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Transcript of 'Loophonium', Fritz Spiegl podcast

The perfect Surrealist work of art was once described as the meeting of an umbrella and a bicycle on a dissecting table. This is the marriage of a euphonium and a lavatory, so I want to say a bit about both the parts before we join them together.

The euphonium is one of that family of loud brass instruments. Musical instruments were once divided into indoor and outdoor, and brass instruments belonged out of doors. That meant they were supposed to be loud. To make a big noise, you need the whole column of air from the mouthpiece to the bell to vibrate when you blow it. This was fine so long as you didn’t want to play lots of different notes. If you make holes in the tube so that you can get lots of different notes, you rapidly lose power and volume. So most early brass instruments relied on the skill of the player to make different notes by blowing in different ways, a very difficult skill. And basically the longer the tube, the lower the note.

The instruments with holes in the tube haven’t survived in bands because they just weren’t loud enough – instruments with wonderful names like serpents and ophicleides.

In the early 1800s one of the great centres of brass playing was Prussia, where military bands were being developed. In 1818 a horn player named Heinrich Stolzel and an amateur bandsman Friedrich Bluhmel took out the first patent for a valve for brass instruments.  It was a descending valve. What does that do? A device on a spring, activated by the player’s finger to connect an extra loop of tubing with the main tubing, so that it lowers the pitch of the instrument by a specific interval. Usually there are three valves, the first lowers the tone by a tone, the second by a semitone, and the third by 1 ½ tones. You can combine these to get a range of notes.

This invention of the valve is based on good airtightness, good plumbing. As a result Stolzel went on to develop most of the instruments of the modern brass band, including the euphonium in 1828. Officially it’s a member of the horn family, only the Brits call it a euphonium, the Germans call it a Bariton and the French call it a basse. The Germans are the sensible ones since its range is from tenor down to bass. It’s not as low as a tuba.

The Brits of course invented their own alternative valve. John Shaw, a farmer and brass worker, patented his valve with transverse spring slides in 1824. It used twin pistons and was an ascending valve, which means it worked the opposite way round to the Germans, shortening the tube instead of lengthening it. This presumably means that it was better for playing 'Tiptoe through the Tulips'.  Anthony Baines in his 'Musical Instruments through the Ages' says proudly ‘It owed nothing to any continental device.’ It was not a commercial success. 

Brass players talk happily about valves and U-bends, so it is not such a great leap from the euphonium into the toilet.

The ancient world had toilets flushed by running water – you just diverted a stream or aqueduct. But the ancestor of the modern water closet, flushed on demand by pulling a handle, was invented by the godson of Queen Eliz I, Sir John Harington. In 1596 he wrote the 'Metamorphosis of Ajax: a Cloacinean Satire', which describes the water closet he had constructed at Kelston near Bath. He illustrates what he calls Plan Plots of a Privy in Perfection. It has a seat with a pan, a cistern above, an overflow pipe, a flushing pipe, a valve or ‘stopple’ as he calls it, and a waste with a water-seal.  He says ‘If water be plenty, the oftener it is used, and opened, the sweeter; but if it be scant, once a day is enough, for a need, though twenty persons should use it.’

Harington seems to have been a lone voice. The 17th and 18th centuries were the Dark Ages of the lavatory, with terminology such as Bog Houses and Stink Traps. Late in the century a battle began between the pan closet and the valve closet. The pan closet received its offering in – as you would expect – a pan. When you pulled the handle, the pan swung down, emptying its contents into a hopper below. Unfortunately the hopper did not empty all its contents. So a pan closet such as Banner’s Patent Drain Trap was just that – it trapped the contents rather than flushing it away.

Much more successful was the valve closet patented by a Bond St watchmaker Alexander Cummings in 1775. He also called the invention the Ajax. He says ‘the advantages of the said water closet depend on the shape of the pan or bason, the manner of admitting water into it, and on the stink-trap so constructed that its contents shall – or may – be emptied every time the closet is used.’

Cummings unfortunately used a sliding valve. As we saw with the euphonium, a sliding valve was a mistake. In 1778 a cabinetmaker Joseph Bramah patented a closet with a hinged valve which was much superior. This remained the most common pattern of water-closet for over a hundred years. And there was a lot of competition from Victorian sanitary engineers. In his Sanitary Arrangements for Dwellings of 1874, Mr Eassie says ‘Nothing can be more satisfactory than a good water-closet apparatus, properly connected with a well-ventilated sewer.’  He was in competition with Dr Pridgin Teale, whose Pictorial Guide to Domestic Sanitary Defects was published in the same year. 

They were right to be worried. In 1870 Mr Twyford of Hanley got fed up with receiving only 2shillings for the ceramic part of a water closet when the brassfounder got from 20 to 50 shillings. He determined to make an all-earthenware closet.  But his Washout closet was just that – the shallow bowl held only an inch or so of water. J R Mann’s Syphonic Closet of the same year was a double flusher – a fast flush followed by a slower one.  The apotheosis of all this was the International Health Exhibition in London in 1884. The Gold Medal went to Jennings’ Pedestal Vase. In a test, its 2 gallon flush washed down ten apples of average diameter 1 ¼ inches, 1 flat sponge about 4 ½ inches in diameter, plumber’s smudge coated over the pan, and 4 pieces of paper adhering closely to the soiled surface.

But five years later even Jennings’ pedestal vase was flushed down the pan of history by the washdown closet perfected by Mr D T Bostel of Brighton, from which our modern loos are descended.   

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. The cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung was invited to play the tuba solo in Tubby the Tuba at one of these concerts. He then set up concerts in London which adapted material he had heard in Liverpool.

Fritz himself 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 plateon 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.

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. I grew up listening to him talking about music on Radio 3. 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 - -- Dead Funny', a small book of grave humour, and his last book published posthumously, 'Contradictionary, of Confusibles, Lookalikes and Soundalikes'.

Nowadays there’s a great deal of worthy talk about making culture accessible. Fritz made culture accessible by making it fun. In the tributes after his death three years ago, someone wrote to the Times to say that growing up in Stoke on Trent in the early 50s they remembered going to many school concerts given by the Royal Liverpool Phil where the music was introduced and conducted by Fritz. I quote: ‘ His infectious enthusiasm and passion for the music made these memorable occasions, and I for one owe him much for setting me on the road to a lifelong love of music.’

All this gives us a better insight into the creator of the Loophonium. He 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. Fritz was intensely practical – in the early 1970s he patented his own design of fitted kitchen with pull-out shelves. In his garden he built what looks like a classical temple, constructed from architectural fragments salvaged from demolished Liverpool buildings.

Of course the Loophonium is not just a Surrealist work of art, it was an element in a Surrealist performance. You will be relieved to know that Fritz acquired the loo specially for this purpose, so it has never been flushed, only blown. Fritz also had definite ideas about the music appropriate for the instrument – Handel’s 'Water Music' of course, but also, from Purcell’s 'Birthday Ode to Queen Mary' of 1694, ‘Come come ye sons of art’.