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Loophonium, by Fritz Spiegl


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About the artwork

The perfect Surrealist work of art was once described as the marriage of an umbrella and a bicycle on a dissecting table. This is the marriage of a euphonium and a lavatory. Why were these two inventions joined together? It was done for a concert of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on April Fools’ Day 1960, at which the instrument was played. The man who did it was the orchestra’s principal flautist Fritz Spiegl.

Fritz was born at Zurndorf in Austria in 1926. His family were Jewish, and after Hitler marched into Austria in 1938, Fritz was fortunately sent to England. He arrived at the age of 13 knowing no English, but he learned fast. He was also good at making things – while he was still at school, one of his designs was published in a model-making magazine – for an aeroplane that carried another aeroplane on its back. So when he left school he went to technical college. After college his first job was as a graphic designer working for an advertising agency. At this point he met a young lady who played the flute, and this got him started on the instrument. He took to it like a duck to water, and got a place at the Royal College of Music. While still studying at the college, he was appointed Principal Flute of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1948.

Liverpool was perhaps the best place in Britain that Fritz could have settled, because the Scouse dialect and the sense of humour inextricably linked with it set off his own passionate exploration of his adopted language, especially its funny side. The same sense of humour pervaded his musical life.  In 1952 he began April Fools’ Day concerts. These were later joined by others called Nuts in May and Midsummer Madness. At these concerts literally anything might happen. It might be an arrangement of the Teddy Bears’ Picnic for 3 bassoons, or a concerto for 2 tuning forks.

Fritz was now in demand for similar things in London. He continued to stretch the bounds of the possible. One telegram addressed to him read simply ‘Re concert Royal Albert Hall – dogs not allowed on stage.’   Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was brought on stage in a vintage car so that Fritz could conduct him in a Motor Horn Concerto. On another occasion the overture to Rossini’s La Cenerentola was played by 16 pianists on 8 grand pianos.  At one point in the concert Fritz appeared wearing an L plate on his back and climbed up to the organ console. He pulled out a number of stops and then played just a couple of notes, which were the right ones to make the entire building shake.

His enthusiasm was infectious, and galvanised people into doing things they would never have dreamed of, whether arranging music for daring combinations of instruments, or, in one instance, making a dead parrot to accompany the March for a Dead Parrot by Ibert. The idea is a lot older than Monty Python.

Fritz’s playfulness with both music and words was based on deep knowledge. The year after his arrival at the Phil, he founded the Liverpool Music Group to explore what would now be called early music – the early works of Mozart, and the works of his violinist father Leopold. Fritz rediscovered and performed a neglected opera by Donizetti, first performed at Naples in 1824 – its title Emilia di Liverpool. The opera was duly recorded with Joan Sutherland singing the role of the Liverpool heroine. Fritz was an indefatigable musical researcher – in Salzburg, in a bookshop 200 yards from the Mozarteum, he found the earliest biography of Mozart – a book so rare that the Mozarteum itself didn’t have one, it only had a replica.

An audio recording of the gallery talk on the 'Loophonium' is available to download.

In 1963 Fritz left the Phil after a concert of light music in which he got bored and deliberately played a semitone off-key to make it more interesting. It was not before time, as he now had so many other irons in the fire. He also played for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony, the Halle and the BBC Northern Symphony.  Fritz took a Liverpool Irish ballad Johnny Todd and turned it into the theme tune for a new television drama series, Z Cars. Released as a single, it sold 200,000 copies in the first week. He composed the music which began Radio 4’s broadcasts at 5.30 every morning – the Radio 4 UK theme – this morphed Greensleeves into What shall we do with the drunken sailor, and Jeremiah Clarke’s trumpet voluntary into Rule Britannia.

In 1965 Fritz set up the Scouse Press, which meant installing a press in the basement of his house and doing the printing himself. He immediately published Lern Yerself Scouse, whose 4 volumes became the definitive work on the local language. Other Scouse Press publications indicate the range and depth of his scholarship: they cover such subjects as the growth of Merseyside from earliest times to 1830, or Street Ballads, Broadsides and Sea Songs. 

Fritz wrote a column for the Liverpool Daily Post from 1970, homing in on the use and abuse of English. Then he wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph. Also for the Guardian, the Independent and Private Eye.  He also did a lot of broadcasting. For most of the 1970s he presented Start the Week on Radio 4, and for most of the 1980s he presented Mainly for Pleasure. He was on lots of other shows.  And meanwhile the books poured from his pen: including the Book of Musical Blunders, and Music Through the Looking Glass, which shows Fritz with the Loophonium on the back cover. Then there was the Joy of Words, a Bedside Book for English Lovers, and Dead Funny, A Small Book of Grave Humour, and his last book published posthumously, Contradictionary, of Confusibles, Lookalikes and Soundalikes.

All this gives us a better insight into the creator of the Loophonium. Fritz also gave it another name, his own answer to the harpsichord, the Harpic-cord. And apart from the lavatory cleaner, the seat is in the form of a kind of harp, the classical lyre. I’m reliably informed that at concerts when the national anthem was played, the seat was always raised as a mark of respect. Fritz constructed the Loophonium himself, and registered the design with the patent office. The painted decoration was by his daughter Emily, then aged about eight.

An audio recording of the gallery talk on the 'Loophonium' is available to download.