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The Treasure Room

Historical Musical Instrument Collection of the Vassar College Department of Music

Housed in The George Sherman Dickinson Music Library

The Treasure Room

On the top floor of the Library is a museum which Dickinson named "The Treasure Room." This area of the library is significant not only for the special collections housed here but also, as Carol June Bradley has noted, because the Vassar Music Library Treasure Room was probably the first museum within a music library in the United States. [5] Here are located two important collections which Dickinson assembled to "bring into the range of experience of the student," [6] the Department of Music's Historical Musical Instrument Collection and the Music Library special collections.

A large percentage of the historical instrument collection was a gift in the late 1930's from the family of collector Reverend James Henry Darlington, Bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In an address entitled, "The Living Library," Dickinson lists what he believed to be the essential characteristics of the liberal arts music library. [7] In this address Dickinson advocates at least the purchase of a harpsichord and clavichord "when good reproductions may be had." The Treasure Room collection has both. The harpsichord, restored in 1989-1990, is one of the oldest playable harpsichords in the country, built in 1610 by Vincentio Pratensis.

In 1993 a collection of 90 musical instruments built by Dr. Henry James was presented to Vassar College. The collection, which is principally stringed instruments, represents the entire historical spectrum from ancient Egypt to the present day. Instruments on display in the Treasure Room from the James Collection show a select group and are rotated periodically. For additional information about instruments in the Historical Musical Instrument Collection or for a tour of the collection please contact the Department of Music, during the academic year.

Exhibition label texts by Laurence Libin, Frederick P. Rose Curator of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Used with permission.

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Trute Square Piano (London, 1781)

Trute Square Piano

Charles Trute built this petite, four-and-one-half-octave piano in London in 1781; it is his oldest known instrument and was probably made for a wealthy client. Trute's signature appears on the back of the inscribed nameboard. The elegant crossbanded case is enlivened by inlaid stripes, formerly dyed green, now faded. The separate stand is noteworthy for its fancy front apron, and the ivory and ebony keyboard has a delicate molding across the front. A lever to the left of the keyboard presses a mute against the strings; there is no separate control for the dampers attached to hinged arms above the strings. At the right side, a brass hitchpin plate, maybe added later, prevents the string tension from twisting the case. Trute immigrated to Philadelphia in about 1790 and died in Wilmington, Delaware, where he ended his days as an innkeeper.

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Albrecht Square Piano (ca. 1790)

Albrecht Square Piano

Charles Albrecht was one of the foremost piano makers of German descent in Philadelphia in the 1790's, when this five-octave, mahogany instrument was made. Attractively inscribed and decorated over the keyboard, it has two knee levers beneath, one to raise the dampers and the other to operate a louvered panel over the soundboard. Like the hinged lid panel on the contemporary Broadwood & Son piano also displayed here, this device permits limited dynamic control; however, no serious piano music requires such a gimmick, which was more a selling point than a musical necessity. Unlike Broadwood's factory, which virtually mass-produced standard models, Albrecht evidently custom-made pianos to suit his customers' wishes; no two of his extant instruments are quite alike, but all reveal the fine craftsmanship and tasteful design for which he is noted.

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Broadwood & Sons Square Piano (1796)

Broadwood & Sons Square Piano

Built in 1796 by the leading London firm of John Broadwood & Son, this five-and-one-half-octave piano bears labels giving maintenance instructions in English and French. Many pianos like this were exported to France after the Revolution, as well as to America where possession of a fashionable Broadwood signified one's elevated status and good taste. Broadwood was responsible for important innovations including the damper mechanism incorporated here, probably the subject of the patent claimed in the nameboard inscription. Though no damper pedal was provided, a pedal (now missing) lifted the small lid flap over the front of the soundboard, allowing some dynamic control after a note or chord was struck. This piano is said to have belonged to the Hon. Edmund Livingston of New York, who bought it in 1799 from John Jacob Astor, then an instrument importer. The piano has been much restored, and the iron hitchpin plate inside is not original.

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Chickering & Sons Clavichord (1909 reproduction)

Chickering & Sons Clavichord

Built in Boston in 1909 by Chickering & Sons piano company under supervision of Arnold Dolmetsch, a pioneer in recreating historic instruments, this five-octave clavichord is unfretted; that is, each tangent strikes its own pair of strings. Within the vermilion lid is a gilded motto in French that means, roughly, "Make love not war" (Literally, "Better make sweetness than violence"), referring to the dulcet quality of music. Although based on Baroque designs and incorporating traditional materials including ebony and ivory on the keys, the instrument sports two floral soundhole rosettes in art nouveau style. Dolmetsch's work, like his artist-designer friend William Morris', grew out of the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement; the painter Edward Burne-Jones was a member of their antiquarian circle.

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Giraffe Piano (Germany?, ca. 1830)

Giraffe Piano

So called because of its asymmetrical, curvaceous case, nearly eight feet tall, this Biedermeier-style upright piano with ornamental brass mounts must have been built in Germany about 1830; unfortunately its rectangular nameplate has been removed, so the maker is unknown. A fabric panel above the bone and ebony six-octave keyboard conceals the soundboard and strings; buttons on the panel disguise latches that hold the panel in place. Six wooden pedals formerly protruded from the base; four now remain. Besides operating dampers and mutes, these pedals controlled several percussion devices including a bell, which lent exotic color to popular music such as Turkish marches, much in vogue at the time. Intended to be placed against a parlour wall rather than on a stage, the piano presented its player's back to the room. The "giraffe" shape derives from that of a grand piano standing on end.

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Pratensis Harpsichord (Italy, 1610)

Pratensis Harpsichord

One of the oldest working keyboard instruments preserved outside Europe, this four-octave harpsichord was built near Florence, Italy, in 1610 by Vincentius Pratensis, according to an inscription inside. A second inscription giving an earlier date is a modern forgery. The harpsichord itself, delicately made of cypress wood with keys of boxwood and stained fruitwood and spruce soundboard, fits inside a protective, lidded outer case that was repainted in the nineteenth century. The keyboard, with short-octave bass (omitting seldom used accidentals for the sake of economy) governs two rows of crow-quilled jacks that pluck a single set of strings at different points to produce tonal contrast; by moving their racks slightly to the left or right, both rows of jacks can be employed separately or they can play simultaneously. This rare instrument was cleaned and restored in 1989-90. Another example by the same maker, also dated 1610, is in the collection of the University of Leipzig.

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Martin Harp (Paris, late 18th century)

Martin Harp

This lovely harp was constructed in Paris, probably in the late eighteenth century, by a builder named Martin who may also have made violins; a partially illegible inscription appears in a blue banner at the apex of the soundboard. The instrument has 39 strings and is equipped with a pedal-operated mechanism that can raise the pitch of each string one half step my means of rods and levers concealed in the fluted front pillar and gracefully curved neck. Each of the seven pedals controls a different note of the scale. The harp is lacquered and decorated with chinoiserie including three pairs of figures on the soundboard: from the top, an archer and falconer, two musicians, and a fisherwoman and netter. Floral wreaths surround groups of small soundholes, and the gilded scroll capital has carved floral ornaments.

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Clavichord (Germany, 1710)


This easily portable, four-octave clavichord of anonymous German workmanship is dated 1710 on the finely embossed paper front of each plumwood-covered natural key. Old marks inked on the neatly whittled key levers indicate the proper material (brass or iron) and gauge of the wire strings, which are struck by brass tangents embedded near the ends of the levers. Placement of the tangents determines the vibrating length of the strings. Most of the strings are "fretted," that is, struck by two adjacent tangents, giving two successive notes from each pair of strings; the lowest ten pairs are each struck by only one tangent. Clavichords sound very quiet and were often used for practicing and for private entertainment at home; this one, which retains two rare old spools of wire, was restored in 1989.

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Sewing-cabinet Piano (Austria?, ca. 1830)

Sewing-cabinet Piano

This charming rosewood sewing box and dressing case, cleaned and repaired in 1989, incorporates a high-pitched piano with four octaves of tiny keys. Probably made in Austria about 1830, it was imported and sold in Philadelphia by Sarah Hart & Son, proprietors of a furniture and `fancy' store. A shallow tray above the diagonal strings holds spools for thread and compartments for sewing materials; another removable tray rests above the keys, and a looking glass hinges inside the lid, which is inlaid on top with foliate scrollwork and musical instruments. A knee lever beneath the box raises the piano's dampers. The unusual pedestal design perhaps simulates bamboo. Pianos like this, meant for boudoirs, were playthings of girls in wealthy families.

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Steinway Square Piano (New York, ca. 1860)

Steinway Square Piano

Heinrich Steinweg (1797-1871) began building pianos in his native Germany before emigrating in 1850 to New York, where he changed his name to Henry Steinway and soon took his sons into partnership. Steinway & Sons, like Broadwood earlier in London, revolutionized piano manufacture, among other things adopting massive cast iron reinforcement that permitted the greater string tension, brilliance, and dynamic range demanded by Romantic music. In this rather plain, seven-octave piano, sold to Vassar College in 1865, the strings fan out on two levels across the pinstriped iron plate that was patented in 1859. A row of thirty holes through the bottom aligned beneath the bass keys indicates the former presence of a pedalboard like that of an organ. The two pedals centered beneath the case control the dampers and a mute.

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