Samuel van Praag and the Bath City Band in 1889
The Grand Pump Room in the City of Bath has had a resident orchestra almost continuously since it was built in 1706, and it is said to be the longest established musical ensemble in Europe. This accolade perhaps gives the impression of permanence and stability, but this obscures the fact that for most of its existence it has been at the mercy of local politics. Its very survival has regularly been under threat. The elegantly illustrated cover of a Grand Pump Room programme chosen for this month’s exhibition depicts an idealised theatrical tableau of a young woman with her violin amongst palms and drapery. Closer examination of the period before and after this programme was produced reveals a less idyllic story of fragile lives and livelihoods, bruised egos, and careers cut short.
The programme covers the second week of the winter season at the Pump Room beginning on 29th October 1889. Five years earlier, Samuel van Praag, the Musical Director listed here, had been installed in a City Corporation-instigated coup that summarily removed the unfortunate incumbent William Salmon. Salmon was a local cellist who had inherited the position of Music Director following the untimely death in 1867 of his violinist brother Thomas Henry Salmon, a protégé of the celebrated violinist John Loder. He had worked in London theatres and touring opera orchestras and appears to have been a well-regarded and capable musician, but his career never recovered from his ignominious and atrociously managed dismissal by the corporation.
Born in Holland and trained at the Hague Conservatoire, Samuel van Praag (b.1858 – ?) was 26 years old when he arrived in Bath. Before his arrival in the city, he had held a post as a bandmaster in North London, followed by a teaching appointment at Cheltenham Ladies College. He was clearly a talented, charismatic performer and leader, and he quickly gained the approval of the Bath public and press. His appointment brought about a widely recognised and significant improvement in the orchestra’s standard and reputation, both of which were retained and further enhanced by subsequent musical directors well into the next century. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the decision to remove Salmon, there was a lasting resentment of van Praag’s undeniable success in certain quarters of Bath’s musical world that was still smouldering when this programme was printed. I suspect that a few crocodile tears were shed when two years later, in October 1891, van Praag abruptly resigned and fled the country (and his English wife) due to bankruptcy caused by ‘unwise speculation’. I have yet to trace his subsequent career, but as far as I am aware he never returned to these shores.
What about the rest of the band? The fact that all the musicians of the orchestra are listed on the front of our programme perhaps reflects the keen public interest in the membership of the band. This was often expressed through the columns of the Bath Chronicle and in the council chamber, particularly at the start of each season. Much like a local sports team, the pedigree of ‘new signings’ was discussed, and at the end of the season the musicians’ ‘transfers’ to summer resort orchestras were faithfully reported. Otherwise, very little was published about their lives, and what we do know about them has been pieced together from census returns, registry records, and references in local newspapers.
Samuel van Praag and his band were fondly remembered in the local press for years afterwards, and clearly made a strong impact on Bath’s previously insular musical world. The brief biographies listed below highlight the complex web of life stories and musical connections that must be moulded together to form a unified musical ensemble, and it fascinates me how, largely by chance, this widely diverse group of musicians ended up together in Bath at the same time.
Members of the Bath City Band on 28th October 1889
Joseph Skuse (1865 – 1941) Violin (Leader)
The only English violinist in the band, Joseph Skuse is likely to have received his early training from his father, a musician who appears to have been based in Bristol for most of Joseph’s childhood. He won a full scholarship to the London Academy of Music (later to become LAMDA) at the age of 16. Although we don’t yet know who taught him there, the leadership positions he held throughout his career indicate that he must have been well-trained as well as talented. He can perhaps be regarded as an early success for the drive towards provision of subsidised and systematic professional training for English instrumentalists who otherwise could not afford it. He was poached from Bath in 1893 by the legendary Jimmy Glover, Irish composer and Music Director of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and led the orchestra there for many years.
Jules Rebelly (1859 – 1899) Violin
A compatriot of Samuel van Praag, though his name (sometimes spelled Rebelli) suggests Italian heritage, Rebelly was the sub-leader of the band and equally at home playing the piano. This was a valuable skill and a useful economy in a small band with regular vocal and instrumental soloists. It would also have been useful in the theatre, and there is a later reference in the Yorkshire Gazette to him directing the orchestra at the York Theatre Royal. Further evidence of his career peregrinations is provided by a census entry for Rebelly and his Essex-born wife Alice in Leeds in 1891. He returned to Bath in 1895 to become the musical director of Bath’s brand-new variety theatre, the Lyric, but sadly died in 1899 at the age of 40.
Otto Heinrich (1855 – 1939) Violin
Born into a family of musicians in Kemberg, Germany, in 1855, Otto Heinrich was a newcomer to the Bath City Band, having only joined the orchestra in 1888. He had apparently started his working life with circus bands in Holland and Bohemia, before moving to New York. He returned to Europe in the mid-1880s, and is mentioned in the Buxton Herald in 1886 as a member of the summer band. But, having joined van Praag’s band in 1888, Heinrich stayed in Bath for the rest of his life. He was clearly a popular member of the musical community in Bath and surrounding area, not just as a violinist, but as a violin maker and repairer. Sadly, in 1914, the City Corporation once again behaved appallingly by summarily dismissing Heinrich as an alien citizen, despite his having lived in England for thirty years with an English wife and ten children. Helped by representations from his friends and colleagues in the band, Heinrich reportedly narrowly avoided internment, but his playing career was effectively over.
Signor Poldi Violin
The only other reference to him that I have found so far is regarding a violin solo he gave, in Torquay in 1881, as a member of what became known as the Royal Italian Band. He was praised for his ‘purity of tone, graceful expression and sure execution’. He probably came to Bath with his compatriots and colleagues, Joe Bossi and Ernando Veneri (see below), but it is impossible to say without further evidence.
Alfred Wetten (1863 – 1936) Viola
A popular tenor soloist in Bath, Bristol, and across the South of England, Wetten was also the viola player of the City Band at the Pump Room for nearly thirty years. He was clearly a well-respected musician and a regular participant in the Bath Quartette Society concerts. He also taught viola at the Bath School of Music, but who taught him the viola remains a mystery. His singing teacher was Bath’s leading vocal pedagogue, Signor Emilio Pieraccini, and Sir Frederick Bridge, a cousin of Wetten’s brother-in-law, apparently urged him to study for Grand Opera. I can find no reference to him after 1912 other than a short obituary in 1936.
Salomon Van Gelder (1847 – 1920) Cello
Born in The Hague, graduating with the ‘highest diploma to be gained’ from its renowned conservatoire in 1874, Salomon van Gelder spent the first eight or nine years of his career as a cellist and clarinettist, ‘touring with Carl Rosa and Hans Richter’. He came to Bath with van Praag in 1884 and his technical accomplishment on the cello was frequently remarked upon. It is not yet clear when, but he appears to have left the Pump Room Orchestra to concentrate on teaching and chamber music in the late 1890s. Sadly, his career seems to have tailed off in the 1910s, leading him to seek work in theatre bands. Though he and his wife continued living in Bath, there is a census reference in 1911 indicating that he was playing at the King’s Theatre in Southsea, and he may have been on tour when he was arrested and fined as an unregistered alien in Bournemouth in 1915.
George Bourke (1860 – 1908) Double Bass
Brought to Bath by van Praag in 1884, George Bourke was the son of a musician who was clearly constantly moving around the country, and who died when George was very young. He spent 20 years with the Pump Room Orchestra and played ‘with an artistic ability which is rarely displayed on this unwieldy instrument.’ Consequently, he was much in demand throughout the region, both in chamber music (he also played the cello) and for amateur choral and orchestral societies. He somehow found time also to be the Secretary of the Bath branch of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union, but struggled with ill health for the last few years of his life and died at the age of 48.
John Broom (1858 – 1936) Flute
The only part-time member of the band, John Broom was nevertheless a busy musician, not only with the City Band, but also as a popular soloist throughout the western region. His parents owned an umbrella shop in Union Passage in the centre of Bath, and John continued the family business alongside his musical work until at least 1928. I can find no reference to his musical background or training, but he was already becoming established as a musician when van Praag came to Bath and sacked – or more accurately failed to re-engage – the previous flautist. Largely due perhaps to having the financial cushion of his family umbrella business, there is no evidence of Broom playing for any other orchestra or theatre band during his career.
Ernest Kopp (1837 – 1923) Clarinet
Leaving his hometown of Göttingen in the German state of Hanover at 15 years old, Kopp travelled with three of his brothers to seek work in Sweden. Subsequently they sailed to England, landing in Hull in 1852 and arriving in Bath in 1853, where they formed a band with other German musicians. The band played in the streets of the city in winter, before moving to Weston-super-Mare for the summer season. Later becoming known as the Hanoverian Band, the band gradually achieved semi-official status in the city. Kopp joined the City Band at the Pump Room in 1880 under William Salmon, and remained with them until 1915. He played with the Bath summer band in all its various incarnations for over 60 years, and was well-known as a soloist in the area. For 50 years he was also the organist and choirmaster of St John’s Catholic Church in Bath.
Joe Bossi (1859 – 1945) Cornet
Another longstanding member of the band, celebrated for his rendering of ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ at countless performances of ‘The Messiah’ for choral societies throughout the region. Born in Guastalla near Parma in northern Italy, Bossi studied in Milan and played for the winter opera seasons in Lugano. He came to England in 1880 and joined the Royal Italian Band in Torquay before moving to Bath in 1882 to play in the summer band. In 1884 he joined the City Band at the Pump Room under van Praag and remained there as first cornet for forty years.
Joseph Kopp (1828 – 1909) Cornet
Despite sharing the same career path as his younger brother Ernst, above, there is surprisingly little information about Joseph. He resigned as 2nd Cornet from the City Band at the Pump Room in 1895 ‘owing to advanced age’, and his place was taken by my great grandfather, Joseph Russell.
Ernando Veneri (1848 – 1930) Euphonium
Born in Reggiolio in Northern Italy, about ten miles away from Bossi’s village of Guastalla, his newspaper obituaries in 1930 all mention that he fought for Garibaldi in the latter stages of the struggle to unify Italy in the 1860s. He arrived in England in 1878 and played with the Royal Italian Band in Torquay and Weston-super-Mare, before joining van Praag’s City Band in Bath for ‘several winter seasons.’ He travelled around the British Isles perhaps more than any of the other musicians listed here and was well known as both a fine euphonium player and a magician. Having settled in Glasgow sometime before 1911, he played with the Scottish Orchestra for thirteen years and spent many summer seasons with the Llandudno Pier Orchestra.
Thomas Head (1840 – 1915) Drums
A member of both the City Band and the summer band for forty years, until shortly before his death in 1915, Thomas Head spent his entire life and career in Bath as timpanist and percussionist. He often received praise for his xylophone solos!
© MOMH 2023
A detailed account of van Praag’s arrival in Bath can be found in Robert and Nicola Hyman’s fascinating book, The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History, Hobnob Press, 2011.
Biographical information and Bath City Corporation committee meeting reports for this article were found in contemporary newspapers, principally the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, and accessed on the British Newspaper Archive website (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). Census and General Registry Office data was accessed on the Ancestry website (www.ancestry.co.uk).
The main source of information for Otto Heinrich’s story was the article entitled Otto, written by his great-grandson, the composer Richard Barnard, and published in the Summer 2008 newsletter of the Centre for the History of Music in Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth (CHOMBEC), based at the Department of Music, University of Bristol.