"Pleasing to ear and eye alike" is a motto that appears frequently on keyboard instruments of the Renaissance and Baroque. It refers to the beautiful physical decoration that adorns an instrument which, presumably, will produce beautiful music. The motto could also be used to describe the entire collection of musical instruments housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection traces its beginning to 1889, when two important gifts were made: a collection of forty-four musical instruments assembled by Museum Trustee Joseph W. Drexel and donated by his widow, Lucy; and a donation a month later of several hundred instruments from Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown. Mrs. Brown continued to build the collection until her death in 1919. For 125 years, generations of collectors, donors, musicians, conservators, and curators have shaped the collection into one of the world's great repositories of musical heritage that includes some of the most historically important, artistically beautiful, and musically iconic instruments in the world.
The collection includes European hallmarks such as the earliest surviving piano, made by Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1720; violins by members of the Amati family and Antonio Stradivari; and guitars played by Andrés Segovia. Equally important are masterpieces that represent musical cultures from throughout the world, such as an extraordinary Ming-dynasty ivory pi'pa from China, a seventeenth-century Japanese koto complete with its lacquer box, sculptural African drums and trumpets, inlaid Persian instruments, and much, much more.
The primary mission of the Department of Musical Instruments is to preserve these musical treasures for future generations. As curators, we strive to interpret these treasures for visitors, researchers, builders, and performers. Occasionally, a specific instrument may be used for a demonstration or to make a recording that documents its acoustical functions. In the coming months, I look forward to using this blog as a space where 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. Watch this blog for such items "Of Note," and come visit the Musical Instrument galleries on your next visit to the Met.