News of Note

The Cincinnati Art Museum rediscovers a treasure trove of antique musical instruments from around the globe.

To see a slideshow of more antique instruments, click here. >>

Music is widely believed to be the universal language — an art form that transcends cultural and generational barriers and speaks to people on a level that’s far more emotional than it is intellectual.

Amy Dehan, associate curator of decorative arts and design at the Cincinnati Art Museum, has spent the past several months getting up close and personal with this concept. For the better part of the year, she’s been reviewing and cataloging a collection of more than 800 antique instruments from around the world in preparation for an exhibition scheduled to open in the summer of 2012.

While the majority of the collection has been in storage at the museum since the turn of the last century — about 650 pieces were donated by Cincinnati industrialist and collector William Howard Doane — it wasn’t until recently that Dehan discovered the magnitude and significance of the acquisition.

“We really didn’t realize its relevance and its importance until we did this survey,” she says. “It’s not as though someone walked downstairs and said, ‘Oh, look at all these musical instruments.

I had no idea these were here.’ It was more of a discovery in terms of how important these pieces have turned out to be.”

Some of that insight came from Charles Rudig, an expert in antique instruments and former head of musical instruments for Sotheby’s Auction House in New York. The museum hired Rudig on a consulting basis this spring to help Dehan catalog the collection.

“Charles has been bringing me up to speed and helping me learn about which of the 800 pieces are superstars that would belong in the exhibition,” says Dehan. “He has asserted that this is one of the most important world instrument collections in the United States, rivaling that of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Boston’s [Museum of Fine Arts].”

Indeed, there’s far more to this collection than pianos, violins and other instruments typically associated with European and other Western cultures. It also includes pieces from Africa, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, Native America and other exotic points of origin.

Among the more high-profile pieces is an exquisite Amati viola, made by Italian brothers Antonio and Girolamo Amati in 1619. An oboe d’amour crafted by Jacob Denner in the early 18th century is one of only four known to exist from the German-based Denner family of woodwind makers. A French guitar made by 19th-century Parisian luthier Georges Chanot includes a fingerboard with mother-of-pearl inlaid panels depicting famous buildings in Paris.

On the more exotic side is an array of African drums, Native American rattles and a Saraswati Veena — a 19th-century Indian lute made from a hollowed gourd, with a finial carved in the shape of a dragon’s head. The collection also includes a Burmese harp, or saung, whose vessel-shaped body is finished with black lacquer and gold decorations depicting the life of Buddha.

“Some of these instruments were used in rite-of-passage ceremonies,” says Dehan. “Some were used in the imperial courts of Japan or China. Regardless of where they came from or what they were used for, they really open a window into how musical instruments were a means of expression — not just in the making of music but as works of art unto themselves. They exemplify how important that artistic expression was in a variety if cultures that were otherwise so different from each other.”

The exhibition, “The Art of Sound: Four Centuries of Musical Instruments,” will open at the Cincinnati Art Museum on June 16 and run through September 2. It will coincide with the World Choir Games, which will take place in the city in July. Held every two years and touted as “the Olympics of choral music,” it is the largest choir competition in the world. Next summer’s competition marks the first time the Games will be held in the United States since their inception in 2000. As of September, 150 choirs from 24 countries had registered to participate.

“We’re looking forward to having the instruments on exhibit at the time of the choir competition, because it will draw an audience from all over the world that’s already very interested in music,” says Dehan. “We’re looking at the exhibition as a way to reintroduce the collection to the immediate community, but also to a much broader and larger community, both national and international.”

Above all, the collection spotlights the tendency by artists and craftsmen from virtually every culture to blur the distinction between music, sculpture and other art forms.

“No matter where you’re from or what culture you call your own, we all have something in common, and it’s the need to express ourselves through the arts,” says Dehan. “I think this collection and this exhibition demonstrate that beautifully.

“That need to express ourselves is woven into our DNA,” she adds, “no matter what part of the world we’re from. It’s a part of all of us.”


Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Dr., Cincinnati 45202, 513/721-2787.
Hours: Tues.–Sun. 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Admission: free