Musical instruments real and imagined: Lennie Peterson, Dr. Seuss, and J.J. Grandville

Musical instruments real and imagined: Lennie Peterson, Dr. Seuss, and J.J. Grandville

The human imagination is an amazing thing, a fertile ground for thinkers of all kinds to express ideas, both real and imagined. The conception and production of visual art is among one of the many plants that spring forth from our imagination’s soil.

For the last six years, I have been working on a new book, An Illustrated Dictionary for the Modern Trombone, Euphonium, and Tuba Player; it will be published this fall by Rowman & Littlefield. This new book contains 675 entries about low brass instruments and the people who play them, compose for them, make them, and write about them. All of the instruments I discuss in the book are real. They were made and played at moments in history. Some have been forgotten; others are still with us. Stay tuned for more about this book as it nears its publication date.

My Dictionary also has 125 illustrations by the noted artist Lennie Peterson. Trombone players are certainly familiar with Lennie’s work because of his syndicated comic strip, The Big Picture.” Seriously: a week doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t send me this cartoon:


Someone even sent it to me with a caption in German:


Well, friends, it’s really OK if you stop sending it to me with the exclamation, “I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but this is the coolest cartoon ever!” That’s because I have known about it since it was published in September, 2003. Not only do I know about it—and, yes, I think it’s really cool—I reached out to Lennie at that time and asked him if I could purchase the original of the cartoon. “Sure!” he said. Here (below) is the full version of the original cartoon (Lennie’s original pen and ink; the color was added later), with the image of Lennie’s cat, Ginger, conducting, and his name printed as Lennie “fff” Peterson. I had the cartoon framed and it now hangs in my office as many of my students who have seen it can attest.


That’s how I met Lennie Peterson, through a cartoon about trombone players. A great friendship developed, and I quickly learned that Lennie was not just a superb cartoonist. He’s also produced a lot of really great fine art. His portrait of Beethoven—done in ink—also hangs in my office (apologies for the glare off the glass):


I also commissioned Lennie to make an oil painting that incorporated a thought-provoking quotation by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It hung in my music studio in Arizona and it now hangs in our living room:


“But wait,” as the late night TV Ginsu knife commercial host breathlessly announces, “there’s more!” I also asked Lennie to tattoo a pBone for me, decked out in Arizona State University colors. It was proudly displayed on the piano in my office at ASU when I was professor of trombone there from 2012-2016. Lennie can do it all.



Lennie’s multifaceted work as an artist—oh, have I mentioned that he’s a fantastic jazz trombonist as well?—led me to only one conclusion when I was asked to write my Dictionary: Lennie had to do the illustrations. So, he did. Lennie’s illustrations for the book are spectacular. Whether an illustration of the bronze age lur. . .


. . .or Adolphe Sax’s remarkable six-valve trombone with seven bells. . .


. . . Lennie’s illustrations for my Dictionary help bring the book to life. Our partnership in putting together this book has been so rewarding, and we look forward to it being on the market in a few months. More on that later.

When you look at Lennie’s illustration of Sax’s seven-bell trombone, you may be thinking, “That’s crazy!” And it is. I tell the story of the instrument in my Dictionary, but what immediately came to mind when I saw and photographed it in the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels, is that it looks so similar to another instrument that may be familiar to you as well:


Can there be any doubt that when Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904–1991) conjured up his WhoHooper for the film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), he was not inspired by Adolphe Sax? Seuss was a master of the imaginary musical instrument, and his books are full of them. But other artists have dreamed up fanciful instruments, and for many years, I’ve been fascinated by the work of Jean-Ignace-Isador Gérard, who went by the name J. J. Grandville. Two books that carry many of his illustrations, Vie privée et publique des animaux, or The Private and Public Lives of Animals (1842; English edition, 1872) and Un Autre Monde or Another World (1844), are part of my personal library and I have spent many hours enjoying both the stories and the illustrations. With Lennie’s cartoons and Dr. Seuss’ fanciful WhoHooper on my mind, I thought I’d share some of Grandville’s images of musical instruments.

In Un Autre Monde, the chapter “Steam Concert” is about “a concert of metal musicians and singers—the only kind that will satisfy the public’s current demand for super-virtuosity and tremendous performing forces.” Hmm, that sounds like it could have been written today.

[Below] A concert of steam-powered musicians, performing, “The I and the Non-I, Symphony in C Major” [after page 16]:

Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations ... et a

As an aside, Grandville later made an illustration very similar to his “Vapor Concert.” In 1846, he caricatured composer Hector Berlioz for Louis Reybaud’s book, Jérome Paturot à la recherché dune position sociale.


And later that same year (April 1846), Grandville’s cartoon of Berlioz was used as the basis of another caricature of the great composer, this time by Anton Elfinger (he went by the name “Cajetan”) that appeared in Allgemeine Theaterzeitzung. Cajetan pulled out all the stops, with a contrabass monstre ophicleide and the dismayed audience members who are covering their ears and running away from the tremendous sound. I especially like how Cajetan added faces for one of the trombone players (on the left; he appears to be in agony) and the monstre ophicleide player.


Back to Le Autre Monde. . .

[Below] From the same concert by steam-powered musicians, here is Grandville’s, “Melody for 200 Trombones” [page 19]. Note how the bass trombone player needs a special cut out on the floor for the length of his hand slide. This is really interesting because the bass trombone was hardly known in France at the time. Berlioz encountered it during his travels to Germany but how Grandville knew about it (it would have been the bass trombone in F with its long slide with a handle) is a puzzle.

Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations ... et a

[Below] Here, in the “Steam Concert,” Mlle. Tender hits a perfect ultra-high A during her duet with Monsieur Tunnel [page 20].

Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations ... et a

[Below] A child prodigy, on a “harmonic railway,” plays difficult variations on the steam harp [page 23].

Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations ... et a

[Below] An accident at the concert: an ophicleide bursts from too much harmony, peppering the listeners’ ears with notes [page 24]. There is so much going on in this illustration: the ears in the box seats, left and right, the notes on the floor that are struggling to get up, and the hand lighting a fuse in the ophicleide’s mouthpiece.

Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations ... et a

[Below] From the chapter, “Une Journée a Rheculanum” [after page 193]: A performance of Phédre in Rheculanum. The duplex ophicleide-like brass instrument in the orchestra pit is an acoustical impossibility (as is the case with many of Dr. Seuss’ instruments) but it looks really cool.

Un autre monde : transformations, visions, incarnations ... et a

In The Public and Private Lives of Animals, Honoré de Balzac’s story, “Journey of An African Lion in Paris,” is accompanied by Grandville’s illustration (page 186) of a scene at a carnival ball (below). A snake playing an over the shoulder (OTS) dragon bell trombone (buccin) is in the band in the balcony, next to an instrument that appears to be an ophicleide.


My favorite of Grandville’s musical instrument illustrations is part of a story by Pierre-Jules Hetzel (1814–1886, writing under his pseudonym, P. J. Stahl), “The Funeral Oration for a Silkworm,” a chapter in The Public and Private Lives of Animals [pages 206–209]. Grandville’s illustration of a funeral cortége with an insect at the head of the procession who is playing a serpent is stunning in its imagination and detail. Here is the whole story reprinted in its entirety, with all four illustrations that accompany Stahl’s dramatic and touching tale. Enjoy.

The Funeral Oration of a Silkworm

P.J. Stahl

Illustrations by J. J. Grandville


The sun, having done his day’s work of thinking right well, suddenly and wearily retired to rest. The last notes of the birds’ song of praise were still lingering in the echoes of the woods, and the earth, wrapping herself in her dark mantle, was preparing for repose. The death’s-head Moth giving the final of departure, the little cortége set out on the march for the purple heath. Field-spiders, whose work consisted in clearing the road, proceeded the corpse which was surrounded by beetles, in black, carrying the bier of mulberry leaf. These were followed by tail-bearing mutes, next came the Ants, and lastly the Grubs. When at some little distance from the sacred mulberry tree, around which were assembled the relatives of the deceased, the Cardinal Pyrochre gave orders that the hymn of the dead should be intoned by the choir of Scarabs, and afterward sung by Bees and Crickets.


At intervals, when the harmony ceased, one could hear deep signs and sobs, bearing evidence of the universal grief caused by the loss of the humble insect, whose remains were being borne to their last resting-place. The procession at length reached the cemetery on the heath, where the sextons were still bending over the new dug grave. Signs and sobs were hushed in that profound silence which betokens the deepest sorrow. But when the bearers had laid the body in the tomb, and the yawning earth closed over it, the air was rent with a piteous wail, for the mourners had seen the last of a true friend.


An insect, robed in black, advanced to the grave-mount, saying: “Why this outburst of bitter grief? Why weep for one who has been delivered from the trial and burden of life. Yet,” he added, “weep on, for he who lies there can feel no pang of sorrow; no tears, no loving tones, can wake a responsive throb in his cold breast, nor bring him back to his earthly home!” They would not be comforted.

“Brothers,” said another, advancing in turn, “it is at the birth of a silkworm one ought rather to mourn. His life was one of ceaseless toil. By leaving this earth, he has left his misery behind; neither joy nor sorrow can follow him beyond the grave. I tell you simple truth; this is no time for hypocrisy. Why should worms mourn this event? Death has no terrors for us!” They still wept.

One of the mourners said with faltering voice: “Brother, we know that there is a beginning, and alas! an end, to everything, and that all must die; we know, too, the sorrows of our life, the labour of gathering our food leaf by leaf; we know the toil that transforms a mulberry leaf into a shining silken robe; we know the dangers that beset our lives; and the doom of the silken shroud that at last imprisons and blights the dreams of our young lives; we know that to die is to cease to toil, death being the end of the silken thread which began with our birth—we know all this, but, oh, we know, too, that we loved our brother, and who can console us for so great a loss?”

“We loved him! We loved him!” cried the mourners.

“I wept like you,” said the Cardinal, “for our brother who is gone; yet, when I meet death face to face in the silkworm, my heart expands. ‘Go to the other world,’ I say, the better world; there the gates will open for the good, both high and low; there you will rejoin your lost loved ones in a land where flowers breathe an eternal fragrance; where the mulberries bordering the glassy streams are ever green. Ah, brothers, tell them to wait for us there, for to die is to be born to a better life!”

With these words the weeping ceased. The moon broke out, silvering the heath with a chaste glory.

The good insect added: “Go back to your homes: our brother has no longer need of you.”

Each of the mourners, after placing a flower on the grave, left the scene, feeling comforted.