Author Archives: dmartin

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.

Research visits to MIMEd

Although St Cecilia’s Hall is closed to the public, it does not mean that the objects are placed in storage and left until they are reinstalled. Collection business still goes on with teaching and with visits from scholars who are researching instruments in the collection. This semester sees postgraduate teaching for the MMus Musical Instrument Research programme, which will concentrate on Keyboard Organology. For this class the appropriate instruments are removed from the storage shelves and made available for students to examine in detail.
As a leading international collection, with many iconic instruments, we have requests from visiting scholars to carry out research. Such visits are always informative for collection staff as well as the visitor. There is discourse in which aspects of research are discussed and often various theories are passed backwards and forwards in an attempt to get a fuller understanding of the object.
Although we need to respond in a different manner to research requests when the objects are stored in a location away from the staff, it is still an important part of the Collection’s work to further the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
We recently had a visit from the Belgian harpsichord maker and researcher Ellen Denolf, who wished to examine the knee lever mechanism of our Goermans/Taskin harpsichord. Certainly one of the best known instruments in the collection, it was built by Jean Goermans in 1764, and altered in 1783/4 by Pascal Taskin – the most important maker in late-eighteenth century Paris.
Taskin made a number of changes to the instrument. He added an extra register of jacks which were used to pluck the string with soft leather, providing a contrast to the harder bird quill. He also strengthened the framing inside the case – something the visitor never normally sees – had the instrument redecorated with chinoiserie on the exterior and lid interior and added knee levers in place of handstops. Players could then use the knees to get different sounds while continuing to play. One knee lever even allowed a diminuendo effect by reducing the sound from all of the quill registers to just the soft leather (known as peau de buffle).
The images show Ellen and MIMEd Conservator Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet examining and discussing aspects of the knee lever mechanism at the instrument’s spine and the back of the keyboard.


It should be mentioned that Taskin perhaps didn’t do everything quite above board. Other work on the instrument included removing Goerman’s name from the soundboard, staining the whole soundboard and cutting the serif from the lead rose in the soundboard which normally displays the maker’s initials – in this case “IG”. By changing it to “IC” Taskin could perhaps pass the instrument off as being by Ioannes Couchet – a member of the famous Ruckers family whose instruments went for many times what a recent French example might sell for!

Musical Instruments on the Today programme

On Thursday, March 12, the collection of the distinguished keyboard player and conductor Christopher Hogwood was sold at auction. As part of the lead to this, Collection Curator Jenny Nex, along with harpsichordist Sophie Yates, appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme to discuss the collection and its sale. The segment can be heard at starting about 52 minutes in.

Musical Instrument Museums Edinburgh has benefitted greatly – particularly in the last decade – from private collectors who have made gifts or bequests to the Collection. In particular we have the Rodger Mirrey Collection of early keyboard instruments – a collection which complemented the existing keyboard collection and now has given Edinburgh instruments unsurpassed in scope; the Sir Nicholas Shackleton Collection of clarinets – the finest privately assembled collection of woodwinds, and the Frank Tomes Collection, predominantly of brass instruments.

As with all of our instruments, they are used in teaching from undergraduate to PhD level, and are made available to scholars for research and to allow makers to produce reproductions for practicing musicians. Nowadays reproductions of instruments from the University’s Collection are heard daily on national radio (Radio 3 and Classic FM), and the Museum gets regular visits from makers to carry out examinations of objects.

It was a particular wish of Christopher Hogwood that the funds raised by the sale of his instruments went to support students of music and educational charities he has long been associated with. It is obviously too soon to know where the instruments have gone, but early reports suggest that the sale was very successful with the objects selling for their estimate or higher.

One of the issues that was brought up is whether collections of this nature should be preserved together given the importance of the collector, or whether dispersal allows the creation of future collections.

Making new (3D) plans II

Yesterday I blogged about our exciting plans for the display and interpretation of nearly 1000 historic musical instruments in the new St Cecilia’s Hall, including how we are able to work on-screen on 3D walkthroughs.

Going through the photos taken from various meetings shows that 3D modelling isn’t always high-tech however. Here are Sarah Deters, Audience Development Assistant and Jenny Nex, Curator, deciding on the placement of two fabulous 17th century archlutes from our Collections by taking the place of the musical instruments.


Should we display them facing in or out?

For those who might be interested, here are the instruments in question.  On the left is one made by Harz in 1665, and on the right the example by Rotundus, dated 1699.


Making new (3D) plans

Although we are very much focused on our ever-closer decant from St Cecilia’s Hall, it by no means takes all of our thinking time in relation to the St Cecilia’s Hall Redevelopment Project. Despite not even having closed the building yet, all staff are busy making plans for the displays that will go into the building once it re-opens.

This is, of course, one of the most enjoyable parts of our jobs.

What we are doing now will very much decide the “feel” of the new museum.  There are all sorts of questions we need to consider – how many instruments are we wanting (how dense will the display be), how do we want to arrange the instruments to tell various stories, how do we keep the visitor interested from start to finish, and (we very much hope) still wanting to come back for return visits, how do we appeal to all types of visitor from professional musicians to those who have no detailed knowledge but want to see the old (and in some cases not quite-so-old) objects.

This is not a one-step process by any means – at present it is the layout of the galleries and showcases, this will be followed by designing stands so the instruments can be clearly and unobtrusively seen, backdrops, creating labels, text for guides, publications and so on.

What is it all actually like, and how does it happen in practice, are common questions.  Here are a couple of “behind-the-scenes” photos of the team at work.  In front of the computer is Iain Coates of our museum design team Studio SP, who has a programme which allows scaled images of each of the objects to be move into 3D showcase “space”, which is projected onto the screen for us all to see.  The software also allows us to view showcases from various viewpoints in the gallery, and even have a complete walkthrough!


We are nearing the end of all of the open displays, after which our displayed objects will have all been selected (we have, of course, the possibility of tweaking a little as we progress). The chance for a whole-museum walkthrough is being increasingly anticipated.

Big Week

Edinburgh has changed from being its normal – albeit busy and excited – summertime to in Festival mode. It is always a sudden change, and always very exciting. Both the Reid Concert Hall and St Cecilia’s Hall will be open on each weekday as of August 4 – St Cecilia’s in the mornings from10.30 – 12.30, and the Reid Concert Hall from 2pm – 5pm.

The week has also been significant in that it marked the retirement of long-time Assistant Curator John Raymond who started at the Collection in 1984. It was a very different collection and time then – our two museums were under separate management, and the keyboard instruments numbered less than half of what we have at present. Unlike the busy galleries of today, they were then somewhat sparse – there was room to set up drawing boards in the galleries at a time when technical drawings were done by pen rather than computer. Much of John’s work – like much museum work in general – is not the stuff of highlights. If things go according to plan the visitor or audience member should be virtually unaware of his presence. We attend concerts, and the hope (and expectation) is that the instrument behaves perfectly and the tuning holds. It is a mark of John’s skill that only very rarely was he ever called to intervene during an event.

John Raymond working on the 1668 Stephen Keene spinet.

John Raymond working on the 1668 Stephen Keene spinet.

But many things have happened at the Hall and Collection over the intervening years that are highlights. There were several major restorations – the Hitchcock spinet and John Broadwood harpsichord being great examples. There were also two superb technical drawings – the Hitchcock spinet and the Francis Coston harpsichord. The Coston drawing even led to John being an exhibited artist when it was included in an exhibition held at the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery. There were also a number of recordings – three compilation CDs of Collection instruments each with 9 examples, and others using one or two collection objects. There were a number of important performances – perhaps none more so that during the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival when the Goermans/Taskin harpsichord was used at the Queens Hall and two further concerts took place at St Cecilia’s itself, all by the French harpsichordist Christoph Rousset. These were so widely regarded that the instrument was given a “Herald Angel” award – again where much of the credit should go to John’s preparation and tuning.

During the last dozen years the two museums have been taken under the wing of Library and University Collections, combined into a single collection structure, expanded in number by individual acquisition plus the Shackleton Collection bequest and the Rodger Mirrey keyboard collection gift. All these (and other) things have led us to the position we are at now with the St Cecilia’s Hall Redevelopment Project. We wish John well in his retirement, and are presently advertising for a Conservator to cover the whole collection (as well as for a Learning and Engagement Curator) – another example of how things have changed greatly over the past three decades.

Further funding success

Fundraising continues to go from strength to strength for the St Cecilia’s Hall Project. Following the recent successful Heritage Lottery Fund award in March, the Binks Trust have pledged a further gift in support of the Project.

As one of the projects first supporters, the Binks Trust have been instrumental in helping us to realise our vision for St Cecilia’s to become the centre for the display, study performance and enjoyment of historical musical instruments in the UK. The Trust’s continued support for the Project is a great example to other potential supporters and we hope that this further award will encourage additional funders to support the Project.

As well as the recent fundraising successes, the team at MIMEd are looking forward to a summer of festivities at St Cecilia’s over the coming months, prior to the doors closing for the restoration and refurbishment in September. There will also be a full programme during the Edinburgh Festival in August, with concerts on historical instruments as well as a variety of other events. Check out the programme here.

We will, of course, keep the Reid Concert Hall open during the period of closure at St Cecilia’s Hall, so be sure to watch out for the exciting programme of events we have planned while St Cecilia’s undergoes its transformation!