Working with the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. August 2019

Posted on August 23rd, 2019 by


Playing the 1737 Testore Violin in a storeroom of the Met.

This is just an introduction to my new project, which will be a long-term recording/filming project with the string instrument collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. This August and September (2019), I have been able to spend some extended hours in the storage rooms of the museum, getting a deeper knowledge of the extraordinary instument in the collection, with a view to this exploration becoming deeper and more public.

Decorated case for a late 17th century pochette violin 16 8 19

I have been very lucky, to build a collaboration with this wonderful museum and its holdings over the past couple of years. A few months ago, I gave a concert/talk there highlighting two of their 1690 Stradivari, one in ‘modern’ and one in ‘early’ set up. You can see a film of this here.

But now, working with Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, Curator in the Department of Musical Instrument, I want to go further, to start bringing as many of the instruments of the collection back into dialogue with music which might be relevant, illuminating, challenging for us and them.

18th and 19th Century bows from the Collection, on the 16th August. More details later!

Here’s the simple principle which I hold do, working with instruments, old and new. A musical instrument can teach us something about the music that it was made to play: A musical instrument can teach us something about the music it has played: A piece of music can teach us something about the instrument on which we play it, whether or not it was written for that instrument, or one like it. Most of all, a musical instrument can teach us, and of course, me, about the way that we play and the way that we listen. The most important thing, is to let things happen, to approach the process with an open mind, open ears, open eyes, and an open heart, and to see what transpires. Sometimes the results are modest,, sometimes spectacular., But there’s always something to be learnt.

To jump forward, I went back to the museum on the 23rd August, to keep developing my conversation with Bradley and also with Jayson Jayson Kerr Dobney, the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments. The focus that day was on the wonderful 1737 Testore violin which can be seen/heard above – just a few minutes grabbed on my camera – the beginnings of exploring an instrument.

Violin Johann Anton Gedler (1725–1790) (Füssen)

So on Friday, I spent nearly 6 hours in the store rooms the museum, working through a bewildering cornucopia of instruments and bows. Some of them, like the Gedler violin pictured above, were familiar to me, which meant that the conversation around the object could be a development of ideas which are already in train. Here’s the sound of another Gedler, recorded in London

‘Richardo’/Balthazar Richard (ca.1600-ca.1660)-‘Solo’

Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Violin Johann Anton Gedler  1755 (1725–1790) (Füssen) Workshop recording 26 3 17

The reason that I have started with a violin like this, is that I am fascinated by the real links between the way things look and the things that we choose to do on them. By the 19th century these Füssen – made instruments were being imitated/dismissed as eccentricities. But two things come to mind, looking at them and playing them (and this is not going to be in any depth at all), that the apparent playfulness disguises virtuosic geometric felicities-inverting the arcs of the vioin, both in the edgework and the ribs, to give the impression of something rough, or even nautical. It appears crude, natural, even grotesque, but is subject to just as many strictures as what we now view as the ‘standard’ violin design. Anyone who has spent time in the castles and palaces of Bavaria will know that it is almost impossible to get away from sometimes overwhelmingly grosteque ‘under-the-sea’ (if Disney will forgive me) pavilions and grottos. These were not, anymore than fountains and mazes, conceived as passive, peaceful places for peace an contemplation, but for music, drama, and performance. Instruments were needed which fitted the spaces, and the coral/conch-shell edge effect of these strings instruments fitted the bill perfectly. Here are two pieces of previous coral, as antlers on the astonishing ‘Diana on the Stag’, by Mathäus Wallbaum ( 1554-1632) in the Schatzkammer of the Residenz, Munich.

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“Diana auf dem Hirsch” Matthäus Walbaum Augsburg (ca.1600)

For me, it is important to recognise that what we might see as outliers, in music, instrument making, or playing, today, were not always so, and we can better grasp the nature and purpose of an object if we seek to understanding its purpose. This is, perhaps, most important with those examples, whose perceived importance and attendant value, tends to obscure their function. It’s very common to see some one, violinist or not, go weak at the knees in front of a Stradivari or Amati violin, and suspend all their critical faculties, as opposed to asking, for instance: is this 1698 exmple, possibly, this long because it was being made for the Ducal court at Modena, where the ‘A’ used by the Vitalis and Colombi, was low? Is that a possibility.

MViola d’Amore,ca. 1700 German

This astonishing Viola d’Amore is a wonderful challenge to all of our ideas of what a normally proportioned instrument is. The bizarrely small body is not the result of the photo foreshortening, but absolutely fundamental to the design, and like a number of instruments from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that I was able to hold, it asks questions about meaning, and tone of voice, of volume. I find it interesting that so much of the conversation about instrument design and development focuses on an assumed drive to make instruments louder, whereas, I can point to a number of examples aimed at precisely the opposite. Take this mid-19th century example from Philadelphia.

‘mute violin’ Philadelphia 1852

The conventional wisdom, which may well be right, is that such an instrument is for soft practice. However, as someone who always uses a heavy ‘practice mute’ for at the desk, I can point to an important aspect of this: it’s very important what the muted instrument sounds like. This is almost never talked about in this circumstance, where it is presumed that near-silence is the only objective.

September 5th. Giovanni Grancino offers a way forward

The front of an extraordinary instrument by Giovanni Grancino (1637–1709)

My time in the museum today, talking with curator and collaborator, Bradley Strauchen-Scherer felt like a significant move towards this exciting recording, filming and research project. It has become clear that, central to it, will be this wonderful instrument, one of four surviving (in London, NYC, Milan and Vermillion, South Dakota) of the type by Grancino. The ‘what is it?’ aspect of this mysterious instrument and the three similar, will be fundamental to the project. It’s important to me to not, for now, be drawn into the question of what to call this instrument.

Bass side ribs of the instrument, which is labelled inside.  GJIOVANNI GRANCINO IN / CONTRADA LARGHA DI / MILLLANO AL SEGNO DELLA / CORONA 1701.