Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"If music be the food of love, play on..."

A new discovery for me this year is the cluster of buildings up at La Villette (the former slaughterhouse district of the 19th arrondissement) that consists of institutions all devoted to music. One of François Mitterand's "Grands Projets", it was designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc, and opened in 1995.

Folded into one part of this sprawling complex is the eye-popping Musée de la Musique. Had it existed in the time of Duke Orsino (who famously uttered the quoted lines above), he might have happily spent the rest of his life there (all the while still pining for the love of Lady Olivia, of course) -- and we would never have had the pleasure of the bewitching comedy/drama that is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night!

Thankfully, we have the play, and for those interested in some really unusual musical instruments, we have this museum that boasts a collection of close to 1,000  mostly European instruments, and mostly from the 15th to the 20th century, but including quite a few gems from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Certainly one, the lute, has been known since antiquity, brought to Europe by the Arabs and called by them "al ùd" (the wood).  But there are lutes and then there are "archiluths" like this one, with its six pairs of gut strings, that appeared in the 16th century and was largely used as a solo "tenor" instrument. I had a hard time picturing how one person could "handle" such a large and complicated instrument, let alone pluck the strings.

By the late 16th century, the "archiluth" had been joined by the "theorbo", as demand for an extended "bass" range grew. I had been given a set of headphones and a player when I entered the museum. When I punched in the code for the "theorbo", I was amazed by the large volume of sound it produced.

Turning a corner, I found myself surrounded by keyboard instruments: harpsichords, clavichords, spinets, virginals, some very plain and simple, others incredibly ornate.

This clavichord, in particular, caught my attention. From the 16th century, the elaborate decor  (possibly from the German School) depicts the Battle of Lepanto, 1571, in which the Holy League defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire in the Ionian Sea.  Over 1000 ships, galleons and other vessels, along with over 100,000 men, engaged each other furiously for five hours before victory was declared, and the Ottoman Empire was prevented from expanding further into the European part of the Mediterranean Sea.  A really important deal in its day, and recorded in many paintings. I did wonder, though, if musicians who sat down to play this glorious instrument felt obliged to play only bellicose, martial music, or if they could ignore the drama of the painting in front of them, and bring an audience gentle melodies from, say, William Byrd or Orlando Gibbons!

Then there was this Italian spinet ("épinette") from 1523, whose inscription underneath the keyboard has led historians to believe it is the oldest surviving one of its kind. The Arabian-style decoration was very popular in Venice at the time. It sat on its table, just gleaming with its dark chocolate brown veneer and sparkling white ivory.

Picking my way through the many groups of school children who were at the museum on field trips, I found myself admiring this group of 17th century guitars. Cardinal Mazarin had a big influence on their popularity amongst the aristocracy, when he hired an Italian guitarist to teach the young Louis XIV how to play this relatively easily handled instrument.

Pretty soon, suites of dances and transcriptions of operatic arias were being published, and the instruments themselves became more and more finely decorated with ivory and ebony, as well as delicately carved filigrée fretwork in the centre. The craftmanship was truly beautiful!

Then there were the obviously experimental instruments, like this violincello on the right, built by Jean-Nicholas Lambert in the 18th century. A little trapdoor in the case allowed an adjustment in the treble ranges.

In this same vein, I was sure I would find an example of an "arpeggione", a six-stringed instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar, but bowed like a cello. It was invented sometime early in the 1800s, and Schubert wrote a beautiful sonata for it with piano accompaniment (D.821). I happen to love this piece of music! The "arpeggione" proved way too difficult to play, however, and soon vanished. Today, the Schubert work is played on the cello, although I just learned that a man named Nicolas Deletaille has apparently recently reintroduced the instrument. Here's a picture of one that I found on the web.  Deletaille is encouraging today's composers to write music for it. Perhaps, one day, an example will eventually find its way to the museum!

There were, though, several exquisite Antonio Stradivarius violins on display. He built many different kinds of instruments before devoting himself exclusively to violins and violincellos. The period 1700-1720 is known as the "golden age" of his production. Many instruments made during this time are still being played today.

I was fascinated by the molds Stradivarius employed. Such plain, basic pieces of wood, which he used as a pattern to cut and fashion his instruments, selecting woods like willow, spruce and maple, all highly varnished to a perfect finish in the final violin or cello.

In the woodwinds section, there were some astonishingly large bassoons and flute/recorders, like this "flûte à bec basse". Many of these instruments were produced by the Hotteterre family, a veritable dynasty of woodwind makers in 16th and 17th century France.

My Scottish heart swelled with pride when I read that one member of the Hotteterre family, Jacques, not only was an accomplished flautist, he also excelled on the "musette", the bagpipe! And as I turned around, there was this adorable-looking bagpipe on display. The early 18th century saw a great love for rural (folk) music, with both amateur and court musicians alike. Befitting appearances at court, some bagpipes were made from lavish materials such as silk and embroidered velvet, with the mouthpiece and lower pipe from silver and ivory.

Related to the "musette", the "vielles-à-roux", the hurdy-gurdy, also enjoyed wide popularity at the same time, drawing on the love of rural music settings. Sometimes called a "wheel fiddle", there are several fine examples in the museum. However, by the 1760s, these instruments saw a rapid decline amongst the so-called musical "congnoscenti"!

Maybe that's why, today, most bagpipe players are confined to the glens and hills of the outdoors, like on Mount Vision in Inverness, California, at the Fall Equinox! Whether Duke Orsino would have appreciated their haunting wail is another question. I suspect he would have stayed within the fascinating realms of La Musée de la Musique, whose surface I barely scratched on my visit. Clearly, I need to return one day...

Meanwhile, Spring has all of a sudden "sprung" -- trees are budding and leafing and flowering, people are in t-shirts and sandals, and the Romany flower sellers of jonquils have returned to the rue Montorgeuil, where I bought this pretty little posy this afternoon. Life is good!

À bientôt!


  1. I took the canal boat from the Bastille up to the basin, and didn't look further. Thanks for the post. I agree, life is good.

  2. amazing museum and instruments. Don't think I can find you anything quite so exotic in London

  3. This sounds like an amazing spot, thanks for sharing with the rest of us! Susan

  4. Wow so interesting so lovely to see you Sunday xx

  5. Fascinating....love the images of vintage musical instruments!

  6. Hello Janet,
    Love the instruments! I am learning about the hardinger fiddle and variations there-upon with drone strings and strings that are played. Wonderful sound. And pipes!! Scottish marching pipes, the small border pipes, Irish uilleann pipes, Gallician gaita (sp?) pipes. What ingenuity. hugs