Fanciful and Sublime

The Smithsonian Castle
The Smithsonian Castle iStock / OlegAlbinsky

Quiet can be a blessing, but unnatural silence is something else again. In the storeroom of the National Museum of American History where we keep a portion of the Smithsonian’s vast musical instruments collection, the stillness goes against the grain. Though all the objects in the room were made for noise and use, they’ve been tamed by the discipline of a museum. Trumpets, oboes, flutes and harmonicas lie like specimens in drawers, as bugs and birds do in other great collections of the Institution. Violins, guitars, banjos and fat horns sit in cabinets. Cellos in their cases rest against the walls. Not a sound from the lot, and yet the mind can’t help but hear each one.

There are perhaps ten exceptional collections of musical instruments in Europe and the United States, and the Smithsonian’s is among the very best of them. It comprises some 5,000 objects under the care of the Division of Cultural History in the American History Museum (not because the instruments are all American in character, but because the museum was originally a museum of history and technology) and a like number of instruments housed, because of their ethnographic character, in the National Museum of Natural History. The part of the collection we have the space to exhibit publicly at any one time can only hint at what’s behind the scenes. A display of keyboard instruments in a gallery of the American History Museum, for example, includes one of three surviving harpsichords by the 18th-century master Benoist Stehlin; a piano of the smallish sort for which Beethoven wrote his first two piano concertos; the immense Steinway grand from 1903 that was number 100,000 manufactured by the company; and a contemporary Yamaha acoustic and digital piano of aluminum and Plexiglas, with a control panel that might have come from a recording studio. Each is a marvel, and we could multiply them by another gallery or two.

Some of the items in the Smithsonian’s collection are astonishingly beautiful (stringed instruments by the Italian master Antonio Stradivari); some are barely functional (an impossibly heavy banjo made from a World War I German artillery shell, with bullet casings for tuning pegs); and many are wayward and fanciful (a peanut-shaped harmonica with a Jimmy Carter smile). Of course, human whimsy can run headfirst into a wall of natural selection: there was to be no future for a piano fitted with bells, drums and a bassoon stop, or a violin with what appears to be a gramophone horn attached (to amplify and direct the sound).

The greatest treasures of the collection are neither out of sight nor only for silent display. These are the stringed instruments by Stradivari (1644-1737), who could put the geometry of a barely discernible curve in wood to heavenly purpose. Stradivari never heard a string quartet—the format emerged after his death—which perhaps helps explain why he made hundreds of violins and so few violas (only 13 still exist) and cellos (63 exist). Of the estimated 1,100 instruments Stradivari made, only 11 survivors feature ornamentation, with black lacquer tracings and ivory inlays. Four of those—a quartet of such exquisite physical beauty that they qualify as sculpted art—are in our collection, the gift of retired publisher Dr. Herbert Axelrod. Dr. Axelrod’s generosity has also brought us a superb set of instruments by Stradivari’s teacher, Nicolò Amati. We’re now renovating a gallery in the American History Museum in which all these rare and beautiful objects (and other prized examples of the luthier’s art) will be on display in 2003.

On display, that is, when they’re not at work. For the instruments are never shown to greater advantage, or kept in better health, than when they’re played. Former Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley laid down the law about that: "Let the instruments sing!" On recordings and in the many chamber concerts sponsored by our music programs, the most spectacular of the instruments do just that. And when they sing, as they have for centuries, time is erased, differences are eased, and there is harmony across the ages.

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