Musical instruments at the Ashmolean

Martin CullingfordTue 2nd March 2010
The reopened Ashmolean (photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)The reopened Ashmolean (photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Violins, viols, virginals - and guitars

Oxford, city of dreaming spires, as the poet Matthew Arnold famously phrased it, and custodian of some of the world’s most important architecture and artefacts. The collection of musical instruments held in the city’s recently redeveloped Ashmolean museum may not be a large one, but the exhibits – whether rich in intricate engravings or exuding stylish simplicity – are all fine examples of their type, and offer a succinct journey through the development of early string instruments.

The oldest objects are 16th-century citterns, a plucked wire-string instrument, which looks like a lute from the front though flat behind, and with a channel up the back of the neck to guide the thumb. A
popular instrument – it might have been found in a barber’s shop to amuse waiting customers – its place was superseded in the 18th century by the “English guitar”, which isn’t very much like the Spanish guitar, being wire strung and somewhat pear-shaped. By the end of the century, these too had gone out of fashion.

The guitars housed here are very recognisably the ancestors of the modern instrument, and while the Stradivari (a very rare example) might bear the more household name, the more exquisite examples are one by Giorgio Sellas, a beautifully-ornate instrument with a curved back, made in Venice in 1627, and by the French luthier René Voboam from 1641, inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother of pearl.

Over to the bowed instruments, and a bass viol from the early 1600s bearing the arms of Sir Charles Somerset along with intricate designs of leaves and knots, stands out. Looking at the violins – the most
famous example being the “Messiah” Strad – gives an initial sense of having returned to modernity due to the instrument’s ubiquity on today’s concert stage. But of course the violin’s curves and curls are every bit as redolent of the 17th century as its less fortunate family members in the neighbouring cabinets, those we only hear today in the hands of period performance practitioners.

The room also contains a ceremonial trumpet made by William Bull from the late 17th century, and a beautiful English virginal from 1670, decorated with scenes of fashionable folk strolling through an idyllic landscape. Alongside them all hangs a vivid tapestry of a musical party from 1650, probably Spanish, showing examples of the room’s instruments in action.

While there is a certain pathos about instruments sealed in glass cabinets, it also brought to mind a point guitarist William Carter makes in the booklet notes to his superb new disc of music by Fernando
Sor (Linn Records), following his attempts to source an authentic guitar of the era. “I learned the informal ‘Law of Furniture Survival’”, he writes. “Surviving antique furniture is almost always uncomfortable. A comfortable chair will be sat on until it wears out.” That is, the better the instrument, the more fun to play, and the least likely that it would survive for us to study today. So we should be grateful that the Ashmolean’s instruments have been suspended in silence. Carter, incidentally, turned in the end to a living luthier.

But however fascinating the Ashmolean’s collection, music is best savoured as a living tradition within England’s ancient universities – and so to Keble College for Eucharist. Butterfield’s Victorian chapel is a building of thrilling verticality, with acoustics to match. The choir were on fine form in Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, and the service was celebrated with ritual appropriate to the College’s High Church origins. And all at the very civilised hour of 5.30 in the afternoon too.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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