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Given Yale University's traditionally high standards, it's no surprise that restoring a harpsichord their way is highly exacting. So much so, in fact, that materials required include quills cut from a crow's primary flight feathers (five to six of which grow on each wing) and bristles from the Siberian boar. Since this particular boar's habitat is China, procuring the latter proved complicated as recently as a decade ago. Happily, the problem has eased along with Sino American tensions, according to Richard Rephann, director of the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments.
The Yale Collection began with a group of 40 pieces, primarily keyboard instruments, donated in 19(X) by Moritz Steinert, a music dealer and piano manufacturer residing in the University's home city of New Haven, Connecticut. To date the collection from that time would be a mistake, however, since the treasures accumulated by this Bavarian-born collector languished in an inhospitable upstairs rotunda of Yale's Woolsey Hall for more than half a century.
While a grand total of 27 people came to view the instruments during the course of one year, Yale records do attest to their popularity with the local pigeon population. The birds entered year after year through the building's dome, and the results were what one would expect. Thus, the human visitor who inscribed "dust, dust, dust" in the guest book may very well have been guilty of an understatement.
In 1960, the collection of Belle Skinner, a textile heiress from Holyoke, Massachusetts, was acquired by Yale. Skinner had purchased several pieces from Moritz Steinert, and the 89 instruments she had assembled during her lifetime also emphasized keyboards. The same year, the University assigned the collection, which was by then under the guidance of a curator, a two-story Romanesque building of its own.
The University's collection leaped several more measures forward in 1962, when New Jersey financier Hugh W Long bought the collection of violin dealer Emil Herrmann and donated it to Yale. Rephann calls this group of 59 Instruments a "study collection," explaining that it was shaped to showcase examples of important schools of instrument making rather than to spotlight valuable individual examples.
When Rephann assumed the curator's chair in 1966, the Yale Collection was generally perceived as one consisting of harpsichords, and he set out to broaden its scope. A substantial number of wind instruments has since been added, and American made objects now play a prominent part. In all, the suite of 250 to 300 instruments owned by Yale in the mid-1960s has grown to an ensemble of more than 800.
The Yale instrument repository exists primarily to serve the University's music curriculum, although it is open to the public. The collection concentrates on the Western art music tradition, beginning in 1550 and reaching into the present century. Primitive instruments, those primarily of interest to anthropologists, are excluded (a collection of these can be found in Yale's Peabody Museum, a few blocks away).
Although smaller than some, the Yale Collection compensates for lack of size with quality. Exceptional pieces include the only Stradivarius violin in the world that still wears its original varnish, as well as the oldest bowed string instrument in the United States, a bass viola da gamba by Venetian maker Giovanni Battista Ciciliano dating from the mid-16th century. The collection also houses two harpsichords and a piano by Pascal Taskin, who is considered the most important builder of harpsichords in France and, therefore, many would argue, the world. Only 12 of Taskin's instruments are known to exist.
Rephann says he could easily name another hundred standouts in the collection. Their importance may be determined by rarity, condition, the significance of the maker, or the chronological place a particular piece holds in Rephann's production sequence. Previous ownership by prominent persons affects value in some fields of collecting, but Yale's curator does not feel it has any bearing on the objects in his charge. While it was recently proven that Richard Wagner once owned a piano now in the Yale Collection, its director merely shrugs at this fact. Rephann is, in fact, far more proud of the restorations undertaken during his tenure. In the opinion of many experts, several of Yale's keyboard instruments, including a half-dozen harpsichords, a couple of pianos, and an organ, have been renovated with a degree of care and historical fidelity unmatched anywhere.
If restoration were simply a matter of bringing instruments suffering from benign neglect back to playing condition, the job would be far simpler, Rephann explains. But the biggest problems often involve undoing alterations previously inflicted in the name of progress. With harpsichords, the "renovations" may include the installation of plectra (the tiny components that pluck the strings) made of Delrin. Slabs of plywood sometimes replace vintage bottoms, and modern steel piano wire may be used in lieu of original iron strings.
Such wire was not designed for any harpsichord's original pitch (invariably lower than that favored today), and it encourages tuning to contemporary standards. This, in turn, imposes excessive stress on both the frame and the soundboard.
The director of Yale's Collection of Musical Instruments can wax eloquent in how important crow quills and boar bristles are to harpsichords--the latter were used for the minuscule springs that return the tongues in which the plectra are mounted to playing position. Rephann is also quick to stress the advantage of animal glues, which are water soluble and allow repairs to be undone if necessary. If all this sounds a bit academic, it should be emphasized that theory deliquesces into a tide of sheer pleasure when Richard Rephann, himself a harpsichordist, sits down to play one of the restored instruments in the Yale Collection. The tone is simply lovely, warm and rich to the point of opulence.
Though Yale prefers to maintain its instruments in playing condition, not every piece is a candidate for restoration. Work is only begun after determining that an instrument is likely to regain its original voice-or something very close to it. Even after restoration, instruments continue to age. The stewards of the Yale Collection attempt to slow this inevitable process with various countermeasures, most notably meticulous climate control. The instruments are kept in an environment where temperature is held to 68° F and relative humidity to 50%. Water used to humidify the air is deionized to remove mineral elements that Rephann says would settle like fine dust on the instruments, then infiltrate and eventually damage them. Keeping keyboard and string instruments in tune serves to eliminate unnecessary tension on their bodies, and inspection of all the Yale instruments is carried out regularly to reveal any problems before they become serious.
While Rephann holds that the lives of all instruments are shortened by frequent use, several of those in the Yale Collection are carefully and infrequently played. The public is invited to hear them during an annual series of six concerts featuring professional performers. Tickets currently cost $7.50 each and are available for a token $2 to members of the collection's Associates Program. The Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, located at 15 Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday except during August. Admission is free. For information on membership, concerts, special exhibitions, and publications, write to P.O. Box 2117, New Haven, Conn. 06520.
Bass Horn and Serpent
Sometimes called a Russian bassoon, this snake-headed bass horn (top) is neither Russian nor played with a reed. Its body is similar to that of a bassoon, but, like the trumpet, the bass horn is lip vibrated. It is actually a 19th-century variant of an earlier wooden instrument known as the serpent because of its curvilinear shape (bottom). The snake's head adorning the bass horn shown here was a feature of some, but by no means all, such instruments, and it was very likely intended as an allusion to the instrument's ancestry.
Keyed Bugle and Keyed Cornet: During the I9th century, the addition of keys, and later valves, to brass instruments endowed them with a degree of flexibility unavailable in their 18th-century counterparts. Keyed bugles, such as the copper-bodied, brass-trimmed model shown here (bottom left), were eventually replaced by the valved cornet (bottom right), which produced a more desirable tone. Both these instruments were manufactured in New England by Graves & Co.; the bugle was built around 1840 and the cornet some 15 years later.
(adapted from Audio magazine, Feb. 1989)
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