Third Reich Spielleute…

As one thought or action invariably leads onto another so, as the bugler and drummer/fifer are forever linked historically down the ages, did I find myself moving from former naval cadet bugler to rock-drummer with ‘Adam West and the Gotham City Rockers’, amongst other bands, early on in my pre-television professional life.

However, like many other tub-thumpers I have also endured much stick as a result, for we un-sung souls, (beavering away at the back of the stage to ensure the ‘rock gods’ in the spotlight at the front kept time & looked good), are always the much-mocked ones and never taken seriously by our fellow musicians… though have you ever tried playing a full 5-piece rock kit and seen just how difficult it is? So perhaps having mastered this complex instrument myself I wasn’t quite the knuckle-dragger as depicted by the ‘real’ musos!

However on the basis of ‘once a drummer, always a drummer’ my continued long–time interests in the infantry bugle also helped keep alive, (once I’d given up active rock drumming), my interest in the snare-drum in its military role with the company bugler and drummer & fifers… an integral part of any military column throughout history.

Markedly different from the ‘standard’ German military musician and forever at the head of the company on the march, the Spielleute…literally playing people… have, with their fife & drums, (together with my beloved signalhorn), seemingly forever been a part of military lore. In fact the fife is very much an historical instrument in its own right having been given to the world by the ancient Greeks, and then picked up by Swiss mercenaries who used them in conjunction with drums as far back as The Middle Ages.

Adopted by the British army in the 18th century, the Third Reich’s Hitlerjugend was to take to fife & drumming with a great enthusiasm and ready zeal in the 1930s and today fifes, (along with bugles), are always associated with drums, with the German military term Trommelflöte in fact meaning ‘drum flute’. Made of black ebony and normally tuned in C of normal tuning the fife (or Pfeife in German) measured approximately 15 inches in length and when not being played was kept in a brown or black leather fife case suspended from the bugler or drummer’s leather belt to the rear of his bayonet and frog.

However, the oldest of all the military instruments is the snare or side-drum dating right back to The Crusades and, used in conjunction with the fife, was an effective way of keeping an army in step and on the move; like bugles they were also used to signal & transmit orders. In the 17th century, German armies went into quarters during the winter until a spring offensive could be launched, with soldiers being billeted in a town or village and with only the locals inns and hostelries for entertainment.

To encourage the soldiers to return to their billets at the end of the evening, the inn-keepers would turn their ale-taps off promptly at 10pm. This ‘witching hour’ would then be communicated to inn-keepers and soldiers alike by the garrison drummers who, in the company of an officer and sergeant, would set off around the town beating out a rhythm, whilst checking and ensuring all soldiers were on the move. From this action the word Tattoo’ which we are all now very familiar with in today’s military phraseology is thought to have been coined, derived directly from the Dutch phrase: Doe-Den-Tap-Toe or ‘Turn The Taps Off’!

Wehrmacht snare drum barrels were made of a brass and their batter heads made from calf-skin whilst snares were made from four catgut cords which were strung tightly across the lower drum skin and were held in place by a brass knob on one side and a hook and cord-screw on the corresponding side opposite. The skins were held in place by a wooden inner ring and an outer ring, the latter having a thin covering of copper, and the complete drum was held together by 5 stretching screws  evenly spaced around the body. Additionally a piece of strong curved wire, either covered in field-grey cloth or bound in leather, was riveted to the drum’s bottom rings as protection for the drummer’s trousers or breeches…

By a German army order of August 1933, all military snare and side drums were to be painted white on the inside and on top of the wooden drum rings, whilst the outsides should have 39 red lacquered isosceles triangles along the outer edge, with 39 black triangles along the bottom edge, both pointing inwards, with the resulting squares pattern formed between the triangles in white.

Whilst Luftwaffe and Heer & Waffen-SS snare drums had a standard brass barrel, it was custom and practice for the Kriegsmarine to over-paint the brass in a dark or medium blue. Hitler Youth & Sturm Abteilung snare drums, produced in 3 differing sizes, were painted in red and white alternating triangles, whilst those of the Allgemeine-SS & Waffen-SS sported alternating black and white triangles… and if you actually get to see or handle one ‘in the flesh’ very attractive items they are too…

Incidentally, talking of the Spielleute and their musical armoury of fife, drum & signalhorn, (another subject I write about in some length in the Tomahawk Films-produced book The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-45), the bugle itself was originally developed, way back in the dim & distant past by the French as a hunting accessory. In fact ‘bugle’ is actually the French word for ‘young bull’ and it was to be the German & French armies that adopted the instrument for military use, and its primary role was in the passing of signals on the battlefield and in camp, including ‘To Arms’ or ‘Last Post’.

As such it soon became an instrument of major significance within the German military, with all units parading its own signalling bugler.

However, finally as a sign-off for this particular Blog, whilst having dwelt primarily on the subject of the snare drum, though not an instrument of the Spielleute but very much harking back to those aforementioned Swiss and indeed German mercenaries of the Middle Ages, is the Landsknecht drum that was peculiar to the Hitler Youth and Deutsche Jungvolk. Certainly a most formidable-looking and very attractive military instrument, its skins were made from calf-hide, and its wooden drum rings were secured top and bottom by rope cords tautened by leather thongs.

Often used en-masse as part of the formidable Nazi propaganda machinery, these impressive drums were worn suspended on a black leather strap over the right shoulder and hanging down at an angle on the drummer’s left and in place of the standard drum-sticks, it was played by two cane-stick beaters with thick white felt pads on the end…

The usual or standard colour-scheme for these beautiful drums was a most dramatic, almost vivid red & white burning flame design for drums paraded by the Hitler Youth, and a similar black & white flame design for the Landsknecht drums of the  Deutsche Jungvolk. The DJ drums also appeared as a very dramatic design of black with a white runic device to the front. In terms of drum size, as with military snare drums, smaller sizes for the shorter boys were produced and issued.

In addition, though a musical instrument forever linked with the propaganda film newsreels of Hitler’s Germany, they were also used later on in great numbers in post-war East Germany, where they were repainted in blue & yellow of the FDJ and re-issued for use by the myriad Communist Youth bands, so as the saying goes: ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Collecting Third Reich Signalhorns…

I must admit that, many years before I penned my book The Military Music & Bandsmen of AH’s Third Reich 1933-45, I’d always had a bit of soft spot for the German signalhorn or bugle having, in my own time, been a bit of a whizz on my old Potters of Aldershot cadet bugle when I was a Petty Officer in the Royal Naval Section of the CCF back at my old Grammar school in Winchester. As such I could often be heard belting out a fair rendition of Reveille or The Last Post through my bedroom window, (embarrassingly much to my poor old neighbour’s on-going distress!)

But it was to be many moons while later, when I had graduated to the world of documentary  Film & TV and was running Tomahawk Films here in Twyford that the alluring aspect of historical German military music would fully emerge ’front & centre’ in my professional life and the engaging world of the bugle would happily re-appear on my radar in the shape of the German Infantry Signalhorn from the Third Reich and the earlier era of the Kaiser and the Great War of 1914-18.

So it was that over the last 20 years or so this lovely but often overlooked battlefield signalling instrument from the German military inventory became something of a passion for me and, as a result of acquiring all of the stunning Third Reich-era military musical instruments that can be seen in my book, many of the infantry signalhorns have since gone into my own personal collection, where today they take pride of place on display in Tomahawk Films’ production offices here on the UK’s beautiful South Coast…

Indeed the whole office used to be crammed full of Third Reich military-musical militaria as I sought out anything & everything in Germany to photograph and illustrate in the instrument chapter of my book, though many of those wonderful instruments now happily grace similar  enthusiastic Musiker collections here in the UK, over the Channel in France and with a number of great collecting mates ‘across the pond’ over in the US where they are similarly treasured as the terrific historical artefacts they undoubtedly are…

But the long search in various nooks, corners & crevices of Germany, (and their subsequent handling by myself and others), over many years has certainly added to my own personal compendium of knowledge of this, hitherto, unsung area of militaria collecting. For it is a matter of recorded fact the military band of the Third Reich was certainly well placed in terms of equipping itself, for not only was that nation renowned for its expertise in the manufacture of certain specific and highly technical items such as optical instruments and cameras, but Germany was also, historically, a major designer & producer of high quality musical instruments.

Indeed the modern brass instrumentation of today’s military bands the world over can be traced directly back to the Germany of the 16th & 17th century, and in particular to the ancient town of Nuremberg which boasted some twenty to thirty small companies who were actively involved in the manufacture of brass musical instruments and their accessories; whilst around Markneukirchen in southern Saxony, a whole host of musical instrument and associated parts makers also thrived. Other towns and cities operating similar thriving instrument ‘cottage industries’ included Augsburg, Vienna, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Munich, Dresden, Breslau, Leipzig, Graslitz (now post-war Kraslice), Linz, and Adolf Hitler’s beloved Berchtesgaden.

The highly skilled manufacture of musical instruments in Germany was very much a family-run affair, often handing down skills and expertise over three and four generations of craftsmen, all working in small companies, many employing no more than eight or nine employees, each producing the various different parts and components, such as valves, bells & decorations required to produced the finished instruments, often put together elsewhere.

Not only was Germany credited with producing the first true brass musical instruments, but it was also the nation that, in the late 18th century, started their mass-production at about the same time that many German instrument-manufacturing families began to spread their wings and move across Europe and further afield to the United States. Kohler and Metzler were two such instrument families who chose to move and they set up businesses in England, where they continued the strong tradition of excellent instrument workmanship, before sadly finally going out of business altogther in the early 1900′s. 

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the instrument families and their cottage-industry continued to flourish, with Kruspe of Erfurt excelling in the manufacture of the ‘Rolls Royce’ of all trombones, cornets and trumpets, whilst Germany’s oldest brass instrument manufacturer, Gebrüder Alexander, established in Mainz in 1782 by Franz Ambrose Alexander, concentrated on producing superior examples of flugelhorn, French horn, tuba & euphonium, creating and introducing many of the skills and techniques that continue to be utilised in instrument manufacture today. Tragically some of these old companies, like signalhorn-maker Oskar Ullmann of Leipzig, were literally blasted out of existence by the Allied bombing campaigns of the RAF & USAAF in the years 1943 to 1944…

Historically, probably the most famous of all musical instrument producing dynasties was the Denner family of Nuremberg, though similar other large scale family firms followed hard on their heels including the Moritz family of Berlin, (manufacturers of desirable and very high quality signalhorn for the Imperial Army of Kaiser Wilhelm), the Heckel & Grenser families of Dresden and the Adler family of Markneukirchen and Leipzig.

Of the many innovations in musical instrument production credited to German craftsmen, perhaps the most revolutionary was the rotary-valve, which they employed with great enthusiasm on their all trumpets, trombones, cornets, French horns and Wagner tubas. So whilst the bands of other European military armies evolved with the piston-valve, German military bands stuck rigidly to their beloved and, some say, superior rotary-valve. This is a very good rule of thumb when trying to identify German military musical instruments from a photograph or at a some distance! 

In addition a great many German-made brass instruments, particularly my beloved Deutsche Signalhorn, were often distinguished by the manufacturer’s practice of embellishing their instruments with the addition of an inch wide nickel silver plated brass collar or band around the bell-end, known as a ‘Girlande’ or garland.

Traditionally a Bavarian and Austrian deluxe adornment, this metal reinforcement fulfilled two roles: that of strengthening the bell of the instrument in the days when metals and manufacturing techniques could not always guarantee a consistent thickness of the bell, so giving a more ‘rigid’ sound to the instrument as a result, and secondly, providing an area of the instrument, upon which engravings or personal and regimental details could be etched by the manufacturer or the musician himself.

So whilst many brass instruments encountered sporting a garland will be of German & Austrian origin, a number of nations took note and subsequently copied this design feature, including early French produced instruments. Indeed, in American musical circles, the addition of a garland on instruments produced between 1920 and 1940 was considered a rather swanky personal customisation, and was a sure sign of the owner’s affluence!

However, on close inspection of a garland, those emanating from German craftsmen will traditionally be seen to have the lower edge of the silver band actually wrapped around the rim of the instrument’s bell to become slightly tucked under. Non-Germanic garlands will generally be affixed in the opposite manner with the rim or lip of the bell rolling back over the garland and effectively holding it down. In addition, certain manufacturers could be identified by the specific ornamentation and engraving etched onto their garlands.

Another sign of Teutonic origin is that all German-produced silver used in the manufacture of garlands & instrument parts contained a much higher nickel content in their alloy mix; as a result Germans refer to nickel-silver simply as ‘German silver’ even today.

Apart from making the material much stronger, this had the beneficial effect of giving the silver finish a much brighter, polished feel, whilst other manufacturers around the world using a lower nickel content in the mixes had to make do with their silver-plated instruments having more of a greyish quality in their finishes. Thanks to their stronger nickel-silver mixes, German manufactured musical instrument parts, particularly nickel-silver tubing used for the sliding parts, were very much in demand the world over, especially from American manufacturers… and this is very much the case today.

The actual range of instruments in a Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS military band, (as opposed to just the bugles, fife & drums of the spielleute), depended primarily on the overall manpower of the band in question, and on whether it was employed on standard & ceremonial duties or required to perform in a concert situation. These further matters I detail in my Tomahawk Films’ published book: The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013