The Yale Rare Instrument Collection – Eternal Resonance of Music
By Laurencia Ciprus / Photos courtesy Yale Rare Music Collection
Tonight…a radiant crescent is the solitary streetlight. Two musicians outrun an arctic blast, slipping through the portal of The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments. In three galleries on two floors the elegant Richardsonian Romanesque architecture embraces over 1,000 unparalleled string, keyboard, wind and non-Western instruments, their origins spanning the globe and centuries. The sheer volume of visual beauty is singular and spellbinding, with only a fraction of the collection concurrently viewed. Once you are acclimated, there is a numinous sense that this is reverential space. A spiritual tug takes hold, urging you to disappear into a legion of backstories. Time is suspended. In this parallel universe, silent instruments are afforded the rare opportunity to be enlivened and appreciated.
World-class violinist, Lina Tur Bonet revives her chilled instrument with murmured puffs of warm air. Kenneth Weiss approaches the singular beauty of the 18th century Blanchet French harpsichord, his gaze respectful and transfixed. Gentle shepherdesses wordlessly peer out from a pastoral scene hand-painted on the lid as the impresario coaxes the first chord into voice. These international luminaries are rehearsing for a Valentine’s Day performance in the concert series – a New Haven fixture since 1968 and the longest running early music series in the US. The Bach sonata gains substance, infusing the gallery with romance. With high ceilings and plaster walls, and, anchored by wooden floors, acoustics in the keyboard gallery replicate salons found in chateaux from that period. It is apt as the weight of the YCMI favor Baroque selections here. The romance echoes in legend. There is an impossibly delicate hand-painted pale yellow Taskin épinette from 1778 – a rumored gift from Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette upon the birth of her child in the same year. It rests contemplatively in impeccable condition. There is an important Bechstein piano traceable back to King Ludwig of Bavaria and handed off between Liszt and Wagner and likely played by both.
The 26 objects in this gallery are outstanding exemplars of craftsmanship, style and the global evolution of keyboard instruments across four centuries. The nucleus of the collection is credited to the passion and generosity of musician, collector and entrepreneur Morris Steinert who bequeathed his collection of pianos, épinettes, clavichords and harpsichords to Yale at the turn of the last century. This prodded other donations to the YCMI and the holdings grew. Significant, was the addition of Belle Skinner’s collection in 1960, including tonight’s Blanchet – said to be her first acquisition. The daughter of a silk merchant, Skinner’s collection speaks to her stewardship and connoisseurship as it expanded within the family homestead of Wisteriahurst in Holyoke, MA. She posthumously keeps a kind and watchful eye over the gallery from her portrait hanging in the gallery. Mesmerizing stuff for a visitor on a dark night: lucking into a private, world-class concert in an empty museum filled with the world’s finest instruments.
This is simply life as usual for Curator Susan E. Thompson. Thompson holds distinguished credentials as both a professional oboist and organologist and is renowned for her vast store of knowledge in music history accumulated over a 36-year career at the YCMI. Like her colleagues who collectively maintain stewardship of this place, she views the running of the museum as, ”… a balancing act”. It is an ongoing challenge to provide qualified individuals with playable access to these fragile instruments, while preserving them to museum standards and maintaining them in good health. To further this effort, Thompson is enthusiastic about collaborations with other departments at Yale such as Engineering, which furthers technology and innovations in instrument design and construction. There are also partnerships with the Department of Environmental Studies and Forestry to study instruments crafted from different kinds of woods. Curator Nicholas Renouf – a keyboard musician – acknowledges the differences and challenges between the YCMI and traditional institutions dedicated to art and artifacts. “A museum devoted to musical instruments is far out on a limb. It is a tricky balance between historic versus functional preservation, yet unconscionable to deny access to these exceptional instruments.”
The music rappels down the staircase to the second floor as the adventure moves to the South gallery. Thompson grants open access to the glass display cases housing the expansive bell collection bequeathed by Robyna Neilson Ketchum. In earlier conversation, Nicholas Renouf assuaged any concerns about handling these instruments. “Bells are the least critical since they hold up. Keep anything corrosive away – soiled human hands and breath – they are ok”. This is a joyful chance to play with so many at one time: a tiny 19th C French glass bell with a dancing devil as the handle; an extensive array of 20th C table bells to call servants in manor houses; altar bells and commemorative bells made of cranberry glass, brass or silver. Ketchum also amassed ancient bells from the Far East, including Dobachi resting bowls from the 1800’s; elephant, oxen, camel and witch doctor bells; temple and tribal bells all in varying materials from a myriad of countries and provenances. The warm, intimate space casts a wonderful backdrop against the Bach, which continues to permeate the air.
The string collection is the third gallery of the YCMI and houses a fascinating range of patinated instruments crafted from the thinnest possible woods and prove the most fragile. These include harps; a Baroque guitar; violins and cellos in an improbable range of sizes; and a collection of bows. There is Viola d’amore that is a fascination: with a set of bowed strings across the top board and second set of sympathetic strings that vibrate beneath. The collection is vast and was enriched with the addition of the Emil Hermann Collection bequeathed around the same time the Skinner Collection came to the YRIC in the early 1960’s and contain examples by Stradivari, Guaneri, and Steiner, Storioni and Mears.
This collection of instruments is perhaps the trickiest to maintain. Acknowledging that a tree is dead, wood is still considered a living entity. Stringed instruments expand and contract, are subject to pressure when strung, and must be housed in a consistent humidity. There are also other considerations. Metals extruded to form strings in the earlier centuries differ in their properties from those contained in modern wire. Fortunately, advancements in metallurgy enable improved restoration with lower carbon metals in keeping with the original. The gallery is a visual time capsule to stringed instruments and takes the viewer through generations of masterpieces handcrafted by luthiers with impossible levels of attention.
In the featured case, there is a visually pleasing and detailed display of antique woodwinds from Connecticut and New York manufacturers. This speaks to the constant attention to detail that appears seamless at the museum, despite the vast collection of instruments, ephemera and related objects. There is skilled behind-the-scenes support to fulfill a mission statement, which balances public access, professional musicianship and community engagement. It requires people like Program Coordinator Kelly Hill and Intern Sam Bobinski to greet the public, give tours, assist with concert management and upload data to the museum’s ever-expanding database.
Upstairs in the gallery, the Bach has shifted to Handel. Clearly, it is time for Thompson to return to her rehearsal. Director William Purvis – himself, an internationally esteemed musician – spoke fondly of the physiology of the brain with regard to music and its importance to human activities. A visit to the YCMI is transformative and each successive return promises a new chapter of awe and wonderment. As we exit the portal onto the deserted street, the music merges with the wind and the crescent moon reverberates…increasingly luminous against the transcendent sounds of Handel.
The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments is located at 15 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven CT 06511