Monthly Archives: July 2015

Recording our instruments

Working in a museum of musical instruments we are constantly aware that, for many people, it is the sound of the objects that is important above all else.  Needless to say, not all of our instruments are in playing condition – for various reasons – and those that are played often need to have constraints to ensure they are not subjected to any unreasonable risks.  But it is a strong belief that everyone who visits the collection should be able to get some experience of the sound of the instruments if they wish.

As the team address our interpretation for when St Cecilia’s Hall reopens, we have been keeping sound at the forefront and have been working on a project to record a number of the instruments.  This is not the easiest of undertakings, given that the care and safety of the objects is always our foremost priority.

As the instruments are currently housed for examination and conservation, it is the ideal time to do such a project.  Teaming up with fine musicians, many who regularly play in one of Scotland’s top orchestras, and using the recording facilities at the Music Box, Edinburgh College, we are in the middle of a project which will see us record guitars, violins, cello, high brass, horns, a shawm, trombones and low brass.

Selecting the instruments to record involves examining them to ensure there is minimal risk from playing, and that the instrument is in good musical condition.  Another factor which is important is to try and record instruments with which the museum visitor might be unfamiliar.  If people think “I wonder what that instrument sounds like”, we hope to try and provide the sound to answer that.

We have been working alongside the Digital Imaging Unit from Library and Collections, who have been recording the project itself, taking still photographs of the musicians with the instruments, and collecting material for a time-lapse film of the event.

Occasionally the team have filmed one of the instruments as it is being recorded as shown above.  This example is Sarah Bevan-Baker playing on one of our sixteenth-century Bassano violins.  This remarkable instrument is from the time before the violin was standardized in shape, and even more unusually, the instrument has no sides, so that the front and back join together like a closed clam shell.

Our most-accessed instrument!

In May 2014 the University’s site went live. Having been up for a little over a year it is easy to provide evidence to show how successful it has been – the MIMEd curatorial staff get many emails from people who have seen some of our instruments on the site. Indeed, the statistics on the site show that the MIMEd pages have been visited approximately 100,000 times in total.
Delving deeper into the statistics does throw up a few slight shocks. MIMEd has a number of iconic items, and the curatorial staff would perhaps have expected to see one of these classic instruments being accessed most. Perhaps the Taskin harpsichord, or the Ruckers harpsichord with its uniquely-surviving transposing keyboards. Or perhaps a really early instrument – the mid-sixteenth century Bassano recorder, or his violins, or perhaps the Schnitzer trombone from 1594. Even our Buchenberg lute, or a Staufer, Lacote, or Fabricatore guitar. Or even – judging from its popularity when on display before the collection closed – the Fender electric guitar
It was surprising that it was none of the above, but rather the harpsichord by Stefano Bolcioni. In one way it is gratifying to know this – the Bolcioni will be the first instrument to be seen on the right-hand side as one walks into the keyboard galleries from the reception area once the collection re-opens to the public.
The Bolcioni harpsichord is listed as a triple-manual harpsichord, and perhaps it is the three keyboards that make it of particular interest. But in this is a tale that is well worth the telling. It was collected by Raymond Russell, who, in his book The Harpsichord and Clavichord (still the standard introductory textbook) included it as a genuine three-manual instrument. But, certainly soon after its arrival with Russell’s other instruments in Edinburgh – or possibly before – it was realised that much of what is seen is the handiwork of Leopold Francioilini, a notorious Florentine forger, and the instrument was included in one of his sale catalogues. Even after passing through his hands the instrument was further altered, gaining a new stand, and case exterior and lid interior decoration.

Bolcioni present
Franciolini’s work was fairly comprehensive and invasive. He started with a genuine single manual harpsichord by Bolcioni, replaced much of the interior (including cutting part of the soundboard) to fit the three keyboards (perhaps from an organ) into the case, made new bridges, wrestplank and nuts, and gave a registration where each keyboard had its own set of strings, albeit that the keyboards could be partly coupled to get more than one set of strings playing at a time. Looking at the instrument, it is unlikely it ever was playable in this altered state. But, just as the three keyboards are probably greatly responsible for the number of times the harpsichord has been accessed on, it no doubt helped fetch a price much in excess of if it was left in original condition.
Despite the alterations, the original state can be determined with only minor points of conjecture. It is particularly interesting (at least to organologists) that its original state has split keys (so that the note e-flat is a slightly different pitch to d-sharp, and g-sharp is different to a-flat). This was, in fact, quite common in Italy in the early seventeenth century, but it had an extended bass which allowed the player access to notes below to “normal” lowest one. This was very rare, with only a handful of surviving examples having evidence of this arrangement.
All of the displayed keyboard instruments will be organised into various themes. The Bolcioni will be in a section called “Copies and Counterfeits” alongside the Falkener harpsichord, Hubert clavichord and 1638 Ruckers harpsichord.

MIMEd abroad! Two members of the MIMEd staff travel to Boston to spread the news about the SCH redevelopment.


In June, Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet and Sarah Deters travelled to Boston to attend the 44th Annual Meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) Conference, hosted by the musical instrument department of the Museum of Fine Arts. AMIS is one of the most important conferences in the field of organology and the annual conference brings together researchers, museum professionals, and collectors from across the world to gather and discuss the latest advancements and discoveries in organology.


Professor Donaldson throws a party when he is appointed the Chair of Music.

Professor Donaldson throws a party when he is appointed the Chair of Music.

At the conference Sarah presented a paper titled: Professor, Founder… and Scoundrel? Exploring the founding collection of Musical Instrument Museums Edinburgh. The paper explored the life and work of John Donaldson, who established the musical instrument collection of the University of Edinburgh in the 1840s and was responsible for the building of the Reid Concert Hall.


Highlights of scholarship from this year’s meeting included an entire session devoted to ancient Greek auloi: including discussions of their construction, use, historical context, and musical use; as well as a paper on Laurent crystal flutes (of which we have two) and how to determine their glass structure using UV light.

Laurent flutes

Laurent flutes fluorescing different colours depending on their glass composition.

In addition to providing an opportunity for conference attendees to hear the latest research on musical instruments, the conference also included trips to nearby instrument factories and private instrument collections. The MIMEd team visited Zildjian, a company that has been making cymbals since 1623, and Powell Flutes, a high-end flute manufacturer.

Looking at flute serial number 1 at Powell flutes.

Looking at flute serial number 1 at Powell flutes.

Cymbal performance room of the Zildjian factory

Cymbal performance room of the Zildjian factory














Attending conferences such as this provide an important networking opportunity for the staff of MIME, as well as being an outlet to introduce conference attendees to our collections and redevelopment project.  Throughout the conference Jonathan and Sarah were able to discuss the plans for SCH and invite members of AMIS to visit Edinburgh once we reopen in 2016.