Heliconology, Part I

I have long been an admirer of the helicon. Oh, you may ask, but what IS a helicon? Well, as it is defined by Grove it is from the Greek ‘helikon’, which means ‘the mountains of the Muses’. It is a valved brass instrument, similar to a sousaphone, but with a fixed, upwards-facing bell. The first known example, according to Grove, was manufactured in 1845 in Vienna and the instrument is typically made in F, E-flat and BB-flat. It was made both in three- and four-valve configurations, though three is by far the most common. In the United States, the helicon has been almost entirely superseded by the sousaphone – American manufacturers ceased production by the 1940s. It is still manufactured in Europe.

I have been looking at various instruments online, as I decide I really want to purchase one of these instruments. I do play a fair number of gigs where a lighter horn than the big Miraphone 186 would be convenient. However, the Miraphone is such a beautiful instrument I have not yet made a move. However, a friend who has a small collection recently informed me that he had one for sale. After I expressed interest, he was kind enough to allow me to borrow the horn for a week to play it and see how I like it. The horn in question is an Ernst European model circa 1890-1900, with four rotary valves. It is pitched in the key of BB-flat. After playing it today, I have one or two preliminary observations, as follows.


  • Weight: The horn is very light and I could easily stand to carry it for a three or four hour performance on my feet.
  • Voice: The horn is also very pleasant in tone and although it is not quite as full as my Miraphone 186 (no surprise there), it has a very capable range and can speak with some authority when necessary.
  • Negatives:

  • The horn has a shoulder brace which is somewhat bent, so I suspect that it could be made a little more fitting. That being said, the helicon has a straight bit that is very limited in adjustment and as a result, I need to hold the horn in order to bring it to my embouchure and raise my shoulder somewhat, which is not the most comfortable position.
  • The rotary keys are not in the most comfortable position, although i suspect that if the above-mentioned aspects were adjusted, this problem might well be resolved as well.
  • I shall continue playing the horn for the next week and intend to use it on the upcoming performance on Saturday. shall continue this series throughout the week and will post my final thoughts at the end of the week. As well as determining if I will or will not actually purchase the instrument I am currently playing!


    One Response to Heliconology, Part I

    1. […] have long desired a helicon, as I have previous discussed in my post on Heliconology, Part I. I’ve been considering several instruments, including a beautiful four-valved European (from […]

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