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Instruments strike chord at Music Museum

One visitor might be drawn to the six-string Spanish guitar on which Bob Dylan composed some of his earliest songs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One visitor might be drawn to the six-string Spanish guitar on which Bob Dylan composed some of his earliest songs.

Another might gaze in awe at one of just a handful of Stradivarius violins still with its original neck, or a 1767 Portuguese grand piano considered one of the earliest, best-preserved pieces known to survive.

Each is important to the National Music Museum, which focuses on a piece's place in musical history rather than just its beauty.

"When you think of other collections, especially other collections in the United States, they are in art museums," says Sarah Richardson, curator of musical instruments. "And so a lot of times when the instruments are collected, they're collected for their artistic value rather than their musical value."

The 800 instruments on display at the museum — tucked away in the small university town of Vermillion — make up just a fraction of the more than 13,500 items in its collection, which museum director Andre Larson calls "by far the largest, most comprehensive one anywhere now."

"This is the only place really where you find all these things brought together, American, European and non-Western," Larson said.

Many of the items were once scattered throughout Larson's childhood home.

His father, Arne B. Larson, served as the longtime head of the school music department in Brookings, but his hobby was collecting instruments.

By the time the elder Larson retired in the late 1960s, his collection had ballooned to 2,500 instruments and it needed a home. He brought the instruments to Vermillion and accepted a job as music professor at the University of South Dakota.

USD graduate Andre Larson established the museum in 1973, and it has continued to grow in size and scope thanks to an influx of financial and musical donations.

Asked if it's odd that such a vast, worldwide collection sits in the middle of the Midwest rather than in New York, London or Paris, Larson uses a line coined by his father: "It's no farther from New York to Vermillion than it is from Vermillion to New York."

Visitors can use personal digital assistants and earphones to take a self-guided tour — complete with video and audio clips of the instruments on display.

There are many places to stop and stare: a towering 1808 Dieffenbach pipe organ, a 1643 Andreas Ruckers harpsichord that's as much of a work of art as an instrument, Civil War-era fifes and drums, a collection of saxophones built by Adolphe Sax, and a 1902 black and wood-grained guitar built by Orville Gibson.

One definite tour stop is the Beede Gallery, which houses one of the few and most complete Indonesian gamelans outside the royal palaces of Java. The room-size instrument collection consists mostly of heavy bronze bars and gongs mounted on ornately carved teakwood stands, and the many voices come together to ring the classical music of Indonesia.

It's illegal to export historic gamelans out of Indonesia, Richardson said, but a former trustee provided funds for the museum to commission one to be custom-built in Indonesia and shipped to Vermillion in 2000.

"It's really great for tours, because children can hear it, and often try it," she said.

Antonio Stradivari is best known for his violins, but the famed Italian craftsman also created other stringed instruments such as guitars and mandolins during his lifetime.

A circa-1700 Rawlins Guitar on display at the museum is one of only two documented guitars made by Stradivari known to survive. Another exhibit case houses a 1680 choral mandolino called The Cutler-Challen — also one of only two known to exist — which is even a rarer find because it survived with its original wood case.

Visitors can see one of only two violin bows known to come out of Stradivari's workshop.

The museum also houses the world's oldest known surviving violoncello (commonly known as a cello). Nicknamed "The King," the bowed string instrument was crafted in Europe in 1545 and played by King Charles IX of France in 1562.

The museum let it out of its display case for one night in 2006 so it could be played for an episode of Garrison Keillor's radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion."

"This instrument was played on that program because we have always wanted it to be played at least once," Larson said. "We hadn't ever had it played before that and we figured, well, this is a time when millions of people will actually hear it as opposed to doing it in the concert hall for a hundred people."

The Lillibridge Gallery features a recreated workshop of John D'Angelico and his successor James D'Aquisto, "probably the greatest makers of American guitars that ever lived," Larson said.

Though not household names like Gibson, Fender or Martin, the pair crafted their arch-top guitars by hand in an era when companies began moving toward mass production. The workshop features benches, guitar racks, tools, molds and even ledgers showing customers' orders.

"To me, it's a wonderful mixture of the grimy typical workshop, and then juxtaposed with the gorgeous instruments both in the same gallery," Larson said. "And it brings a little sense of reality, I think, to what actually goes on. Those things just don't sort of show up like plastic things do today."

Keeping track of 13,500 objects ranging from miniature harmonicas to gigantic pianos and theater organs is no easy task, said Margaret Downie Banks, senior curator of musical instruments.

Each instrument that is donated or purchased has to be logged, and the museum archives tens of thousands of pieces of music, technical drawings, sound recordings and other music-related items.

The museum opens its archives to visiting scholars and researchers, who might want to see multiple examples of the same instrument or take a comprehensive look at one maker or one company.

Banks, who has been with the museum for nearly 30 years, has research expertise in the C.G. Conn Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co., of Elkhart, Ind.

"Instruments are the main focus, but we are collecting the whole history of music," Banks said.