Historical Instrument Section Craig Kridel and Clifford Bevan, editors
Museums by Arnold Myers
Last year saw the re-opening of two museums which must rank in the world’s top ten for brass buffs: Brussels and Basel. The Musee des Instruments de |Musique in Brussels, Belgium, has an I outstanding collection, not the least of ■i which are instruments made by the Sax family. So among the twenty “tuba family” instruments on display are six bass and contrabass saxhorns, as well as several serpents, tm original Moritz and Wieprecht Basstuba, and a monster ophicleide in low E-flat. The Musikmuseum of the Historisches Museum Basel, Switzerland was fortunate to receive as a legacy in 1980 the important and extensive Bernoulli Collection of brasswinds and dmms, and the new museum allows many of these to be put on permanent display for the first time. This museum is (to my knowledge) unique in being housed in a former prison block: the 21 cells contain wall-mounted displays (one filled with natural trumpets, another with trompes and bugles, etc), and three larger spaces contain the biggest instruments. The bass end has not been neglected – no fewer than 8 ophicleides in various sizes and several instruments from the longestablished Hirsbrunner firm are among the 160 plus brasswinds on show.
Cliff Bevan’s The Tuba Family (the appearance of a new edition of this volume was a further landmark of 2000) is packed with information dealing with nearly all facets of the tuba and its precursors. One largely overlooked aspect however is the tuba as sculpture. Adolphe Sax was a great sculptor – each instrument imaginatively conceived and beautifully executed. The creation of saxhorns was largely artistic rather than acoustic – valved brasswinds of comparable bore profile had been around for some time, but Sax transformed them into the most daring shapes. A visit to the Sax show any sculpture court in a gallery of modem art.
And how else does the average museum visitor appreciate a museum tuba? A monster bombardon may be a marvelous machine for making music, but without the skill and opportunity to play a historic tuba, its potential as an instrument can’t begin to be appreciated. And, even if the visitor is told it was played by a distinguished tubist… well, how many people who have heard of Stradivari, Stokowski or Satchmo could name a single serpentist, ophicleidist or tubist of any era?
The sheer visual appeal of brass instruments, the bigger sizes in particular, has itself won over many who have gone on to love their sounds and explore the music. Serpents and sousaphones as a sculptural experience can be communicated very well in a museum, perhaps better even than in performance situations. TTie pictures here show some of my favourite flights of fancy.
We can add in passing that instruments often take their names solely from their appearance, the serpent being the first to spring to mind. The valved ophicleide is, acoustically, 100% a tuba and 0% an ophicleide: its name is from visual attributes as much as from its intended repertoire.
Museum people should not | be ashamed of presenting historic instruments as abstract art. Several of the finest instrument collections are in art galleries such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague. And here in Edinburgh, students come each year from the nearby College of Art to draw instruments – the bass brasses are the biggest attraction and the greatest challenge.