Exploring Instruments: Celebrity Instruments
With very few exceptions, musical instruments never bear the mark of their owner, even if well-known. From the nineteenth century, however, with the appearance of the cult of the virtuoso artist, a fetishistic value was given to any objects these individuals had owned, thus materialising the artist’s aura. This trend was developed and amplified in the popular music of the twentieth century and the instruments of rock bands, for example, are now sought as iconic objects. The few celebrity instruments we know provide us with significant examples of the sonority and the opportunities they could offer in their time.
MIMO began life as a consortium of some of Europe’s most important musical instruments museums, which came together for a European Commission funded project that aimed to create a single online access point to their collections. The aim of the consortium is now to become the single access point for information on public collections of musical instruments for the entire world.
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A Recent Trend
With very few exceptions, musical instruments never bear the mark of their owner, even if well-known.
Most often, after the owner's death, the instruments are sold and their sense of belonging is quickly forgotten. Consequently there is no known harpsichord which belonged to Bach or Couperin, and no traces of a violin from either Vivaldi or Leclair. From the nineteenth century, however, with the appearance of the cult of the virtuoso artist, a fetishistic value was given to any objects these individuals had owned, thus materialising the artist’s aura.
This trend was developed and amplified in the popular music of the twentieth century and the instruments of rock bands, for example, are now sought as iconic objects. The few celebrity instruments we know provide us with significant examples of the sonority and the opportunities they could offer in their time.
Guitare of Hector Berlioz
This beautiful guitar was donated by Hector Berlioz to the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire when he was its librarian and curator.
It is signed on the bridge by Berlioz and by the violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (both played the guitar). The instrument was provided by the violin maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume for a series of recitals in Paris.
Audio clip: http://exhibitions.europeana.eu/archive/files/f6a81f6d6e17aa9d33fe8e5971ce5e05.mp3
Place of Production: Paris, France
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An instrument that belonged to a particular composer or was once played by a great performer is now of particular significance.
Beyond the anecdote or totemic, these instruments, like the Erard piano played by Liszt during a series of concerts in Lyon in July 1844, or the zither on which the famous Christmas song "Silent Night" was composed, feed the imagination of the person who sees or hears them today. Put into context, these memorabilia can also provide information on the tastes of the artist and perhaps help to understand the circumstances in which a work was created.
This zither in the so-called "Mittenwald" shape is said to have belonged to
Franz Xaver Gruber. In 1818, Gruber composed the world-wide known Christmas song "Silent night, holy night" based on a poem by Joseph Mohr.
Place of Production: Österreich oder Süddeutschland
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Jazz and Pop Stars
The development of media (radio, records, TV) and the global extension of popular music have given to artists a status of living icons,
revered and celebrated worldwide. It is therefore not surprising that the instruments they played or the artefacts belonging to them have become objects of worship, envied by museums and collectors.
The popularity of a person or group continues through the objects they left behind, such as ABBA’s synthesizer seen by visitors indulging in nostalgia, from the time when the Swedish pop band was at the height of his fame. At the same time, these works provide valuable evidence on the relationship linking these musicians to their instruments. Frank Zappa, for example, was a tireless music researcher and became attentive to the developments in electronic music, which he managed to use in some of his most experimental works.
Guitar of Django Reinhardt
Some traditions, like those of the gypsy community, give these objects a mythical value, as, for example,
the Django Reinhardt guitar that cannot be played after his death.
This model was developed by Mario Maccaferri and has several innovations including a special soundboard design and the signature 'cutaway' of the body which allowed the left hand to reach the extreme high notes easily.
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Made in the early 1980s and therefore towards the end of ABBA's career, the GS-1 was Yamaha’s first digital FM synthesizer.
When it was first launched it cost around 12,000 euros, which is equivalent to around 50,000 euros today.
Place of Production: Japan
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Electricity and electronics became crucial factors in instrument making in the twentieth century.
Some new instruments converted mechanical vibrations into electrical oscillations, others used electronic oscillators to amplify and modify the sound of traditional instruments or to generate signals and create new sounds.
This particular analogue synthesizer was developed specifically for Frank Zappa, to be controlled from an electric guitar.
Kings and Queens
Musical instruments that belonged to a crown or high-ranking officials are often outstanding objects.
Whether they have been received in homage or have been acquired by a monarch for his or her own use, they are most often of exceptional quality of manufacture. They demonstrate the ability of the makers as much as their inventiveness, the magnificence of the object being at the level of the rank of the recipient.
The presence of one of their instruments in royal collections was an undeniable honour for the maker, who never failed to invoke it. The decorative aspect of the object could then take over the musical functions, as evidenced by the marble dulcimer attributed to Michele Antonio Grandi and which belonged to the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici.
Belonged to Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici
This instrument is a unique piece of its kind, in that all its parts are made of different qualities of marble.
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The soundboard is made from a slab of white statuary marble from Carrara, in which two rosettes are cut;
the body and brides are in bardiglio marble, again from Carrara, while the two blocks to which the strings are fixed, are in yellow broccatello. Although the instrument must originally have had only decorative functions, it nevertheless faithfully reflects all the technical characteristics of this type of instruments of that time.
The instrument survives in its original case, where the decoration on the inner side of the lid indicates a gift to Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642-1723) and from the heraldry we can deduce that the instrument was made sometime after 1691. The manufacture of the instrument is attributed to Michele Antonio Grandi from Carrara, who was known to have built a number of marble instruments, including a guitar, a harpsichord and several recorders, for the Este court in Modena.
Belonged to Grand Prince Ferdinando de´ Medici
Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713) persuaded the Paduan maker Bartolomeo Cristofori to move to Florence and become “strumentaio”
at his court, probably after having met with him during a trip to Venice. Here Cristofori invented, some ten years later, the pianoforte.
In the meanwhile, however, his production continually experimented and explored with shapes, sizes and materials, as is shown by this harpsichord entirely made of ebony and ivory: two materials that were particularly appreciated by the Medici at that time. The instrument is not signed, but it was reliably attributed to the maker through an accurate description that appears in the inventory of the instruments belonging to the private collection of Ferdinando in the year 1700, the same that includes also the very first description of a pianoforte