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Pianos, pianos everywhere — but not a one to play.
Step through the first-floor door of the Museum of Musical Instruments in Ekoda, Tokyo, and you will be overwhelmed by the number of pianos on display from the collection of the Musashino Academia Musicae (Musashino Ongaku Daigaku).
Grand pianos, upright pianos; old ones, new ones, brown ones, black ones and even one more like a sculpture than a musical instrument vie for space like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle crammed into the 300-sq.-meter room.
“How many are there?” was my first, admittedly obvious, inquiry. “About 100,” Noburo Morishige, a staffer of the museum, replied before taking me on a tour of some of the collection’s most notable pianos.
Among these was one beauty dating from the late 18th century. Another had once been owned by Clara Schumann, wife of the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-56), who was herself a famous pianist. Then a couple of oddities: one with twice the regular number of keys, and another with a body shaped like the hat that Napoleon Bonaparte is so often pictured wearing.
The Napoleon Hat Shape Piano, which is one of the earliest surviving upright pianos, was commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1853, and made in England as a wedding gift for Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Made of walnut wood, the piano has beautifully carved decorations of roses and figs on its legs and pedals.
Pianos, though, are not the only instruments in the college’s museum collection. According to Morishige, of the 3,000 items the museum keeps, about 2,000 are regularly showcased for visitors as well as for students and college faculty members.
“Often, museums tend to focus more on just maintaining their valuable collections, often in private storerooms. But here, we display as many items as we can, so you may easily get the impression that the spaces are crowded with exhibits”
Musashino Academia Musicae Museum of Musical Instruments, which is considered old among Japan’s college museums, was opened on the campus there in 1967 in an effort to share the collection, amassed over more than 50 years, with as many people as possible, from local residents to visiting musical experts.
Apart from the room crammed with pianos, each room in the museum is dedicated to musical instruments from different parts of the world — including Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Japan itself. Visiting each room thus gives viewers a glimpse of a global array of traditional instruments in all shapes and sizes, materials and colors.
Taking me to see a big wooden “slit drum” in the Africa room, Morishige tapped it lightly — but the sound it made was surprisingly low and deep. “If you bang this drum hard, it is said that the sound can be heard more than 3 km away,” he told me, adding that this is typical of the “talking drums” used by people to send signals and messages over great distances rapidly.
Consequently, he said, the instruments in this marvelous display can be appreciated not just from a musical standpoint, but also as works of art in themselves and valuable artifacts in the study of ethnology and history.
Altogether it’s a remarkable place, giving visitors not only an opportunity to learn about so many ways and means of making music — but also offering a kind of bonding experience with the whole of humanity, now and through the ages, since playing and enjoying music so clearly appears to be something we’re born with in our genes.
The Museum of Musical Instruments of Musashino Academia Musicae at its Ekoda Campus in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, is open every Wednesday from 10 a.m to 3 p.m.; admission is free. For more information, call the museum at (03) 3992-1410, or visit www.musashino-music.ac.jp/I/I-3.html
Musashino Academia Musicae has two other museums of musical instruments, at its Iruma Campus in Saitama Prefecture (open Tuesdays) and at Parnassos Tama, the school’s Tama Campus in Tokyo (open weekdays). For more information, call the Iruma Campus at (04) 2932-2111 and Parnassos Tama at (042) 389-0711.
All three museums are closed during college recesses. This summer, the Ekoda and Iruma campus museums are closed Aug. 6-31; Parnassos Tama is closed Aug. 7-30.
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