A Blast from the Past: The Altonium


Depending on your age and background the Altonium could be seen as odd, rare, cool, cute, or as an old friend from back in the day.

The Altonium as a middle brass instrument had/has several advantages. I was recently able to borrow this example of one produced fairly late in the game, by Olds. Back in the day (roughly the 1940s to the 70s) most of these were made in E-flat and it was one of the more popular substitutes for the horn in marching band. This particular one being in F is a good thing; on it you can read F horn music with ease (I believe it was shipped out with an E-flat slide also). Another big plus is the ergonomics of this instrument. I can easily imagine holding this horn for hours and hours with no real problems at all, being built on the same pattern as an American, bell front baritone or euphonium. The weight is close to the body and the hand positions required are pretty comfortable.

On the negative side, your forward vision is somewhat blocked and it was built to use an alto/tenor horn mouthpiece sized between that of a trumpet and a trombone mouthpiece with a bigger inner diameter than a standard horn mouthpiece. On it in the photo is a Dennis Wick 5 and actually this instrument plays better than you would think it should with this mouthpiece. The sound is a bit bright but very tolerable.

I believe the first E-flat alto horn I ever saw was as a freshman in high school in 1975, at the University of Kansas band day. At that time some groups such as KU still used large numbers of this type of alto horn in marching band. Obviously the mellophone edged out the Altonium not long after that. They look really old-school but honestly it is a design that could be revisited if ergonomics was a primary goal. For more on E-flat alto and tenor horns in general click here.

UPDATE: While I like to use the term Altonium as often as I can just because it sounds cool, A Facebook commenter noted, accurately, that strictly speaking the Altonium was a King product, specifically their models 1147 and 1148 which were produced into the 1970s. They were a unique design built to use a horn mouthpiece. Photos and more information here for example. And I updated the text above, as the the instrument in the photo is by Olds.

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