The History of the Marching Mellophone

The Original Instrument:
The Koenig Horn

The very first Courtois Koenig horn/mellophone, manufactured in 1856 and presented to Herman Koenig by Antoine Courtois. Unlike its predecessors of the year previous, which were in the key of C, this was an F instrument.

In the beginning, before there ever was a marching mellophone, before there ever was a mellophone (in name), there was the Koenig horn.

Herman Koenig (see links below for more information), the man for whom the very first instrument was named, was a famous musician in his day, and played and performed on a number of instruments. It was said of him that he was an instrument builder and designer in his own right, but the physical evidence does not entirely support this claim. That he collaborated with Antoine Courtois on a number of projects is an historic and well-documented fact, but where the Koenig horn is concerned, information is sketchy at best.

One fact that must be kept in mind is that a number of instrument designer/builders were attempting to create entire homogenous families of brasswinds. The most notable effort, and the only one that has lasted to this day, is the Saxhorns, created by Antoine (Adolphe) Sax. But other families of instruments were: the Courtois Koenig horns; the ballad horns created by Henry Distin and manufactured by Boosey & Co.; the cornophones of Besson; the vocal horns of Besson and Rudall, Carte and Rose.

Vocal Horns & Cavalry Horns:
The First Marching Mellophones

The Vocal Horn

As the vocal and cavalry horns entail the same basic design, we will hereafter speak only of the vocal horns.

The earliest example of a bell-forward vocal horn (property of The Brass Players Museum) I am aware of is a Rudall, Rose & Carte instrument that dates from 1862, though it is doubtful this is an original instrument. It may very well have been modeled on a family of instruments bearing the same name and close to the same time that were manufactured by Besson.

Though this instrument is played with a French horn mouthpiece, the bore-profile and tubing length is close to that of the Koenig, not the French horn, the latter of which has twelve feet of tubing. Like the Eb tenor Saxhorn, the vocal horn, Koenig horn and mellophone have six feet six inches of tubing.

As we shall see, this combination of attributes would reappear in the 1960's.

Distin & Sons and their Ballad Horns

The Distin/Boosey & Co. Ballad Horns

In 1868, Boosey & Co. began marketing a family of bell-up instruments designed by Henry Distin called ballad horns. The bore-profile was an appropriation of the original 1855 Koenig family of instruments, and for many years, knock-offs of both versions, bearing both names, and with the bell facing up, down and forward, were marketed by an unknown number of manufacturers. Distin himself was later to build ballad horns of his own, long after he had sold the patent to Boosey & Co., and he was living in the United States. The most common of the ballad horns was a C tenor instrument, the last of which were manufactured circa 1930 by the Salvation Army Factory.

The Alto Cornophone in F

The Besson Cornophones

Like the Saxhorns, ballad horns and vocal horns, the cornophone was Besson’s attempt at creating a unified and homogenous family of brasswinds. These, too, were a bell-forward instrument, one of which was an upper-middle-brass analogue for the marching mellophone.

The alto cornophone in F, patented in 1890, had a tuning slide extension for Eb, and bears many similarities to the vocal horn, including the use of a French horn mouthpiece.

The Oldest Mellophone?

Until a few years ago, the oldest mellophone (referred to as such on the instrument) was a circa 1890 instrument manufactured by Champion Silver Piston Valves, Chicago. It is part of the Kenneth G. Fisk Museum. But a month ago, Arnold Myers, curator of the Edinburgh University Museum and head of the all-important Brasswind Taxonomy Project, informed me that an instrument had come into his possession that at the very latest dates from circa 1881, and was manufactured by Kohler & Son, London.

This instrument is important for another reason: according to Arnold, it is a knock-off of the Boosey ballad horn, itself a knock-off of the Courtois Koenig horn. So it could very well be that our beloved instrument is a knock-off of a knock-off.

Marching With The “Classic”

Regardless whether the bell of these instruments faced up, down or forward, and regardless whether they were awkward or difficult for civilians and soldiers to carry and march with at the same time, march with them they did. The “classic” mellophone, which was very popular in the United States during the Ragtime era (circa 1890- circa 1920), was also the perennial favorite of African-American musicians, among them Dave Jones who played in Fate Marable’s riverboat bands alongside Louis Armstrong, and during the First World War there was an entire section of mellophones in Lieutenant James Reese Europe’s military ragtime band.
Don Elliot's "Mellophone" Album

Don Elliott (1926-1984)

Don Elliott played jazz for many years, with many of the jazz greats, on trumpet, mellophone, tenor horn, xylophone, vibraphone, piano, accordion, percussion and vocals. Early on, he was also a baritone horn player. Until the coming of the Conn Mellophonium, Elliot was pretty much alone in the jazz world where the mellophone was concerned. He recorded one jazz mellophone album in 1955.  Apparently, Elliott had commissioned Conn to create a one-of-a-kind mellophone with the bell pointing up for his live performances.

Stan Kenton, C.G. Conn, and the Mellophonium

The mellophonium section was part of Stan Kenton’s band from 1960-1963. There is a prevailing myth that Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards designed the mellophonium in 1960, one that I myself unfortunately bought into. The truth, passed along courtesy of George Ferencz, is that Conn was marketing the mellophonium as early as the spring of 1957. George tells me that this info appeared in The Baton, which was the predecessor of the Conn Chord.

The Kenton myth is as follows:

[The mellophonium was “designed” by Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards in 1960. Their design efforts consisted of taking a hacksaw to a “classic” mellophone, sawing off the lead-pipe and bell braces as best they could, wrenching these sections upward so that they outlined a straight line, more or less, with the rest of the hapless instrument left to dangle downwards so that the outline of the instrument resembled a trumpet with a big bell resting atop a circle of tubing roughly 10" across. The two then presented their efforts to C.G. Conn, who subsequently put the instrument into production.]
Stan Kenton's "Mellophonium Magic"

The myth notwithstanding, if one listened seriously to all the hoopla and misery that came out of Kenton’s band because of the mellophonium section, one could easily be misled into thinking that these instruments were an inferior disaster.

The simple truth is this: In retrospect, when one listens to those recordings, the mellophoniums are just one innocuous part of the overall sound of the band. Nothing more, nothing less. But the players themselves are mostly to blame for this instrument’s short-lived appearance in the band, because they did not use the right mouthpiece for these instruments (they used trumpet mouthpieces, which used in a mellophone give a brash, loud, obnoxious, blatty sound that can easily overpower the trumpets and trombones), and they used the mellophonium, not so much as a musical instrument, but as a means to be disruptive.

The Frumpet

The Frumpet is not a mellophone instrument, but I have included this instrument because it entails one of the many efforts to fill the upper-middle brass niche.

The Frumpet is an Eb/F instrument that uses a French horn mouthpiece, and like the mellophone, tenor cor and marching French horn, it is a hybrid instrument. The making of a hybrid often produces mixed results. In the case of the Frumpet, the result was an inferior, out-of-tune instrument that lasted from 1964 to 1985, and was manufactured by Getzen.

The Frumpet

The Frumpet is a hybrid of the tenor horn (Eb alto horn in the US) and the French horn. The designers knew that French horn players outnumbered tenor horn players, and that they were often told by their misguided teachers that they should play the tenor horn or mellophone with a French horn mouthpiece and adaptor. The result is awful, of course, because it’s the wrong mouthpiece for the wrong instrument because it isn’t compatible with the instrument’s bore-profile, but Getzen thought to accommodate by adding a much longer French-horn-like lead-pipe to a tenor-horn instrument with a slightly oversized 8" bell (the tenor horn generally has a 7.5" to 7.75" bell with a narrower throat than the Frumpet).

Alas, for its entire life this instrument was plagued with intonation problems. Being 6' 6" in length, like the tenor horn and mellophone, it simply could not accommodate the wave forms produced by the French horn mouthpiece. Had Getzen doubled the tubing length to 12', however, so that this instrument would have had the same length of tubing as the French horn, this would have solved the problem.

It would also have led to the re-creation of the Wagner tuba, which is almost exactly the instrument described.

At Last, The Marching Mellophone!

Soon after C.G. Conn began marketing its mellophonium in the early 1960's, a host of imitators followed, including Bach, Yamaha, King, Holton, Dynasty and Blessing.

The first (and most obvious) thing these manufacturers did was redesign the instrument to more resemble an oversized trumpet, which made for a better-balanced, more compact design.

The marching mellophone is primarily an F instrument that is played with a tenor horn mouthpiece with smaller stem-size.

Some of these instruments have crooks or keys to lower the pitch a tone to Eb. Some manufacturers, like Kanstul, manufacture a G mellophone bugle for use in drum and bugle corps.

The Marching French Horn, and How
It Differs From Its Mellophone Counterpart

The Marching French horn, an F and a Bb instrument, comes in two forms: an instrument configured like the marching mellophone that uses a horn mouthpiece, has a French horn bore-profile and a French horn’s 12' of tubing (when in the key of F- these instruments, to the best of my knowledge, are now out of production); and an instrument that likewise uses a French horn mouthpiece, is configured like a marching mellophone, but like the mellophone has only half the tubing of the French horn.

The Various Bore-Profiles and the
Mouthpieces Used To Play Them,
Right Or Wrong

To summarize the bore-profiles of all of the aforementioned incarnations of this instrument, there are four types:

Flugel: Characterized by a deep V-cup mouthpiece and an instrument having a steeper slope to its conical bore than the tenor horn. This was the bore-profile of the original 1855 Koenig horn. The mouthpiece that goes with this bore-profile, for a tenor (or alto or contra-alto or contralto) Eb/F instrument is designed for an instrument around 6' 6" in length.

Tenor horn: Characterized by a cornet-proportioned mouthpiece, and a bore-profile that was originally modeled on the cornopean, the predecessor of the modern cornet. Like its fluegelhorn counterpart in Eb, the mouthpiece is designed to work with an instrument 6' 6" in length.

French horn: Characterized by a deep V-cup mouthpiece, smaller in diameter than that used by the flugelhorns. The mouthpiece is designed to compliment the bore-profile of this instrument, and its length of approximately 12'.

Hybrids: Instruments that mix and match the above bore-profiles, tubing lengths and mouthpieces.

Further Reading

The Golden Age of Brass
The Middle Horn Leader
Well-known Soloists from All Walks of Life
Annotated Checklist of Trumpets and Cornopeans with Stölzel Valves in The Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Collection of Brass Instruments