Two glittering displays of arcane musical instruments
London — You might say that the renaissance of Renaissance music is now in full swing. Interest in early music -- and the desire to hear such music performed on the instruments for which it was written -- is a comparatively modern taste.
Unlike the early music admirers of yesterday, today's enthusiasts place a premium on historical accuracy. The painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in their pictures were content with a vague approximation of the way early instruments looked. These have scant resemblance to the look of the genuine thing. Their romantic approach simply will not do for today's music historians, who are prepared to go to any lengths in the pursuit of authenticity in construction, sound, and performance.
The Galpin Society has been instrumental in promoting high standards of accuracy in the study of early musical instruments. The society is now celebrating its 40th anniversary with an exhibition of antique instruments at Sotheby's Conduit Street Gallery in London. All of the 189 items have been loaned from the collections of the members. The society was named after Canon F. W. Galpin, one of several people who spearheaded the resurgence in popularity of early instruments -- and in the music that could be played on them.
One of the main functions of the society is the dissemination of information. It achieves this principally through its journal, published annually and distributed free to the society's members. A perusal of the list of articles carried in its 40 volumes is an education in itself. Some titles -- such as ``Some Light on the Chalumeau,'' or ``Gadulkas in Bulgaria'' -- are geared to those who have a fair amount of prior knowledge. But others -- such as ``Musical Instruments in 17th-Century Dutch Paintings'' or ``The Carillons of the Cathedral of Peter and Paul in the Fortress of Leningrad'' -- would add to the general knowledge of any interested observer.
Clearly the journal is a major attraction to the society's 1,500 members worldwide. More than half of these are institutions, but the membership includes players, musicologists, students of history, and many non-players.
As well as arranging visits and seminars to study great public and private collections in many parts of the world, the society also acts as an effective pressure group when necessary. It was recently involved in successfully opposing the closure of the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall in Twickenham, one of the oldest of its kind. Faced with British government spending cuts, the school was to have been merged with other military music establishments. But it will now maintain its distinguished identity.
``Made for Music,'' the Galpin Society exhibition now at Sotheby's, hardly comprises a comprehensive study of all the changes that have taken place during the history of stringed, woodwind, brass, percussion, and keyboard instruments. But it does convey some of the ceaseless invention of instrument makers in response to the changing demands of musicians.
We have the benefit of hindsight in judging the success of some of these efforts. The earliest exhibit, a Lira da Braccio made by Francesco Linarola in Venice in 1563, was a seven-string precursor of the violin family (a family that has dominated bowed instruments since the mid-16th century). A minor but delightful offshoot of this group are the 18th-century dancing masters' kits and pochettes, tiny pocket sized violins to be pulled out for instant accompaniment.
One of the stars of the show is a George III silver trumpet from the Royal Collection. This was discovered in 1959 in the vaults of St. James Palace, where it had lain for many a year since it was last used in the King's private band. The trumpet is one of the earliest examples of the application of side holes in the many efforts to extend the range of the instrument. Other examples in the exhibition reveal further, and often curious developments toward the modern trumpet with its valves.
Some of the inventions went awry. One of the most elegant exhibits is the dital harp by Edward Light of London, circa 1820. Light took the standard eight-string lyre, a popular drawing-room instrument of the period, and added so many refinements that it became extremely difficult to play. (The lyre was, in any case, then being ousted from its place in the drawing room by the piano. Perhaps it was the fate of the dital harp, beautiful but abandoned, that gave rise to the sad little song ``I took my harp to a party, but nobody asked me to play.'')
For information about the Galpin Society, contact the Honorary Secretary, Pauline Holden, 38 Eastfield Road, Western Park, Leicester LE3 6FE, England.
Another show of musical instruments, an exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery in Waterloo Place, London, takes the story two chapters further.
Since few antique instruments can withstand the rigors of the performing circuit, there is a brisk demand for good reproductions among players, and to some extent among collectors. Many of the instuments on display here are copies of extant pieces. Others are made within the confines of the craft's tradition; they were designed centuries ago and never bettered. In every case, the instruments are exquisite objects that can be used.
Hugh Davies, contemporary instrument maker and a member of the jury that made the selection of the 190 instruments for the exhibition wrote in the catalog: ``The only basic way of producing sound in this century that has not been known since pre-historic times is that of the electronic oscillator originally developed in the first 20 years of this century.''
With some highly original experiments in electronic sound production and a few more than slightly eccentric instruments made from objets trouv'es, the exhibition shows that invention has not atrophied and that musicians and technicians are pressing ahead to who knows what.