Musical instruments of all eras exhibited in former church

Czech Museum of Music

A violin made in the 17th century by the famous Italian violin-maker Nicolaus Amati, and many other outstanding musical instruments are part of the collection at the Czech Museum of Music. The museum was reopened in December at a new location - in a beautifully reconstructed old Palace in Karmelitska Street in Prague's Mala Strana district.

Even though the main attraction for visitors is the museum's large collection of musical instruments, the unusual architecture of the old palace with a large atrium in the middle, strikes you straight away as you enter the building. As the museum director Eva Paulova says, the palace itself has a very interesting history.

"It was rebuilt from a former church. The church was built in the 17th century to designs by a remarkable Italian architect Francesco Caratti. But it did not serve its purpose for long. As far back as the religious reforms of Josef II at the end of the 18th century, the Dominican monastery was dissolved. The church was deconsecrated and the building then served all sorts of secular purposes."

The palace was first used as Prague's main post office, later turned into military hospital, and than police barracks. Since 1948 the property has been the headquarters of State Central Archives.

"The large space of its great court was known only to archive researchers. The building was unfortunately in very bad condition, so hardly anybody could see today's magnificent atrium in the old yard. But the successful renovation has brought the building back to life and presented to the public an outstanding but little-known place in old Prague."

The large central atrium of the palace is surrounded by four floors with halls used for different purposes. Whereas on the ground floor you'll find only temporary exhibitions, the first and second floor offers a large collection of musical instruments from different historical periods.

But as Eva Paulova points out, even though the museum has now found a new home for its collections, the institution itself has a long tradition.

"The history of the Museum of Music is as long as the history of its mother institution - the National Museum, which as early as 1818, when it was founded, started to collect items related to history of music; such as scores, pictures and above all musical instruments. Only later in 1946 was a separate Department of Music established in the Velkoprevorsky Palace, which also hosted the museum's collection of musical instruments. But later we had to return the palace when it was returned to its pre-communist owners, so we are glad that we've now found a new place in Mala Strana, where we can present the musical instruments to visitors."

I asked musicologist and co-author of the exhibition Bohuslav Cizek to accompany me through the collections of musical instruments and comment on some of the most interesting pieces.

The first room we stopped at presented old wooden wind instruments, some of them resembled big recorders.

"These are wooden wind instruments from the sixteenth century, which were very fashionable at the time, but they disappeared in the baroque era, because they were overcome by more modern types. What you see here is a collection of so-called 'bombards' and windcap shawms. We call this collection the Rosenberg band - as it comes from the properties of the Rosenberg family in South Bohemia. They were basically forgotten and not rediscovered until the beginning of the 19th century. The National Museum brought them back to life."

The museum also owns a great collection of old string instruments - some of them - like lutes or zithers are not used in contemporary music anymore, but you will find violins or violas in every symphonic orchestra.

"Right now we are in a room with violins and other string instruments made by world masters. Families like Amati, Stradivari or Guarneri were the best known in the famous Cremona violin-making school. The violin in front of us here dates back to about 1650, it is beautifully inlaid and decorated. We have tested them, and even recorded on CD, and their sound is still brilliant."

In another hall you will see a number of old keyboard instruments. The sound of the early harpsichords and the various types of old organs is quite different from the piano.

"The little table that you see over there is a so called 'regal', an old sort of organ with reed-pipes. It has a very distinct sound - a kind of bleating - very penetrating. That was the aesthetic of the time - the Renaissance. You will not hear this kind of tone from the newer instruments."

But it's not only centuries old instruments that surprise you with their sound. The quarter-tone grand piano from the 1920's has a very special sound.

"This piano is used even today for playing special music from the first third of 20th century. In Czechoslovakia, Alois Haba was the master of this kind of music. For which he needed a special piano with quarter-tones or even sixth-tones. He was very persistent, so he found a piano maker - the Forster company - to make such a piano. There were only two ever made. One of them disappeared somewhere in Egypt before the war, so this is the only existing example of a quarter-tone grand piano."

But you will find a number of even newer instruments in the museum; among them is for example manual synthesiser from the Prague Radio & Television Research Institute, made in 1967.

Well here - in the second half of the 20th century - we may end our tour through the exhibition named "Man-Instrument-Music". But it is not only musical instruments that you can find in the beautiful palace which hosts the museum of music. Apart from contemporary exhibitions or occasional concerts you may like to visit the voluminous library and sound archives on the third floor. The museum also plans to open a café and another concert hall. So no matter whether you live in Prague or you are just visiting the city, don't forget to put the Museum of Music on your sightseeing list.