The Hidden Sounds of Yale

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Photo by Joyce Xi.

The Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments makes no effort to hide itself, but somehow ends up hidden all the same. Despite passing by it countless times on their way up Science Hill, most students never seem to notice the red stone building just north of Mason Lab, even with its façade of ornamental Greek columns and intricate Celtic whorls.

In a way, this neglect is understandable, as the Collection hosts no classes or faculty offices and maintains only slim public visiting hours, all of them on weekday and Sunday afternoons. Within its galleries, however, the Collection holds something extraordinary for those willing to pause and take notice of a repository of sound.

Once inside, visitors will find the Collection’s curator, Susan Thompson, perfecting the features of the East Gallery’s glass-cased violins. With years of experience curating the Collection’s most prominent exhibits, Thompson is well-versed in the purpose behind each one. “We focus on the design, construction, history and acoustics of musical instruments,” she explains, “especially in the context of period performance.” Period performance, at the center of the Collection’s purpose, refers to studying the performance of music in light of its historical context. Such research brings about ambitious questions — What was it like to hear Handel’s “Messiah” in 1742? How bright were the strings? How smooth were the flutes? — but Thompson and her fellow curator Nicholas Renouf are intent on answering them.

For Ian Petruzzi, an intern at the Collection, these endeavors allow for a more complete understanding of music today. “We’re finally getting over the early 20th century, mid-2oth century style of playing everything the same,” says Petruzzi, who graduated from the Yale School of Music last spring. The motivation behind period performance, he explains, is “to really get into what the music is trying to say from its point of view, and not from the perspective you’re putting on it.”

Essential to this understanding of what music is trying to say is an understanding of the instruments through which it first spoke. “These instruments have many stories to tell,” says Renouf in the Collection’s audio tour. “Stories about who made them, who played them, how they were made … and finally, and most directly, how they sounded.” In Petruzzi’s view, the most interesting stories lie in the historical interaction between composers and instrument-makers. Changing musical tastes, he explains, drive instrument-makers to create instruments suited to composers’ current visions and styles. At the same time, great innovations in instrument construction, such as the invention of the piano at the turn of the 18th century, allow the instruments themselves to shape new styles of composition. In this way, the parallel crafts of musical composition and instrument-making have influenced each other throughout history, becoming so intertwined that it is impossible to understand one without the other.

 

The process of learning the instruments’ stories can take several different forms. The instruments can be physically studied: measured, disassembled, and examined. Students and faculty from the Yale School of Music, as well as professional replica-makers, often visit the Collection for this purpose. To the expert eye, even the subtlest detail, a wood finish or a reinforced corner, can speak volumes about the sound inside.

The most vivid stories, however, emerge once the instruments are played. But the practice of restoring old instruments to this playing condition has a checkered, and sometimes tragic, history. Many early restorers, too eager to hear their antique instruments’ stories, inadvertently damaged them beyond repair with drastic changes or sloppy repairs. “When I came [to work at the Collection], I think we were in shock looking at what had happened in the first 50 years of the 20th century,” recalls Renouf, a note of sadness sounding in his voice. “Many, many instruments were, if not destroyed, at least very sadly compromised by well-intentioned restoration.” Petruzzi gives the example of an all-wood French harpsichord from 1688. The original restorer put in a metal soundboard and increased the string tension, which began warping the case, requiring the installation of supporting braces. “It just eventually ended up ruining the instrument,” he explains. “It makes a nice display still … but as far as its original intent, as an instrument to be performed upon, it’s,” he pauses, searching for the right way to express the loss, “been killed.”

Nowadays, restorers limit themselves to work that does not damage the instrument. Even then, the utmost care is taken to preserve the original structure and mechanism. When an instrument is successfully restored, however, the rewards are worth the painstaking work. “To be able to sit in a concert and listen to a Couperin suite on a French harpsichord of the time period that he was writing in is really, really wonderful,” says Petruzzi, his excitement clearly visible. “You can hear why he wrote certain things, and the music just takes on a completely different life.” For Petruzzi, these types of experiences are what make the Collection and its work most fulfilling.

On a Sunday afternoon, an ensemble gives a concert in the Collection’s upstairs gallery, using replica instruments modeled after surviving antiques like those that surround them. Curators Renouf and Thompson, dressed in their evening wear, beam as they quietly converse with attendees in the downstairs galleries, the music of the past wafting down from above. Maintaining the Collection is not easy or glamorous, but the value of such work is undeniable. Within the instruments’ struts and soundboards lie the tones of centuries ago, waiting in silence to be released. But while the musical scores of old symphonies and operas are easily copied through the years, they are nothing more than blueprints. The instruments themselves, unique and irreplaceable, are the stones and mortar from which the Collection, and the music, are built.

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