuba

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