Musical instruments - a short history of collecting

by Martin Kirnbauer

Slightly shortened translation of the speech by Dr. Martin Kirnbauer, Head of the Basel Music Museum, on the reopening of the Willisau Collection of Musical Instruments in February 2010. Published in GLAREANA 1/2014. Pictures: Ulrich Halder


Why do we actually collect musical instruments? What is the difference between collecting musical instruments and, for example, collecting stamps or coins? The general purpose of collecting is not to be questioned here, since it is enough to refer to our common past as early collectors and hunters. Instead I prefer to draw attention to the special subject 'musical instrument'. In the first place it is a sound producer, a tool for musicians, devised and built for the practical performance of music – and certainly not as a mute object for collecting.


In fact, for a long time musical instruments were not objects to be collected; rather they 'gathered' somewhere (in a church or a royal chapel, for example) and served as a kind of reservoir for musical use, or they became defective or obsolete and were put aside somewhere. But there are exceptions: very precious collections of instruments by kings, princes, or rich patricians, such as that of the English King Henry VIII with about 300 instruments, or of Raimund Fugger, one of the richest men of his time, who in 1566 owned over 100 flutes, more than 140 lutes, many keyboard instruments, etc.. Such collections were ‘how the best people do it’, so to speak, and had as their main goal to show the magnificence, wealth, taste, and, last but not least, the particularly high education of their owner.

This was especially so because such collections could include particularly precious objects, as well as exotic musical instruments, which were already striking because of their remote and foreign origin. This reflected a special ‘appropriation’ of the world, the idea of the so-called 'art and treasure vault’, in which all the miracles and peculiarities of the world were assembled, to be admired and marveled at. These included, in addition to stuffed rare animals, to coins and scientific devices, also musical instruments. In them the physical-musical order of the world with its numerical proportions could be found.


Nevertheless, musical instruments are first and foremost tools for making music, adapted to the performance of the music of their time. This means that they became outdated as time went by, because the music had changed and they had to fulfill new requirements. It is important to know that up to the 19th century mostly contemporary music was played, but hardly any music from earlier times, that was considered outdated. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that this 'old music' was rediscovered and performed again. But for a long time the ‘modern’ instruments of those days were used (such as e.g. a grand piano for harpsichord music). With the growing interest in the musical past, people also began to collect historical musical instruments, the ‘sound tools’ for the 'Old Music'. However, initially these did not serve as means for making music, but as documents or historical accessories. From this time a number of great European collections of musical instruments dates, such as those in Nuremberg (German National Museum), Paris (Musée du Conservatoire) or Basel (Historical Museum).


In addition to such public collections, private collectors soon appeared. One of these enthusiasts was Heinrich Schumacher, a factory-owner from Lucerne, who began to collect musical instruments in 1881 – instruments which are now part of the Willisau Collection. This type of collector usually aimed at a kind of „Ark Noah collection”, that means to have a specimen of every type of instrument. He spent a considerable amount of money for his hobby, and he also kept contact with other collectors, in order to inform each other about particular instruments or to get certain objects in exchange to others. This period until the end of the 19th century is often referred to as the „golden age of collecting“, since old or „outdated“ instruments were easily accessible and interesting objects could be purchased at a good price.


On the other side of the emerging market for old musical instruments, however, were clever dealers and manufacturers who promised to satisfy all needs of the customers. If necessary, they also falsified the instruments in order to meet the demand. On the side of the collectors there was still no specialized knowledge for judging the authenticity of the instruments. And since these pieces were not really intended for playing, their playability was not a criterion.


This changed from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. But for a long time this was true only for certain instruments, such as keyboards or some stringed instruments. These were not too different from their modern successors, or could be adapted easily. With the so-called 'historical performance practice', in which the Old Music from the Middle Ages up to the period of Romanticism and beyond is performed in its original ‘sound picture’, old musical instruments were increasingly used again, but for practical reasons mostly as models for copies.


This is where another special type of collector comes in, which is also prominently represented here in the Willisau Collection. At that time quite a number of old instrument types could hardly or not at all be obtained on the market, and the same instruments in existing collections were not in playable condition or were not allowed to be played. That is why Christian and Leonie Patt had the idea to build copies and reconstructions of instruments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on which it was permitted to play.


And this is precisely the difference between a collection and a museum. A collection has no further purpose and no further limitation than the interest of the collector in his objects. A museum of today, however, has a very clearly defined task and obligation: to make the collection publicly accessible, to preserve it permanently and to document it. It is this task of preservation that has a decisive consequence: original musical instruments should not be played. Every playing - by the mere manipulation, by the unavoidable dampness of the blown air, by pulling new strings, by inevitable repairs for the functioning of the instrument etc. – implies a kind of ‘consumption’, even a destruction of original substance, and thus a loss of what should actually be preserved. This particular aspect of the use of a collection sets musical instruments clearly apart from paintings, for example. These are used in a collection or a museum exactly as they were originally made for: just to look at, without ‘consuming’ them.


This short history of collecting musical instruments is intended to characterize the significance of the Willisau Collection. A collection consists of more than just the sum of its individual objects – it always has its own profile and history. The Willisau collection is characterized by two collections: the old Schumacher Collection and other pieces from the former “ Collection of Ancient Musical Instruments in the Richard Wagner Museum„ in Tribschen-Lucerne, and the „Patt Collection”. The first is originally a private collection, which has been „musealised“ over time and to which the corresponding requirements regarding its preservation, documentation and public access must be demanded. The second is a private collection, too, but of which the purpose was – and still is – that its instruments shall be played. Leonie Patt once made a significant statement in an interview about a visit of some Nuremberg museum representatives. She said: „All our instruments are intact, and you can touch and play them. They are not behind glass only to be looked at. These people were really envious!“


The Willisau Collection offers the best conditions for this balancing act between the requirements of a museum collection and the enviable possibility to present playable musical instruments to the public.

  • (Externe Bearbeitung)