The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the home of countless artistic, historic, and cultural treasures from all over the world. Music educators, music students, and their families traveling to the city should all consider putting the Met’s vast collections of musical instruments on their day-trip itineraries.
The museum’s 5,000 instruments, with some more than 2,000 years old, come from all over the world. Curators have selected each one for its visual appeal and the quality of its sound, as well as for its importance in the entire history of humanity’s interactions with music.
Here are notes on only a few of the impressive items owned by the Met.
1. One of the first pianos
The highlights of the Met’s music collections include a grand piano dating from about 1720 in Florence, Italy, and constructed by Bartolomeo Cristofori. Scholars generally credit Cristofori with the invention of the piano, based on his functional hammered keyboard. The Met’s Cristofori piano is the oldest of the three known to be in existence, and it is fashioned chiefly from cypress wood and boxwood.
Cristofori’s design for his hammer mechanism was so well-constructed and musically flexible that no other inventor was able to devise a comparable one for 75 years. Many of today’s musicologists believe that the rich harmonies and tonal complexity of the contemporary piano trace directly back to his instrument.
2. A symphony in strings
The Met is home to a viola d’amore made by Giovanni Grancino in Milan in 1701. With the exception of the legendary violin-makers of the town of Cremona, Grancino is often viewed by musicologists as the foremost practitioner of his art working in the early 18th century.
The viola d’amore is one of the members of the viol family, which includes the violin. The Met’s example is created out of spruce, ebony, and maple woods, as well as iron and bone.
Grancino’s instrument features metal strings, a characteristic of early viola d’amores. Later pieces went on to use sympathetic strings. The metal strings were noted for giving the instrument its “sweetness” in sound.
Several other similarly shaped Grancino viola d’amores survive, with varying numbers of strings and in different sizes. In fact, his instruments were distinguished in part by the lack of standardization in their construction. Of the surviving pieces, one has four strings, two have five, and the Met’s example, in particular, underwent a reconstruction to restore it with its original six strings.
3. A bell that rings in ceremony and spectacle
A Japanese densho circa 1856 can be found among the Met’s collection. This leaded bronze ceremonial bell was used originally as a call to Buddhist prayer. With its depictions of dragon heads, flames, and a delicate chrysanthemum denoting the striking surface, this densho displays symbols common to many East Asian cultures. Japanese kabuki theater still sometimes incorporates the sound of a densho into performances.
4. A magical flute
An elegant little transverse (side-blown) flute created by Claude Laurent in 1813 also adorns the Met’s musical collections. Fashioned of glass and brass in Paris, the flute incorporates its designer’s skill as a watchmaker into its construction. Laurent employed various kinds of glass, as well as lead crystal, to create flutes in multiple colors.
Made from delicate white crystal, the Met’s flute features four brass keys. With his other flutes, Laurent followed Theobald Boehm, the early 19th-century inventor and musician responsible for the flute as we know it today, to fashion flutes with greater complexity in their keying arrangements.
After Laurent died, interest in his type of crystal flute fell away. Even so, his construction of keys affixed to “pillars” on the instrument remains a standard component of flute design today.
5. A guitar beautiful in sound and form
An intricately ornamented guitar constructed toward the close of the 17th century offers visitors to the Met a look at the care an instrument-maker from the past could lavish on one of his creations, from an aesthetic, as well as a functional, point of view.
Scholars attribute this guitar to Jean-Baptiste Voboam, who was one of an entire family dynasty of stringed instrument-makers working at a time when France was just beginning to come into its own as a source of fine guitar-making.
Whoever its maker may have been, its use of tortoiseshell, ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl, and spruce make this guitar a particular pleasure to view.
6. A drum with many beats
A double-headed tánggǔ drum produced in 19th-century China during the Qing dynasty also adorns the Met’s collections. This lacquered example—fashioned from teak, brass, and oxhide—comes from Shanghai. Depending on where on the surface the player strikes the oxhide, the barrel of the drum will produce a rich variation of musical volume and tone.
This type of drum typically found its way into both Buddhist ceremonial activities and the performing arts. Today’s Chinese orchestras often make use of a modern-day form of the tánggǔ.