Contributor: Robert Samuels
Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Description: You can see the ‘Messiah’ violin today. It is on display at the Ashmolean Museum as the centrepiece of their collection of musical instruments. It was made in 1716 by the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is, indeed, a ‘Stradivarius’, a ‘Strad’, the most perfect example from the hands of the man reputed to make the most beautiful-sounding instruments the world has ever known.
You can see it today. You can see it, but you cannot hear it. No-one can. The violin rests in its glass case, mute symbol of perfection in sound, unplayed, forever. It has never been played. It was kept by Stradivari himself in his workshop, its perfection such that he wished never to part with it. Kept after him by his son Paolo, sold on Paolo’s deathbed in 1775 to Count Cozio di Salabue, a collector who never touched it. Bought from him by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a violin maker and collector who kept it under lock and key, but told everyone of its worth, causing it to be named ‘Le Messie’, because like the Messiah its coming was eagerly awaited but never seen. It may possibly have been heard, once, at the London World Exhibition of 1862, where, in a competition organised by himself, he entered an unidentified violin anonymously, which was declared superior to all others played against it. The Messiah did eventually come to London, exhibited in 1871 at the Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall. But still it was not heard. Bought at last by the London dealers W. E. Hill and sons, it was those sons, Arthur and Alfred, who quite rightly bequeathed it at last to a museum where its perfection could remain unchallenged forever.
The mythical status of this unheard and yet peerless instrument is of course a Romantic trope. While all of the history recounted above is true, it is also couched in terms which betray its Romantic intent.
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Contributor: Delia da Sousa Correa
Location: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.
Description: Purchased on 22 November 1869 for the 50th birthday of the novelist George Eliot by her partner George Henry Lewes, this Broadwood piano was delivered to a grieving household. Lewes’s middle son, Thornfield, had returned from farming in Africa with a painful illness and had died, aged 25, just a month previously. It was a period when neither Eliot, who was writing Middlemarch, nor Lewes, were able to work. That the piano was purchased then, indicates that it represented something of deep significance. Not surprisingly, no flurry of references to the new piano fills Eliot’s correspondence at this date. Fittingly however, the piano has an implied presence as a source of solace a decade later when, on the first anniversary of Lewes’s own death, a line in Eliot’s diary for 8 Sept 1879 reads simply: ‘Darwin. Schubert’ (Journals, 180). ‘Darwin’ may denote a visitor, or his books; Schubert she must have been playing at the piano. Eliot’s journal further records that she had ‘Touched the piano for the first time’ after Lewes’ death on 27th May (Journals, 175). This piano is, however, representative not just of the personal importance for George Eliot of Romantic music but of its significance for numerous areas of Victorian culture in Britain.
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Contributor: Jean-Marie Fournier
Location: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Description: Now an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Sultan Tippoo’s « Man-Tiger organ » is simultaneously an automaton, a sculpture in the Gothic taste, a musical instrument, an instance of popular craftsmanship in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and an elaborate practical joke. The object enjoyed great popularity in its day, celebrated in penny broadsides, chapbooks and newspapers, so that its fame was well-established long before it reached England. When it did arrive in Britain in 1800, it was exhibited first in the Tower of London, and then in East India House, Leadenhall Street. There it was seen by both William Blake and John Keats.
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Contributor: Cameron Morin
Location: Alloway, Ayrshire (Scotland)
Description: This beautiful, good-as-new instrument, made of pine and sporting a flower-like red, green and black design on the back, is displayed in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, as ‘the fiddle of William Gregg’. Born in 1766 in Ayr, Gregg learned to play the vioin at a very young age, eventually becoming what was called a “Dance Tutor” or a “Master of Manners”, based in Tarbolton, Ayrshire. In 1779, he accepted a most peculiar pupil: Robert Burns.
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Location: Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin, Ireland
Contributor: Francesca Benatti
Description: Thomas Moore’s harp is held in Dublin in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, which also houses Moore’s personal library. It was donated to Moore in 1821 by Dublin harp maker John Egan in a publicity drive for his new line of Portable Irish Harps, which culminated the following year with an endorsement by King George IV. Moore’s Portable Irish Harp features in the anonymous portrait of Thomas Moore in his Study at Sloperton (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), next to his cabinet piano. We know that, despite Egan’s efforts, which greatly expanded the sale of Irish harps in Ireland and Britain, Moore himself preferred the piano as an instrument.
During the eighteenth century, the Irish harp had become powerfully charged with nationalist symbolism through the publications of the Volunteers and the United Irishmen, who chose it as the emblem of their revolutionary movement. Continue reading “Thomas Moore’s Harp”