The Ashmolean Museum’s refurbished stringed instrument gallery opened in October, with new cases, sophisticated lighting and a ‘point and play’ facility enabling the public to hear the instruments…well, most of them. Claudia Pritchard visits Oxford to have a look, and considers whether a Strad really should be seen and not heard
The Ashmolean Museum. Photo: University of Oxford
On the walls of the music and tapestry gallery at the Ashomolean in Oxford, the infant Diana and Apollo and their mother Latona are, in a magnificently wrought early 17th-century hanging, fleeing three coarse mortals who, as a punishment for their cruelty, are turned into frogs. The peasants depicted once bore frogs’ heads, but later they were spared this grotesquery, and human heads were newly stitched in.
The 27 outstanding stringed instruments below, arranged in two ‘orchestras’ in the newly renovated gallery, suffer, it may be argued, a similar fate: deprived of normal ‘speech’, have they become the frogs of the musical world, curiosities incapable of beautiful sound, or do they have their own, dignified, identity?
The Ashmolean’s senior curator of art, Colin Anderson, answers this without hesitation: the collection is founded on a gift by the leading stringed instrument dealers of their day, W E Hill and Sons, who stipulated that they should remain silent: ‘They felt that there were enough instruments in the world, that these didn’t have to be played.’
What instruments and altarpieces have in common…
Anderson likens the instruments to altarpieces elsewhere in the university collection’s galleries – designed for devotional use, they now have a new life, outside their original architectural and theological context, as superlative examples of religious art in their own right. Instruments and altarpieces alike also fulfil, in this academically-based institution, a research role. ‘I can’t tell you how many time we get out the instruments for those who are learning to make instruments, and for makers.’
Anderson has overseen the relaunch that was started by Jon Whiteley, who retired before its completion. A keen musician himself, he mentions lightly that he has played one of the only two instruments in the collection that can be put to use in this way, the Nicolò Amati of 1646. Not having been ‘played in’, the musical rewards were limited: ‘Let’s say you couldn’t play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.’ The violin, made to the Grand Pattern, was recently played by Pamela Rosenfeld, who has loaned it to the Ashmolean.
In the neighbouring case, is shown the Ashmolean’s second Nicolò Amati, the ‘Alard’, named after Jean-Delphin Alard (1815-1888), violinist, composer and teacher of Sarasate.
The Messiah Stradivari
And it was Alard who once owned the instrument whose status in the collection has almost reached the mythic proportions of the goddess Diana. Built in 1716 and kept in Stradivari’s Cremona workshop until 1737, it was owned in succession by Count Cozio di Salabue, Luigi Tarisio and Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. Alard, Vuillaume’s son-in-law, exclaimed of the silent instrument, ‘Vraiment, Monsieur Tarisio, votre violon est comme le Messie des Juifs: on l’attend toujours, mais il ne paraît jamais.’ (‘Your violin is like the Messiah: one always expects him but he never appears.’). On bequeathing it to the Ashmolean, Wills described as ‘a yardstick for future violin makers to learn from’.
At the heart of this renovation are new display cases partly inspired by the success of the museum’s great Stradivari exhibition of 2013, when 13 of his instruments were seen together, and shown to the best advantage in cases that far surpassed those of the Ashmolean’s collection until now. The old cases, with paper-thin locking mechanisms and sturdy carved legs, reputedly designed by Edwin Lutyens, were externally lit only, and did not conform to modern conservation standards. Jacqueline and Richard Worswick, Friends of the Ashmolean and founders of children’s hospice Helen House, after their daughter Helen suffered a brain tumour, underwrote the installation of new cases, which show the instruments to their best advantage.
The ‘Rode’ Stradivari of 1722, with its exquisite inlaid work
Internally lit in a way that allows small details to be illuminated, and with light-reflecting metal panels, the cases now make it easier to see the meticulous detail of, for example, the two inlaid Amatis, of which there are only nine more in the world. One, the ‘Rode’ Stradivari (which has been loaned to the museum by the Gerald Segelman Trust to mark the reopening of the gallery), can, like the Amati, be played, by permission of the trustees.
‘These instruments were meant to be played’
And for those who feel that an instrument without its sound is like a book with no pages, a new marriage of 17th- and 21st-century technologies is coming to the rescue. A new ‘point and play’ facility will allow visitors to the collection, which is free of charge, to scan a code with their smartphones and hear through their headphones how that instrument sounds. But not a note out of the ‘Messiah’, of course. The scheme is to be trialled first of all on the Ashmolean’s London-made Jacob Kirckman harpsichord of 1772, which is already used for recitals. Fellow institutions, The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in the faculty of music at St Aldate’s and the Pitt Rivers museum, noted for its ethnological collection, will also adopt this ‘point and play’ system, yet to be formally named.
The ‘Alard’ Amati. Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
But this may not go far enough for those who believe the instruments were made to be heard, not only seen. Louise Kaye, who with her husband, David, buys superb instruments that are loaned to top-flight players for the whole of their career, says: ‘I have a strong view that these instruments were made to be played and I’m not sure that any of the makers would be happy to know that their instruments were being bought to be displayed in glass cases. I even have doubts about rich amateurs owning fabulous instruments that could be played by professionals and heard by many more people. That is precisely why we have set things up with our collection of instruments, to ensure that they are always played by top-notch musicians who perform regularly in public.’
‘Don’t eat your seed corn’
Maker David Rattray, an authority on historic instruments who was Instrument Custodian at the Royal Academy of Music for many years, knows all about finding the right balance between holding instruments for research and putting them to work. He considers the proviso by Wills that instruments be preserved through a policy of non-performance enlightened, and says that in light of modern conservation philosophies this must remain the rational standpoint.
‘An important point regarding the Ashmolean collection, with the exception of the Stradivari “Messiah” and the Amati “Alard”, is that most of the works are of large or small dimensions and of a type generally not favoured by modern performers,’ he says. ‘In addition these are set up in a manner not regarded as authentic in terms of period style. Given this, there would be little if any scholarly benefit in subjecting the instruments to the stresses of playing.
‘At the Royal Academy of Music, our policy was to ring-fence the most important areas of the string collection. This was done through limiting playing and the scrutiny of borrowers. In spite of this, however carefully done, minor damage and degradation inevitably occurs – through hand contact, rosin buildup, sweat and bow damage – and, sadly, on a few occasions far worse.’
He recalls a vivid illustration of the justification for preservation: ‘A few years back a distinguished American gentleman musicologist visiting the Academy was discussing whether rare examples should be played. “You sure as hell don’t eat your seed corn!” he said. I hope we are all with him on that…’
Music and Tapestry, Gallery 39, Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, is open from 10am to 5pm,Tuesday to Sunday, admission free