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The Czech Museum of Music: Review and Reflections

Prague has lots of big museums. Most of them are special, most are interesting, and most are well taken care of. The new music branch of the National Museum, however, is still exceptional. Most noticeably, it's brand new. Rotating exhibits are housed on the ground floor while the museum's permanent collection is (at least partially) displayed on the first floor. The massive Vrtbovský palác has been restored in a tasteful, understated style. The building's large inner court apears to be suitable for concerts and lectures, which are set against the dramatic backdrop of the main staircase. Upon entering, your attention is drawn up past three balconies with wrought-iron railings toward the large cupolo skylight that illuminates the main hall. It is impressive.

The exhibits are also well-integrated with sound examples. It is altogether too easy and (probably) too standard to have a silent "music" museum. So it was quite nice to hear the many sound examples. Most of the rooms in the standing exhibits have a small kiosk with headphones from which visitors can choose to listen to characteristic music played on the instruments in the room (or at least on instruments that are similar to those on display). The kiosks are user friendly and are one of the few places in the museum that feature English translations. It is, however, a bit difficult to fit in enough time to listen to all the examples. Most of the kiosks have three or four examples (some of considerable length) and there are no chairs, which means that guests who listen to all the examples spend a lot of time on their feet. There are also only two headphone sets per kiosk.

The museum does have a few shortcomings. The permanent exhibit is promisingly titled "Man, Instrument, Music"--implying that in addition to the instruments on display there will be some discussion of their making, the relationship of people with musical instruments, and a suitably diverse array of instruments. This, however, is not what the exhibit accomplishes. It is a collection of fine instruments beautifully displayed, but there is almost no explanation of how they are made, what significance they might have (extra-musical or otherwise), or how and when they were played. For example, in the room of brass instruments there was no explanation of why two portraits were hanging on the wall. They turned out to be the Červený family, who founded and/or owned a major factory that manufactured brass instruments. Overall the museum could do with more explanation of any sort. Though the rotating exhibit had no English translations, the permanent exhibit had hardly any text in Czech to translate (though translations of the existing text were given). An interactive museum might get away with less text, but this is decidedly not an interactive museum (at least in a hand's-on way, though the listening kiosks do provide a different sort of engagement). The instruments are in cases and those that aren't cannot be touched. It seems that there should at least be text available for those of us who are interested in more detailed explanations.

The instruments are loosely categorized by a system developed by musicologists Erich M. von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs (publishd in 1914). The so-called Sachs-Hornbostel system classifies instruments into groups according to how they produce sound. Major groups are aerophones (produce sound with a vibrating column of air), membranophones (sound from a vibrating membrane), chordophones (sound from a vibrating string), or idiophones (sound produced when the body of the instrument itself vibrates). These make acceptable categories, but they are not as clear as they might seem. For example, as was noted in one of the rare bits of text, the accordion is an aerophone but might also be classified as an idiophone since it small reeds are vibrating to make sound. Actually I'm not sure why this would make it an idiophone anyway since this usually means that the entire body of the instrument is involved, such as in a woodblock. As organologist Klaus Wachsman writes (under "aerophones" in the Grove Music Online), Hornbostel and Sachs "divided aerophones into two subclasses: free aerophones (freie Aerophone) and wind instruments proper (eigentliche Blasinstrumente). Reeds appear in both categories, and although the classification may be based on controversial acoustic premises it provides a valuable compendium for surveying various kinds of reed instrument." But that doesn't explain the idiophone reference at the museum. Of course, if you want to be picky all instruments could be aerophones since the only way to produce sound is to vibrate air. But that would just be silly and it wouldn't accomplish much of a classification.

There is a bigger problem with the H-S system, though. While appealing to a "rational" or "scientific" approach to organizing everything, it does not tell us anything about the cultural meaning of the instruments. For example, why do some of the viola d'amoures feature a scroll carved as a human head while some do not? Why are some of the heads blindfolded? Is this significant? Why is one of the 18th-century harpsichord cases decorated with detailed scenes from the orient, "chinoiserie"? What inspired the "giraffe" piano? I'm just posing these questions rhetorically, but I do think that their answers (or even offering them as possibilities for thought) would enrich a museum-goer's experience if he or she wanted something more. The H-S system is also wont to privilege European musics. The exhibit of Alois Hába's quarter- and sixth-tone pianos and organs was fascinating, but these are not (as the short text implied) the first instruments nor the only instruments to use non-tempered scales. And how did Czech folk musicians talk about their instruments? Were there any "indigenous" terms? If so, these are completely obscured by the H-S system.

I visited on 18 December 2005 when the special exhibit was about Josef Suk's symphonic poem (or cantata) based on Karel Jaromír Erben's nineteenth-century poem Svatební košile from his book of poetry Kytice. For more information, visit the National Museum's Web site or the site of the National Museum of Music. The new building of the Czech Museum of Music (České muzeum hudby) is at Karmelitská 2/4, Praha (Mala strana)


Blogger Karla said . . .

Now that you mention it, I don't think there were any non-European instruments there at all. The museum in Munich has a gamelan and various other nonwestern instruments/ensembles. I'm also having some sort of flashback to a string quartet of death, or something of that kind. Maybe I dreamt it. I can't quite remember what made it that. Oh well. The Czech museum did have a very nice European collection.    

9:55 PM, December 30, 2005

Blogger morskyjezek said . . .

Well, I didn't mean to say that the collection wasn't good or comprehensive. It's very wonderful for what it is, which is an impressive collection of Czech (European) instruments. I hope I was more critical of the H-S system than the collection itself. The Germans and Dutch have always had more of an interest, I think, in 'other' instruments than the Czechs anyway. It would have been nice if there were a few, though, even for a bit of variety. And come to think of it, they only gave two rooms to the 'folk' instruments. Not that I'm complaining...I mean, there was at least one cimbalom. (Yay!)

There really needed to be more about "Man" in the exhibit--not actual men or even specific personalities, but about how people related to the instruments and what they mean. But just call me a frustrated ethnomusicologist in an historo-organological man's world.    

10:52 PM, December 30, 2005

Anonymous hotel in prague said . . .

How I wish I can visit all Museums in Prague city..    

2:42 AM, August 13, 2009

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