Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Prussian brasses of the 19th and 20th centuries
I've been searching for an Ahlberg and Ohlsson swedish kornett for years. They always seem to disappear before I can secure one. I have a little brass quartet here in The States that plays out of the Svenska Messingskwartetten book that was recorded by members of the Swedish Radio Orchestra back in 1999. I'm also a huge fan of the Medevi Brunnsorkester and the whole Swedish brass tradition. You must have a blast playing!
My question is this: Where did you get your reproduction? Are they still being made? Would you happen to have any leads on a used A&O Bb or Eb that one could purchase?
Forgive me if this is too bold. It's just been difficult finding info on this from over here in the US.
Thanks so much for the help.
I'll move the conversation over to this subforum so we don't clutter up the Lounge thread with serious topics.
Here's an imgur album of my cornet. It's not an A&O but a contemporary copy made by Schuster & Co in Markneukirchen some time in the first half of the 20th century. They were one of several factories in Central Europe who provided lower-cost (and often higher-quality) instruments for Swedish ensembles.
The restoration work was done by a local craftsman and cost about as much as having a modern reproduction made.
I will type up a somewhat longer post about this cornet, but I am a bit short on time today.
LongTones last edited by
Excited to hear more about the whole project. Thanks for the bump! I love these horns and tradition behind them. I'm keeping an eye out for these on eBay.
Do you play traditional Swedish music on it?
@longtones I'm afraid you won't have all that much luck on eBay. It seems like few of these instruments made it across the pond, and eBay is a very marginal marketplace in Scandinavia. (Well, I buy stuff on there all the time, but I wouldn't even think about posting something for sale there. International is just too much hassle, excepting private forums and facebook groups.)
So, if you want to find an antique Swedish kornett, you'll have to branch out to local/regional marketplaces. I'll list a few sites and auction houses below.
Let's start with an effortpost on orientation in the classic Swedish ensembles. From the most common to the least, they were:
- Sextet (Eb kornett, Bb kornett, alto horn, two tenor horns, tuba/bombardon in F)
- Octet (Eb kornett, flute, two clarinets, alto horn, two tenors, tuba)
- Quartet (Bb kornett, alto horn, tenor, tuba)
Note: The counts are excluding the percussionist, so a sextet was usually a 7-piece band, etc. But drums were mostly optional, and most period sextet or quartet arrangements do just fine as "chamber music" without drums.
I'm excluding here all larger ensembles, since they differ little from continental bands and don't need much explanation.
Chromatic brass instruments had significant differences in the early 19th century across different marketplaces. Stölzel valves were huge in France for cornets/cornopéans, and Berlin valves were popular in Central Europe and Germany. Gradually these were supplanted by technically superior Perinét valves and rotary valves, respectively. In northern Germany (from Berlin and up, what was called Prussia), a type of cornet had developed by the mid-1800s.
It had the following distinguishing features:
- rotary valves, side action
- cylindrical leadpipe
- the taper of a flugelhorn, starting at the valve block
- a very small bell flare, giving the visual impression of an ice cream cone
- a bore that could (unfortunately) fit a modern trumpet mouthpiece
- a mouthpiece with v-shaped cup and quite a flat rim
The sound is very bugle-like, and if played idiomatically it produces a quiet and mellow sound, compared to modern trumpets, cornets and flugelhorns. It can play loud if pushed, but at great expense of embouchure stamina... It also has some quirks of intonation (like all flugelhorns, but more so). This makes it suited for an ensemble of other period instruments, which are likewise more bugle-shaped than modern tubas, horns etc.
The first Swedish manufacturer of these kornett-family instruments was I.V. Wahl of Landskrona, who was a wunderkind and built his first woodwinds professionally at age 16. He learned brass instrument making in Prussia in 1824, and brought this design with him. His were the first brass instruments in Sweden to be playable and affordable enough to find a wider use in bands. The wind octet took shape soon after, employing Wahl's new kornets in Eb and Bb, as well as alto horns, tuba and some woodwinds.
Wahl gradually took on employees and apprentices, and in 1850, two of his apprentices graduated and began a walk north to Stockholm, where they set up shop under their own names: Ahlberg & Ohlson.
They promptly revised Wahl's designs and improved them, and eventually outcompeted their old master. After a couple of decades, A&O were the dominant player in brass instruments in Scandinavia. Their instruments were part of the standardized Swedish military band as well as the opera and symphony orchestras of the capital:
- Soprano kornett in Eb
- Kornett in Bb
- Alto horn in Eb (front-facing, with side-action rotary valves)
- Tenor horn in Bb (usually front-facing like the alto but occasionally tuba-shaped)
- Tenor valve trombone (rotary). This model was also employed in Italian opera orchestras and as such, its survival into the 20th century was pretty unique to Italy and Scandinavia
- Tuba in F with a very narrow bell, similar to old Moritz's basstuba design of 1835. After 1900, the bell shape was gradually enlarged and modernized, yet use of Morit'z "berliner pumpen" persisted and the old "bombardon" model continued to be offered with its drainpipe-like bell.
For the navy bands, they made special orders of piccolo kornett in Ab (!). The navy did not like to employ woodwinds on board their ships, and the piccolo kornett took the role of flutes and high clarinet parts in arrangements. As far as I am aware, there are two playable examples in Sweden. One is in a museum and is sometimes lent out for performance, and the other is with a private collector and performer.
A special quirk of Ahlberg & Ohlson is the cylindrical rotor. Unlike continental manufacturers, who started making their rotors slightly conical, A&O never took to this novelty and persisted in making them cylindrical until they closed shop in 1959. This design makes restoring leaky valves an expensive prospect, since the rotors have to be re-plated and honed. With conical valves, making them tight again is a 5-minute job on the lathe.
Studying the history of A&O specifically, it is remarkable how little they revised their most popular instruments between 1850 and 1959. The kornetts were more or less the exact same for the whole era, though some details did change: Bell garlands were gradually disposed of across the whole range of products as bell making technology improved. Valve slide tubing has slightly more "square" bends in the first few decades and became rounder at some point before 1880 or so. But basically, you could interchange parts between the first and the last soprano they built, across a time span of 109 years!
Looking at tubas/bombardons, the catalogs stated "these instruments can be provided with rotors on request, but these will have a less favorable blow". Whatever that means. The fact of the matter is, the old Berliner Pumpen will almost always be worn out and need significant repair. When found in a playable state, these tubas have a very direct and unique sound, and not much volume. A modern tuba will require very sensitive playing not to overpower period horns and kornetts.
They also made more "generic" brasses like slide trombones, french horns, and trumpets in various keys, which were mostly copies of French or German instruments and are not very remarkable today. I do hear good things about their orchestral trumpet in low F, where a surviving instrument is reportedly used at the Gothenburg Opera for suitable rep, such as Wagner. Probably, these were built as custom orders. I have never seen one on the open market.
Options beyond A&O
Bands who could not afford to buy A&O would send A&O originals abroad to have copies made in Graslitz, Markneukirchen or other places. Some of these copies are arguably improvements on A&O's design, like what Schuster & Co produced, while some of them are more faithful copies. Most of the makes are anonymous and practically impossible to identify, but Schuster & Co were persistent about stamping their trademark Saxon crown on the bell of each instrument. One, two or three crowns, depending on the quality tier of the model. Mine is an example of the "simplest" model, having little nickel silver trim.
End of an era
From what I gather, the death knell to A&O's business was the reorganization of Sweden's military bands that occurred in 1957. Out went the low Eb trumpets that had provided the fanfare parts and the kornetts in Bb and Eb which had done melody duty, and in went the modern piston Bb trumpets for both jobs. The rotary valve trombones were finally replaced with slide trombones, and Eb horns with french horns in F. Modern euphoniums and baritones took over tenor part duty from tenor horns and valve trombones, and tubas were from then on played in EEb or BBb.
A&O did already provide most of these modern instruments, but were for some reason not able to adapt their business to the new market. Both founders were already long dead, and as I've noted, the firm had long suffered from a lack of foresight in instrument design. As far as I can tell, they had not employed a proper instrument designer for decades, instead making do with copying others' designs.
While I'm reluctant to advertise for the great big tech company of the West, there is a facebook group named "Ahlberg & Ohlsson" which is quite good for answering questions about these instruments and their performance, as well as hosting a repository of catalogues.
Next up, I plan to post something about repertoire ... Yes, I use mine for period rep, nothing else. (See above re: blending with trumpets...)
Let me wrap up with some pictures:
A period band from an industry town seems well-rounded but does not conform exactly to an octet. This would be very common, you make do with the players and instruments you can get. Gustavsbergs Blåsorkester in the 1920's. All of these brasses look like A&O.
Top row: Kornett in Bb, alto horn, tenor valve trombone, bass tuba, tenor tuba, kornett in Bb (I think)
Bottom row: Drum, drum, kornett in Eb, three clarinets, another tenor trombone, another clarinet.
Probably the best and most well-established Swedish wind octet to perform today, Oktetten Ehnstedts Eftr.. These guys have albums on Spotify, don't miss them!
You've already seen/heard this group; likewise the most famous Swedish brass sextet on period instruments with period rep. The group plays all summer at Medevi Brunn, and in 2021 they recorded many entire concerts for Youtube. (The players rotate week by week but are all music educators, professionals, or specialized amateurs.)
I'm sure this will be ruinous to myself and every other collector in the country, but here are some suggestions for sites to look at instead of eBay:
https://www.blocket.se/ <- Like Craigslist, a simple posting board with fixed price ads, searchable by geography
https://www.tradera.com/ <- Like eBay, cheap and simple auctions. (In fact owned by eBay these days, I think.)
https://auctionet.com/ <- International/Europe, but is a portal for searching across traditional auction houses. This one sees a lot of A&O action!
https://www.finn.no/ <- Blocket for Norway. Beware of Norwegian prices (ie expensive).
If you put up a saved search for "Ahlberg Ohlsson" or "kornett" on each of these, I guarantee you'll have plenty of opportunities to be outbid.
This example is absolutely not representative but an interesting outlier: The "boy tenor". They were so called because the shoulder-slung helicon type made it easy for a pre-teen to carry and play. Apparently they were common in school bands in Stockholm, but very few have survived, and even fewer in this great condition. The bidding ended up accordingly.
Here, another video - one of my favorite Eb cornet players, and a close-up of the three cornet-like instruments in a sextet.
When it comes to repertoire, it’s a difficult thing to puzzle out if you want to start up your own quartet or sextet.
Let’s start with what’s available legally on the market, that I remember off the top of my head.
Ahlberg & Ohlson published music themselves. I don’t have any lead on where to find any of it and I suspect there is no one who can claim the copyright in order to release the music.
The publisher & music store A Th Nilssons Musikhandel, Norrköping published a stream of booklets for sextet, over many decades, 69 of them. Some of them had additional parts for octet. They also did a series for quartet but I don’t know how many issues it had — I only have booklet #2. Each booklet is 15 to 20 tunes in varying styles of the time. They usually start with a medley, then various dances (waltzes, polkas, schottis, one-step, fox-trot etc), a hymn or folk song, and one or two marches per booklet. An excellent cross-section of the popular music of the time.
Booklets #40 through 69 were at some point archived with a composer’s association and are available for purchase from their site:
Order by emailing their head of archives, Per Floberg. His email is on the web site. They charged me ca 500 SEK per booklet plus postage.
The Swedish Association of Orchestras (SOF) have done the community a great service by cleaning up and securing the publishing rights for a lot of old music. If your Swedish is up to it, you can probably search for quartets (kvartett) or sextets (sextett) and find a lot of rep. The prices are very fair.
Going outside what is currently on the market, the best bet seems to be to befriend some other enthusiasts. In the days before the Internet, players and groups might exchange photocopies as trades, or players moving to a different town might make a copy of their old band’s binder, if permitted. Or, the binders were sold to other groups when a group disbanded.
I play in one sextet which purchased their binders in such fashion back in the 80’s. The other sextet I play in was founded more recently, on the basis of scans from two other sextets where friends played.
I’ve always had a policy of sharing the old stuff quite freely, though some of it is probably in a legal grey zone. It is impractical to research who each composer and arranger is, especially as many “pop” works from the early 20th century were published under pseudonym. (This is where SOF have excelled by clearing many individual works.)
I have written a few arrangements myself as a last resort, when something was not available off these sources, and I believe this is and has been quite common, too. I’ll happily provide what I’ve arranged, but of course I only own the copyright for the instrumentation, not necessarily the songs themselves and as such can’t be too forthcoming in public.
@longtones I forgot about all of the dealers you should check out..
Some of them keep current inventory of vintage horns online, and cornets will rotate out pretty quickly so you could make a habit of checking them. These are all reputable and trustworthy, and will give you a fair representation of the condition, barring any possible language issues. You might do well to inquire ahead of time whether they're willing to ship abroad.
Soprano kornetts seem to be the most common, followed by tenors, then altos, and by far the least common are the Bb kornett and tuba in working condition. You can get a good idea about prices by checking the registry of ended auctions on auctionet.com (see two posts up).
One quirk of the Eb kornett is its lower register. Yeah, it’s all a quirk… Low C or lower tends to be very flat.
Maybe you wouldn’t buy a soprano cornet to play in the low register? Well, idiomatic arrangements for sextet and octet call for a lot lot more of it than you’d expect. You get to play polka backbeats, waltz backbeats, march fanfares, etc all in the low register, and you’re expected to make do with somewhat crappy intonation. It helps that these horn don’t slot very tight, and at least the Swedish Fingering means you don’t have a very sharp low D or C#.
Did I forget to mention Swedish Fingering?
Here are two sopranos, one from Wahl and one from A&O. Notice that pretty long third valve slide on both?
The valves each lower the instrument by one two half-steps, one half-steps and four half-steps, respectively. You play the low Eb on #3, and low D on #23. Since there are fewer valves engaged, you don’t miss the nonexistent trigger as much as you’d expect.
If you're looking for good-quality Scandinavian cornets of other makes than A&O, I already mentioned Schuster. Also noteworthy, and mostly probably good players (depending on condition), are instruments by:
- I.V. Wahl (mentioned above, predecessor to A&O)
- Eric Petterson Stockholm (aka Euphony, successor to A&O)
- Johan Fredrik Ågren, Kristianstad (aka "Ågren & C:ni", "Joh. Fr. Ågren, Christianstad"
- Sandner & Leistner Kristianstad (successor to Ågren)
- I. K. Gottfried of Copenhagen
- Svenska Blåsinstrumentfabriken, Stockholm
Wahl and A&O will command the highest prices, being more collectible, but in terms of vintage instruments even they are really quite affordable.
Some local shops imported foreign instruments as stencils and they can be hit or miss.
A short story about a Gottfried bass tuba and how it relates to the Wahl tuba: