Susanna Liu

On Hillhouse Ave., in a rectangular Richardsonian Romanesque reddish-brown building, lies a gold mine of almost 1,000 musical instruments from a wide-set of cultures and ages.

This building is the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, opened in 1900 after a donation of keyboards. It is currently undergoing renovations.

“The goal of the renovation was to secure the exterior of the building, including replacing all windows and reinforcing insulation of all aspects of the exterior of the building,” said William Purvis, the director of the collection. According to the collection’s website, the building will reopen in February 2020.

A rich history is attached to the collection, which originated nearly 120 years ago when a piano merchant named Morris Steinert donated his impressive compilation of keyboard instruments to Yale. Steinert, born in Germany in 1831, emigrated to the United States where he first worked as a piano teacher, according to M. Steinert and Sons’ website. Around 1861, he and his family moved from New York City to New Haven, where he opened a piano and sheet music store. This business flourished after Steinert became a dealer in New England for the piano manufacturer Steinway and Sons.

With his newfound success, Steinert directed his love of music towards amassing a collection of antique and historical keyboard instruments like pianos and harpsichords. In 1900, he gifted his collection to Yale University. Owing to additional donations mostly from alumni, Yale’s new collection only grew more abundant in following years.

In 1960, Belle Skinner donated her collection of different instruments from around the world to Yale. Skinner, whose family owned textile manufacturing company Skinner and Sons, had a deep love for classical music and acquired instruments from all around the world. The instruments in Yale’s collection were all kept under the dome of Woolsey Hall until 1961, when they moved to their current location at 15 Hillhouse Ave. Then in 1962, prominent violin dealer Emil Herrmann donated to Yale his private collection of miniature violins and fiddles — described in a 1953 New Yorker article as “what is considered the world’s finest collection of miniature violins, & pochettes, the small fiddles once used by dancing masters, who carried them in a pocket of their jackets, as well as a number of other instruments of venerable age & ancestry.” These famous acquisitions elevated the status of Yale’s Collection. A newer addition to the museum is The Andrew F. Petryn Collection, which contains curious instruments like a pochette, a Pardessus de Viole and a hurdy-gurdy.

Other instruments in Yale’s Collection come from various global origins. A Peruvian conch trumpet comes from the indigenous Moche culture which existed from around the years 100 to 700. An Indian mayuri, or a bowed string instrument with a body shaped into the form of a peacock, was made around 1900. The skin of a “hua gu,” or Flower Drum, from Guangzhou, China, is decorated with an ornate depiction of a red and green dragon on a golden background.

Many of the pieces are also of significant historical importance. The Bechstein piano from 1864 belonged to the composer Richard Wagner, best known for his operas. A harpsichord manufactured by Hans Ruckers in 1591 is captivating due to the inside of its lid, which is beautifully painted with a scene from the Greek myth of Apollo and Marsyas, a satyr who challenged the god of music to a competition.

In addition to its ties to historical music, the Collection offers a concert series featuring current musicians. In February of 2020, a recorder player and soprano are scheduled to give a concert together.

The Collection does not only engage with the public, but it also has a special connection to Yale students. “The Collection is closely connected with [the Yale School of Music], as the instruments of the Collection provide an important resource of information for all music students about instruments through history, in terms of how they sounded, but also how they felt to play,” Purvis said. “To further enhance this, we also loan historical replicas of instruments and bows to YSM and Department students. We also engage with students from the School of Engineering and also the School of Forestry in courses about instrument building, acoustics and materials – wood, in particular.”

Currently, the staff at the Collection is very busy with renovations and the building is closed to the public. Still, if you happen to pass by the striking brick building, take a moment to wonder what musical treasures are held inside.

 

Marisol Carty | marisol.carty@yale.edu