From an Ancient Egyptian harp and Ghanaian drum to Stradivari violins, a theremin, and even a vuvuzela, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly reopened musical instrument galleries run the gamut of the institution’s global historical collections. After almost two years of renovations and curatorial rethinking, The Art of Music combines disparate instruments the world over, grouping them by time period and type, rather than dividing them into the cultures by which they were created.
Located on the second floor of the museum, the galleries begin with an introduction of sorts, a massive explosion of horns called “Fanfare.” Centered around a sacred conch and featuring animal horns, trumpets, an Indian karana, and that most hated of World Cup noisemakers, the vuvuzela, “Fanfare” includes 74 instruments in all, spanning 2,000 years and five continents.
Once inside the main gallery, the historical timeline of music-making begins in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, weaving its way through the rest of Asia and Africa, Latin America, and the golden age of Western classical music, and ending with electric guitars and violins, as well as electric versions of traditional Chinese and Puerto Rican instruments.
Highlighting the global connections of music along the way, several pairings of instruments break up the space as the visitor walks through the elongated gallery. The first of these couples a 16th-century Amati “Kurtz” violin with a late 16th-century pipa from China’s Ming dynasty. Still considered one of the greatest luthiers of all time, Andrea Amati made the violin to celebrate the marriage of Phillip II of Spain to Elisabeth of Valois in 1559, a union that joined the Catholic kingdoms of Spain and France in the face of the Protestant Reformation. The neighboring pipa, decorated with Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian symbols, evokes a peaceful coexistence among the three religious philosophies. Seen together, the two instruments draw attention to the relationships between religion and political diplomacy (and music, of course) in two completely different parts of the world in roughly the same time period. The next pairing of instruments, a Japanese koto and a Flemish “double virginal” keyboard, similarly draws a tangental line between two cultural histories.
Perhaps the most eye-catching pairing of instruments in the gallery is that of an early 19th-century Japanese gong and an 18th-century French harpsichord converted into a piano. The gong is held by two enormous carved wooden oni, mischievous supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore. “This ferocious sculpture was made primarily as a display piece and possibly to appeal to the European export market,” reads the object label. Meanwhile, the harpsichord-turned-piano is bursting with orientalism, from its red-and-black color scheme to vaguely East Asian-inspired landscapes painted onto the inside of its lid — strangely populated by people playing violas, cellos, and other Western instruments.
Nearby stands a 1940s Ghanaian ntan (breasted drum), the “mother” of ensembles that often played at dance clubs. Numerous visual depictions of traditional proverbs are carved into the entirety of the drum, as well as political statements poking fun at the British empire and encouraging unity against foreign rule. (Ghana didn’t gain its independence until 1957.)
Among the Western classical instruments on display, of particular note are the famed violins, violas, and cellos made by Antonio Stradivari — an apprentice of Amati’s — and Jacob Stainer, as well as the keyboard instruments, including Bartolomeo Cristofori’s oldest surviving piano. (Cristofori invented the piano around 1700, the first keyboard instrument that could vary its dynamic range, hence the original name, pianoforte, Italian for “soft/loud.”) There are also a couple of intriguing juxtapositions of instruments and paintings, including an 18th-century archlute and Laurent de La Hyre’s depiction of a woman tuning one just like it adjacent to the glass case. And at the far end of the gallery, a Stuart Davis painting created for Studio B at WNYC is once again surrounded by music equipment.
While it’s impossible to do justice to the exhibition without describing at least a couple dozen more of the fascinating and unique instruments on display — the giant pipe organ, Native American whistles, Stroh violin, acrylic saxophone, four electric guitars representing each of the four seasons, instruments owned by famous musicians, the military, hunting, dance, and ivory categories — for the reader’s sake, I’ll end with the one I personally found to be the most visually compelling of all. The 19th-century Indian taūs (mayuri) is a bowed string instrument in the shape of a peacock. Decorated with peacock feathers, it has four melody strings and 15 so-called “sympathetic strings” that drone in resonance. A popular 19th-century court instrument, its peacock shape evokes Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music.
Throughout The Art of Music, it’s clear that the curators have made a concerted effort to not only retell the history of musical instruments in a more global sense, but also to stress the importance of these objects beyond mere vessels for music-making. (If you’re curious as to what the instruments sound like, you can listen to them online.) The instruments’ significance extends to the realms of religion and politics. They’ve played integral roles in molding specific cultural narratives. They represent the technological advances of their times. In short, these musical instruments serve as a microcosm of human history itself.
The Art of Music is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).