The Museum's collection of musical instruments includes approximately five thousand examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. It illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. Selected for their technical and social importance as well as for their tonal and visual beauty, the instruments may be understood in a number of ways: as art objects, as ethnographic record, and as documents of the history of music and performance.
Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014
A recent acquisition that has been installed in gallery 684 is an early American banjo. This antebellum instrument was made by William Esperance Boucher, Jr., the earliest professional maker of the instrument and an innovative craftsman. Born in Germany, Boucher immigrated to Baltimore, where he sold a wide assortment of musical items and was known as a maker of both drums and banjos. Boucher helped to standardize many features of the banjo, and is credited as the first to use metal rods that allowed the player to adjust the tension on the skin head—a feature that he likely borrowed from some drum makers who were beginning to tension drums in this manner.
Posted: Monday, July 14, 2014
An extraordinarily early and rare wind instrument in the Museum's collection is a tibia from the ancient Mediterranean world. Music was abundant in the Roman Republic, to which Syria was annexed as a province, and the tibia, a double-reed instrument, accompanied many events in Etruscan and Roman daily life. Its ubiquitous depictions in mosaics, pottery, and sarcophagi portray tibia players in wedding processions, entertaining at formal meals, and providing music for laborers. Ovid wrote that the tibia "sang" in temples, at gaming events, and during funeral rites. Both Ovid and Livy recounted a legendary strike by tibia players, which underscores the instrument's great importance.
Posted: Monday, July 7, 2014
A highly unusual musical instrument in the Museum's collection is a lyre fashioned from a human skull. Although the piece has not been exhibited since before 1980, it gained fame in Jerzy Kosinski's 1982 best-selling novel Pinball—a rock 'n' roll mystery written for George Harrison—and perennially draws attention.
Posted: Monday, June 30, 2014
The side drum is probably the instrument most associated with important civic and patriotic holidays in the United States, including the Fourth of July. While drums of all types have been regularly employed to rouse the spirits of armies heading into battle, or to strike fear into their opponents, their most important function in warfare was as signal instruments that conveyed commands to dispersed troops. The side drum—named as such because it hangs on a sling to the player's side—was an important part of European military life from the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, and is still used for ceremonial functions today. Throughout colonial times and the Federal period in the United States, the instrument was a common sight in towns and villages, as it was used to sound the alarm and to summon members of the local militia for mutual defense.
Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Posted: Monday, June 16, 2014
Every year in June, a royal military event known as "Trooping the Colours" is held in London. The event is an official celebration of the monarch's birthday, even though their birthday could actually be any other time of year. Among the many formal displays of pageantry that occur during that celebration is a review of the Household Guard Regiments. On that occasion, the drummers of the Household Cavalry bands use special silver kettledrums—extraordinary instruments have been a part of the court's pomp and circumstance since the nineteenth century. The drums used in London are closely related to a pair of silver kettledrums that are a part of the Department of Musical Instruments' collection here at the Met.
Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Frances Morris (1866–1955) was not only the first woman to work as a professional at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but she was also, effectively, the first curator of the Museum's collection of musical instruments. The daughter of a minister and raised in New York, little is known of her early life and education, and there is no evidence that she had any professional degrees or musical training.
Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2014
One of the recent musical instruments conserved at the Met is a twentieth-century Afghani rubāb, a short-necked lute known as the national instrument of Afghanistan. A plucked instrument, the rubāb is used in art, popular, and regional music, both as a solo instrument and as part of small musical ensembles. Prior to being displayed in The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, this object needed treatment due to losses of inlay from the fingerboard and pegbox. Additionally, this presented a good opportunity to evaluate the condition of the rawhide resonator, as this material can become more brittle over time.
Posted: Monday, May 12, 2014
In conjunction with the exhibition Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin, on view through December 7, the Department of Musical Instruments is presenting a series of monthly concerts on Friday evenings in the Museum's Charles Engelhard Court. The next concert in this series will be held on May 16, featuring the guitarist, composer, and instrument designer Trevor Gordon Hall.
Posted: Monday, May 5, 2014
One of the frequently asked questions by visitors to The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments is whether the large organ that presides over the equestrian court is ever played. The answer, in fact, is yes—the beautiful instrument with gold-leaf façade pipes in a fifteen-foot-tall Greek Revival–style case is used several times a year in demonstrations and concerts for the public, and can also be heard on a variety of commercially available recordings.