Treasures of the Royal College of Music - The Musical Instrument Collection

The Museum of the Royal College of Music owns a collection of over 45,000 items, including one of the earliest and most relevant public collections of musical instruments available in the UK. This exhibition includes some of the highlights, while the actual gallery is being rebuilt as part of a major redevelopment project due to open to the public in early 2019.

Although its collections date back to the foundation of the institution, the Royal College of Music Museum was opened to the public in a purpose built gallery in 1970. This was refurbished in 2013 in collaboration with artist Hugo Dalton.

Clavicytherium (c. 1480) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Clavicytherium, anon., Southern Germany c.1480

This clavicytherium, or upright harpsichord, is over 540 years old, and it is the earliest surviving stringed keyboard instrument currently known. It was donated to the College in 1894 by George Donaldson, who purchased it from the Contarini Correr Collection in Venice, where the instrument had been since the mid 17th century. 

Clavicytherium, window detail, Anonymous, c. 1480, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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Clavicytherium (c. 1480) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Recording from the copy of the clavicytherium made by A.Burnett in 1970s

Due to its extremely fragile condition and old age, this instrument cannot be played, but an accurate replica was made was made in 1973 by Adlam Burnett, and it offers a reliable example of what the instrument must have sounded like shortly after it was made.

Harpsichord by Alessandro Trasuntino (1531) by Alessandro TrasuntinoRoyal College of Music

Harpsichord, Alessandro Trasuntino, Venice 1531

Only fifteen harpsichords survive in the world from the first half of the 16th century. This is one of the earliest, made in Venice in 1531 by Alessandro Transuntino, the founder of a workshop that was active for over a century through his descendants.The rich decorations and the use of ivory - a particularly rare and expensive material at that time - are typical of the Venetian production of this period, when the city was establishing itself as one of the musical capitals of Europe. 

According to the Italian tradition, the instrument is very light (less than 20kg) and built out of very thin wooden boards. It rests inside an external and independent protective case that is richly decorated in the typical late 16th century Venetian style. However, scientific analysis suggests that this decoration might be a later addition.

Guitar by Belchior Dias (1581) by Belchior DiasRoyal College of Music

Guitar, Belchior Dias, Lisbon 1581

The earliest music for an instrument called 'guitar' was published in 1546 in Spain. This instrument was made only a few years later and is the earliest guitars known to survive today. It was made in Lisbon in the year when Portugal was conquered by Philip II of Spain, and its materials - ivory and tropical wood - reflect the extension and variety of the Spanish territory at that time.

Pegbox of guitar by Belchior Dias, Belchior Dias, 1581, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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Very little is known of the life of this maker and only a few more of his instruments survive. However, an inventory of the Medici court dated 1700 describes in detail an instrument identical to this one, and there is reason to believe that this guitar belonged at that time to Grand Prince Ferdinando, before leaving Florence in 1777.

Virginal by Giovanni Celestini (1593) by Giovanni CelestiniRoyal College of Music

Virginal, Giovanni Celestini, Venice 1593

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, musical instruments acquire a new role in society and art and makers strive to create objects that not only sound beautifully, but are at least as pleasing to the eye. This virginal made in Venice at the end of the 16th century is a fitting example, with precious decorations and painted scenes portraying different moments in the myth of Orpheus.

Detail of virginal by Giovanni Celestini - Orpheus tames the beasts, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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According to the myth, as reported by Ovidius, the music that Orpheus played on his lyre was so beautiful that it tamed the beasts and made rocks weep. Here he is portrayed surrounded by a lion, a unicorn, an ostrich and a rabbit, while he plays on a 'lira da braccio'.

Chitarrone, RCM 26 (1608) by Magnus TieffenbruckerRoyal College of Music

Chitarrone, Magnus Tieffenbrucker, Venice 1608

Many German makers moved from Bavaria to Italy between the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and set up workshops specializing in the most beautiful stringed instruments, particularly lutes and guitars. This instrument is a beautifully preserved chitarrone, an instrument much appreciated in the Baroque for its extension in the bass.

Detail of chitarrone by Magnus Tieffenbrucker, Magnus Tieffenbrucker, 1608, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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Although similar to a lute, the chitarrone had a set of extra strings, over 2 metres long, attached to an extension of the neck in order to produce bass notes to support the harmony. Thanks to this solution it was particularly valued to accompany the voice, other instruments, and small ensembles.

Guitar by Joachim Tielke (1700/1710) by Joachim TielkeRoyal College of Music

Guitar, Joachim Tielke, Hamburg c.1684

Joachim Tielke was active in Hamburg for almost fifty years between the 17th and 18th centuries, and around 100 of his instruments survive (a very large number, probably due to the precious materials and decorations of many of them). He specialized in stringed instruments, often embellishing them with ivory, tortoiseshell, tropical woods, and mother of pearl. This guitar is made out of ebony and ivory, and has a twin in 'inverted colors and materials' in a collection in Weimar, Klassik Stiftung.

Hamburger cithrinchen, Joachim Tielke, 1676, From the collection of: Royal College of Music
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Tielke was also considered to be the inventor of the Cithrinchen, a bell-shaped instrument with metal strings which became particularly popular in the region of Hamburg. Although it is now known that other contemporary makers were making this instrument, Tielke's are the most visually remarkable.
This is the earliest surviving Cithrinchen, now over 340 years old.

Viols by Barak Norman, RCM 46 and 937 by Barak NormanRoyal College of Music

Viols, collection of Dietrich Kessler, London c.1590-1692

Between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, London gained international reputation as a centre of excellence in viol-making. This instrument, with six gut strings played with a bow, was then gaining particular success and remained popular in England well into the 18th century, much longer than the rest of Europe.

Bass viol (circa 1680) by Richard MearesRoyal College of Music

Listen to the division viol

Dietrich Kessler, a maker and restorer who died in 2006, collected and restored some of the most remarkable viols from the key makers of the early British tradition including Henry Jaye, John Rose, Richard Meares, and Barak Norman. His wife Jane donated the instruments to the Royal College of Music in 2009 for them to be used by the students and professors.

PochettesRoyal College of Music


These little instruments were often used by dance masters who transported them in specially designed pockets in their coats, hence their name. Their sound, high-pitched and shrill, did not lend itself to the development of specific repertoire, but the instrument had a certain success particularly in France during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Detail of pochette scroll, RCM 55 (17th century) by AnonymousRoyal College of Music

Audio example of a pochette

The lack of musical subtlety of the pochette was often compensated by the use of precious materials and elaborate decorations, suitable for the upper-class dancing society of the time.

Clarinet (in D) by Georg Heinrich Scherer (circa 1750) by Georg Heinrich SchererRoyal College of Music

Clarinet in D, Georg Henrich Scherer, Butzbach c.1740

The clarinet appears to have been invented around the year 1700 in Nuremberg. Members of the Scherer family, several of which were woodwind makers, were among the first to produce and sell these instruments. This one, entirely in ivory, is one of the eight surviving instruments by this maker, and one of the thirty earliest surviving clarinets in the world.

Grand piano by John Broadwood & Sons (1799) by John Broadwood & SonsRoyal College of Music

Grand piano, John Broadwood, London 1799

Although the piano was invented in Florence in the year 1700, it took many decades before this instrument became popular and gradually replaced the harpsichord. A key moment in this process was represented by the activity of John Broadwood, the maker of this instrument, who applied modern making processes to the construction of its very complex action, therefore creating instruments that were reliable and accurately built, but at the same time relatively affordable.

Nameboard of grand piano by John Broadwood & Sons (1799) by John Broadwood & SonsRoyal College of Music

Audio example of the piano

This instrument was made in London in 1799, at the time when the early sonatas by Beethoven and the late ones by Haydn were composed. Haydn had a very similar instrument in his room at the time of his first visit to London in 1791.

Credits: Story

Texts: Gabriele Rossi Rognoni
Photos: Saul Peckham and others
Digital implementation: Richard Martin

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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