Hitting the Right Note

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Situated in North-West London, the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1822, is the oldest music school in the United Kingdom. With the aim to promote knowledge, taste, skill and new music to whoever wished to pursue it, Lord Burghersh, 11th Earl of Westmorland (1784-1859), a composer, organised the establishment with the help of the harpist Nicolas Bochsa (1789-1856). Situated in Tenterden Street, Mayfair, the new academy was open to both boys and girls aged between 10 and 15 years who boarded at the school during term time. With William Crotch (1775-1847) as the first Principal, pupils were expected to focus on their music studies from 7am until 9pm.

Today, the Royal Academy of Music can be found in Marylebone Road, City of Westminster where it relocated in 1911. Right next door, a smaller building contains the Academy’s museum, with permanent and temporary galleries and exhibitions that explore unique instruments and the history of one of the leading UK conservatoires.

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Although known as the Royal Academy of Music, for the first eight years of its existence, the institution had not officially been recognised by the royal family. In 1830, just days before his death, King George IV (1762-1830) signed the Academy’s Royal Charter, and his successor, William IV (1765-1837) continued to support the school by establishing four King’s Scholarships.

The opportunities and cosmopolitan ethos of the Royal Academy attracted a growing number of students, including, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), who later became the school’s Principal, and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. To this day, famous names are emerging from the Academy and past students include the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle (b.1955), Sir Elton John (b.1947) and Annie Lennox (b.1954).

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Franz List playing at the RA by Oswald Barrett

During the latter half of the 19th-century, the Royal Academy of Music began to struggle as rival institutions began to crop up in London: the Guildhall School (1880) and Royal College of Music (1882). Despite suffering a chronic financial crisis, Principal Bennett, whose conducting baton can be viewed in the museum, helped to turn the situation around. This was helped further by a visit from the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) who received Honorary Membership of the Academy shortly before his death.

Due to the centenary of the emancipation of women in 2018, the Academy’s museum focused on the lives of female students, professors and musicians connected with the school in a temporary exhibition Hitting the Right Note: Amazing Women at the Royal Academy of Music, which ended on 18th April 2019. Although this exhibition concentrated more on the physical way these women have been portrayed, it contained an eye-opening history of the Academy from the point of view of women.

Music has always been enjoyed by both men and women alike, however, from ancient times to the 15th century, musicians tended to be slaves, servants or prostitutes, forced to entertain the rich in order to make a living. As a result of this, during the 17th and 18th centuries, respectable women would never be seen performing outside the home. Women were even banned from playing the organ in churches or singing with the choir. It was not until the 19th century that it was no longer deemed immoral for a woman to perform on stage. The number of female opera stars increased rapidly, eventually ousting male castrati.

Yet, when it came to playing instruments, women were expected to only play the piano in the privacy of their own homes. After the industrial revolution, however, the production of pianos increased meaning that “ordinary” working class people could also learn to play. Middle-class ladies, not wanting to be seen playing something “common”, began taking up other instruments instead, particularly the violin.

The Royal Academy of Music was slightly ahead of its time, admitting an equal amount of male and female students from the get-go. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the Academy began training older, professional musicians. The Academy was also the first establishment to admit women on orchestral instruments, beginning with Julia de Notte and Adria Moore on violins in 1872.

Earlier in 1844, the Royal Academy of Music had welcomed Kate Loder (1825-1904) as their first female professor of harmony. Born with perfect pitch, Kate won the King’s Scholarship at the age of 13 and had the opportunity in her final year at the Academy to play G Minor Concerto to its composer, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47).

At the age of 18, Kate became the first female professor at the Academy as well as the youngest female elected to the Philharmonic Society a year later. Unfortunately, her marriage to Henry Thompson (1820-1904) in 1851, put an end to her teaching career.

The exhibition included a number of women who had strong connections with the Royal Academy of Music. Two of these women have been honoured with busts, including one made by the American- British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). These were Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) and Dame Moura Lympany (1916-2005).

Myra Hess enrolled at the Academy as a piano student when she was only 12 years old. By 17, she had given her public debut and become one of the most famous pianists in Britain. Her fame today, however, stems from her wartime contributions. During the Second World War, Hess proposed that live music should be performed in the empty National Gallery, whose treasures had been removed in order to avoid damage during the Blitz. Five days a week, classical lunchtime concerts were performed, providing music and food for the people of London. In total, 1698 concerts were performed, 146 of which Hess participated in herself.

Dame Moura Lympany, on the other hand, studied at the Academy much later than Hess. With a full scholarship, Lympany was a student from 1929 until 1934 after which she became a notable concert pianist. She was the first person to make a complete recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes and, in 1940, she gave the British premiere of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D Flat.

Like Myra Hess, some of the other women who studied at the Academy had musical roles during the Second World War. Elizabeth Poston (1905-87) was one of the performers in the National Gallery concerts, however, her war legacy goes much further than that. In 1940, Poston joined the BBC Music Department and within three years had been promoted to European Music Supervisor. Part of her role involved sending coded musical messages to the Polish resistance on the continent. This code system was known as Jodaform, which had been devised by Czesław Halski, who became a student at the academy after the war. Well-known Polish tunes and folksongs were given different meanings and it was Poston’s job to play the correct piece of music to signify whether there was to be an air-drop in Poland or any other form of activity.

The exhibition displayed items belonging to a handful of the women who had passed through the Royal Academy of Music. On loan were Janet Craxton’s (1929-81) oboe reeds, many of which she collected from famous oboists. Craxton was an oboist herself, in fact, one of the leading players of her day. She was the only daughter of Harold Craxton OBE (1885-1971) who was a pianist and professor at the academy.

Also on loan were a snare drum, drum sticks and practice pad belonging to Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), the virtuoso Scottish percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, yet has taught herself to “hear” using other parts of her body. The snare drum was the first instrument Glennie owned. She has since gone on to amass one of the largest percussion collections in the world.

Hitting the Right Note mentioned many firsts for the Royal Academy of Music beginning with the first female violin students (1872) right up until the first female timpani student (1954) and saxophone student (1980). Surprisingly, the more major firsts have occurred more recently and go to show how difficult it has been for professional female musicians. A breakthrough transpired in the mid-20th century when Florence Hooton (1912-88) became the first cellist to play on national television. Yet there were still many milestones for female musicians to reach.

In 1984, Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949) became the first woman in history to conduct a complete concert at the BBC Proms. Born in Cuba, Martinez studied in New Orleans until she earned a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Academy. Her secret dream was to conduct, however, women were rarely given the opportunity. Nonetheless, her determination saw her achieve her goal.

The violinist Clio Gould (b.1968) reached another milestone for women when she became the first woman to lead a symphony orchestra in London. Shockingly, this feat did not occur until 2002 when she played with the Royal Philharmonic. Gould has since performed with a number of other orchestras but specialises in contemporary solo repertoire. She is currently a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum has two floors devoted to the history of string instruments and the piano. The Academy owns some 250 string instruments of which only a handful are on display to the public. Amongst the collection is a Renaissance lute, a Parisian five-course guitar, and a British-made piccolo violin. With instruments from various eras and countries, the String Gallery helps visitors to understand the development and styles of music over time.

One of the first instruments visitors see on entering the String Gallery is Kai-Thomas Roth’s three-stringed double bass which he made using maple wood in 2006. Despite being a fairly new instrument, it is based on the baroque three-stringed bass, which itself was based on a double-bass produced by Domenico Montagnana (1687-1750) in 1747. Montagnana was working in Venice at the same time as the violin virtuoso and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), therefore, it is likely Vivaldi or members of his orchestra had instruments made by him.

Intriguingly titled an English guitar, the convex lute-like instrument with six pairs of strings belongs to the cittern family, a Rennaisance term for wire-strung instruments plucked by a plectrum. This is one of the surviving pieces from John Preston’s (active 1724-98) workshop and was produced around the time that guitars were becoming popular. Interestingly, this style of guitar was most popular with females who considered it to be elegant and easy to play.

One of the most beautiful instruments in the Strings Gallery is the 19th-century lacquered green Irish harp. Decorated with shamrocks and a gilded winged female bust representing the figure of Hibernia, this harp was made by John Egan, an Irish “Maker by Special Appointment to His Most Gracious Majesty George IV”. Tuned in E-flat major, this harp is extremely rare, being one of only two known surviving harps in the style.

“Violins are the lively, forward, importunate wits, that distinguish themselves by flourishes of imagination, sharpness of repartee, glances of satire and bear away the upper part in every consort.”
– Richard Steele, The Tatler, 1710

The String Gallery could not be complete without the instruments that make up the majority of professional orchestras: violins. These, of course, are not just any string instrument, they have been made by some of the most famous violin makers to have existed. Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) and his pupil Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) created some of the most wanted stringed instruments, which are now part of grand collections, for instance, this one, rather than being played.

The Nicolo Amati violin of 1662 is a well-preserved example of his largest and most favoured instrument. Known as the “Grand Amati”, this violin demonstrates Amati’s greatest achievement. With exemplary purfling (ornamental border), broad black strips of ebony have been inlaid around the edge of the instrument to reinforce the delicate curves of the outline. There are still traces of honey-brown varnish on parts of the maple wood body.

The 1709 ‘Viotti ex-Bruce‘ violin by Antonio Stradivari is one of the best-preserved examples of his workmanship to have survived. It was produced during his “golden period” when Stradivari was at the height of his powers. The dramatically figured maple wood was covered with a deep red varnish, the majority of which remains on the body due to preservation. The violin has been named after Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) who once played for Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93). Viotti was a fan of Stradivari’s instruments, however, his collection had to be sold to settle his exorbitant debts. The last owners were the Bruce family, hence Viotti ex-Bruce, before it was acquired by HM Government.

Also on display is another of Stradivari’s instruments, the “Archinto” viola of 1696. During his long and productive career, Stradivari did not produce a large number of violas and, today, only ten survive. The slender corners and purfling evidence the influence Amati had on his pupil, however, there are some elements that are unique to the maker. Stradivari fashioned his violas with cello-like peg boxes and is varnished in such a way that the instrument appears to change colour when viewed from different directions.

“A man of brains is like a virtuoso who can give a concert all by himself. Or he is like a piano which is in itself a small orchestra.”
– Schopenhauer, Maxims, 1851

The Piano Gallery shows the evolution of keyboard instruments from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. The gallery contains several instruments from the piano, harpsichord and virginal families that are kept in playing condition, however, visitors are not permitted to touch the keys. Gallery assistants, however, are more than happy to give a demonstration of the different sounds and explain how the instruments changed over the years.

Unlike the piano, which is believed to have been first created by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in the early 18th century, whose complex mechanism involves hammers, which strike the strings to provide dynamic notes, virginals and harpsichords create sound by plucking strings with a plectrum. A couple of models demonstrate these differences.

Typically, the instrument visitors are drawn to first is the “Model A” Grand Piano produced by Steinway and Sons. Made in 1920, the Steinway is almost 100 years old, yet it is still regarded as a “modern” piano. Steinway has become synonymous with pianos of this calibre and is usually the most sought-after in the world. The company was established in New York in the 1850s by German immigrant Henry E. Steinway (1797-1871). Along with his sons, Theodore (1825-89) and William (1835-96), Steinway’s unique pianos were produced from one piece of wood, which supposedly enhances the sound of the notes. Also, Steinway ensured that little energy is lost through the vibration of the strings, therefore maximising the generation of the sound.

If approaching the instruments in chronological order, the first is a polygonal virginal or spinetta made in Italy some time between 1600 and 1650. A virginal is a type of small harpsichord and is the earliest string keyboard instrument to survive. They are dated back as far as the 16th century, evidenced by their presence in paintings from that time. Virginals were built without stands, implying they could be moved from place to place for performances.

Although the newest instrument in the room, Arnold Dolmetsch’s (1858-1940) clavichord is a copy of a much older instrument from the 17th or 18th century. Dolmetsch built copies of almost every kind of instrument from the 15th century onwards, which has helped musicians and historians to understand those that are now lost. Whereas a harpsichord uses a bird’s quill to pluck the strings, a clavichord produces sound by striking the brass or iron strings with a metal blade known as a tangent. The vibrations caused by this produce the sounds, however, they are not very loud. It is thought clavichords were primarily used for practice rather than performance.

“The harpsichord has its own peculiar qualities … precision, clearness, brilliance; and compass.”
Francois Couperin, The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, 1716

Virginals and clavichords were more suitable for domestic settings, as were most harpsichords. A fine example is a harpsichord produced by Jacob Kirkman (1710-92) in 1764, which would have been familiar to the likes of Handel (1685-1759). Although a harpsichord may have a pure brilliance of sound, the dynamics are less modifiable in comparison to a piano and, therefore, not so good for public performances.

The Gallery has a number of grand pianos that progress through the years, revealing how the design and mechanisms were gradually improved. As the pianos became more modern, pianists were able to mesmerise their audiences with their playing, just as Franz Liszt did during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music.

Music was no longer limited to royal courts, churches and domestic settings, instead, people could listen – for a fee – in concert and recital halls. Pianos became physically large to emphasise their importance within orchestras and solo performances. Whilst older pianos were produced almost entirely from wood, piano makers began to use metal tubes or bars to increase the potential sound of the strings.

For some visitors, the temptation to try these instruments for themselves may be great, so they are relieved to know that they can play a particular, upright piano in the String Gallery. There are also a couple of ukeleles for the curious to try.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum is the ideal place to visit for anyone with an interest in music. Not only is it fascinating to look at all the precious instruments, but the history of the Academy is also worthwhile reading about. Throughout the year, the museum holds various exhibitions, however, they are all free to enter. Whilst there, why not check out the music shop at the front of the building, which contains a huge number of sheet music amongst other things.

Many of the collections displayed are Designated and the Museum itself is Accredited, chartermarks of quality awarded and administered by Arts Council England (ACE). The Museum opened in 2001, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

One thought on “Hitting the Right Note

  1. I found this very interesting despite not being able to play any instrument! A very informative effort again Hazel

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