top of page

Digging the Fifties | Part 1

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"

To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out

Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

Catalog numbers 00050 and 15650 are respectively the first and the last current records from the musical instrument collection that fall under the selected category; and are two interesting representatives of an object from the founding collection and a new acquisition. While both instruments share a common trait in their provenance stories (both were previously collected by well-known music professors), the degree of documentation varies greatly. Revisiting objects and associated documentation (or the lack of it) recorded in the formative years of the NMM also provided for a good curatorial exercise and update of the museum database in certain instances.

An old-looking, roughly made violin with inlaid rhinestones.
Violin, United States, ca. 1900–1940. NMM 00050. Photo by Bill Willroth, Sr.

The early catalog number of NMM 00050 makes this instrument a part of the founding Arne B. Larson (ABL) Collection assembled by Arne Baldwin Larson (1904–1988) and officially donated in 1979, which constitutes the core of the museum's holdings. No signature or markings indicate a maker for this unusual-looking violin, but records tell us that “Arne B.” (how people referred to him) received this instrument from Lloyd Loar, Evanston, Illinois, in 1940. This is the same Lloyd Allayre Loar (1886–1943), who is mostly known for his important contributions to electro-acoustic stringed and keyboard musical instruments, and work with the Gibson and Vivi-Tone companies. At that time, Loar was teaching at Northwestern University and Arne B. had studied acoustics with him. They kept in touch over the years and exchanged some correspondence. Unfortunately, there is no evidence in the archival documentation to support the theory that Loar made this instrument. However, considering Loar's fine work output, this rather rudimentary-made violin was probably something that he acquired as a curiosity for his own personal collection. Perhaps the rhinestones inlaid on the top of the violin captivated Loar's interest in the acoustical behavior of this instrument? Although Arne B.'s original inventory lists NMM 00050 as an “old 1500s Bavarian model violin,” this folksy instrument was most probably homemade in the U.S. by a local German immigrant in the early 1900s.

A clarinet on a white background.
Clarinet, G. L. Penzel & Müller, New York, NY, ca 1910–1918. NMM 15650. Photo by Deborah Check Reeves.

Recently featured in the NMM Newsletter of Summer 2022, highlighting new acquisitions, clarinet NMM 15650 in A by G. L. Penzel & Müller is part of the collection of Professor Thomas Ayres (1917–1990), longtime clarinet professor at the University of Iowa. Professor Ayres taught and inspired many students throughout the years, and frequently used his personal collection to teach about historical clarinets. Former student and friend of Ayres, Jerry Zinn (b. 1944), inherited the collection and donated it to the NMM in October 2021. Companion to another clarinet in B-flat in the same collection (NMM 15649), both are the only low-pitch “Albert”-System Penzel and Mueller (PM) clarinets in excellent condition at the NMM. Established in New York as a partnership between Gustav Ludwig (“Louis”) Penzel (1855–1920) and Edward Georg Müller (1869–1956) in 1899, the company was widely known for fine woodwind craftsmanship and became a leading manufacturer in the first half of the 20th century. PM clarinets were among the best offered in the U.S. and preferred by many American early jazz- and classical-trained professional clarinetists. Made of cocus or grenadilla wood with nickel-silver keys and trimmings, this is a ca. 1910–1918 clarinet made with a simple German system, also known as “Albert” system, with 16 keys and 5 rings, including a right-hand touch on C-sharp/G-sharp key and roller, patent C-sharp key, left-hand A-flat/E-flat key, and little-finger rollers in typical PM orange-brown color.

A brass tuba on a white background.
Tuba, C. G. Conn, Elkhart, IN, ca. 1904. NMM 00350. Photo by Byron Pillow.

From the ABL collection, NMM 00350 is an average-sized, high-pitch, double-B-flat tuba made by the C. G. Conn company in Elkhart, Indiana. Made of brass that was most probably originally silver-plated, it features three front-action, bottom-sprung Périnet piston valves with mother-of-pearl touchpieces. As a result of the plating being stripped, the construction of the tuba is revealed and can be studied. The serial number 84655 approximately dates the manufacture of this tuba to ca. 1904, a period still under the dynasty of Charles Gerard Conn (1844–1931). “Tuba-like” instruments with front-action valves were first introduced in the U.S. by C. G. Conn in 1890 as the “New American Model,” and the valve design quickly became a favorite for tubists. Other than being used for research and performance/practice, this tuba was played annually in Arne B. Larson's “Golden Age of Bands” (GAB) from 1978 to 1994. The Golden Age Band was organized by Arne B. and Ray T. DeVilbiss in 1967 when both were still professors in the Music Department of the University of South Dakota (USD). The unique ensemble performed original music on period instruments (and costumes!) from the historical epoch known as the “Golden Age of Bands” in America—the period following the Civil War through World War I.

An album cover showing a parchment scroll on a dark red gradient background. The scroll reads "The University of South Dakota - The Golden Age of Bands - 1850-1915 - Professor Arne B. Larson, Director"
“The Golden Age of Bands, 1850–1915” LP record cover, 1973. NMM Archives M33-068.

A brown wooden recorder on a white background.
Alto recorder, Germany, ca. 1950–1960. NMM 02450. Photo by Dara Lohnes-Davies.

Picking up on NMM performance instruments and groups, the plain alto recorder NMM 02450 is part of a set of four instruments in different sizes (including soprano, tenor, and bass) to make a recorder quartet. According to Arne B.’s inventory, he acquired these instruments in 1955 for his collection. All bear the tradename “Heidelberg” and the stamp “Made in Germany.” According to the Purchaser’s Guide to the Music Industries (PGMI), Heidelberg recorders were exclusively offered by Grossman Music Corporation, Cleveland, Ohio, from 1954 to at least 1980. In the company’s wholesale catalogs, the advertisements for Heidelberg recorders (also called “block flutes”) disappear in 1975. Established in 1922, the corporation moved to Cleveland’s downtown in 1948, and was a major importer, distributor, and wholesaler of musical instruments and supplies at the time. It is quite possible that Arne B. purchased these instruments brand new soon after they came out on the market. Made in light-tan-finished pearwood, the F alto, 3-piece model featured an English fingering system, or traditional Baroque system, with two double-bored toneholes for F-sharp and G-sharp. Along with the rest of the set (and perhaps purchased with such intention), the recorders were good candidates to be used in historic performances of early music by ensembles like USD Collegium Musicum. According to museum records, this alto recorder was used in such activities between 1979 and 2000.

Photo by Tony Jones.
Bass saxophone, Evette & Schaeffer/Buffet Crampon & Cie, Paris, ca. 1910–1912. NMM 05750.

A more popular story can be told through bass saxophone NMM 05750, which was used by the Canadian vaudeville-era saxophone group, the Six Brown Brothers. Led by Thomas (Tom) Brown (1881–1950), the various musical acts of the “Brown” Brothers were influential in introducing the saxophone into American music and transforming how it was played and perceived during the first two decades of the 20th century. According to Bruce Vermazen's research, the Brothers were the first “full” saxophone ensemble to be successfully recorded, which speaks highly of their technical skills and musicianship. Considering the many technological challenges associated with early recordings, the Brothers achieved reasonable results with Columbia in 1911 and were the only ones to do so for at least six years, which led to their popularization with the masses and contributed to what is known as the “saxophone craze” period in America (Vermazen, 2004). The silver-plated saxophone bears an engraving with the “Buffet Crampon & Cie.” logo, and “Evette & Schaeffer” with the expression of “Anc[ienne] M[aison] Buffet Crampon & Cie,” address, and serial number 21315. Paul Evette and Ernest Schaeffer owned the Buffet-Crampon company between 1885 and 1926, during which time it patented many saxophone developments and innovations that became standard features on the modern saxophone. This bass saxophone made its way into the U.S. via the distributor company Carl Fischer in New York (also engraved on the instrument) and ended up in the hands of Vernon (Vern) Brown (1887–1964), who became the bass player. This was the saxophone used in those early recordings made between 1911 and 1920.

How did it come to be part of the NMM collections? Basically, through two other important, saxophone-afficionado personalities: Hewitt Allen (“Doc”) Waggener (1879–1972), and Cecil Burton Leeson (1902–1989). Doc Waggener, a physician and surgeon based in Omaha, Nebraska,during the 1910s and early 1920s, was also an amateur saxophone player and collector of musical instruments. Waggener's interest in the saxophone was such that he befriended contemporary leading professionals such as Tom Brown and Cecil B. Leeson; a pioneer saxophonist, composer, and educator, who strongly advocated for the legitimization of the saxophone as a concert instrument. Leeson's legacy and lifetime collection of materials such as instruments and various archives, including the Hewitt A. Waggener Collection, is preserved at the NMM. Waggener's collection had been donated in 1971 to Ball State University (BSU) in Muncie, Indiana, where Leeson was teaching. Upon Leeson's retirement in 1977, he donated his collection to BSU. Years later, the Cecil B. Leeson Collection and Archive was transferred from BSU to the NMM, in 1994. Some documentation in the Leeson archives indicates that the bass saxophone was a personal gift from Tom Brown to Dr. Waggener when the Brothers disbanded in 1933. However, the author found a few clues in the archives and Vermazen's research that may point to an alternative earlier date in which Tom gave this instrument to Waggener. In Omaha, Waggener led a local group of saxophone players that emulated the Brown Brothers, the Ak-Sar-Ben Saxaphones (sic), with whom Tom performed occasionally. Looking through the various photographs of this group preserved in the archives, dating from 1918 to 1922, discernible details identified on the bass saxophones clearly show a change of instrument in 1922. The instrument featured in 1922 has much resemblance to the NMM bass saxophone. This is around the same time that Tom received an Adolphe Sax's soprano saxophone from Waggener (a true testimony to their close friendship) and coincides with other historical details related to Tom's music store in Chicago, the purchase of new instruments for the Brothers, and a similar change of the bass saxophones in photographs of the Brothers from 1921. The author thinks it is quite possible that this bass saxophone may have been used in performances of Waggener's group, before being retired into his personal collection.


Stay tuned for more posts in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!



For all news, media, and press-related needs, reach out to our communications team today!

Press Inquiry? Want to know more?


Our brand new first-floor galleries are officially OPEN! The wait is finally over - come see the NEW NMM. Information on the galleries, hours, and more can be found on the VISIT & LEARN and EXHIBITIONS & EVENTS pages!

Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10am to 4pm, stop in to see our seven new galleries, concerts, events, and more! 

The Jason & Betsy Groves Special Exhibitions Gallery is OPEN! Come explore our current special exhibition HIGH STRUNG: FIVE CENTURIES OF STRINGED KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS.


the NMM will be CLOSED until TUESDAY, 1/16

bottom of page