By Sam Roberts
September 26, 2014
Once upon a time, there was a tuba named Tubby, a brassy musical instrument who boasted that he could sing. He was first given voice in 1945 through lyrics recorded by the comedian Danny Kaye and was later reincarnated by the Manhattan Transfer, Annette Funicello, Julia Child and Meredith Vieira. His story has been translated into dozens of languages.
Still, Tubby cannot hold a candle to Big Carl.
Unlike Tubby, Big Carl cannot sing a note. Technically, he may not even be a tuba. But he resounds as thunderously as the Queen Mary and is so mammoth that it takes three people to play him. Placed side by side, he reduces an ordinary tuba to a piccolo by comparison.
A typical tuba is about 3 1/2 -feet high, has about 18 feet of tubing and weighs about 20 pounds. Big Carl stands nearly 8 feet tall, contains 60 feet of tubing, weighs about 100 pounds and registers a subcontrabass BBBb pitch. His bell, the widest part, has a diameter just over 40 inches.
New York is a city of superlatives, so where else would you expect to find a mutant musical instrument this size, especially one of mysterious provenance?
He used to be on display at the Carl Fischer music store in Cooper Square, in Lower Manhattan, but is now hidden away on an upper story of the music publisher’s Wall Street offices, a beloved but lonely mascot to colleagues at the company, which is trying to bring the tarnished brass instrument back to public view.
Carl’s origins are murky — it is not known exactly when or for whom he was created — but seem to trace back about 100 years. The reason for his existence is linked to the desire by concert bands to find ways to stand out. And, they believed, there was no better way to self-aggrandize than to outdo one another with big and even bigger tubas made by well-known craftsman, like Besson, Boosey or Bohland & Fuchs.
One, made for John Philip Sousa, is at Harvard. Another is at a museum in England. An even bigger one was produced as recently as 2010 in Markneukirchen, Germany, which is famous for its musical instruments, to celebrate the town’s 650th anniversary.
Sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, Big Carl was sold or given to Carl Fischer, a sheet music publisher who opened an instrument repair shop in the East Village in 1872 and was Sousa’s first publisher.
The instrument supposedly made a cameo appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which hosted Sousa and housed the world’s largest organ at the time). Big Carl was later ensconced over the entrance to the company’s headquarters at Cooper Square from 1926 to 1999 (the store also featured a supersize bass fiddle and guitar), then followed the publisher to Bleecker Street and, last year, to 48 Wall Street, where he presides conspicuously, but out of public sight, in a small conference room.
Big Carl was crafted at Bohland & Fuchs in what was then Bohemia by someone who had a sense of humor. Included is a standard hook that would allow a player to strap it on and play it in a marching band — that is, if the musician were about 18 feet tall.
“It’s a novelty,” said Steve Dillon, whose family-owned company was recruited by Carl Fischer Music to repair Big Carl last spring.
In the decades when it was displayed prominently at the Carl Fischer store, it became a legend.
“Many of our composers and customers in the industry still ask about it and say, surprised, ‘Oh, it’s still here,” Sonya Kim, the company president, said.
Unlike a typical tuba, it has finger buttons but no valves and pistons, which means it only plays fundamental notes with a narrower pitch. That probably defines it as more of a bugle than a tuba, which might make it eligible to horn in on another title.
“I asked the Guinness Book of Records if they have a largest bugle category,” said Elizabeth Holub, a marketing associate with Carl Fischer. “I haven’t heard back yet.”
The company is considering lending Big Carl to Macy’s for the Thanksgiving Day Parade or to the Tuba Christmas concert in Rockefeller Center. Assuming, that is, that the instrument will fit through the door.
Last week, Mr. Dillon enlisted Derek Fenstermacher, principal tuba with the New Jersey Symphony, to test the instrument.
“I had seen pictures of it and I was thinking, I’m your guy,” Mr. Fenstermacher recalled. “Then I saw it in person and I was speechless. I thought I might need another lung to play it.”
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 27, 2014, Section A, Page 21 of the New York edition with the headline: It’s a Giant. It’s a Novelty. It’s a Tuba Named Big Carl.
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