Occasionally a single object or a group of objects catches the visitor unawares. Beethoven’s ear trumpets, graduated in size as his affliction worsened, seem to us pitifully unequal to the task for which they were intended; they are heartbreaking to behold. Similarly, Schubert’s shattered spectacles somehow reflect the frailty of his brief life. Not all are so painfully moving. The existence of surviving scent in the mysterious Madame von Meck’s vial at her country house in Brailiv stirs the imagination; would Tchaikovsky have been aware of that same scent on his visits? Rimsky-Korsakov’s childhood coverlet, made by his mother, at his birthplace in Tikhvin, hints at a vulnerability in someone we always think of as a figure of authority. The presence of ashtrays, pipes, cigar cutters and even the charred ends of cigars alongside the usual desktop paraphernalia remind us that many late 19th- and 20th-century composers habitually smoked while they worked. Artefacts that reveal personal foibles offer visitors brief moments of empathy. The objects themselves may be vulnerable: the chaise on which Wagner died has threadbare patches after suffering the depredations of generations of souvenir-seekers.
Most music lovers would agree that a major composer’s personal possessions are worthy of preservation, but few are aware of what survives or where and how they are preserved. Aside from manuscripts, correspondence and images, the earliest example would seem to be Handel’s pocket watch, in the British Museum. Mozart’s birthplace displays snuff-boxes. His tiny child’s
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Haydn’s octet table at Eisenstadt violin, his fortepiano and his travelling keyboard are among the earliest known surviving instruments, other than church organs, directly associated with a composer (none of the claimed ‘Handel harpsichords’ can be shown to be authentic). The dining table that incorporates a series of music stands for octet playing owned by Haydn and displayed at his house in Eisenstadt represents the earliest piece of furniture.
Issues of authenticity
Lovers of classical music will be familiar with the concept of‘authenticity’ and will associate it with the movement to perform music, especially from before 1800, using texts that reflect most closely the composers’ intentions and the period instruments and performance styles of their day. Extending this pursuit, a few performers have also sought out contemporary venues and donned period costumes to re-create a sense of the original context for the music. The desire to reveal the past, whether through the informed presentation of surviving buildings and artefacts or through faithful representations of them, applies equally to museological sites of historic interest.
The remoter the time, the harder it is to establish associations between buildings and the people who once lived in them. The medieval buildings and architectural fragments connected today with Guido d’Arezzo and Hildegard von Bingen are difficult to authenticate. Neither they nor Palestrina would recognize the renovated buildings and the ruins mentioned
Pavilion Lulli at Sevres in the entries for them in this book. Sometimes the association itself is hazy: the pavilion in the rear courtyard of the former porcelain factory at Sevres, west of Paris, is sometimes claimed as a remnant of a chateau once occupied by Lully, but there is no record to confirm the legend.
It is rare to find an old building that has not been altered and modernized by successive generations without what we would consider due regard to the building’s historical importance. Such work continues at many sites today, sometimes taking note of the hopes of preservation societies in conflict with commercial interests. Sometimes a careful photographic record is kept of renovation work, and great care is taken to investigate the history of the building; this was done with the Handel House Museum in London, to ascertain the probable paint colour when Handel lived there (similar operations were performed, often enabling the visitor to see the successive paint colours on a patch of wall, in the Haydn house in Eisenstadt, the Haydn and Mozart houses in Vienna, and the Berlioz birthplace at La Cote-Saint-Andre), and panelling of the right period was acquired, from a demolished building, so that the walls could be restored in authentic style. A photographic record similarly documents the restoration of the Dom hudby in Trnava which contains the Schneider-1Trnavsky museum. The heavy remodelling of the house in which Bartok had a flat has turned it into what is primarily a showcase for 20th-century Hungarian design, folk arts and crafts, with a room for recitals – perhaps more arts centre than composer memorial. The appropriately named Kleinmuseum to Bruckner in Kronstorf appears from the outside to be an ‘end of terrace’ house, the one in which he lived. But in reality it is more of a bookend than a dwelling, all corridor and staircase: apparently much of his living space has been taken into the neighbouring property.
The location (particularly when the composer has chosen the site), the character of the building, the proportions of the rooms and the original surviving decor can tell us much about the composer. When the exact location of a composer’s birthplace or residence is no longer known with certainty, an appropriate local site may serve to represent it, as with Bach’s birthplace at Eisenach. Almost half the Beethoven museums rest on insecure foundations of authenticity: no-one really knows whether three of the Viennese museums (the house at Heiligenstadt, the Eroicahaus and the Pasqualatihaus) are on the actual sites where he lived, and the museums to him at Dolna Krupa in Slovakia and Martonvasar in Hungary commemorate visits that may never have taken place. Elsewhere, when the location has proved intractable, different solutions have been found. The tourism-wise residents of Hochburg neatly solved their problem by simply dismantling the Gruber birthplace and putting together a replica near the crossroads in the centre of the town. The Pann birthplace, which celebrates the Romanian national anthem, was also moved to a more convenient position in Ramnicu Valcea. In several cases just a composer’s study has been preserved or reproduced and re-created in another building (see pp.9-10).
Many houses have fallen victim to the need for modernization and development, not least those in which Bach, Mozart and Beethoven died. Fire, war and revolution have also caused the loss of historic houses. Some have been reconstructed, including Chopin sites in Warsaw (the Krasinski Palace) and Sanniki, the Mozart Wohnhaus, the Glinka mansion, the main house on the Rakhmaninov estate, the Rimsky-Korsakov dachas and the house in Ukraine that Stravinsky built in the early years of the 20th century. Others have been replicated as faithfully as possible, at least externally; still more have been substantially altered to meet immediate needs unconnected with the house’s historical significance. Just occasionally a house survives occupying the same role as it did centuries ago: the one at Gneixendorf, north-west of Vienna, where Beethoven visited his brother – departing, in a rage, to his final illness is still an adjunct to a working vineyard (with, it is believed, the murals that Beethoven saw still gracing the walls of his room). Another house with a remarkable air of authenticity, though not, alas!, a museum, is Paganini’s mansion at Gaione, near Parma, now a convent, where his lavish musical decor is not unappreciated by the nuns.
When a building does survive – unless it is quickly established as a memorial site – it will often no longer retain the contents or even the layout that the composer knew. This may offer an invitation to ignore period considerations and create a fresh modern environment for a collection or series of displays (as in the Liszt house in Bayreuth), or to leave the house virtually empty (as in the Verdi house at Roncole). Others may see it as a challenge to re-create plausible period interiors. There may be testimonial, documentary or icono-graphical sources to inform them, or it may be a matter for guesswork, conjecture and the tasteful and informed selection of period furniture and artefacts. A historical reconstruction can be an expensive and time-consuming project requiring the assistance of specialist architectural historians. Not many prospective museums can call on the resources of the National Trust in England, which has achieved remarkable results through careful research and planning, with almost no primary artefacts to display, in the Liverpool childhood houses of the Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
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