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History

Leipzig shows instruments revealing bygone eras

The ophicleide is a mix between tuba and bassoon. And the glass harmonica is just the thing for scoring a scary B-movie. Exotic precursors to modern music instruments are on display in Leipzig.

It is important to remind ourselves once in a while how good (or, one might argue, how bad) we have it these days when it comes to our portable music players. At the push of a button, we can all hear more or less the same thing. Museum curators of the future will have to puzzle over how to visualize the sound of the early 21st century.

In one sense, then, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Leipzig, associated with Leipzig University, has it easier. Its extensive collection counts around 10,000 objects, making it the second largest of its kind in Europe. The museum's materials can be traced back to a popular passion for collecting during the 19th century.

The museum offers a wealth of ways to help us imagine the sound and spirit of bygone ages.

Museum Director Eszter Fontana displays a piano that doubles as a table

Fontana takes pride in showing off this rare 19th century piece: a piano that doubles as a table

Just like Bach?

Housed in an imposing art deco building complex, the museum draws especially high visitor numbers during the city's annual Bach festival. Numerous Bach pilgrims make their way through its halls, wondering, for instance, whether the authentic sound of Bach's Coffee Cantatas could be reconstructed.

Museum Director Eszter Fontana answers cautiously, "I cannot give an immediate 'yes.' Many great scholars have taken up the question of how Bach's music would have sounded during his lifetime, and there are a lot of very good interpretations on CD."

Nevertheless, Bach fans have plenty to discover here, like the period keyboard instruments. It is well known that Bach himself was fascinated by the ins and outs of instrument building. In the film "Mein Name ist Bach" (My Name Is Bach, 2004), actor Jürgen Vogel Friedrich plays Frederick the Great and Vadim Glowna plays Johann Sebastian Bach. The king presents the composer his pride and joy: his newly acquired fortepiano, a musical treasure from Italy. Historians have confirmed that this exchange took place.

"This is the oldest completely preserved piano in the world," said the museum's director with pride, pointing to an instrument varnished red and richly decorated in Chinoiserie style, as was the fashion when the specimen was built in 1726.

"As we know, the instrument was invented by Bartolomeo Christofori in Florence," the director added. "We in Leipzig are lucky to possess six of the 10 remaining Christofori instruments in the world. Just to see them would be enough to justify a trip here."

A glass harmonica in Leipzig's Museum for Musical Instruments

Like the fate of a film star: the now seldom played glass harmonica

Turn of the century breakthroughs

It is always surprising to recall what an incredible break came in terms of music perceptions just ahead of the 19th century.

"In a certain sense, that was the Gründerzeit of instrument building," said Eszter Fontana, noting that the new sounds being scored required new instruments. Most - but not all instruments of the Romantic period continue to form the basis for the symphonic sound of today. After all, who is well-versed in the muffled sound of an ophicleide today? But Schumann and even Wagner took that hybrid of a tuba and bassoon into account in their scores.

The glass harmonica enjoyed something like the fate of a film star. For three decades, the glass instrument invented in 1800 enjoyed enormous popularity, only to be almost completely forgotten. Mozart, Beethoven and Donizetti included the instrument in their works, and the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin found "something ethereal" in its "enchanting sound."

Music lovers gushed about its melancholy, almost eerie quality. Ultimately, though, the instrument is a rather prosaic assemblage of glass bowls.

"The idea that glass can be played has been around for a very long time," said Fontana. "You can imagine a little party where everyone is enjoying a good wine together - it's not far-fetched to start playing around a bit with the glasses."

The instrument's 37 glass bowls are lined up in a row and secured by an axle. They can be rotated using a pedal, and the player uses damp fingers to touch them and draw out their sound. Today, there are only a few specialists who focus on making music using this rarity.

A lyre guitar from the Leipzig Museum for Musical Instruments

The lyre guitar errs on the side of form rather than function

Beauty vs. practicality

It is also amusing to observe the centuries-long struggle between the beauty and practicality of an instrument. One could think of the orphica, a portable piano, as a precursor to the modern electric piano. In general, design has tended toward functionality. Even in the Baroque period, musical instruments were merged with everyday objects. A flute doubling as a walking stick and known as a csakan was the ideal companion for those out for a stroll around town who wanted to accentuate their creative flair. These days, the instruments are only seen in museums.

The lyre-guitar has suffered the same fate.

"That is the quintessential instrument for a lady," explained music historian Fontana. "It is basically a guitar. It is stringed like a guitar, but it has this beautiful form of a lyre from antiquity. Still, the men in the salons always had a good laugh about 'the women with their funny contraptions.'"

Author: Anastassia Boutsko / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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