André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments Reopen at Metropolitan Museum

After an eight-month hiatus, The Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened its André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments on March 2, featuring a refreshed and reinstalled presentation of its renowned collection of Western musical instruments.

Grand Pianoforte, Erard et Cie, Ca. 1840, London. Wood, various materials Case L. (perpendicular to keyboard) 247 cm (97 1/4 in.), w. (parallel to keyboard) 149.5 cm (58 7/8 in.), case depth (without lid) 32 cm (12 5/8 in.), total H. 95.3 cm (37 1/2 in.), 3-octave span 49.7 cm (19 5/8 in.), string L. of longest string 178.7 cm (70 3/8 in.), string L. of shortest string 4.9 cm (2 in.), L. of c2 28.7 cm (11 3/8 in.) Gift of Mrs. Henry McSweeney, 1959

Showcasing more than 230 works of art drawn primarily from the Museum’s extensive holdings, which are among the most important in the world, the new installation of Western musical instruments will focus attention on individual masterworks by exploring each within its musical and cultural context, by offering exciting comparisons of how individual makers realized the same concept, and by introducing examples of the various instruments’ developments. Among the wide range of objects on view—keyboard, string, percussion, woodwind, and brass instruments—a highlight will be the famed “Batta-Piatigorsky” ‘cello made in Cremona, Italy, by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), on loan from a private collection. Built in 1714, the cello—which was owned by the distinguished cellists Alexandre Batta (Dutch, 1816-1902) and Gregor Piatigorsky (Russian, 1903-1976)—is regarded as one of the best examples of the maker’s work.

More than a quarter of the reinstallation includes new acquisitions as well as instruments from the collection that have rarely been seen by the public. Remarkable among them are: a festooned viola d’amore built by the great Milanese violin maker Giovanni Grancino in 1701; a swan-neck lute made by Pietro Railich of Padua in 1669; an extraordinarily early Dutch oboe made ca. 1700; a beautifully decorated mandolin made in northern Italy around 1710; a Double Virginal (harpsichord) with a lid painting featuring the story of David and Goliath, made in 1600 in The Netherlands; a walking-stick flute/oboe combination commissioned by Frederick the Great; and a recently acquired presentation violin bow made entirely of tortoiseshell with ivory fittings, which was purchased for the Museum by Edward and Susan Greenberg.

Iconic pieces from the museum’s collections will be back on display, including the oldest extant piano in the world, built by the inventor of the instrument, Bartolomeo Cristofori of Florence in 1720; violins by the Amati family and Antonio Stradivari; and two guitars that once belonged to the guitarist Andrés Segovia.

The installation also includes such masterpieces as an exquisitely carved, small plucked stringed instrument called a Chittarino (ca. 1400), one of the few surviving Renaissance instruments; a Venetian spinet (1540) that was skillfully carved for Eleonora della Rovere, daughter of Isabella d’Este; and a clarinet that was one of the last to be used by Benny Goodman. Another highlight is the extraordinary harpsichord by Michele Todini of Rome (bapt. 1616-1689), with a case and accompanying statues depicting the story of Polyphemus and Galatea. The ensemble—representing one of the largest pieces of baroque sculpture in the Museum—has been undergoing conservation in the Museum’s laboratories for nearly a year.

An interesting feature in the reinstalled gallery is the comparison of two violins by Antonio Stradivari. One of the instruments, which was built in 1693 and has been restored back to the original setup at the time of its creation, will be displayed next to an example from 1694 that is in modern playing condition. The technical differences between the two instruments—changes in fingerboard length, neck angle, and strings, for example—are explained. A nearby display presents five masterpieces of violin construction, including an extremely rare, 16th-century decorated violin by Andrea Amati, widely considered the inventor of the instrument; an example by his grandson Nicolò Amati, the presumed teacher of Stradivari; a 1711 “golden period” violin by Stradivari; a decoratively carved violin by the Hamburg maker Joachim Tielke of about 1685; and a beautifully inlaid English instrument dating to around 1630.

Besides the instruments, the installation features several European paintings, including a portrait of Charles Rousseau Burney, composer and nephew of the musicologist Charles Burney, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, and a recently acquired portrait of an 18th-century French nobleman playing guitar (purchased for the Museum by The Bradford and Dorothea Endicott Foundation), as well as a Renaissance-style table and a Meissen porcelain figure.

The installation retains the built-in cases that were set up in 1970, but the gallery has been refurbished with new case lighting and a new color scheme, with freshly painted walls in ivory, blue, and green. The display cases have been newly configured with ultra suede fabrics, and larger fonts and graphics are employed for the labels, offering the visitor better learning experiences.

The Musical Instruments Collection at the Met
The Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Musical Instruments holds approximately 5,000 instruments from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. Unsurpassed in its comprehensive scope, the collection illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras.

The collection of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum originated in 1889 with gifts of several hundred European, American, and non-Western examples from Lucy W. Drexel and from Mrs. John Crosby Brown. In 1948, the autonomous Department of Musical Instruments was formally established, with Emanuel Winternitz (1898-1983) as its first curator. The collection continues to grow along the heterogeneous lines established by Mrs. Brown in the late 19th century. Since 1971, more than 800 objects have been displayed in The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, which were donated by Clara Mertens in memory of her late husband, the preeminent impresario. These galleries comprise two halls, one devoted to Western instruments, arranged by type or family, and the other to non-Western instruments, grouped geographically.

Many of the instruments are playable and can be heard in concerts and on recordings, as well as in lecture-demonstrations. Special exhibitions featuring objects from the collection, with loans from other institutions and private collectors, are mounted from time to time, such as the current exhibition Sounding the Pacific: Musical Instruments of Oceania (on view through September 6, 2010).