On the second floor of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, there’s a sign that reads: “Please do not sit or play on instruments.” But today, I am doing both. Squatting on a low stool, I play a Chopin Nocturne on an Erard piano built in Paris, circa 1881. The Erard was the last model to be in vogue before Steinway standardized the modern grand piano with its rigid iron frame. The tension of the Erard is not as great, so I strike the keys with a lighter touch than I’m used to. Beneath my fingers, the ivory is yellowing. When I press down, the piano emits a damp, milky sound.
The first holdings of this quiet museum can be traced to Morris Steinert, a businessman who headed a New England sheet-music franchise and owned a piano factory close to where Pierson now stands. On his vacations to the Continent, he had a habit of hunting for antique keyboards and strings, many of which he donated to the University in 1900. The Collection has grown through alumni gifts. It now holds over 900 instruments and is pressed for room. Overflow instruments are stored in a Beacon Falls compound 20 miles off campus.
Nicholas Renouf, the associate curator, arrived 39 years ago. Back then there was a sign-in book for museum goers, but they no longer keep track of how many people venture inside, mostly because there are so few. “I’d say we average around 10 visitors a day,” Renouf says. The donation box, a clear plastic prism hovering by the entrance, sits empty.
Renouf and curator Susan Thompson man the museum. He specializes in keyboards and strings, while she takes care of the wind instruments. Beyond the usual work of mounting exhibits and writing catalogues, they are trying to go digital. At the moment, they’re setting up an iPod tour of the museum by recording violinists who can play baroque instruments with the original swan’s-head, straight-stick bows.
The Collection’s two floors are a history lesson in Western music. Some of the instruments on display are evolutionary deadends, while others you’d recognize at any fifth-grade recital. One of the relics, the viol, figures prominently on the ground floor. The viol is a stringed instrument that looks like a cross between a guitar and a violin: with 6 strings and frets, it’s played on the lap with an underhand bow. The museum also boasts a coveted Stradivarius violin, but it’s not on display. “We can’t afford to hire a trained security guard,” Renouf explains to me — they’re scared of what the violin could fetch on the black market. Instead, visitors are greeted by a walking-stick violin, a long stick of wood that opens up to reveal 4 strings and a detachable bow. Nature-loving Germans used these on pastoral picnics in the 1800s. “Because of their portable nature they facilitated impromptu music-making out-of-doors,” the placard explains earnestly.
But the real gems of the Collection lie upstairs. Renouf takes me up one flight and into a room stuffed with keyboards transplanted from European parlors. Most are ancestors to the modern piano and bear obscure names. We ignore the spinetta and the epinette and only stop when we get to a 1591 double virginal from Antwerp, a twin set of keyboards sitting in the same rectangular frame. “It’s 110 years older than Yale,” Renouf marvels. The virginal has two sets of keys called the Mother and the Child. The child can be taken out of its frame and set on top of its mother; for now they sit in their separate cubbies. Next, Renouf takes me past the velvet rope, removes the glass covering guarding an 18th-century French harpsichord, and plays a little arpeggio. A twangy sound emerges as the strings are plucked. The five-octave keyboard looks abridged to the modern eye, used to the full 7 octaves of a Steinway or Yamaha. The instruments can be played by qualified visitors who set up an appointment in advance.
On the day that I test out the Erard, a flat-screen slide projector and a row of chairs are blocking my way into the keyboard gallery. Professor Craig Wright has just brought his medieval and renaissance music class here for a field trip. “The Collection is a great place to get sound bites,” he tells me. “You can go to Paris, to Vienna, to New York, but you won’t find a better group of keyboards.” Today, they looked at two 16th-century harpsichords, a tenor viol, and a chamber organ thought to have been used by Handel to accompany the Messiah in Dublin in 1741. Wright hopes that the Collection will be more open to undergraduate students in the future. “Music students should be allowed to practice the instruments in here,” Wright says. “The Collection should be used, instead of just sitting here as a museum.”
Renouf pulls out the stool and waits for me to begin. It’s been years since I quit taking lessons, so I walk over slowly. I sit down, lay out my sheet music, and hit a wrong note right away. My left hand and my right hand have forgotten how to coordinate, and I can no longer read bass clef notes. Renouf and Wright both leave the room after the first few bars, and I’m left alone to defile the piano. Next to me, there is a grand piano that Wagner used to compose Die Meistersinger, but I try to keep on going. I like Chopin better anyway.