A day to play in the Duke University Music Instrument Collection

Writer: 
June 6, 2017

In the basement of Biddle Hall, off a quiet midcentury-modern lobby where a fountain cheerfully splashes, hundreds of years’ worth of classic musical instruments sit, illuminated and displayed behind glass walls. The Duke University Musical Instrument Collection came to Duke in 2000 as the Eddy Collection, though new instruments and acquisitions enlarge the collection all the time. There are replica instruments, too, and paintings of instruments, and if the doors are locked—the collection has no regular open hours— you can always gaze through the window at clarinets and French horns, pianos and cellos, old instruments like the serpent and surprising ones like player pianos, concertinas, and the occasional tabla.

But every now and then (at least once a semester or so), the music department props open the doors and gives some of these old instruments a chance to get their strings vibrating. That’s what happened in March, when Norwegian pianist and researcher of historic instruments Christina Kobb came to town for a weeklong residency and a concert.

Randall Love, associate professor of the practice in the music department, and some helpers set up tables with wine and finger food, then dragged into the lobby a piano with a keyboard with black major keys and white sharps and flats, and it was open season on seemingly every keyboard in the little museum. Visitors cranked the portative organ (basically a portable calliope), tunes from a half-dozen instruments strove for dominance in the tiny space, and seemingly everybody had a try at the Clementi fortepiano, an immediate forerunner of the modern piano. The DUMIC Clementi is from 1810, directly from the London facility of Muzio Clementi, composer and piano manufacturer during the years the piano made a leap forward toward its current state. “Beethoven often had a set of Clementi [pieces] by his piano,” Love said.

“Wait, that really came out of Clementi’s factory?” a visitor asked. “When Clementi was there? Cool!” Yes, said Roman Testroet, visiting instructor of music, historical musicologist, and the guy who will “open these doors when people need to use the facility. It’s really fun when they get touched. It’s fun to see when the undergrads get a chance.” The old keyboards have nothing like the response of modern pianos, so he likes to see the students, “raised on Rachmaninov,” perplexed by the old-style actions of the antique instruments.

The day was well timed. Among the visitors were local musicians who had driven in from as far away as Winston- Salem and some prospective Duke students who had come to try the music department on for size. “I was playing the first movement of the Hammerklavier, by Beethoven,” said prospective student Theodora Serbanescu- Martin. “And then I ran out of keys and I had to stop.” One of the challenges of playing on a keyboard from 1810, before everybody had agreed that an instrument needs the current standard of eighty-eight.

Speaking of keyboards, the white-on-black one in the lobby belonged to a modern reproduction of a Viennese fortepiano from1815, in front of which Love and Kobb settled on a bench and played “Sonatas for Piano four hands” by Jan Ladislav Dussek. The small crowd was delighted. Kobb came fresh from her debut at Carnegie Hall—which she said had been a delight, with one small problem. “It was a great piano, although it was a modern Steinway,” she said of what Carnegie Hall was able to scrape up. “I wanted it to be a mid-nineteenth-century grand piano. But it turned out that was impossible to find in New York.”

Fortunately, Duke was up to the challenge.

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.