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Musical Instruments

Appleton Pipe Organ

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.

Of Note

Raja Tagore: Renaissance Man of Indian Music

Rebecca Lindsey, Visiting Committee Member, Department of Musical Instruments and Department of Islamic Art; and Allen Roda, Jane and Morgan Whitney Research Fellow, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2014

Among the more distinguished benefactors of the Museum's collection of musical instruments was Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore (1840–1914), a leading figure in the Bengal Renaissance of the late nineteenth century, as well as an educator, patron of music, and musicologist. Tagore was born in 1840 in Calcutta, then the capital of British India, to a Brahmin family—wealthy merchants with lands formerly owned by ruling aristocrats, who were fluent in English and conversant with Western European knowledge. The British often conferred the aristocratic title of Raja on prominent citizens; Tagore's brother inherited the senior title Maharaja, and, in 1880, Tagore himself was titled Raja, though his family had no political authority.

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Of Note

Exploring The Sacred Lute

Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2014

The first time I heard the evocative sounds and exquisite poetry of classic Persian music, I was amazed by its simple and elegant beauty. I later learned the complexity and philosophical principals behind the music, and about the different genres and ancient regional traditions that still endure. After a trip to Iran to visit scholars, composers, instrument makers, and musicians, a friend introduced me to the music and life of the exceptional musician, jurist, and philosopher Nour Ali Elahi (1895–1974), also known as Ostad Elahi. The resulting new exhibition, The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi, examines Ostad's transformation of the art of tanbūr—his modifications to the instrument, its playing technique, and the elevation of its repertoire—as well as his innovative approach to the quest for self-knowledge and his personal transformation from a classical mystic to a modern jurist.

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Of Note

Missionaries Making Music: Building Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown's Collection

Sally B. Brown, Visiting Committee Co-chair, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014

From 1889–1909 Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown was regarded as the authority in America on musical instruments from all over the world. By her death in 1918 she had lavished more than 3,300 instruments on The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her first gift, in 1889, consisted of 276 instruments—mostly objects from distant places and "savage and oriental" peoples, as she described them in the parlance of her day. By 1901 these instruments occupied five rooms, or ten percent of the total number of galleries in the Museum at the time. Brown called her collection, as an acknowledgement of its scope and in honor of her husband, "The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments of All Nations."

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Of Note

Recent Acquisition: An Early American Banjo

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

Accompaniment to Daily Life: The Syrian Tibia

Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, Associate Curator, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

Instruments of Macabre Origin

Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

A Patriotic Drum, for the Fourth of July

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

Delicate, Quiet Beauty: The Viola da Gamba

Elizabeth Weinfield, Editorial Associate, Online Publications, Digital Media Department

Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2014

There aren't many things in this world more exquisite, beautiful, or noble than the viola da gamba. As a practitioner of the instrument myself, I hold a strong bias, but let's be honest: Who could refrain from pausing in front of the cases of viols on display beside the Michele Todini harpsichord on a walk through The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments?

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Of Note

Drums Fit for a King

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

Frances Morris and The Crosby Brown Collection

Rebecca Lindsey, Visiting Committee Member, Department of Musical Instruments and Department of Islamic Art

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.

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Of Note

Conserving an Early Twentieth-Century Afghani Rubāb

Jennifer Schnitker, Graduate Intern, Department of Objects Conservation; Fellow, Winterthur Museum/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

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.

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Of Note

Kalimba, or the "Thumb Piano"

Ken Moore, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

The Met's Mighty Pipe Organ

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

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.

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Of Note

The New York City Workshop of C.F. Martin

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, April 28, 2014

The exhibition Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C.F. Martin, on view through December 7, brings together more guitars by Christian Frederick Martin (1796–1873) than have ever been publicly exhibited before. Among the many treasures that can be seen in this exhibit is the earliest known guitar built by Martin. The instrument (above) was built around 1834, at which point Martin was working in his New York City workshop at 196 Hudson Street, an area of the city now known as Tribeca, near the Holland Tunnel. In that shop he repaired instruments, sold musical items that he imported from Germany, and both built and sold his own guitars.

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Of Note

David Mannes and the Great Hall Concerts

Rebecca Lindsey, Visiting Committee Member, Department of Musical Instruments and Department of Islamic Art

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014

David Mannes (1866–1969) was a violinist, famed conductor, and one of the most important music educators in the United States, best known for the Manhattan music school he founded in 1916 which today is Mannes College The New School of Music. Though never a Museum employee, Mannes began the distinguished history of musical performances at the Met. He conducted at the Museum for more than forty years, and for thirty years led regular free concerts that The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin described in 1949 as having "America's largest indoor audiences." Particularly during the 1930s, when the Museum had no curator knowledgeable about instruments, Mannes also advised on the acquisition of instruments and their care.

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Of Note

The Sound of Holy Week

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bells have been used in the Latin Mass of the Roman Catholic Church since at least the eighth century. A tradition developed of setting aside the bells during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday, as their ringing was considered too joyous for such a somber time of the liturgical year and the bells were said to have flown to Rome. When the bells were not in use, they were replaced by a cog rattle—a noisemaker that produces a loud rattling sound when whirled around by its handle. This tradition still continues in certain Latin American countries.

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Of Note

Ravi Shankar: Ambassador of Hindustani Music

Allen Roda, Jane and Morgan Whitney Research Fellow, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, April 7, 2014

Happy birthday to Pandit Ravi Shankar—the legendary sitarist widely known to have played a pivotal role in spreading appreciation for Hindustani classical music throughout the world, as well as for teaching Beatles guitarist George Harrison to play the instrument.

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Of Note

Happy Birthday to Papa Haydn, Father of the String Quartet

Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, Associate Curator, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2014

Lovers of chamber music have good reason to raise a cheer on March 31, which marks the 282nd birthday of composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), who is often referred to as the "Father of the String Quartet."

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Of Note

The "Lovely Sound" as Symbol of Nineteenth-Century Multiculturalism

Allen Roda, Jane and Morgan Whitney Research Fellow, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2014

The sūr pyār is a novelty instrument comprising three different musical instruments—tāmbūra, esrāj, and sitār—joined together at the base and peg box. Each separate component provides a distinct function in North Indian classical music: the tāmbūra is present in nearly every concert or recording, providing a constant drone in the background that serves as a tonal reference for the melodic instruments; the esrāj is very similar to other bowed instruments from North India, like the sarangī, in its ability to mimic the human voice, and is often used as accompaniment to a vocalist or as a solo instrument; and the sitār—perhaps the most iconic musical instrument of India thanks to Pandit Ravi Shankar—is a solo melodic instrument that is fretted and plucked with a plectrum, or mizrāb, attached to the musician's fingertip.

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Of Note

Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2014

On March 21, 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musical family in Eisenach, Germany. Depending on the source, the date of his birth is listed as either March 21, on the old Julian calendar that was still in use where Bach was born, or March 31, the date on the new Gregorian calendar that is currently the standard.

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About this Blog

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. On this blog, curators and guests will share information about this extraordinary collection, its storied history, the department's public activities, and some of the audio and video recordings from our archives.