What do old musical instruments displayed in glass cases have to do with music? The world-renowned Collection of Historic Musical Instruments has the answer

Occupying an apartment in the Hofburg intended for the Imperial couple, the collection’s premises are almost as impressive as the displays. // © KHM

Music should be heard, not locked away in glass display cases, you might think. But when it comes to the treasures in Vienna’s Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, I beg to differ. So does Australian pianist Anthony Romaniuk, who performed there last September: “It’s a stunning collection,” he said, “unique, precious and staggeringly beautiful.”

These glass cases contain sleeping beauties. According to Alfons Huber, curator of the collection’s  keyboards, if an instrument is maintained, it can continue to be played for centuries. Even the oldest instrument ever found – a bone Paleolithic flute over 40,000 years old – still sounds three clear diatonic notes, the first three notes of the European scale and the basis for thousands of years of music.

While significantly younger, the Vienna collection has a musical importance unsurpassed by any other such collection. It contains the world’s most noteworthy group of Renaissance and Baroque instruments, formed from two major 16th and 17th century collections – the “Chamber of Art and Curiosities” of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II, created in 1580, and the Obizzi family’s collection, used for performances around 1650. Together they count over 400 instruments.

Added to this are pristine string instruments of Vienna’s foremost Classical-period violin makers, instruments owned and played by famous musicians (including the pianos of Brahms, Haydn, Schubert, Liszt and Clara Schumann), and a comprehensive collection of keyboard instruments tracing the history of the clavichord to the modern piano.

The sound of the past

The reason for keeping and maintaining old instruments is to preserve the original sound of historical music. “Simply put,” Romaniuk explains, “composers wrote with the sounds of these instruments in mind, therefore musical effects are realized most truthfully on them.” Indeed, modern-day instrument builders can make very good copies. But “originals have more soul. There’s something immutable and profound in their tonal color palette, a beauty of sound that copies achieve exceedingly rarely.”

At the end of the 18th century, Mozart wrote to his father that Vienna was “surely the land of pianos.” It was also a seat of musical innovation. By 1845, there were 107 fortepiano manufacturers in town; 53 piano-building patents were granted from 1820 to 1840. Pianos were the latest fashion; for Vienna’s music-loving Biedermeier bourgeoisie, older keyboards like harpsichords were superfluous. As Huber says dryly, “they were used as kindling.”

Preserving and persevering

Rudolf Hopfner, the collection’s director, and his small yet dedicated team of scholar-musician-restorers take care of what miraculously survived, or the instruments that were simply too valuable to burn. Careful restoration and preservation keeps much of the collection in the finest (playable) condition.

Part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the collection has been housed in the Neue Burg since 1947, in twelve grand rooms designed – but never finished or used – as side-by-side apartments for Kaiser Franz Joseph and his wife, Sisi.

For the daytime visitor, the museum offers an audio guide, but it is also possible to book a tour by one of a small group of young and enthusiastic experts, also in English. They will ensure you see the 16th century backgammon board that turns into a tiny organ, or the violin owned by Mozart’s father. But they might also show you how to make an oboe out of a plastic straw.

“The best instruments have the ability to expand one’s imagination,” according to Romaniuk. “Through playing them, one can continually surprise oneself.” The museum puts on occasional concerts, when the glass cases are opened. Hearing these vestiges of music’s evolution, listening to these treasures’ sound, is an event both mysterious and wonderful.

Collection of Historic Musical Instruments at the Neue Burg

1., Heldenplatz
Open Wed-Sun, 10:00-18:00


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Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.