It’s Museum Sunday again! Almost didn’t make it there, and once I arrived, almost didn’t make it in. About to leave and a phone call from a non-German number. It’s Emile, in Melbourne! I said, “But your number’s not Australian. Prove you’re there, speak in an Australian accent.” Well, not quite, but he did describe Balaclava, The Wall, and all my favourite East St Kilda stuff, so I believe him.
The Musikinstrumenten-Museum closes at a mere 17h, so by the time I’d promised to join him for a coffee at The Wall next year, I barely had enough time to bike to Potsdamer Platz before getting kicked out. Once in, I was met by one of those genuinely horrible ‘guards’ who would not let me in with my bag, despite my utter lack of an extra Euro for a locker. Luckily an equally and oppositely genuinely nice person at the ticket office not only lent me the necessary Euro, but gave me a set of headphones and an audio guide.
Normally I haven’t been bothering with the audio guides, but Emile had said something like, “It’d be great to hear all the instruments,” so with him in mind, I did. Also in mind was the delightful Michael Garza, Principal Bassoon in the Guangzhou Orchestra, who, when visiting Berlin in 2008/9-ish had made this one of his museum visits. The museum isn’t huge, but with the audio often being quite comprehensive, it’s another one that would probably take a full day to get through.
The Sonderausstellung then, Valve. Brass. Music: 200 Jahre Ventilblasinstrumente, or 200 years of brass instruments. And shy, never putting itself forward Berlin is the place where not one, but two musicians —Heinrich Stölzel, and Friedrich Blühmel – invented two different approaches around 1814 for valves for horn instruments. The exhibition has around 150 examples spanning the two centuries and they are a joy to behold.
It’s like rampant, wild, unfettered experimental evolution. Brass instruments now have settled down more-or-less into recognisable forms, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, horns, tubas, but back then, it reminds me of the very weird life in the sunless ocean trenches, pipes and valves multiplying, twisting back on themselves like clumps of barnacles, or curlicues and fronds, things that look improbable or completely different species, have broken off the evolutionary path and gone wandering into all kinds of madness. Double bell euphoniums, trumpets like conjoined triplets of steam-engines, over-the-shoulder bugles, a tenor trombone like the plumbing from a small building, delicate Aida trumpets as long as spread arms with a single twist and one valve, oval Wagner (yes, him) tubas … the inventiveness is hilarious and beautiful.
Does it signify that instruments as they have become are the most perfect, or perhaps the most useful, most dextrous, capable of occupying multiple niches, unlike the singular lifeforms of their distant predecessors? I have no idea for an answer, as this museum I approach very much as an outsider. Coming with Michael, or someone knowledgeable would certainly be an advantage.
I left brass flying in arcs and curves across the walls like migrating birds and found myself with the hammers that hit metal strings, pianos, clavichords, harpsichords … strings that are sawed at with bows or plucked with fingers, wooden tubes with holes blown down through a reed, all also showing their exuberant, multifarious origins and offspringings. Some old bassoons also. And a couple of new things, including a peculiar proto-synthesiser.
The keyboard instruments were particularly beautiful, given such wide expanses of flatness onto which whole forests and meadows were painted. One Tafelklavier from 1791, though devoid of ornamentation was quite the most cheerful and happy sounding thing in the whole place. Then there was another with a horrifying battle scene painted along the underside of its lid, so when opened for some nice Baroque entertainment, the audience could also enjoy a weeping man, another man perishing beneath his fallen mount, and an army of others swinging sharp objects at each other. And then there was the traveller’s harpsichord, very cleverly built in three folding pieces, and formerly owned by Sophia Charlotte – the good friend of Gottfried Leibniz – who gifted to her grandson, Frederick the Great, a composition of whose, played on the instrument can be heard.
As with many, if not all of the museums I’ve seen recently, the Musikinstrumenten-Museum focusses on Germany in general, and Berlin in particular, with the other countries historically having close relationships with the lands that became Germany somewhat represented, mostly in respect to an instrument’s history, like Sophia Charlotte’s Paris-built harpsichord. Instruments outside of Europe (where Europe is bounded by seas on three sides and doesn’t extend much further east than a line drawn from the Adriatic to the Baltic) feature not at all. Perhaps it’s the wrong city for this, but I would dearly loved to have seen a musical instrument museum filled also with ouds, gamelans, didgeridoos, something of an ethnomusicological museum, rather than one which ventured little from the classical instruments which form today’s orchestras, the evolutionary successes, so to speak.
It occurred to me also, while early in the Valve. Brass. Music exhibition, that there were considerable similarities between what I was looking at in a musical instrument, and what I’d seen in the Deutsches Technikmuseum: ship engines, trumpets; same application of technology, different end. A couple of instruments later (I tend to wander exhibitions in inappropriate order and direction), the descriptions, patents, schematics around the original valve designs also noted that they were inspired by inventions in engineering and the industrial revolution. From that, and seeing the proto-synthesisers at the dawn and early years of the computer age, it seemed clear that music uses the newest technology of the day to manufacture new instruments, new sound, new compositions, new ways of playing, and has done so for as long as there has been technology. A museum then, of these interrelationships is what’s implied, a kind of museum of the philosophy of technology and its applications, not divided into technology and industry over there, and art and music over here. Conversely, this predicts and describes where music will come from next, probably most immediately a combination of mapping massive datasets and 3D printing. Definitely 3D printing is going to change music, especially when printing metal and composite materials becomes common.
Ah, but there’s so many beautiful instruments to see and hear, really, it’s a joy; one of those lesser-known museums that is entirely worth seeing. Photos, then: