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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

Celebrating National Piano Month, Part One

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

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2014

The piano has been an integral part of Western music since the late eighteenth century. Although invented around the year 1700, it took several decades before the instrument had become a favorite of composers and performers alike. The piano underwent enormous change in its first 150 years, and the two regional schools of instrument makers—located in Vienna and London—gave musicians a large choice of pianos with differing tonal characteristics. Versions of the instrument eventually developed that were space-efficient, first the square piano and later the upright, which allowed it to find its way into middle-class homes.

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Of Note

Anton Bruckner and the Brown Family

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

Posted: Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Department of Musical Instruments continues to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first gift of musical instruments from Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown, who over several decades built a collection of more than 3,300 instruments for the Museum. The collection she gave is named for her husband, John Crosby Brown, and still forms the majority of the Museum's departmental holdings.

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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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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.