Historic instruments to be replicated for students’ use

“We want to make the instrument collection a resource for performance practice,” said Vincent Oneppo, the spokesman for the School of Music.
“We want to make the instrument collection a resource for performance practice,” said Vincent Oneppo, the spokesman for the School of Music. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

Replicas of instruments such as a 19th century Italian snake bassoon, a 16th century Siciliano viola and Richard Wagner’s old piano will soon be among the instruments Yale students boast of playing.

The Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, one of America’s most extensive academic musical instruments collections, is producing replicas of some of its pieces for the use of students at the School of Music in an effort to add a historical component to musical education. But concerns about the preservation of the originals remain a top priority, curators of the collection said.

The collection includes over 900 musical instruments, but only 10 to 15 percent are displayed at once, curator Susan Thompson said. Currently on display are bells, clarinets, harpsichords, pianos, flutes and string instruments from different time periods.

The school is in the process of establishing an early music program, Thompson said, with the intention of making replicas of Baroque instruments available for use.

“We want to make the instrument collection a resource for performance practice,” said the school’s spokesperson Vincent Oneppo. “We would like to give our students the opportunity to play on old style instruments.”

The old instruments are often very different from their modern counterparts. The baroque bows on display, for example, have no screw to adjust the tension of the horse hairs, so players have to control the tension with their thumbs. Such differences in period instruments make the playing experience more similar to the one the composer intended, curators said.

Piano conservator Rod Regier recently produced a hybrid replica for the school of a Boesendorfer piano in the collection and a Graf piano from Europe. The six-and-a-half octave fortepiano now resides in Sprague.

Experts can take measurements and photographs and make notes of the pieces in the back room but do not remove the pieces from the collection while they work on replicas.

Curator Nicholas Renouf said there is a huge pressure in the string community to revive valuable instruments. Other instruments, such as clarinets, which deteriorate from their original shape, are not as coveted.

But with a decreasing number of playable string instruments and an increasing market for antiques, Renouf said preserving the instruments should be a priority, even if this goal is at odds with the wishes of musicians wanting to play the instruments. The most pristine Stradivarius in the world, Le Messie at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, is only touched every ten years, he added.

William Purvis, the collection’s interim director and School of Music professor, said his term has taught him how dangerous reviving these valuable instruments can be.

“The instruments go back hundreds of years,” Purvis said. “You have a responsibility that hundreds of years from now they will still be protected.”

Purvis added that the school has purchased a Flemish-style harpsichord and is ordering some wind instruments for the Yale Baroque Ensemble.

One highlight of the Collection of Musical Instruments is a Hans Ruckers Mother and Child virginal — a popular 16th century keyboard instrument — made in Antwerp in 1591. The virginal consists of two levels of keyboards — the Mother and the Child. The smaller keyboard of the child, painted with images of children, recedes into belly of the mother. The main panel on the instrument depicts the musical contest between Apollo and Pan — famously recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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