VIP Yale Collection Tour

…the V.I.P.s being your humble tour guide (my first time at this important facility), Benoît Meulle-Stef, Dave Evans, Frank Doucette and Bob & Carol Workman.  Here we are in front of the cryptic entrance to the museum (Carol is taking the photo on her iPad).  This little outing occurred on the Thursday before the 9th annual Harp Guitar Gathering in Milford, CT in October of 2011.  Several other Gathering goers had reserved a spot in this unprecedented private tour, but had last-minute conflicts.

The Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments started somewhat inauspiciously in 1900, but got a major kick in the pants in 1960 when they acquired the Belle Skinner Collection (I have the original catalog book of this collection) and then the Emil Herrmann Collection.  They soon trebled in size, and today number over 1000 instruments.

Open to the public for a couple short hours 5 days a week, I had finagled a special visit with the curator Susan Thompson, a fellow AMIS member.

The key pieces I was interested in for research were shown in my previous blog Updates on Harp Guitar Relatives.

After enjoying the public display cases on the first floor (which housed the wonderful French Lyre), we descended to the basement, goal of true museum geeks everywhere).  Here, the generous staff pulled out several instruments – those we were interested in, and several they were curious to know more about.  They were in luck, as they had the experienced (and refreshingly opinionated) Ben at their disposal.  He held us spellbound for an hour or two.  Here he explains something he made up to Susan (left), assistant curator Ian O’Sullivan, and the rest of us.

I’m teasing my friend, of course.  He actually knows his stuff, but also likes to passionately speculate (as I do – though more annoyingly).

This is the Caron decacorde, a somewhat perplexing hybrid instrument from 1785 (see the Gallery Mixed Family Hybrids & Other Related Forms).

The main instrument we were curious about was the mysterious triple-neck something, which I had only known from this blurry Belle Skinner book photo.  What was it?

Well, not a harpolyre knock-off, as some had thought.  It was a fascinating triple-neck guitar by makers unknown.

Ben was able to inspect the innards due to an unfortunate accident the instrument had in the distant past (and there was no sign of the added base it had once had).

Up close and personal

Note how the tuners for the 3rd neck are installed partway down!

I asked Benoît to re-cap his observations and later conclusions about the instrument.  He says:

“After talking with some luthier friends we came to the conclusion that this instrument is German, not French.  It has too many different influences to be French or Italian; German makers used to mix all influences.  I suspect, personally, a maker from Munich, or South Germany anyway.  It’s a mix of Art Nouveau and neoclassical design.
The middle neck (61.1 cm) is of course a prim neck made to be tuned EAdgbe’.
Amazing floral head with small harp-like pegs (very similar to the ones on the strange guitare harpe of the Brussel’s MIM).  Classical cone shaped heel.
The top neck (51.2 cm) is most certainly a terz neck tuned Gcfa#d’g’.  Again there is amazing carving on the head and same tuners.  The remaining hole is probably for a missing strap button.
The bottom neck (40.5 cm) is an octave neck: ead’g’b’e”.  The head is in almost all points a mirror of the terz neck head.  Even fake tuners holes have been made in it, though they don’t go through the head.  The most peculiar thing is the “real” head inserted at the 5th fret by leaving the neck square-shaped there to accommodate again the same 6 harp tuners.  The heel has been moved further to leave 12 frets clear of the body.
The body is quite amazing in shape, construction and design: The transversal bar running between the octave bridge and the prim bridge and in front of the Terz bridge; all bridges are connected by an Art Nouveau pattern made of ebony (?).  Apparently for no reason the instrument has 3 tail blocks!  Just one has a hole for a strap button, the middle one.
This instrument is quite amazing, being a composite of different shapes, era and influences.  The basic shape is strongly patterned on the Harpolyre.  The end of the fingerboard looks a lot like the ones from viola de gambas and other instruments of the XVI century, called “open book”.  The bridges are Art Nouveau and the heads neoclassical. The craftsmanship is outstanding, even if the instrument has suffered damage.  It could only have been made by one of the top makers of the time.”

After our inspection of these fascinating instruments, the staff brought out several guitars for Ben, Dave (a luthier as well, of course), and the rest of us to weigh in on.

None of us wanted to leave, as I frantically searched for any last strangely-shaped cases before we over-stayed our welcome.

Thanks to Susan and Ian for their hospitality and this unique opportunity!

  1. Benoit Says:

    Yep I was like a kid in a candy store!

    Benoit

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