It is an awesome showcase of musical instruments spanning several centuries at The Imperial Palace, Vienna.

My music-teacher once mentioned this great collection of period instruments at Vienna. “You must see it if you ever visit Austria,” he had said. Decades later, I recollected his remark as I stood before the doors of the Imperial Palace in Vienna where this splendid assemblage of instruments is housed.

The Collection of Historic Musical Instruments is regarded as the world’s most important collection of Baroque and Renaissance instruments and one of the most valuable of its kind. It includes instruments played and/or owned by famous musicians and composers. Though located in Vienna’s Imperial Palace, Hofburg, it belongs to the famed Kunsthistorisches Museum, also in Vienna. Many of the holdings of Kunsthistorisches Museum are on show at different locations across Vienna.

Entering the palace, I ascended a grand, marble staircase to enter the section where the Collection is housed––in a chronological arrangement. Each of the 12 rooms is dedicated to a certain period. In every hall there are several emphases on different topics and personalities. Typical forms of music-making are presented together as are ensembles of related instruments. The rooms are spacious and impressive with lovely chandeliers and ceiling frescoes and all objects are arranged to enable a clearview.

Instruments of musicians

Dr. Beatrix Darmstaedter, Curator, Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, explains, “The exhibition comprises items belonging to the Collection as well as items on loan. So the visitor can see keyboard instruments played/possessed by Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Sigismund Thalberg, Ignaz Assmayer, Joseph Eybler and Adalbert Gyrowetz and stringed instruments possessed/played by Johann and Josef Schrammel, Josef Lanner, Leopold Mozart and Anton Karas.

In addition, there is a clarinet that probably belonged to Ludwig van Beethoven on display. There is a piano by Conrad Graf that is in accordance with the model that Graf placed at Chopin’s disposal when he had his first concert in Vienna in 1829.”

The Collection’s holdings span several centuries. Its history began centuries ago when Archduke Ferdinand the Second, set up a collection around the late 16th century at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck. In this, the Art Chamber comprised coins, clocks, goldsmith creations, bronze figures and a selection of musical instruments most of which were elaborately worked pieces.

Around 1806, the collection was brought to Vienna due to the Napoleonic wars. The second core group of instruments is traced to the late Italian Renaissance and early Baroque period and was the Obizzi family collection.

“The assemblage has subsequently grown through gifts, purchases and by loans. The inventory of the Collection today includes 1,324 items. The visitor can see 776 items on display at the exhibition. The Collection preserves items from the beginning of the 16th century to the 21st century. The exhibition includes items from pre-historic times to the 21st century,” I am informed.

And unlike many museums, all the objects are not just showpieces––many are in playable condition. The Matinees of the Collection give visitors the opportunity to see and listen to the instruments in so far as their condition allows them to be played. Concerts are held in the Marble Hall.

Hands-on-zone

“Visitors are invited to play copies of the historic keyboard instruments in our ‘hands-on-zone.’ So the music loving visitor can find out how to play on historic instruments and can try out certain playing techniques related to performance practice,” says Dr. Darmstaedter.

As for our guide Roman List, a multi-instrument player, he made the tour very interesting by bringing along a trolley filled with his own small instruments. Every now and then he would take out one instrument and give a quick demonstration of how that instrument was played and the kind of sound it produced.

There is a wide range of string, board and wind instruments in this famed collection. Many display exquisite craftsmanship. Evidently, the unknown artisans invested as much care and skill into making these instruments as the famous musicians did in making music from them.

On display is a large variety of violins, cellos, flutes, harps and pianos. This thematic collection includes chordophones (stringed and plucked), aerophones, keyboard instruments (stringed and organ-like) and idiophones as well as accessories, early printings and paintings. The set of Graf pianos has one with mother-of-pearl keys, “which belonged to archduchess Sophie, the mother of Emperor Franz Joseph,” reveals Dr. Darmstäedter. The oldest piece in the exhibition is a pre-historic bone flute. And another antique item is a recorder marked 1503.

The best-known paintings include an oil-painting of Schubert; a portrait of Beethoven by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller; a portrait of renowned piano maker Anton Walter by Jakob Friedrich Gauermann; and an imposing anonymous painting of Italy’s Catajo Castle.

Two hours seemed inadequate for this fabulous collection. I promised myself I would come back with more time in hand.