Oberlin Blogs

Oberlin's King George Marimba

February 3, 2024

Jonathan Lucke '25

This winter, I played on one of Oberlin’s most unique, rare instruments: a 4-octave C-C King George marimba. Only 102 King George marimbas were ever made, and only 21 of the type we have. You may be wondering what a marimba is, what King George has to do with it, why Oberlin has one, and why I care enough to research it for hours. Do not worry. I’ll be diving into all of that here.

A marimba is an instrument made of cut, tuned pieces of wood (typically rosewood). They originate from Africa, with buzzing gourds as the resonators beneath the wood, which were later adapted in Latin America and the United States. They’re used in plenty of genres and styles of music, but mostly wind symphony, solo repertoire, contemporary music, and occasionally orchestral music. Oberlin currently has six marimbas, including the King George.

In the 1930s, large-scale marimba orchestras were in fashion. In 1933, the Century of Progress international exhibition in Chicago, Illinois, featured a 100-person marimba orchestra. These marimbas were all manufactured by J.C. Deagan (named after its founder, John Calhoun Deagan, 1853-1934). In 1934, a new 100-piece marimba orchestra was formed called the International Marimba Symphony Orchestra. Out of the 102 made, 100 were for each musician in the orchestra (all engraved with their name), plus 1 for the orchestra's founder and 1 for King George V of England. 

There’s much more history about the ensemble and the tour they initially planned in England, but I’ll keep it short for now. Essentially, there was some drama between the US Musicians' Union and the UK Musicians' Union, so the IMSO was barred from playing in England for King George. 

The founder of J.C. Deagan, John Deagan, did much more than just manufacture percussion instruments. In fact, he’s the man responsible for A=440 being the standard universal pitch for orchestras. He was also a nationally recognized clarinet player and invented the first scientifically tuned glockenspiel. 

Oberlin has a long connection with Deagan. In addition to the King George marimba, Oberlin owns several other Deagan instruments, including a one-of-a-kind 3.5-octave vibraphone originally belonging to the Cleveland Orchestra. The original organ in Finney Chapel, before the current one was built in the early 2000s, had a set of Deagan chimes inside. Oberlin Percussion Group still owns those chimes. I used them in a concert in Finney Chapel with the Musical Union last school year. Oberlin has numerous unique and rare instruments, especially in the percussion collection. I’ll probably write some other blogs about those as well.

Oberlin acquired our King George marimba through former professor of percussion Michael Rosen, who purchased it in Southern Ohio around the 1970s. There’s a lot of fascinating history behind our King George: The restoration of it in the '90s in Cleveland, a connection with Japanese marimba player Keiko Abe, and the story of how the original cases went missing in the 1990s due to the construction of our new TIMARA department in the basement of Bibbins (they still have not been located).

So, as I was saying at the beginning of this blog, I played on the King George marimba earlier this winter in December for our Oberlin Percussion Group Festive Holiday Event (formerly called Marimba Christmas) in the conservatory student lounge. This yearly tradition has been running for decades, and it’s my favorite of any. The event features some standards of holiday music arranged for percussion instruments. In recent years, we’ve highlighted student compositions. This year, a current first-year percussionist arranged "Linus & Lucy" and "Suzy Snowflake" for this event. Last year, a fifth-year percussionist arranged "All I Want for Christmas." I happened to play the vibraphone part on that this year, which is a 1-1 transcription of Mariah Carey’s vocal part.

This event has always been well-attended. The conservatory lounge is typically packed with up to a hundred people. We’ve also added some games and trivia to it in recent years, my favorite being the challenge where an audience member tries to move a set of sleigh bells without making any sound, an almost impossible task. This event is in the lounge instead of a concert hall, making it accessible to a broader audience. Our concerts are free for community members anyway, but bringing young children or pets into concerts can be challenging since they might be a little noisy. This event almost always features many dogs.

So, why do I know so much about this instrument? One, I’m a nerd. Two, it was the subject of my final project for an ethnomusicology course called Music and Ecology. Three, I think it’s one of the best-sounding marimbas I’ve ever heard. It has been the go-to choice for recital-quality sound throughout Oberlin's history. This is due to the unusual tuning of the instrument, with a strong minor-third presence that other marimbas don’t have. When percussionist Gordon Stout visited Oberlin, he brought his King George marimba and even said ours sounds better than his! 

This is an ongoing project, and I could not have done it without the help of my former teacher, Michael Rosen, and an expert in the field of vintage percussion instruments, Dr. Eyler. If you want to read more on this nerdy topic, I’m working on a digital instrument display with the whole story, which should be released soon. I’m really glad I can carry the legacy of at least a small part of Oberlin’s history.

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