by legendary euphonium soloist, Arthur Lehman U.S. Marine Band,
Harold T. Brasch
Soloist - The Best of His Era
A New Reflection
by Art Lehman (July, 2008)
edited by Keith Barton
When I set out to write all that I could about the military musical life of the legendary euphonium soloist, Harold T. Brasch, I started wondering whether it was such a good idea. That was another era, long ago, when Harold roamed the earth and made things shake and roll. Who now a days would know a thing about him and his times? But then I thought, “Well, if no one knows how much he shook the musical world ‘way back over fifty years ago, they really ought to know about it. It is history and it, to me, at least, is a fascinating story. You see, Harold Brasch, single handedly, influenced the entire country to adopt the four valve English type euphonium with compensating pistons and forsake all other types of euphoniums. He did it all by himself and he was as successful as ever anyone could have been at an endeavor. His efforts turned the world of military band euphonium playing completely around and he did it in a very few years; a feat of amazing strength and determination. His name has gone down in history for this single accomplishment. Here, then, is the saga of Harold Brasch, euphonium soloist extraordinaire.
I. My Early Years
When I heard Harold Brasch play the Mantia solo, “All Those Endearing Young Charms” on a U.S. Navy Band radio broadcast in 1945, I was an Army Service Forces member stationed at the Indiantown Gap Military Reservation near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I heard an amazing display of artistry, coupled with a great tone, and enhanced by an attractive vibrato. I said to myself, “What I hear here is exactly what I need in my playing, what I want to possess, and somehow I must find a way to study with this artist.” “How” was a dismal question back in war time.
Well, I just bided my time and in May 1946 I got discharged and became a civilian again. Free at last! Free to get my old job back; but, then, the 7,000 workers at the plant dwindled to 600 and almost everyone was given a “pink slip”. No income, no job, no prospects. Again, I say, dismal. Now, wait a minute. It turned out splendidly. What it did for me, being out of work, was to give me lots of time to engage in an effort to contact Mr. Brasch by mail, to speak to him on the telephone, to set up a date for a lesson, and to travel to Arlington, Virginia to take one lesson each of the three summer months of 1946. Was I lucky!
I remember asking Harold Brasch on the telephone, “Mr. Brasch, I sure would like to play the euphonium better. Would you give me lessons?” Amazingly this kind man replied, “Sure I will!” I couldn’t have been happier. But getting there and back would be a real chore and it took all day long for that trip. I would leave my home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on a spur line railroad route to Philadelphia, rush at top speed from the Reading terminal to another railroad line’s terminal so that I could catch a train bound for Washington, D.C. although it was always nip and tuck, and I had to run most of the six blocks, I never quite missed catching the right train and the correct car. Lucky! The train pulled up to D.C.’s Union Station eventually and off I got lugging my euphonium. I took a taxi to 20th and what was it, Pennsylvania Avenue? Anyway, from there I took a bus to within four blocks of Harold Brasch’s home in Arlington, Virginia. What a trip!
When I rang his door bell, I was astounded not to see an older, pudgy man. What I saw was a young man, my age, trim, in a business suit (actually it was a Navy blue Petty Officer’s uniform), and he had a nice wide smile. “I am Arthur Lehman,” I said, “And I am here from Pennsylvania for a lesson.” Harold invited me in and from then on it got better and better. You might think that I was a long lost brother from the cordial and gracious way I was treated. I didn’t know what to think. Was it sincere or some cruel put-on. No, sir. It was simply Mr. Brasch’s quiet and generous outpouring of kindness. It really touched me, a hardened military man with nasty experiences all through my time in the U.S. Army. What a blessing. How thankful I was. I still bless this kind man, Harold Brasch.
I was pretty tired by then – it was around 2 pm – from the early rising, through the various train and bus changes, etc. But in no time, I was so pepped up that I never felt tired again until I was at Union Station, starting the return trip to Philadelphia. Now, dig this! I had no idea whatever what Mr. Brash had in store for me. He gave me the works. It was a three hour lesson by a top drawer soloist. Three hours! Has any one of you gone through a three hour lesson? Seemed like 15 minutes to me. So interesting. Again, note this. He charged me five bucks for a lesson. “Mr. Brasch. Your lesson is much more valuable to me than five bucks; won’t you at least take a ten spot, too?” He told me and his jaw was set – a warning which I heeded – “My charge for lessons no matter how short or how long is five dollars and that’s my way of conducting business.” “Yes, sir. Thank you sir.” That’s all I could stammer. He smiled, shook my hand and lied – “It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Lehman. See you next month?” I assured him that I’d be there and I would be playing better. I wonder if I really did play better the next lesson?
Harold Brasch was barely 10 months older than I. To me he seemed to be ten feet tall. My idol. In actuality, he was just my height of 5’8” plus. However, Harold and I were of completely different builds. I am normal in length of legs, arms, torso, neck, size of head. Harold, on the other hand, was not normal anywhere. His legs were pretty short and it gave him a peculiar sort of lurching gait as he marched up to the front of a stage to play a solo. When set and ready to play, he would kind of shift his weight about and get set for the solo. His horn at rest in some ungainly spot, not at the ready in any way. At the last possible second, he would whip that horn up to his lips and how he never busted his chops I’ll never know but he never did. He’d go into the opening cadenza with a fast and furious tempo and hurry-up style. What an exciting start to a solo! However, as soon as he got into the melody and the variations, he was a careful metered player, but with clever use of rubatos, holds, accelerandos, etc. Clever enough that he kept one guessing as to just what the heck he was really doing.
Back to his odd physical build. Harold Brash was, as I mentioned above, just my height of 5’8” plus tall. But he had a vastly different build from me. I was normal but he was certainly anything but normal. First of all he had a very large, very long head which slanted back from forehead to crown in a seemingly endless slant. His beautiful darkish hair was always slicked back but he never could quite control the cocktail which stuck up somewhere in back. That was pretty humorous with his navy Band peers and Russ Langrabbe, one of the Band’s top B flat clarinet players, also a marvelous cartoonist, often drew some hilarious cartoon in beautiful color, depicting Harold Brasch performing a solo in front of the Band and all you could see was that cock’s tail hank of hair sticking up behind Harold. The artist had drawn the cartoon so cleverly that all of your concentration must be on that out of place hair. A scream! Harold always laughed as hard as the rest, I am told.
Harold had an overlong torso to match his under-long legs and I often wondered if that gave him more lung power, diaphragm control, and perhaps some of his luscious tone. I never found out. (Please don’t think that I am criticizing Harold in any way. My father was of Harold’s identical build, only very much heavier and muscular. He was a star fullback in college. Long torso plus short legs plus weight equals a fullback.)
As I mentioned at the outset, I came down to take a lesson from Harold Brasch each of the summer months of 1946. Long time ago. Seems to me like just yesterday. I can remember every step of the trip and every minute of the lesson. Well, perhaps not all of the three hour lesson. Too much to remember, What Harold touched upon was so fast and covered so much territory that he lost me in not time at all. He was a veritable encyclopedia of musical facts and information. I later learned that he had gone through the U.S. Navy School of Music, a fine music school in those days, and had graduated the second highest in his class. While the rest struggled to pass, Harold breezed through easily. Incidentally, I understand that the one fellow who beat out Harold for first place never made it as a military or professional musician – but Harold surely did.
Whether or not Harold had total recall, he really remembered all of his musical studies, training, instructions, etc. He was laying it out for me so fast that I had trouble keeping up with the subject, let alone what he was instructing me about. However, his purpose was not to get me to remember it all but to see what a vast sea of knowledge was out there in the general field of music. Do you know? That was exactly what I wanted and needed to spur me on to take more and more action towards bettering myself in my musical studies. Harold, after all, was a very wise man. Much wiser than I. He no doubt sensed that I needed a big push and did I get that big push!
When I left the Brasch residence that day of the first lesson I was on cloud nine. On the train ride back to Philadelphia, I wrote down in a small notebook everything I could remember of the lesson and it was plenty. When that task was as complete as my memory could make it, I was a wreck. I leaned back and slept like a baby all the way to Philadelphia; a very happy man.
In July I returned to the Brasch house for my second lesson. If possible, this one was even more enjoyable than the first one. We were working on something – forget what – and Harold said, “Let’s take a break. Time for fun.” Okay. Fun? Let’s see what he has in store. Harold went into a record shelving unit and came out with a 78 rpm disc. “Now, I would like to have you listen to this record. It is a Herbert L. Clarke solo played by a world famous cornet soloist. Tell me what you think of it.” He put the disc on his turntable and what a lovely overall sound his equipment produced – just right. I listened to the cornet solo and felt it to be very, very good. After the solo was done, he asked me what I thought of it. I told him that I thought it was excellent. “Well”, Harold said, “Now let me put on this same solo and it is also played by a world famous soloist. Tell me what you think of this one.” I again listened. While I could hear that it was, indeed, the very same Herbert L. Clarke solo, it really sounded so different that you might think that it had been a completely different solo. Naturally, the soloist had made the difference. This second soloist was as good as they get – a master. His rendition was worlds ahead of the first soloist.
I remarked that I was amazed and I asked who in the world that second soloist was. Harold was quick to respond, “Why that was Herbert L. Clarke himself and he was accompanied by Sousa’s band.” What a perfect performance. What a great player. I really learned something in that lesson. Not all famous players are that good. Herbert L. Clarke was famous and he was far better than most.
Then, and he surprised me by this, he said, “We aren’t ready to pick up our horns yet so allow me to put on this different disc and let you hear it. Tell me what you think of it.” Then he pulled out a metropolitan opera company disc with two famous opera singers in a lovely duet from Verdi’s opera, “Aida”. The aria which they sang was “The Fatal Stone”, a duet. I listened to those great voices and I was really enjoying it. When the disc was finished, Harold asked me what I thought of it. I replied that I thought it was terrific. “And so it is”, Harold agreed. “But, why don’t we just listen to this particular recording. Same aria but by two top brass players.” Okay by me. We listened from beginning to the end. “What did you think of this?” Harold wanted to know. Not that dumb, I replied truthfully, “In my opinion the brass players had it all over the opera singers and they played it much more musically than did the opera stars.” Harold agreed. Then he proceeded to take each measure and explain just what the brass players did what they did and why the opera stars failed in this department. Talk about a quick education in careful listening! That started me on a lifelong quest for ever better listening. All of us can listen but do we hear and understand what we hear? Most of us do not, in my opinion. Careful listening plus attention to what one is hearing equals better understanding and improved performance.
Incidentally, the brass soloists on “The Fatal Stone” record were Arthur Pryor on trombone and Emile Koenicke on B flat cornet. Great artists, both of them.
That was some lesson, let me tell you. If any pupil of Harold Brasch’s didn’t learn anything during a lesson, he had to be addled. Cost me $5 and that in itself was unbelievable but for three solid hours of pure bliss? How could you beat that?
In our last lesson of the summer of 1946 in August – hot, hot, hot – at around the two hour mark of the three hour lesson, Harold excused himself and spoke quietly with his wife, Evelyn. I wondered if they were going to throw me out. Far from that, as it turned out. Harold returned and spoke with me, “Arthur, Evelyn and I are going to lunch now as I have an early concert to play a bit later. We want you to join us as our guest.” I protested, thinking “How can you benefit from my $5 if you spend it on a meal?” “Let me pay my way. It’s only fair” I said, but again Harold’s stern set of jaw warned me and I agreed to go along as their guest. Their young son whom everyone called “Fella” went with us. We had a great meal and it was very enjoyable. I can even remember what I ordered and it sure did taste good. It was a burger with a salad and iced tea. I was always an iced tea man. This was a fast food place similar to the present day McDonalds but it wasn’t a member of a chain. In fact, this was before those kinds of shops came into being. A long time ago, 1946.
After the meal Harold had to get ready to leave for that Navy Band concert so I had to go. This lesson must, then, have been “only” a two hour one. Still, it was a wonderful lesson with a few new quirks supplied by Harold, no doubt designed to tweak my interest. But the thing which touched me most of all was his great compassion. He knew that I was only a beginner when it came to professional euphonium playing. He probably thought, “This kid will never make it as a pro.” Yet he treated me as an honored guest and how nice can a family be to a stranger? I have always been so grateful to have known Harold Brasch, my hero, and to know that he liked me just a little. What a wonderful man!
I went back to Union Station, took the train to Philadelphia, got on that spur line to Doylestown, and when the train was stopped at the Doylestown Station, I walked the mile to my Mom and Dad’s home. Tired, dirty (many coal powered engines then, still), but a very, very happy young man. Let’s see. I was not yet twenty nine years of age. Young.
Harold had got me started on learning his lovely vibrato and all the rest of the year I worked on it. What progress I made is the question. It was difficult for me to learn. In fact, to my detriment, I never succeeded in learning his method of producing his vibrato very well. I developed my own vibrato which served me well for years and years but I will be the first to admit that Harold’s was the best. Mine was many notches below his, alas.
II. My Middle Years
I never got to ask Harold Brash what method of reading clefs he used. I wonder if he used the “movable do” system? I believe that Simone Mantia used this great system. He was right in the middle of the era when that “movable do” method was popular. Well, it is a foolproof system so that’s no doubt why it was so popular. Why do we not hear a thing about it now a days? I, alas, had the opportunity to learn this system and turned it down. I have kicked myself lots of times for being so dumb.
After Harold “fired me” as a pupil, saying that he couldn’t teach me anymore as I knew all I needed to know (I never agreed with that), we would visit and see one another here and there. At a point early on – long before he fired me – I expressed the desire to go to New York City and take some lessons from Simone Mantia, himself. I didn’t know what Harold’s reaction to this would be. He was a staunch supporter of Mantia, claiming him to be the very best of the best and Harold said, “That is great! When you see him, please ask him to jot down the “Crazy Polka” for me.” Apparently, Mantia had written some difficult polka with difficult licks in it for euphonium and Harold wanted to see it. Mr. Mantia never did this, however, as far as I know.
As for that “Crazy Polka”, I believe that it was merely one variation out of a Mantia solo titled, “Polka Fantastic” or some such title. I used to have this solo and the band parts but I believe that the U.S. Marine Band library has it now. That “Crazy Polka” variation was one of those “stilt” variations which are very tough to perform. I never did perform it although I had it worked up at one time.
Harold used some tricks and odd ball techniques in some of his solos in the 1970s and 1980s with the National Concert Band. One never knew what would come next because he often surprised us with something we had never heard him attempt before.
At one concert down at the Watergate on a fine summer evening, Harold played a great solo and was it a fine performance! Simply splendid. But – for his encore – he walked back to the center of the stage with a garden hose around his neck. On the business end was his euphonium mouthpiece and for a bell he used a plain old cheap tin funnel. What a sight. He enjoyed himself and the laughter of the audience . For the encore he played, of all things, “The Volunteer” (Rogers) and on a garden hose! Did the audience roar with laughter. We band members had trouble restraining our laughter. Harold loved it. A lark for him. And that garden hose really had a rotten tone, too!
Harold did play chords occasionally but he did so very judiciously and never more than two or three in one solo. But each at just exactly the right spot. He also could “do” circular breathing so quietly and smoothly that you had to watch his diaphragm area to make sure that he was really breathing in air while blowing out air – circular breathing. The way he did it was perfect. Perfect!
During one of our later lessons, perhaps in 1955, he let me in on a wealth of information all of which was new to me. He was talking about strange types of tonguing some of the brass players of the middle European countries as well as Germany used to use routinely many, many years ago. (Did he glean this information from his two “bibles”? I never learned the answer.) One of these obscure techniques I remember involved the use of the tongue controlled in a side ways motion. Harold explained why it was used and demonstrated it. He really could use the technique and surprisingly it was quite attractive because it was very smooth and soft. Nice technique.
Next Harold said, “Here’s a strange one. How do you like it?” It was similar to the first one but the tongue oscillated up and down, not back and forth. The sound and effect was different but it, too, was surprisingly attractive as Harold used it. It was as smooth as grease and it did have that soft quality about it.
One time during a lesson in the late 1940’s Harold said, “Let’s take a break, I want to show you some of my instruments.” Instruments? What instruments? I soon found out. First he brought out a Boosey and Hawkes four valve compensating B flat cornet. Gosh, I’d never even heard about any such thing but there it was. But a compensating cornet? Unheard of. Harold said that the company could manufacture any kind of instrument whatever and equip it with the compensation feature. All news to me.
Next he brought out a funny looking trombone. It was a Cerveny valve trombone with only three valves. He had performed a solo with the Navy Band during a radio broadcast using this little valve trombone, he explained. He’d played, “Original Fantasia” (Picchi-Mantia) using it and he had an acetate disc of the solo from the studio in his shelves somewhere. He brought it out and I listened to it. While he did play it well, it really isn’t for a valve trombone; it’s for a euphonium, in my opinion.
Before I forget, and I am writing such a rambling article, it’s a wonder that anyone who reads it can not be thoroughly confused; however, that’s how my brain works and that’s how I get the words typed to paper – I ramble. But I feel that these next two events are worth more than the rest of this article, so hold on to your hats. Here we go!
Let me describe as best as I can the two very best Harold Brasch solos I ever heard him play. These were so fine that how anyone on the face of the earth could ever approach their excellence is beyond me. That was a type of euphonium playing never heard before or since. That is my own personal opinion but, remember, I’ve been around for 90 years and I’ve heard lots and lots of fine youffers in their prime. Harold, I will guarantee you, was in a class all by himself. In my opinion it is a terrible thing that when he was recording some solos for commercial discs and sale, he never could get any recording which captured his tone well at all. I could see that quite easily. No question. His tone was never captured on any commercial disc. Not even close. What a shame.
Isn’t it fortunate that my memory is a splendid one for sounds? I can hear his lovely tone in my mind’s ear as well today as I heard it in a live environment with my own ears. It is true. Here I am a 90 year old very deaf man and I can hear, I can hear, I can hear! But only in my minds ear. But my memory serves me well in this regard. Now let me describe this momentous musical event to you in some detail – rambling as ever!
Late in the winter of 1948/1949 I went down to the Departmental Auditorium in Washington, D.C. to hear a U.S. Navy Band concert. In our lesson on Wednesday night, Harold told me that he was on for a solo and he had the sheet music for a beautiful song on the music stand for me to look over. It was “Were My Song With Wing’s Provided” (Reynaldo Hahn). What a really nice song. I had heard this song often on radio during the 1930’s. Simply a beautiful song. But, when I looked at the key signature, I almost fainted. What a key! All sharps! Now, all of you know that flats are much easier to read than sharps especially when we almost never get into many sharps in band work. Naturally, when I asked Harold about this, he merely shrugged and said that for him such sharp keys were easier to play than flat keys and he had some easy to understand whys. (I still don’t care for those sharp keys).
During the lesson we worked on the song. Oh boy, did he sound nice on that beautiful song. I was only a beginner compared to him but I enjoyed being allowed to play it, too. What I didn’t realize was that he was using it with only a single harp as his accompaniment. I naturally thought it would be with the full Navy Band accompanying him. Was I ever wrong.
Before I start describing the solo performance, let me, as an aside, tell you what you should know about the Departmental Auditorium those early days. What was it? Virtually 60 years ago? That’s just about what it was. A long time ago.
Back in 1948/1949, the Departmental Auditorium – where all bands set up to play concerts – was on all sorts of odd shaped, odd heights, odd types of risers. It was a nightmare to get a fifty piece band all set up and have all members see the band leader well. However, when the band was playing – no matter how good or how bad – it sounded like the very best band ever heard on the planet. Why was that? Simply because of the fact that every surface at any spot in the entire auditorium was solid stone. Talk about acoustics. They were superb for a band in concert. On top of all of this, some of us found that if we climbed many flights of stairs, also solid stone, we eventually came to a decent sized balcony just for the very best listening. Then, if you sat in a particular row of seats, what you heard was pure heaven. I could not believe my ears the first time I sat up there for a Navy Band concert. Why, I never realized that the Navy Band was so fine a band. Actually, in Commander Brendler’s day, the Navy Band rivaled the U.S. Marine Band in its excellence. Brendler was a top flight conductor with enormous ability and experience. He conducted all concerts from memory, too. What a feat of memorization week after week, year after year!
So, at the outset there was a fine band, there were the terrific acoustics, there was the balcony, and where was I? Right in the balcony. After some nice programmed music, Harold’s solo spot came along. William Cameron, the harpist, moved his celestial harp up to the front and set it up with his music stand just right for him to read all of those sharps! Almost immediately came Harold, large head nodding to the applause and, naturally, that cock’s comb sticking up behind. After a nod from one to the other, the harpist played an introduction and Harold started the strains of this marvelous song. Bear in mind that Harold was now using his old Boosey and Hawkes euphonium with the 10 inch bell. What a tone! Forget those 12 to 13 inch bells. That 10 inch did sound spectacular.
Harold seemed to pride himself on a very pure tone. He was always working on this whenever I arrived for a lesson in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I always wondered why. When I heard this song, accompanied by the harp, I realized in a flash just why he wanted that pure tone. In that setting, on that solo, and at that concert Harold Brasch was the most beautiful euphonium toned player ever. I tell you the truth, when I leave this life for the next and they ask me what music I want to hear as I pass over the Great Divide, Just forget “The Manzoni Requiem”. I want to hear my hero, Harold Brasch, play “Were My Song With Wings Provided” (Hahn). For this old man, that would be as close to heaven as I could go without being there. I cannot begin to express my reverence, my admiration, my gratitude, or my pleasure in once hearing this perfect performance by Harold. I wish that I could see him once again and thank him personally. I can still see and hear him. Now I wish I could talk to him. Maybe sometime…
For pure tone and unparalleled beauty, no one will ever touch that performance. It was, to my knowledge, never recorded. No tape machines existed then. The next best Harold Brasch solo I have ever heard was of a much later date. Let me tell you something about it.
First of all, while the old concert setup at the Departmental Auditorium had been splendid for it’s acoustics, it was a miserable place for the musicians with terrible seating at all angles. Therefore, in the early 1950’s an enormous superstructure – high, wide, and deep –was erected in front of all of the area where these big bands had performed in the 1940’s. This was, however, a two edged sword for while it gave the band enough room for four times as large a band easily to sit there, it also ruined those wonderful acoustics. What a shame. Of course, the band members loved it because there was lots of room, visibility and much open space in front of the leader’s podium. The bands then could set up about 20 to 25 feet behind the front edge of the stage or platform. Why this was, I never figured out.
At any rate, I learned on a Wednesday night when I was over at Harold Brasch’s house for my weekly lesson that he would be the main soloist the next evening, Thursday. He remarked that he was playing the famous Bellstedt solo, “La Mandolinata”, one of my favorites. For some reason, I don’t believe that he ran through it for me, have me pointers on playing it, or dwelt in any way upon it then. Much later I did work on this solo extensively with Harold as teacher and did perform it in a few years. But Harold’s performance was what was my second best Brasch solo performance of all time.
Perhaps Harold played every solo he ever stood up front to rattle through just as he played this one. I can’t say. However, this one single solo seemed to capture more of his complete tone than any other I’ve ever heard. How come? Simply because for one thing that it was recorded. A small independent local radio station was recording all of these Navy Band concerts that winter and that’s how I got the acetate disc of this particular Brasch solo. As soon as I returned home from hearing the concert, I called the studio and asked for an acetate disc of the Harold Brasch solo. “Sure. Send us ten bucks and it’s yours.” I sent the money and they sent the disc. Simple as that. What a collector’s item it is now. In the hands of the U.S. Marine Band library. Not played in, perhaps, 40 years.
Well, as I said above, that superstructure was a monster with too much space between the audience and the band. That worked very well for Harold for he walked to the edge of the platform (stage) and placed his microphone near the correct spot and was all ready to play, the band 20 feet or more behind him. He never turned to even glance at the band but occasionally he would give Commander Brendler a glance as if to say, “Move, Charlie!” This must surely have been in 1952.
What we heard live at the Departmental Auditorium that evening was a splendid solo, played perfectly, by a world class euphonium artist. But what the radio audience heard – from the recorded concert – was much, much better. What they did at the studio was to cut down on the treble sounds and boost the bass sounds. Just what was needed to help capture the true Brasch tone. Best recording of Harold’s tone I’ve ever heard. That really was some spectacular performance and his great tone was a big help.
Now, if by some fluke of nature, someone ever digs this single acetate disk out of its cocoon, puts it carefully on some high tech equipment, refuses to fool with the bass and treble balance, as skewed as it is, and does a good job of transferring it onto a CD, or some such disc, we will surely have a treat in store for us. Not only was it a splendid performance but that tone, that tone! Drives me crazy. Where did Harold get that tone? Best ever!
III. My Later Years
After he retired from the U.S. Navy Band in 1956 – having been at sea for a long time and having gone through the Navy School of Music, Harold finally “packed it in”. Retired on twenty years of U.S. Navy time. He had been having a long running feud with Commander Brendler. Poor Brendler. Here he had the world’s greatest euphonium player and he couldn’t handle him. A tiger by the tail. I never did find just what the problem between the two was but for Harold it was a “duel to the death”. Brendler could have shipped him out to sea; however, old Charley was too smart for that. If he shipped Harold off onto some battleship and into a twenty piece band, who knows what would happen? Maybe in time Harold would return as Charley’s boss. So Brendler just maintained a status quo and Harold, except for some hilarious tricks to pull on long suffering Commander Brendler, just played his solos and first chair work as well as possible and that was pretty darn good.
As I mentioned, I never knew what precipitated that feud. I’ll just bet you that when we came down to it, it would have turned out to be some trivial thing. However, Harold wasn’t a vicious man, just a cunning adversary when aroused. He would play these clever little tricks on Commander Brendler and poor Charley never knew just what was going to happen or where or when. He always found that out too soon to suit him.
The classic Harold Brash trick perpetrated upon poor old Charley Brendler was one he sprung on the Commander occasionally, not just once. Once would have done it for most people. It was so fine a trick that Harold tried it again and again until poor Charles ordered him to “cease and desist” or go into the brig. Harold ceased and desisted but under protest. Never went down without a fight!
This is that great trick he would pull on Brendler. Only Harold would have thought of it. Only Harold could have carried it out so beautifully. And only Harold could draw it out so long that Brendler must have been sweating blood before long. When Harold was planning his trick, he was up for some standard solo, perhaps “The Volunteer” (Rogers). At any rate not long into the solo, you may remember, comes a pretty nice long cadenza. Not overly long but not short, either. Harold chose this solo wisely for it really suited his nefarious purpose. I’ll bet he was grinning when he struck the Commander with this one!
Harold didn’t stop playing at the end of the published cadenza. He just kept playing some cadenza. Turned out to be the cadenza from “King Carnival” (Kryl), a long cadenza. He didn’t stop then. He started playing some long Arban’s exercise. He played and he played and he played. Would he ever stop? No he wouldn’t stop. After that one exercise, he must have thought it would be nice to include the Arban’s “Carnival of Venice” so he played through that. After a half hour of cadenza, with Brendler an actual sweaty physical and mental wreck, Harold closed the big cadenza, stopped playing, looked Brendler in the eye as if to say, “Move it sailor, it’s your time to roll.” Charley thankfully conducted the rest of the solo and it was finally finished, to the huge relief of the entire fifty member navy Band. Brendler never forgot this fiasco – for him it was a fiasco, for the rest of the band it was a “gas”. When I first heard this story I actually thought that it was some fibber’s work of fiction but it was so funny that I laughed and laughed. However, it is one true story which was subsequently repeated several times, much to Commander Brendler’s woe.
Harold himself told me a version of this story and it jibed perfectly with everything any Navy Band member related to me concerning that tapeworm of a cadenza. The beauty of it all, naturally, was that Brendler had to stay very alert because when Harold stopped playing, he had to step right in on a tutti. Would that tutti ever come? Took a half hour for it to roll around with old Charlie sweating blood. What a story!
When Harold Brasch left the Navy Band he went on many of his little concert tours. He, himself, and him – all on a tour. He seemed to revel in these tours. He would play many solos. You asked him to play a certain solo and immediately he played it. It didn’t matter if he were at the front of some college band, in someone’s house for supper, in some church on a Sunday morning, or in a prison to treat some bored inmates. What you requested, he played. He knew all of the solos. He could play them backwards. He obliged every time with a wide smile.
On these tours he conducted, gave clinics, and guest soloed. He even gave private lessons. I think that he would be out on a tour for 2,3,4 months. Kind of a long time but he was raising two sons and he provided them amply with what they needed. It was a business, then, and he was very successful. Everybody just loved him.
Some of you may remember Harold for his unusual physical build. I hate to dwell upon this for it is nothing – of no importance to our discussion. However, if you ever noticed Harold’s hands, it would have startled you. Here was this great artist – the very best of the very best on euphonium – and he had “hams” for hands and “bananas” for fingers. And strong! What strength of grip. How in the world could someone with such thick fingers play euphonium so flawlessly? A mystery.
How he got those hands is no mystery, however. He worked in an organ factory in Hagerstown, or was it in Frederick, Maryland? For maybe fifty years. How could he play in the Navy band and work at an organ factory? It is simple. Any day when he had a day off from Navy Band duty, he drove up to the organ factory and worked all day on organs. This was called the Aoleon Organ factory and the owner loved Harold’s work and instructed him, “Harold, whenever you have a spare hour, a day off, more than some days, come up here and work at my factory. You have free reign as to your hours. You are always welcome here!”
So that was the start of a pair of hams called hands and Harold’s were some mitts, I’ll tell you. At the organ factory they did everything possible to, on, with, and about a pipe organ – nothing but pipe organs – except manufacture them. Occasionally, Harold would be put in charge of a gang of organ workers who were assigned the duty of packing up a rebuilt organ, moving it to a new church some miles away, installing it in a new sanctuary, and getting it to operate perfectly. Harold always got things to work perfectly with never a failure. He and his crew.
In his organ work, he used a pair of extremely heavy tin snips. Naturally he was cutting and trimming brass, not tin, but what an exercise for any pair of hands. I myself could not have done that work. My hands are not big, tough, or strong enough to last on such a job. Harold lasted for fifty years, hands ever bigger, ever stronger, and ever tougher. Again I say, what a pair of mitts. And those rough hands could lovingly caress those four euphonium valves and coax such lovely sounds out into the soft summer air. Amazing!
When we got into the 1960’s and 1970’s, Harold’s record collecting days were ending. I think that he just lost interest. The old 78 rpm discs were no longer collector’s items if no one wanted to buy them. Harold’s record selling business ended. He even sold his extensive private collection. That must have hurt. What a shame. Folks were into the reel-to-reel tapes and soon into cassette tapes. Now it is CDs. What next?
However, when the days of selling the old 78 rpm discs were in full sway, Harold used tons of cardboard which he cut into 12 inch squares to protect any record shipment he sent out to customers. I am sure, after seeing him work in packaging, that he rarely, if ever, had a record broken in shipment, so well was his package padded and wrapped.
In cutting up these very many pieces of heavy cardboard – these must have been in the thousands – he used a pair of those tin snips he used regularly at the organ factory. These were B-I-G shears, very heavy and strong. “Hey, Arthur,” he said to me one day while I was idly watching him cut up cardboard – and he did it fast. “Just get yourself one of these tin snips and you’ll cut up lots of cardboard in not time at all.” He said that it was easy. Well, I soon learned that what was easy for him was simply impossible for me. I’d watched him assemble and pack up a big carton of 78 rpm discs and it sure did look easy.
I went back home in Prince George County and visited a nice old style hardware store not far from my house. I asked the clerk to show me some tin snips. “How big?” he asked. Foolishly, I replied “B-I-G”. He showed me the same identical snips which Harold always used, I bought them, and we were in business. Or so I thought. I went back home, dug out a pile of heavy cardboard, and started cutting it up with my new tin snips. Fast and easy turned out to be slow and very painful. In no time at all my hands were crippled, my knuckles were a mass of bruises, and my muscles seemed strained. It was a total disaster. I ceased and desisted – out of necessity. These tin snips reside in my basement here on Auth road, as new and unused as that day forty years ago when I bought them. Who can use such monsters?
For Harold such tasks were duck’s soup. For me they were bitter gall. My hands and arms could not stand that heavy work. Harold was a monster of strength and toughness. Yes, he could tenderly caress beautiful music out of his euphonium. How? A mystery.
In the early 1970’s several Navy Band members – all retired – got together to discuss the possibility of starting a new civilian band. I was invited to attend which I was very happy to do. We would meet at Eddie De Mattia’s home on Wheeler road, S.E., a pleasant and quiet residential area at that time. Now it is as high a crime area as any found in the entire D.C. metro area – a complete disaster.
The meetings, however, were fruitful and a new band was formed. It’s name was “The National Band of America” and it was comprised of mainly retired and former members of the four great military bands of the country – the U.S. Army Band, the U.S. Navy Band, the U.S. Air Force Band, and of course the U.S. Marine Band. We started having rehearsals and I remember our first concert with a thirty five piece band, all professional musicians. Sounded good.
In time this band, familiarly known as “The National Concert Band” gained world wide fame through some 12 inch LP discs put out by the late Robert Hoe, Jr. who was a great booster of bands and a world authority on marches of all kinds. You name a march and he could tell you everything known about it and its composer. Bob had a splendid memory. In time, Bob Hoe died following complications of lung cancer – he was a big cigar smoker – and by then he had issued and dispensed about 268 12 inch LP discs, about ten of which were recorded by our National Concert Band.
Harold Brasch and I had been teacher and pupil for nine years. Then, in this new band we became side partners for another nine years – a distinct pleasure and honor for me. When Harold was on hand, he was number one and I sat next to him. When he was away on one of his little tours, I was number one. That was a pretty small number one compared with his wonderful first chair work, I will admit. Both of us shared the solo spot many , many times. He usually played his normal type of solo while I was always trying something new. I did some solos I always wanted to play but never quite got to do with the Marine Band and that was pretty nice.
This fine civilian band performed at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1976 and in 1980. Every one of us youffers played at least one solo during the two week engagement. I did “Original Fantasie” on the final concert of the 1976 trip in the rain. That was a cool solo because the weather was cold and raw.
I had always wanted to perform a fine modern type solo written by George Swift, an English high note artist, who had recorded four great solos in 1932 in Australia of all places. Bob Hoe had the discs and loved Swift’s trumpet playing. Everyone did. I had acquired the solo part and even the set of band parts from a very good Navy band friend, Frank Scimonelli. What a fantastic post horn player he was. None better anywhere in the world. He was certainly a nice man to simply give me his music. I worked on the solo and got it in shape to rehearse it and we did rehearse it several times. The band was going to make a recording of some concert music for the Bob Hoe Heritage series and I wanted to work this Swift solo into it without Bob having any inkling of what he was in store for.
We did record the Swift solo, titled, “Elfriede” after Swift’s German wife. And it was slipped onto the master tape for Bob to listen to in his Poughkeepsie, New York home. I was told by Bob that he heard the high note cadenza first and was mystified as to what that “mess” of high squeals was but knew it all as soon as the main theme of the piece was played. Then he knew that we had tricked and surprised him. He was so pleased and that solo is on the very end of that disc.
What I liked most about the entire thing was Harold Brasch’s obvious unselfish and kind comments which he was making about me and the solo. I had just made my way to my horn case and heard him say to a band member, as if in awe, “…and at his age, too…” I guess that at the age of 63 I should not have been capable of high notes. Was I lucky, sure I was. I’ll bet that Harold could have done much better but he was so pleased that I’d carried it off. Such a kind man. I hated to see him leave us and here I am still living; why couldn’t we both be living?
Incidentally, when I recorded “Elfriede”, I just sat at my place next to Harold. He was on my left. Tony Ciarlante was on my right, a long time pupil of mine. I believe that Buddy Burroughs made up the rest of the section. Seated that way and with good friends and colleagues made the job of playing those high notes so much easier.
Times changed fast after that. Poor Bob Hoe died in 1983 and Harold and other band members went into a special band assembled of special friends of Bob to record a concert in Bob’s memory. It would be recorded and put onto one of the usual bob Hoe 12 inch LP discs and distributed. Lt. Colonel Erwin of the U.S. Marine Band conducted. It was Harold who played the main solo. He wanted so badly to do it for his friend Bob Hoe. And he did a splendid job.
Remember how Harold made Commander Brendler sweat with his long cadenzas? Well, he did the very same thing in the solo he recorded for that Bob Hoe memory disc. However, this time it was planned. No unpleasant surprises. He did play a lot of cadenza and it was very nice, indeed. What an improviser! What a tone!
The next year Harold died of a massive coronary and lingered for four days and expired. The family wished for some band music. The sanctuary was too small for a band so we opted for five euphonium players to play Harold’s favorite hymn, “Trusting As The Moments Fly”, a very nice hymn. I reworked the music out of a hymnal and we rehearsed it several times. I believe that our euphonium section consisted of Buddy Burroughs, Tony Ciarlante, “Mo” Hickey, Lee Dummer, and me. I was the lead. We were happy to do this thing but it was the most difficult playing in my entire life, playing for my dead friend and teacher. The lump in my throat was the size of a softball but I got through it okay, but how do you hold back tears? Not forever, I learned.
A few weeks later, after the simply spectacular funeral over at the Arlington National Cemetery, the National Concert Band had a memorial concert in Harold’s honor. We euphoniums again played the hymn. That was some lump in my throat again but I got through it okay and the recording shows that it was a nice performance.
IV. My Very Late Years
With this one more story, I will end my long article about my hero, Harold Brasch, “Mister Euphonium”.
Harold had written a marvelous book all about the four valve compensating piston euphonium and how to use it. He sold copies at a modest sum of money. All he wanted was to help foster the use of such an instrument and the proper use of the compensating system. He did a thorough and complete job of explaining it all in his great book, a one of a kind.
I got one of the first copies. I think that he just gave it to me as a gift. What a kind gesture. I enjoyed running through the various exercises. Each one was more difficult than the one before until finally I got bogged down helplessly. It was all too thick with all of the valve combinations – merely theoretical stuff, of course – but it was a real eye-opening education, reading through that book. Harold told me that it got so thick and difficult that even he had to skip some of it because as theoretical and impractical it was, it would never be used in that register in just that way.
In the hot summer of 1983, Harold found that he had almost no copies of the book left so he went to Eddie De Mattia’s “Minuteman” instant print shop in Camp Springs very near my Keppler Road home to order a new supply. As a volunteer helper for Eddie, I was there all day most days. Mostly, however, I came in very early, cleaned up the floor and bathroom, got some of the machinery working – the enormous Xerox machine was one – and finally opened the shop at 8:30 am.
This one day, Harold drove up in his tiny car which he lovingly called his “Whippersnapper” and went inside to speak to Eddie about printing up 250 copies of his book. Eddie gave him a price, the price was accepted on the spot, and then everyone who ever knew Eddie and Harold was summoned over to help work on the book. As clean a copy as Harold could find was used and it was disassembled and instant print negatives were made of every page. These were printed back to back and checked and checked. Eventually, all printing was done, checked again, and ready for collating. We must have had 15 willing workers there some days. Harold was always somewhere in the background beaming to see all of this close work being done on his behalf. In time the job was completed and Harold left for Arlington and his home with 250 brand new and clean as a whistle copies of his book. We were all exhausted. Eddie had his check so all was right with the world of instant printing.
Just before Harold left for home that day, he approached me with the original book copy, now all loose leaf, apart and in an envelope. “Hey, Arthur, this is the copy we took apart to use in the printing. Would you want it?” I said that I surely would and he handed it over. I have it on my table right at this very moment and I have been reading through it again. Nothing wrong with it except that it is all apart. I’ll always keep that copy.
I showed his picture in the book from around 1945 to my wife. He played a double bell King then and I mentioned to Frieda that he had such big and powerful hands with bananas for fingers. In the picture you could see these hands and bananas. However, that picture was taken long before he ever worked at the organ factory and later his hands were much larger, thicker, powerful, and they looked it.
When Harold died some few months later, no copies of his 250 brand new books were located. Whatever happened to them? A huge mystery.
In time Eddie lost the print shop. He was better suited to be an oboe player. He still remains the very best oboe player I have ever heard, bar none. Such a marvelous and unbelievable tone. He is the Harold Brasch of the oboes and a good conductor as well.
Harold Brasch was one of a kind; will we ever see his like again? Perhaps, perhaps not. This is a different era. The accent is on pyrotechnics, not on beautiful tone. We hear modern solos all of the time which hurt my very deaf ears. Such M.A.D. music (modern abstract dissonant) does nothing for my aged nerves. Where, oh where are the old familiar solos? Give me one good Mantia solo and you can have the ten best M.A.D. music solos. It’ll be an even trade!
I recently came as close to dying as anyone can come without passing through those pearly gates. Believe me, I was not enthralled by being so deathly ill. When I die, I still claim that I want to pass out with Harold’s beautiful tone playing “Were My Song With Wings Provided” just as he played this lovely song long ago at the Departmental Auditorium. If I can hear this at that time, I will know then that those pearly gates are opening up for this ancient youffer. Watch out, here I come; but not too soon, mind!
In time my hearing was going. I needed hearing aids. I retired from the National Concert Band in 1997, the year our old dog died. No wonder I got depressed. We soon had a new dog, a real live wire and he really pepped me up. When we got this three year old dog, I told Frieda, “He and I will grow old together.” Do you know? We really did grow old together. What a nice old dog!
By the time that I received my new pair of the best hearing aids known to man, I was still practicing an hour a day at home. Strangely, I could still play by memory virtually every note of every solo I’d ever played with the Marine Band and the National Concert Band. High notes, low notes, nothing slowed me down. I was even delving into the glissando world and coming up with some doozeys of displays. Truthfully, I say this. But with my aids I could hear just how well – badly – I was playing as to intonation. What I heard really discouraged me. How out of tune I sounded. Was that real or a distortion of the hearing aids? I stopped playing entirely in 2002 after seventy-four uninterrupted years of euphing; I had packed it in.
A couple of years later I simply handed the old horn to a friend and said without even one qualm of regret, “Take it, it’s yours.” He is still playing it and that really pleases me. The old horn is exactly sixty years old now and I used it through out my Marine Band years and through my national Concert Band years. Harold Brasch also used an identical model to mine. Sounded good in his hands, you bet!
To end this Harold Brasch saga, I hope that the reader will now know more about his life and times than he did at the start of the article. Certainly, he has to be impressed by Brasch’s skill both in teaching young pupils and in his solo work, both of the highest order. When better musicians are made, let us hope they will be as skilled, educated, and kind as the Harold Brasch whom I knew so well. He was my hero.