There’s been a groundswell of outrage against the planned closure of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s world-famous musical instrument collection, especially as the gallery is to be refurbished to display fashion instead. Sign of the times, say most. Here’s the Guardian’s editorial take on it, today.
The Grauniad makes a lot of sense, and it does indeed seem sad that the public will be denied the chance to see some of the most beautiful instruments ever created. But I have one little caveat to add. There is no sight in a museum that breaks my heart more than that of a Stradivarius violin hanging up behind glass, unplayed. Violins should be heard, not seen. When there are violinists out there on the world’s leading stages who would give their right arm for the loan of a 1699 Strad (if the giving of the arm wouldn’t render them unable to play), they shouldn’t be sitting in bank vaults or museums where nobody can put them to the use for which they were made.
Specialist musical instrument collections such as Finchcocks in Kent offer public concerts on their instruments. There’s also a museum in Brentford devoted to mechanical instruments. And over in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford there lurks one of the world’s most famous Strads, known as the ‘Messiah’ – yet as author Toby Faber points out, it has hardly ever been used and its history includes no famous performances.
To me, this seems pretty scandalous. In November this year you can hear Nikolaj Znaider playing the Elgar Violin Concerto on the same violin on which its premiere was given by Fritz Kreisler 100 years ago (he’s doing a massive tour, but will hit the Barbican on 10 November). That’s what the great violins ought to be doing.