At the edge of the hill known as Prague Castle in the Czech Republic sits a lovely Palace that belonged to the wealthy Lobkowicz family. Beethoven fans may recognize the name since Count Lobkowicz loved his music and helped support him during an important period of Beethoven’s life.
Today the palace houses an extravagant collection of paintings, weaponry, porcelain, jewelry, and (best of all) a room full of musical instruments: violins, violas, basset horns, lutes, oboes, flutes. Plus precious musical manuscripts for works like Beethoven’s six early string quartets, Opus 18.
Actually lots of palaces have, or had, such musical collections. Except they weren’t on walls back then or in display cases. They were precious parts of an aristocrat’s show of wealth and power through most of Western History. Far from being a frill or some kind of dusty thing parked in a corner closet, instruments and musical scores were active symbols of education, culture, and accomplishment. They indicated the level of power enjoyed by the family. And that’s why, today, these old instruments and pieces of music are placed in the same protective cases as the diamond-encrusted snuff boxes.
Do we view instruments as people did in Beethoven or Mozart’s day? Probably not. But we can stop and realize how magical they are. How can wood, string, and brass be assembled in such a way as to produce melodies?
Let’s put it this way: we’d be pretty surprised if a handful of paper or a basket of nuts or a ball of thread suddenly combined to make beautiful music, yes? So why are we not equally astonished that pieces of wood, string made from cat gut, and horsehairs coated in rosin could produce the beautiful melodies of Mozart or Schubert? Or that beaten brass could produce the heavenly tones of Haydn’s trumpet concerto?
Look around your house. Find whatever instruments you have. Marvel for a minute about how they work. And then, imagine yourself as a 17th or 18th century prince or countess, reveling at another valuable musical instrument acquired for the palace orchestra. Or see yourself as a new house servant at Sanssouci suddenly confronted by the soaring tones of the gold flutes played with such relish by Frederick the Great during his famous musical evenings.
Take it out of the historical context. Try to remember your own astonishment as a child when you first heard someone strum a guitar or blow real notes out of a clarinet or trombone.
Instruments are magic. And, throughout history, they have been treasured and viewed as a precious tool in the expression of our cultural heritage. They belong in our hands, and the hands of our children, where their powerful message can become part of our daily lives.