Looking Back: Lehnert Centennial Tuba
In this month’s Looking Back section, we again revisit a prior installment of “A Pictorial History of the Tuba and Its Predecessors” by Robert Eliason, then Curator of Musical Instruments at the Henry Ford Museum. The Lehnert Centennial tuba was featured in Vol. 3, No. 1, the Fall 1975 issue. These instruments were made by Henry Lehnert of Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, and were the subject of his U.S. patent no. 158,594. The original description and image from that Journal appear in the sidebar.
Experiments with the shape of large brass instruments continued until late in the 19th
century. Before the popular sousaphones were designed, Henry Lehnert of Philadelphia
patented this model which rests on both shoulders and completely encircles the player’s
head. Basses and baritones in this shape were marketed in 1876 as centennial model instruments.
One of the drawbacks of the design, and one which may have led ultimately to the
downfall of the instrument, is the player’s poor visibility. The bell, mouthpiece, valves,
the player’s hand, and a considerable amount of tubing are all up front almost completely blocking the view ahead and down. With the addition of some music on a lyre to these obstructions, the player probably could see very little. One can imagine with some amusement and sympathy the plight of the unfortunate tubist as he plays his way toward disaster in a mud hole or ditch.
The instrument shown is a tuba or bass in Eb with three rotary valves. It is made of
brass and is one of the Pillsbury Collection of wind instruments at the Henry Ford Museum.
These instruments have sometimes been referred to as “horse collar” tubas since they extend around the player’s head when in playing position. Henry Lehnert’s patent characterizes the configuration as resting on both shoulders “to give ease to the player holding it, and to be less in the way while he is sitting down, and more equally balanced back and front, and also while so arranged throwing the sound in front of the player.”
One other feature addressed in the patent and visible in the sidebar image is the arrangement of the valve tubing inclined downwardly toward the valves and the tuning slide (the slide directly downstream from the leadpipe and extending over the front bow), when the instrument is in playing position, so as to carry the water downwardly, where it can be emptied, as shown in Figure 2 of the patent.
Surviving instruments are constructed of either brass (as depicted here) or of nickel silver (see figure 3). This tuba is 37 inches long with a 12.75 inch bell and provides an opening about 9.5 inches wide for the player’s head.
The valves are arranged with the axis of rotation of the keys aligned with (but perpendicular to) the axes of the valves, and are configured to have relatively short action. At least one surviving nickel silver Centennial tuba has Allen valves (rotary valves with elongated, flattened oval ports) in place of the more conventional rotary valves typical of these instruments (figure 4). The maker’s mark is on the bell at approximately the level of the front bow (see detail, figure 5).
Figure 6 shows a tintype image of an unknown musician with his Centennial tuba. This instrument has an alternate configuration to the examples above in that the tubing after the valve cluster extends to the left side of the player’s head and doubles back on itself, rather than extending around the player’s head as on the above examples.