Touchy Questions for a Museum's Rare Instrument Collection

String Instruments Sound Better When Played Regularly. But Should it Matter?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In 1981, a donor gave the 1701 “Servais” Stradivari cello to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. One of the curators at the time sent a hand-delivered note to legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich asking if he’d like to come try out the Strad. Two months later, the museum received a note from the cellist’s secretary. “Maestro Rostropovich does not believe in the incarceration of musical instruments,” the note read. “He will not come.”

Rostropovich’s curt response – though a bit extreme -- illustrates the way many string players feel about the beautiful instruments in museums’ glass cases. In the musical instrument gallery at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Strads, Amatis and other string instruments by famous makers are rarely played. The way the Met balances preservation with performance illustrates an ongoing debate about the purpose of musical instruments in museums and the value of performance, both for the public and for the well-being of the instruments themselves.

“Our main focus is to preserve the instruments, and like any other object in the world, if you use it, then you have to replace parts, so then you have to replace the original hand of the maker,” said Ken Moore, curator of musical instruments at the Met. “It’s like any other object -- you use it, and it’s going to be used up.” The Met has 5,085 musical instruments in its collection, about 200 of which are European string instruments and bows.

Although musicians do occasionally play the Met’s instruments – any given violin might get played three times a year – Moore believes that preservation is the essential role of the museum. “You have to have an example for people to rebuild instruments in the way the instruments were originally built,” said Moore. “We try to have the evidence of the past available for the present and hopefully for the future.”

The Met’s approach is different from that of other museums and represents a fundamental divide within the preservation field. “I think there is a basic philosophical difference between what the Met does and what we do,” said Kenneth Slowik, artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society and curator of musical instruments at National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian’s instruments are played regularly, including in the museum’s concert series, said Slowik. The series often features the same players, performing on instruments they’ve played in the past. “We try to have not drive-by encounters with these instruments, but have people who get to appreciate them over a period of years,” he said.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the musical instrument collection at the Library of Congress, which has a collection of about 2,000 instruments and an immense archive of musical reference materials. For the Library, some decisions on performance are based on the bequest of the donor. For example, in 1935, one donor gave a group of three Strad violins, one viola, one cello and five Tourte bows, and provided an endowment assuring that they would be maintained and performed on in the future. 

There is widespread agreement that string instruments sound better when played regularly. “There is a diminishing of musical quality when instruments aren’t used at all,” said William Monical, a violin restorer who lives and works on Staten Island. “It’s like the atrophy of the human body when someone doesn’t walk.” The curator of a collection of violins in Cremona’s Town Hall plays the violins daily, said violinist Eric Grossman, curator of string instruments at the Juilliard School. “The more instruments are played and the more their molecular structure is resonating, the better they sound,” said Grossman. 

Moore, the Met curator, argues that an instrument doesn’t need to be played daily to keep its sound. “I like to think of them as going to sleep,” he said. “When a performer comes, our instrument will sound awful if it hasn’t been played for a year, and after 45 minutes of playing, something happens.”

Violinist Sean Carpenter, who played Bach solo works on the Met’s 1694 “Francesca” Strad at a concert, experienced the awakening. “By the time I finished playing it really did take off in sound, and improve dramatically,” he said. 

Juilliard’s Grossman – who waxes poetically about what he calls the “silky, golden, extraordinary” sound of the Met’s 1717 "Antonius" Strad -- argues that while preservation certainly matters, performers can usually play old instruments without damage or harm. “If a few instruments are kept away from players, I understand, but I think predominately these instruments can still be played without doing harm,” he said. “If you quarantine an instrument for long periods of time, the waking up of the instrument may take longer.”

The Met hasn’t always been so focused on preservation. In 1960s, in the wake of the destruction of World War II, the philosophy of conservation changed, said Moore. When UNESCO was formed, the organization set up subcommittees for museums. The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Musical Instruments, known as CIMCIM, provided a forum for curators to discuss ethical issues of preservation and performance, leading to a greater focus on the importance of preserving instruments for posterity.

Although Rostropovich would certainly disapprove, most curators believe there is room for – and value in – both approaches. “Are we keeping these instruments as fresh as possible for future generations, or do these instruments not fulfill their artistic destiny until they are under the chin of an artist?” said Kerry Keane, head specialist for musical instruments at Christie's. “I don’t think we’ll ever answer that question, and I’m happy with that.”

Photos (top-bottom):

The Met's 1669 Nicolò Amati violin, currently on display in the musical instrument gallery (Corrine Ramey)

Visitors look at the Met's 1714 "Batta-Piatigorsky" Stradivari cello (Corrine Ramey)

Visitors look at the Met's collection of viola da gambas (Corrine Ramey)

Sean Carpenter plays the Met's 1694 "Francesca" Stradivari in the musical instruments gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Don Pollard)


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Comments [14]

Robert Smith

Instruments should be played, they don't really mean anything just sitting there. The ones that are primarily decorative maybe, the metallic ones that can't be rebuilt maybe. But the wooden ones that can be kept functional need to be played!

Jul. 21 2011 08:08 PM
Harry Matthews from Brooklyn, NY

It strikes me as a great pity that museums like the Met keep extraordinary instruments out of circulation, as it were, while young virtuosos must beg foundations or wealthy admirers to pick up the 9- or 10-figure cost of an historic instrument. Surely the Met could organize a program to loan its prize instruments to rising stars for a year or two. They aren't pieces of sculpture; they are living instruments.

Mar. 24 2011 02:20 AM
Gary from Dallas, TX

In this case, I believe museum=mausoleum where the instruments to be "preserved" are found.
I agree that maintenance is an ongoing issue, if it's taken out an played then something might need repairing. I would favour a program whereby the museum would select early music groups and individually awarded soloists and orchestra members with the use of the Strads, Amatis, etc. Maybe the use of such instruments could be part of the endowment of the chair for the concertmaster, principal violist, principal cellist of suitable orchestra and chamber venues.

Mar. 22 2011 03:21 PM
Wanda McCrae from New York, NY

Museums can play an important role in preserving instruments between performances. This need not be an either-or argument. Compromise makes perfect sense: the performer keeps the instrument awake, and the museum keeps the instrument in prime playing condition.

I would be likely to seek out the concert in question, if I went to a museum and upon reaching the display case for an instrument was met with a note explaining who was using the instrument and where and when they would be performing. My curiosity would be piqued enough to want to attend the concert, if it was in my area. This is one way museums and musicians can partner in preserving our musical history.

Mar. 17 2011 04:21 PM
Dan from Acton, MA

I tend to agree with those who argue that museums (a la the Met) are visually oriented and as such really do not do justice to musical instruments. A Degas is meant to be seen (and not heard). But an Amati is meant for the opposite. Indeed, one might argue that concert halls are the true and correct museums for musical instruments. Having built a harpsichord I can unabashedly state that musical instruments do have souls and they should not be confined. The Met should set them free as the Smithsonian does and let them be enjoyed as intended.

Mar. 17 2011 02:47 PM
Michael Meltzer

Museum people are "visual" people. To put it in visual terms, compare the beauty of a butterfly in flight with the beauty of a butterfly nailed to a board.
In terms of abstract visual design, most instruments are a joke. Their design follows function. All the aesthetic visual refinements contribute to their beauty only in a relative way. If we were all deaf, no sculptor would dream up the shape of a violin as an art object. Nothing horrifies most decorators more that the prospect of having to include grand pianos in their living rooms.
The museums really need to do some soul-searching. What exactly are they trying to preserve?

Mar. 17 2011 02:32 PM

The Royal Palace in Spain exhibit a collection of five Stradivarius (three violins, one viola and a cello) which are regularly used for public performances and recordings.
Felipe V and his son Carlos IV completed the purchase of this unique collection.
I think this is the right use that any country have do of a national treasure.
So these instruments have been kept "alive" from 1696.
Have a look and enjoy it.

Mar. 17 2011 12:13 PM
David from Flushing

At an organ concet at the Met, a staff member told me that the recent renovation was more a trial redesign and that a reconstruction of the instrument galleries was being considered. The museum currently has two major projects (American paintings and Islamic art) underway that are expected to be completed in about a year. Perhaps the instruments will follow.

Mar. 17 2011 12:07 PM
Kurt Muroki from New York, NY

Mr. Rostropovich is absolutely correct. The act of collecting musical instruments pushes prices up to the point now that we musicians cannot afford to buy fancy fine instruments. We have to rely on collectors’ philanthropy. Museums are even less willing to have their instruments played. Yet what is the purpose of a museum? They present and showcase art to the public. Some art is made to be collected and viewed; musical instruments are made to be played. Sound is the most important aspect in construction and design, and this was the original intent of the maker. An instrument without sound is a blank canvas without purpose. Presenting musical instruments in good working order without sound is truly a lack of understanding and intellect.

Mar. 17 2011 10:56 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

I have to say that my visit to the Met's collection last April (soon after the gallery's grand re-opening) was rather disappointing. While the stringed instruments always seem well displayed and well represented, the wind instrument presentation has much to be desired in my opinion. For example - the Met spent nearly 30K for a much sought-after American keyed bugle a few years back and the way it was displayed, one must get down on their knees to see it. The poor lighting also affects one's chances of seeing the engraving. This was also the case for a very rare C.G. Conn double-bell euphonium acquired many years ago that when put on display under very poor lighting conditions, the beauty of it's engraving could not be fully appreciated. I also recall from my recent visit, a mouthpiece on a woodwind instrument was placed wrong side up. I believe many museums are under the assumption the general population that visit do not possess a great deal of knowledge of what they are looking at. Of course we all know what happens when one assumes.

Mar. 16 2011 08:23 PM
Gregg C Levine from Astoria Queens

I quite agree!
The instruments in the Smithsonian's collection are unique. And they should be played often.

As is, the recording player piano, perhaps the only one left of its kind, only gets a good work out when piano rolls such as the ones that were cut, perhaps on that same instrument, by Gershwin were performed. The same was for Rachmaninoff's works earlier.

It would be a shame if the ones in the Met's collection were not also properly appreciated.

Especially since there is a restoration of the original instruments trend that surfaced during the late eighties. But only a smattering of that one.

Mar. 16 2011 12:21 PM
Michael Meltzer

I don't know if it's possible to answer David's question, though I'm sure there are lots of opinions.
But, it should be pointed out that in the heyday of the Stradivarius shop, no one wanted an old violin. Everyone wanted a new Strad.

Mar. 16 2011 08:34 AM
David from Flushing

The instruments collected by museums might be placed into several classes. Firstly, there are the strange and obsolete ones such as the serpent. Then there are the highly decorated ones that are collected more for their beauty than musicality. Finally, there are "normal" instruments by famous makers.

The ornate instruments are the ones that are probably least likely to be played for fear of damaging the inlays, paintings, etc. Obsolete instruments often have lost their players and might be the elders in a collection with warping, cracks, warts and all.

Instruments that resemble those of the modern orchestra are obviously the most likely to enjoy use.

I have often wondered if "Strads" sound today as they did and were intended when made. Could the whole mystique of their sound merely be an artifact of time?

Mar. 16 2011 07:50 AM
Michael Meltzer

The museum argument about "authenticity" is just a little specious.
Amati, Stradivari and the makers they trained were very smart people and knew that with changes in weather or climate, wood also swells or shrinks. the makers made their glue joints and used adhesives such that, under stress, the glue joints would open up instead of the wood cracking.
So, it is easy to see that after a century or two or three, museum re-gluings would be unavoidable, with adhesives not from the makers shop. It is easy to imagine that with the changes of extreme age, a sound post might no longer be the right fit. What do they do?
The acoustical elements of a fiddle are not moving parts, they don't wear out.
The museum people predictably have the anal mentality of collectors and live in fear.
They are preserving the object, but not the intent of its creator.

Mar. 16 2011 06:55 AM

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