ICOM CIMCIM Paper Sweelinck Collection

Presentation at the ICOM CIMCIM conference August 23-31 2014 in the Nordic Countries

“Do we need more square pianos in the collection ?”

Dear friends, good morning!

[start of video Shuann Chai flash mob concert]

What you see and hear here is a somewhat unorthodox performance by Shuan Chai of Beethoven’s Moonshine Sonata on a Broadwood 1804 Square from our collection in a flash mob concert on the first bridge of the so-called “Seven Bridges” around the corner of our museum. This marked the start of our fortepiano festival in October last year. In case, it would have rained, we would have done it in the bicycle go-through under the Rijksmuseum at the place were fidlers beg for some money in return for a tune; Wim Pijbes, the director gave his blessings for that. The message of this guerrilla marketing action was “The Sweelinck Collection will be kicked on the street, if we do not find suitable places for our historic instruments”. It made the front page of several national newspapers, we were interviewed on Radio 1 and we got many positive reactions: it certainly created both public and political awareness for our collection.

Dear colleagues, I have to excuse myself: I am not a historian, nor a musicologist. I am just an economist and I do not even play any instrument: unfortunately, the pressure of my mother to take my piano lessons seriously failed when I went to high school. But my mother was a pianist and my father a rather famous collector of mainly Dutch early porcelains and I was brought-up in a house, which rather had the look of a small house museum. Some 25 years ago, we founded the historic house museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis in Amsterdam, using his collection. So I have some collector’s genes in my blood.

Today, our museum boosts a growing number of some 40.000 visitors per annum, who appreciate visiting a house where they experience how the rich inhabitants lived, how these people socially entertained – indeed using porcelain cups to drink coffee from their plantations based on black slave labour – and how the women were allowed to perform the new compositions of revolutionary composers on the square pianos. In short, we present our porcelains, as well as our fortepianos, as part of the whole story to give an understanding of the social life in a grand canal-house in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. An important detail: where possible, we also give the visitors an opportunity to taste food from this period in history, as well as to listen to its music. In short, we give a comprehensive experience on how the Geelvinck family lived and entertained.

Since some seven years now, the historic squares and fortepianos on view have become the unique selling point of our house museum. We use the history of the house and its inhabitants – especially the woman – to tell indirectly the educative story. Thus, we strive to present indirectly the importance of the square piano within the context of the social history of the house. And we hope that visitor will be triggered to return for a chamber concert to hear these instruments in reality. Or to take a guided music tour along the historic pianos.

After this introduction, we now come to the Sweelinck Collection itself. In the early ‘70ties of last century, the music lector, restorer and collector Rien Hasselaar in Amsterdam formed an extensive collection of historic pianofortes for professional education. In 1991, the Sweelinck Museum, as part of the Sweelinck Conservatory of Amsterdam, opened its doors. Besides the Hasselaar Collection, it contained several other collections, partly on loan from other museums, partly from private collectors. The aim of this museum was purely educational in connection with the conservatory. In 2000, Rien Haselaar, being also the main curator of the museum, passed away unexpectedly. In the next years, the museum came under heavy financial pressure due to municipal budget cuts and, as the conservatory moved to a new, modern building in 2007, the collection was for most part stowed away in storages; the instruments on loan being returned to its owners. Still, with over 80 historic pianos, covering nearly the whole range of early Dutch piano builders, the remaining collection is, within its kind, the largest in the Netherlands; over half of it is in the process for being listed as national heritage.

Here I have to mention, that, since the late nineties, the collection is owned by a trust foundation. By its statute, the main aim of the trust foundation is that the collection should be used for educational purposes. The historic instruments should be made available for professional concert performances and for conservatory students to gain experience. Part of the members of the board are connected to the Conservatory of Amsterdam, such as Richard Egarr, Willem Brons and Stanley Hoogland. After the conservatory had moved to its new premises, only five out of the original 120 instruments remained at the conservatory.

Since 2004, our museum, Museum Geelvinck gradually got involved with the Sweelinck Collection. Our museum shows the life in a grand canal-mansion during the extensive 18th Century and the first part of the 19th Century. Chamber music and especially the pianoforte being an integral part of this, thus it became a home for a small part of the collection. From one thing came another. I was asked to join the board of the trust foundation for the Sweelinck Collection. Then we developed a plan for it, because it happened that this foundation was near to being completely broke and was not even able to pay for the storage of the collection. In fact, the state storage, where the foundation had been able to store, free of charge, about half of the collection – the listed national heritage part – was being closed as a result of significant government cuts in the national budget for culture and heritage. We were asked to remove the collection within about four months and at that moment we did not have a new storage, nor did we have the funds to rent other storage. Under these rather dear circumstances, our museum took over the actual management of the collection.

Now, I can fill the rest of my time to talk about how difficult it all was:

– Gemeentemuseum The Hague: you have heard the story already previously at this conference.

– Real heavy government budget cuts on music, theatre, museums and cultural heritage; think of 25% or more, leading to the closure of the Dutch Music Centre, the Dutch Theatre Institute, several orchestras, ensembles, museums etc., and many others being under severe financial pressure or being partly dismantled.

The only remaining music museum in the Netherlands was Museum Vosbergen up in the North of our country, a modest private museum, passionately managed by an elderly couple. The Galpin Society visited it in 2009.

The good news is, that the pendulum is, as I see it, in these difficult times starting with its upswing again. The best news being the new effort by the Rijksmuseum, which its new curator, Giovanni di Stefano, already told you about.

After my predecessor, Frans Wyttema, had managed to secure the Sweelinck collection – the Queen presented him a really important award for that, the Zilveren Anjer – we had to find a way to unlock the collection for the general public. It was a sleeping beauty. Now there had been already studies for a national music museum in which the main collections of musical instruments in the Netherlands should find a place. Some thirty years ago, the Gemeentemuseum of The Hague was to have this role, but as you have already heard earlier in the conference, this project has not matured. The Foundation National Music Museum has produced a report in 2010, which estimated the costs of such a new museum at about € 23 million. Another effort for a National Piano Museum came to a smaller estimated initial amount, but still politically unacceptable in the current time frame of economical crisis. In addition, none of these proposals had economically viable business plans in the sense that they would be self-sufficient after the initial investment.

So we had to create both public and political awareness, or as my predecessor, a lawyer by profession, said: “Let the instruments speak for themselves to advocate the relevance for their existence.”

From 2005, we started weekly chamber concerts in our museum; last year we had over 60 concerts.

And four years ago we started a festival to create more public awareness; this year it contains some 20 concerts by Richard Egarr, Michael Tsalka, Bart van Oort, Willem Brons etc. And also a competition to stimulate young professional fortepianists. And we have the Day of the Squares and Clavichors, including master-classes and also a square piano competition, a discussion forum on new trends in early music practices and a discussion forum on the future of early keyboard collections: Göran Grahn, director of The Nydahl Collection, and we also will bring the results of this CIMCIM conference.

The overall theme of our festival is “pianos with character, stories around music”. As was remarked already earlier in this conference: many of classical music public have hardly any knowledge about music history, let alone about the instruments. In fact they are used to hearing Beethoven on a modern Steinway grand and would not listen to what they consider “an old piano”, “an antique”. As a museum, we know that people are attracted by stories. So, we want to tell these stories and we trigger them by the idea to listen to “the real thing”. But is still is a matter of making the public aware. So we make use unorthodox actions to get to the front page, such as, the Dutch premiere of “allegro molto” by Mozart, a piece, which was unearthed after over two centuries being a sleeping beauty, played on a Buntebart and Sievers square. We also recover in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam “forgotten composers”. And thus we try to make the news and get public attention.

To my mind, it is very important that we include in our festival contemporary music, showing that the historic instrument has its own individuality, that it is a musical instrument in its own right next to the modern piano. So we have for instance Rembrandt Freirichs performing together with Richard Egarr: Dussek next to jazz on fortepiano and cultural cross-overs with late 18th Century Persian and Arabic tunes on fortepiano.

And we have in the festival an international competition for these new compositions on squares, e.g. square piano combined together with laptop or with koto, just to name a few. These have their premiers during the festival: this is already three years really successful. Thus, we want to link in the fortepiano much stronger with the recent past and present music formats. In this respect, you can also view our strategy to add 20th century descendants of the fortepiano, such as the pianet, to our collection. By the way, this is also in line with the intentions of the Conservatory of Amsterdam to extend their early keyboard curriculum well into the 20th Century.

And then our plan for taking the squares and other historic pianos out of storage. The government cuts in the national cultural and heritage budgets had brought about that quite a few museums started to develop events to attract more visitor turnover. For instance, historic house museums encourage chamber concerts. Many musicians and small ensembles are happy to fill in this demand, because they also are under severe financial pressure. And the local public loves these concerts in historic houses. However, the square pianos and fortepianos, which used to be a common feature of the music rooms in these houses, have over the years, often due to neglect or maltreatment, long been removed. Combine this with our view, that the fortepianos could best be showed to the public in their natural habitat, so in music rooms of historic houses, and the solution appears logical as well as simple. We unlock the Sweelinck Collection to the public by giving pianofortes and squares, now still in storage, on loan to historic houses, where they will be on public view and, in addition, they would be used for public chamber concerts by professional musicians several times a year.

Obviously, the trust foundation of the Sweelinck Collection did not want the collection to fall apart, but this can easily be avoided by presenting the collection as a whole on the museum website. The digital presentation will show each of the instruments, and, whenever possible, each will have a sound sample. This could be linked on to MIMO. It goes without saying, that the digital presentation of the collection will also explain the chronological development of the technical mechanism and, in addition, it will tell the stories of the Dutch and foreign piano builders. Last, but not least, it will give an overview of the historic houses, where the instruments are on view, and, connected to this, an agenda of the scheduled chamber concerts in these historic houses, so when you can hear them being performed on. When we put out the word for this project and stirred the public media, within months we had over 30 candidates, this means historic houses ready to adopt a fortepiano or square for chamber concerts.

So where do we stand now?
With financial support of the conservatory, we created a new dependance of our museum not far from the conservatory in the basement of a redundant church. In this newly refurbished place, we installed three practice rooms for conservatory students. We started to use the place also for doing the necessary inventory research on each of the instruments. So far, we were able to locate nearly half of the collection in this new dependance. In the main hall of this former church, we can organize concerts and here we have the larger concerts of our festival for historic pianofortes. In fact, we also have hopes to be able to use the oldest concert hall in the Netherlands – it dates back to 1787 – and that is the reason, why I have to be back in Amsterdam already on Thursday afternoon: we have to present our plans to the municipality.

Half of the instruments are still stored in a temporary provisional storage place in the countryside, which we were able to arrange free of charge. Here we brought together nearly all the instruments, in the first place because we had to empty the previous storage places. This turned-out to be actually a blessing is disguise, because in this temporary storage we were able to start the inventory research. The inventory research should result in distinguishing between several quality levels. This will help us to make the necessary choices we have to make, which you can see in this figure.

Extremely important for us is to work together with other museums and institutions. Already we cooperate with the conservatories and with the University of Amsterdam. Very important for us is to collaborate with the Rijksmuseum on many aspects. And in our turn, we share our knowhow with museums and private collectors, who only hold maybe one or two instruments in the attic and have no idea how to handle these. Our collection is not limited to Dutch instruments and even if it was, quite a few Dutch piano dealers in fact sold instruments made abroad as their own. So collaboration with the major musical instrument museums abroad is a must. We, as a modest collection compared to some of us, are very happy working together with for instance Cité de la Musique, Glinka Museum, Germanisches National Museum, Horniman, Friends of the Square Piano at Finchcocks etc. and in fact with all of you.

Concerning our experience so far with instruments on loans to house museums, now three squares on loan.
Very important is that you keep total control on the instruments on loan. Our museum decides who may perform on the instrument. We also provide a tuning service, checking climate control etc. We have to be very strict.

To conclude: it is already mentioned before during this conference, but especially square pianos are under considerable risk of ending in the hands of creative art dealers as side tables for cooling whiskey. I rather rescue squares, even to make them sleeping beauties. However, the part solution of placing otherwise long-term stored historic pianos on loan at historic house museums, is viable, both from an economical and a heritage conservation point of view. It stimulates the visitor to see and hear the instrument in its historic context and therefor to get a better understanding of the instrument in history and potentially also starts to like listening to music being performed on historic pianos. In addition, it stimulates living immaterial cultural heritage, ranging from conservatory students learning to perform on or in ensembles with these instruments, up to tuners, restorers and builders of replica instruments. And, last but not least, it stimulates the awareness of the heritage value of these historic instruments with the general public, as well as the potential for these characteristic instruments with composers and professional musicians today. Public and political awareness of the importance of historic instruments is essential for keeping our collections alive. By working together and only by working together, we can activate this.

Coming to our original question: do we need more squares in the collection? Our answer is, yes we do! The concept, which we have developed, makes that adding instruments to our collection does not lead to significant extra costs. We are not the Rijksmuseum and this gives us more flexibility, sort of in between the “high-level” museum and the private collector. We are the rescue team for historic pianos, the pet shelter for squares, which are usually, though not always, donated to us. In the past two years we have added six historic pianos to our collection, including probably the oldest still existing extended Dutch built square piano.

dr.h.c. J.A.W. Buisman, 27th August 2014, Turku (Finland)