The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments reopened March 22, 2018 after a two-year renovation. Reimagined and much enhanced, it displays instruments from the Met’s collection spanning four millennia of music-making, from ancient Egypt to the soccer stadiums of the 21st century.
This permanent exhibition includes representative instruments from many cultures and eras as well as instruments of particular historical significance. At the gateway to the collection is a display of 93 brass instruments, called “Fanfare,” with shofars, trombones, hunting horns, and even a vuvuzela, all centering on a conch shell, the original brass blower. (“Brass” refers to the production of sound by blowing with pursed lips, rather than the material.)
Inside the main exhibit hall, you’re greeted by items such as a pair of 4,000-year-old clappers from Egypt and an ancient sistrum inscribed with the name of Ptolemy I, the Macedonian Greek general who ruled Egypt in the third and fourth centuries B.C.E.
Among the fascinating objects associated with major artists and historical figures are a narwhal-tusk flute made for Frederick the Great, a 16th-century Amati violin made for the marriage of Philip II, guitars owned by Segovia, and a clarinet that belonged to Benny Goodman.
There are instruments made of every sort of material, from ceramic to plastic. Plenty of animals have given their lives for humans’ love of music, too. Witness this politically incorrect 1930s ivory-fingerboard Martin guitar.
A large-scale treasure long buried in museum storage, this 19th-century gong is carried by a pair of oni, Japanese trolls slyly trying to convince us they’ve mended their evil ways.
That installation is positioned beside a harpsichord decorated in marvelous Asian style, denoting the West’s 19th-century obsession with Eastern cultures.
But the pièce de resistance among the keyboards is the oldest known surviving piano, made by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1720.
There are two Stradivarius violins, one in the original style, the other updated with a longer fingerboard, their cases positioned so you can compare the two from all sides.
The most spectacular piece in terms of sheer visual pizzazz may be a double virginal from the year 1600, once owned by the Viceroy of Peru. What could have convinced him (or his family) to part with it? Hard to imagine. But here it is.
The collection’s newest treasure is an electric pipa. (Of course, there’s a traditional example of that Chinese stringed instrument as well.) Among the electronic instruments you’ll find an original theremin. Also a boxy Steinberger electric guitar, included for its design. I remember when those came out. Does that make me old?
Especially gratifying is the permanent nature of the exhibit. Most of the items come from the Met’s own collection, though a handful, like the 1714 Batta-Piatigorsky cello made by Antonio Stradivari and the glass flutes made for Napoléon Bonaparte and Louis Napoléon, are on loan from elsewhere.
Next time you visit the Met, be sure to visit the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments. Past the main gallery you’ll also find the Organ Loft with a newly conserved 1830 Thomas Appleton organ. And get the audio guide, as much for the curators’ obvious enthusiasm as for the additional information.
All photos by Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media