A Musical History Lesson

My roommate, Emm, and I recently found out about a small (free!) Museum of Instruments at the Royal College of Music. Obviously, we had to go immediately. So on a sunny, cold London day, before classes and responsibilities began, we jumped on the Tube and headed over to South Kensington. The day, in general, was great. We took note of the many museums that remain on our list, and shared a delicious lunch at a rather random but wonderfully decorated Lebanese cafe.

Look at the detail on those keys!

Look at the detail on those keys!

But more than either of those two things, the musical instruments we’d gone to see were certainly worth the cost of a return trip. The museum consisted of one room with a galley gallery on the second floor along one wall. Stuffed to the gills with harpsichords, clavichords, pianofortes, clarinets, recorders, bassoons, guitars, sitars, trumpets, french horns and even a few harps, this was a musical jackpot. The place was full of more information, fun facts and even instruments than this (1-credit shy of a) music minor had ever heard of. At least one of these instruments dated back to the 15th century, with many of them coming from 17th and 18th century Europe. As we walked around the very quiet, climate-well-controlled room, Emm and I couldn’t help but wonder who had sat at these benches and played these amazing works of art? Mahogany, ivory, ebony, gold paint, frescos and miniatures by famous artists, even the materials were a lesson in the history of colonization, the shipping trade and excess.

Music Museum 3Who were the people who had, over time, learned to make these engineering miracles sing? Were they women dressed in silk taffeta, entertaining guests over cigars and cognac? Did people still play them in private homes at the turn of the century, as women’s dresses began shortening and music transitioned from classical to popular? For that matter, when did people forget to learn to play? When did our collective memory transition from skills that included music, art and languages to synthesizers, auto-tune and text-speak? Certainly, these questions seem grounded in a certain class bias, but at least in my own American history, there are hundreds of stories of fiddles and pianos passing the evening and lightening the mood of even the most Dust Bowl-plagued farms. From George Gershwin to Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift, American music is full of stories of self-taught, self-motivated musicians who come from classes other than those implied above.

Either way, the entire musical enterprise has shifted forms. Instead of making music in our homes, we most often listen to it. Instead of learning about a piano’s percussive properties, we go to museums to look at the art work that adorns them.

Playing Elvis' piano. What a humbling experience!

Playing Elvis’ piano. What a humbling experience!

I’ve played Elvis’s favorite piano in Nashville’s RCA Study B, and I’ve played a 9-foot concert grand at the Boesendorfer showroom in Vienna, Austria. I love stories about how people buy their first piano, like my mom who bought her upright Steinway & Sons model before she bought a car, a house…really before she bought anything. (As the piano I learned on, it remains my favorite piano to play.) But I’ve never had the opportunity to play alongside the kind of history that encompasses the instruments on display at the Royal College of Music. There is a certain amount of magic in imagining slices of history co-existing, multiple pairs of hands playing on top of each other, sharing a single keyboard, a la Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

Someone wrote out the notes on this keyboard. Not to mention carved a statue just for the occasion.

Someone wrote out the notes on this keyboard. Not to mention carved a statue just for the occasion.

Apparently, students at the College can offer small recitals in the Museum, showcasing not just their own skills, but the instruments themselves. Emm and I have a plan to stake out the school, make a bunch of friends, and then crash these intimate events. I’ll let you know how that pans out.

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