What is a Mellophone? 

Friday September 21, 2007

To best understand the mellophone, the original instrument, the Koenig horn made by Antoine Courtois in 1855, must be understood in its proper context.

When Herman Koenig was born there were few valved brasswinds. Those in existence, existing either as experiments or working instruments, were symphonic brass instruments, which in those days belonged to a separate brass tradition from that of Koenig and musicians like him.

The Cornopean

      He himself is said to have been a cornettist, but when he was a child there were certainly no cornets, and until 1855 he would have played the cornet pistons or cornopean, a predecessor of the cornet. So when it is said that he was a cornettist, it is the cornet pistons that is being referred to in his early career. Later on he would have played the modern instrument or modele anglais cornet, first made by Antoine Courtois in 1855 and patented that same year.

      In 1855 it was expected that brass students master the furst pless or post horn, and this was certainly true of the school of performers to which Herman Koenig belonged. The valved version of this instrument had been around for some time and was itself the predecessor of the cornopean, both of which were designed and made by Hallary, aka Jean Hilaire Ast.

      So, in 1854, the year before the Koenig horn made its debut, which brass instruments would Herman Koenig have been familiar with?

      Certainly the keyed bugle, the furst pless horn, and possibly the cornet ordinaire, the valved version of the furst pless horn. The cornopean was his main instrument, he may have been familiar with the keyed trumpet, and he most certainly would have been aware of several variations of the Horn and similar instruments. The latter is evident in the form of the soprano Koenig horn in C, a 4' instrument which is essentially a C furst pless horn having Perinet valves and utilizing a Horn mouthpiece.

The Koenig Horn

      Enter the original mellophone, the Koenig horn. But where did the idea for it come from and what was its intended purpose?

      To answer those questions one must necessarily turn to the horn's inventor. What did he want this instrument for and why did he have it made?

      The answers, I think, are pretty straightforward. It is a conical "half-length"* instrument designed to be played by someone familiar with the cornopean and the furst pless horn. Its form is that of an alto/tenor version of the furst pless horn, and its original intended purpose, given that Koenig was a brilliant solo performer, was probably to have been a soloist's instrument.*

      This latter is suggested by the dearth of these instruments in the early days. The original was possibly a one-off for Koenig's own use, and seeing him perform on it, other performers may have requested their own instrument from Antoine Courtois. This is suggested by the low number of instruments made. 

How Was This instrument Used? 

      The original Koenig horn was probably used as a solo instrument by Koenig himself, either with piano accompaniment or a small ensemble, or he may have used it to play with other soloists. Unfortunately there seems to be no record of this original instrument's use.

The Distin Ballad Horn

      Any thought of using the Koenig horn or any of its later incarnations as a band instrument evidently came decades later as subsequent generations of knockoffs got made by other manufacturers. The Ballad horn of Boosey & Co., possibly designed by Henry Distin, didn't appear until 1868 and isn't relevant in this regard because it was a tenor C instrument used primarily to perform church and parlour music, and the Kohler & Son mellophone, an alto/tenor version of the Ballad horn, didn't appear until circa 1880. And the "classic" version of the mellophone we know today didn't emerge until circa 1890, from Kraslice in the Czech Republic.

      The brass band tradition, which dates back to the 1830's, originally used the Horn, which was replaced, along with the ophicleide, cornopeans and keyed bugles, by Saxhorns and cornets, so the mellophone was not to be found in brass bands.

      The modern version of the mellophone, the "classic", first emerged from Kraslice in the Czech republic circa 1890 and was marketed (it appears to be exclusively thus far) to the United States.

      The historic instruments and record don't support the assertion that the mellophone was intended specifically to be a Horn substitute because until circa 1930 examples of these instruments often came with as many as four valves or extra crooks for playing in the keys of F, Eb, D and C. Many of these horns came with two mouthpieces, a larger one for the lower keys.

Fate Marable's Orch 1918. At piano Fate Marable  .Others L-R: Pops Foster, Dave Jones?, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Joe Howard?, Louis Armstrong, Bill Ridgeley, Baby Dodds

      Photographic evidence shows these instruments in use in popular music groups, predominantly among African-American musicians, often side by side with the Horn. There are photographs of cornettist Freddie Keppard playing the Horn as a second instrument with a fellow next to him doubling on mellophone. Dave Jones played mellophone with Louis Armstrong who at the time playing both cornet and soprano trombone in Fate Marable's riverboat bands in the 1920's. The type of usage suggests that the mellophone was intended to be a versatile alternative instrument in small ensembles, adding an extra alto or tenor voice as needed.

      The mellophone's use in marching concert bands is very difficult to nail down in the beginning, but it was certainly in use in African-American concert bands circa 1910, as can be seen in photographs of the bands of James Reese Europe.

      In the 1960's and earlier there were often identical parts for the Horn, mellophone and alto horn, and the number of Olds, King, Martin, Reynolds, Conn and other makes of alto horns and altoniums made in the US at that time and earlier indicates that the Eb/F alto/tenor voice was shared equally by the Horn, mellophone, the frumpet (which was made by Getzen), the altonium, alto horn, and the marching "French" Horn which made its appearance as early as 1952. 

The Post Horn 

The Post Horn

The post horn was an 18th century instrument used by postal wagon drivers to signal the arrival of mail. It is classified both as a signal horn and a hunting horn. Early 19th century brass players often advocated practicing on the post horn and there was written music for it. Among the composers of post horn music in Bb was Herman Koenig.

      Halary, also known as Jean Hilaire Ast, invented the cornet ordinaire in 1828 (a decade after the "French" Horn acquired valves), which was the post horn with rotary valves added. In 1855 Herman Koenig came out with his own version of this instrument in C (which may have been made either by Koenig or Courtois) which had Perinet valves and used a Horn mouthpiece. That same year Antoine Courtois presented Herman Koenig with a specially made low F horn of the same type, which closely resembles the modern "classic" mellophone in all respects.  

What Became of The Post Horn? 

Dotzauer valved Bb post horn

The post horn, in fact, never went out of production. It has always been available in Europe and is manufactured by a number of companies. Price-wise, among the most expensive are the Dotzauer, which is available through the Antique Sound Workshop. Mid-priced horns of pretty good quality are made under the "signal horn" heading of companies such as Lidl and Amati. If you wish to shop around for a cheap horn to try out, they can be found on eBay Germany's site. If you don't speak German just click on the "translate" icon, click on "music instruments", then type pless when doing a specific search.

      For cornettists who double on mellophone in marching bands (this includes players of the American cornet, which today is referred to as the "Bb trumpet"), and for curious mellophonists, adding the post horn to your repertoire is a good way to put you in touch with the histories of your respective instruments. Just think: when you hear a post horn, you're hearing a sound that goes back to the 1700's.  

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 * A "half-length" instrument is an instrument that is up to half as long as "natural" instruments such as the natural trumpet, Horn, corno da caccia, etc. The shorter length is a byproduct of having valves, which allows for the playing of complete chromatic scales in the low range. The low range of "natural" instruments does not lend itself to playing scales or to chromaticism because the only notes available to the player are the fundamental, root, fifth, root, third, fifth, seventh, root, after which diatonic scalar passages are possible. Chromatic notes are achieved either through "hand-stopping", which was a practice that was once not unique to the Horn, and by the placement of holes in the tubing.  

* I am attributing the source of the notion of the mellophone being an alto/tenor furst pless horn to Niles Eldredge based upon a conversation he and I had several years ago, wherein he suggested that the mellophone was in fact an alto/tenor version of whatever instruments its inventor would have been familiar with.