Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Old Musical Instruments

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE is scarcely an old home without one instrument which although cast on one side as out of date from a musician's standpoint possesses a peculiar charm for the collector. The delightful spinets, virginals, and pianos of a century or more ago are so near akin to furniture, following in the decoration of their cases the furniture taste of their day, that they cannot be disassociated from it. Some of these quaint old instruments, without such modern improvements as iron frames and over-strung wires, made when musical instrument builders were ignorant of mechanical devices by which pianos could be played by unskilled hands, gave forth music when played by master instrumentalists. It is true all players on those old instruments which are now museum curios, and valued only for their delightful cases, were not possessed with the power of a Handel or a Bach ; but few attempted to play who had no ear.

In all ages music in the home has been appreciated. Indeed, to many it is essential. Its value was pictured in a musical dream-like vision at an exhibition held in London some little time ago. A music room filled with the very soul of Music was constructed. In it music reigned to the exclusion of every other thought or inspiration. In that veiled room the designer had made the central ideal of his theme "space," amidst the serenity of moonlit water. The furnishings of the room were blue, a velvet pile carpet of turquoise blue stretching up to a piano throne. Over the instrument hung a silver lamp, and the piano itself was silver painted. Its legs were fashioned like Greek columns, and near by was a stand on which was a silver vase. The piano chair was shaped like a lute ; its cushion was of shimmering steel and black silk. To suggest the movement of water at night the windows were screened by a light silk net, encrusted with jet, arranged so as to move with the slightest breath of air. Such was this wonderful room which was intended to inspire its occupants with music.

Perhaps the great artists of old caught their inspirations from the wonderful paintings with which their instruments were adorned, and from the decorative ornament of the cases. The environment of instrumentalists has much to do with the inspiration of the artists. A collection of old furniture seems incomplete without some musical instruments of contemporary date, and an old spinet, harp, or violin is out of place in a room in which there is no trace of the antique, or of those house furnishings inseparable from the right environment of the quaint instruments which conjure up visions of those Georgian or still earlier costumes worn by the players who delighted to bring soul-stirring music from them.


There are some beautiful old instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington, from which those interested in this side-line of furniture collecting can realise how fascinating such instruments can be to those who possess the spirit of Music.

The connection between the subject chosen for painted scenes on instruments and music a century or two ago, is not always apparent. For instance, there is a virginal on a carved oaken stand signed, " John Loosemore, fecit 1655," on the inside of the lid there are scenes depicting Adam and Eve in Paradise, a sea fight, and a hunting scene representing the chasing of deer.

The virginal, like the spinet, resembles a square piano. It is, however, arranged with one string, a jack and quill to each note. It, is so named because it was the instrument used by nuns when " virginising " or singing hymns to the Virgin Mary. In the Museum is a five-sided spinet or virginal, which was once owned by Queen Elizabeth, who was an expert player upon it. There is another fine virginal on which are the arms of the Duke of Cleves; the keys are of walnut wood, and monsters' heads are carved on the front panels, the chief decoration being scroll work.; on the bridge is the inscription, " Musica Turbatas sensus animasque removet." A very fine spinet in the same gallery is dated 1574; its chief merits being remarkable inlays of marbles and stones. The keys are of wood, also beautifully inlaid with marble and ivory. There is another fine instrument there, too ; one which was made for the Queen of Bohemia. A curious old harmonium exhibited, made by Muller, of Paris, was formerly packed in a leather case for transport, when it was taken on board the royal yacht, where it was in frequent use. It has been loaned to the Museum by the King, who also lends an early upright grand piano made in 1808, the label upon it reading : "R. Jones, upright, grand, and square pianoforte maker to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, No. 11 Golden Square, London, W." That instrument was evidently made for the Prince Regent, who became George IV. Its decoration is Gothic.

One of the finest collections of old instruments is to be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City ; some four thousand instruments of all kinds —the Crosby - Brown Collection — are there arranged. There are spinets and harpsichords, one of the latter having been the property of one of the Popes. There is an instrument made by Andres Stein, built in 1789, having a shifting foot pedal by which the keyboard is moved, so that the hammer strikes but one or two of three unison strings. The name of Broadwood was associated with the piano trade of a century or more ago, just as it is today, and many of the instruments, now curios, bear that name. In the Crosby-Brown Collection there is a square piano introduced into England in 1760, by one Zumpe, whose action was then used by Broadwood.

Messrs Broadwood possess a very fine collection of quaint old instruments, many of their own make. Among those which they have on view in their showrooms there is one of Zumpe's pianos ; it is said that it was the merits of that instrument that induced John Broadwood to take up the instrument he so well improved and eventually perfected. Some of the most interesting instruments in the Broadwood collection are a clavichord in gold lacquered case of English manufacture of the " taste" of about 1770 ; a spinet by Hitchcock of London, made in 1710 ; and a two-manual harpsicord by Burkat Schudi, dated 1771, an instrument formerly owned by Barbara Broad-wood, and used by Moschelles as late as 1887.

Much might be written about the beautiful old instruments found in old English homes, and also sad tales related of long neglected spinets and early pianos, which are well worth doing up, not restoring in the modern sense, but carefully cleaning on account of the beauty of their cases, their delicate paintings and inlays, and other charms, not the least being their stained and much worn keyboards, which could they speak might tell so many tales and reveal secrets which are buried for ever.

Briefly summed up, the story of the development of the piano began with the monochord, the prototype of the piano, an instrument which was first made as early as B.C. 582 ; the clavicytherium, the strings of which were arranged in a triangle or harp form, did not make its appearance until the thirteenth century ; from that evolved the clavichord, which was popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In the meantime Giovanni Spinnetti, of Venice, gave to the world the spinet in 1503; and soon afterwards the upright harp with a keyboard—the virginal—made its appearance. With the advent of the harpsichord, in 1531, there came the outline of the grand, which was destined to be so well known in the future.


An easy instrument to learn, provided that the player has a real ear for music, the harp was in olden time one of the most favoured instruments. The splendid harps seen in museums, and now and then in antique furniture galleries, are the perfected instruments far removed from primitive harps, which can be traced back to very early days. The harp of the Psalmist was, doubtless, a much simpler instrument than that represented in quaint pictures in which King David is shown gorgeously apparelled, wearing a golden crown, playing upon his harp.

In Dr Stainer's work entitled " The Music of the Bible," there is an interesting and instructive account of instruments which were akin to the harp and which were often mentioned in Biblical records. He tells of the kinnor, probably a Syrian instrument, of the lyre of Babylon, of the Egyptian lute, and of the psaltery. From those ancient Eastern instruments we are led on to the true Irish harp, one of the oldest known being that of Brian Boiroinhe, a famous king or Irish chieftain, in Trinity College, Dublin. Two forms of small harps appear to have been used in Ireland and Scotland, too, before the bagpipes came. The Welsh harp—the telyn—was larger. All the various harps were in use in some small degree before the eighteenth century. It was, however, in 1810, when Sebastian Erard made such a marked improvement in harps, that they became the fashionable drawing-room instrument. It is the harps of the first half of the nineteenth century which are now found - often in a shockingly neglected condition—in old English households.


The story of the violin attracts many ; that of those wonderful instruments — often over-rated—produced by master makers who were themselves players of great talent. Fabulous prices have been paid for old violins, which, alas ! have been much fabricated, and their labels forged in recent years.

The fashioning of the wood body of the violin has so much to do with the success of the artist that the wood-worker and the admirer of old furniture respects the shape and even the ornament of the violin even more than the harp or the constructional parts of a pianoforte.

The list of celebrated makers of violins is too long to give here. There are a few who cannot be overlooked, however, and their names must be mentioned even in the most cursory glance in the story of the violin. The famous Italian violin makers worked at Cremona, Mantua, Venice, and Milan. The early models were crude compared with those perfected at Cremona and Venice. One of the most famous artists was Andreas Amati, of Cremona ; but his two sons, Antonio and Geronimo, if anything, excelled him. Painting and inlaying were the decorations often employed ; but it has been said of the violins made by the Amati family that they held that construction should be decorated, and the decoration itself should be constructive. Antonio Stradivari, who lived from 1649-1737, founded the true Cremona pattern, and those of other makers were mostly modelled according to their established types. It is said that what is called the higher model made by Jacob Stainer was the pattern chiefly followed by the makers of England and Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century ; but it fell into disuse owing to the superior qualities of the Cremona violin. The English violin makers at one time worked in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly, but they afterwards removed to Soho. John Holloway, whose shop was in Gerrard Street, and Morrison who lived in Princes Street, Soho, made violins in 1760. It was in Soho Street that Senor Andreoli lived, and in Wardour Street that other violin makers established themselves. The collector of household furniture keeps a keen look-out for any kind of ornamental and decorative wood-work, and in his search in the shops of old instrument dealers he is not disappointed.

Home | More Articles | Email: