Monday February 4 2019

The Britten-Pears Foundation recently took an exciting step forwards in sharing our collections, joining forces with MINIM, a national database describing historic musical instruments. MINIM is co-ordinated by the Royal College of Music, the Horniman Museum, The Royal Academy of Music and the University of Edinburgh, and brings together information about over two hundred collections of historic instruments, ranging from single items in stately homes to the huge collections, numbering in the thousands, of its co-ordinating bodies. Now, over thirty instruments held at the Red House have been described and in most cases illustrated on the MINIM website.

Taking part in a scheme such as this has clear advantages for researchers and curators: instruments that might be held in unexpected locations and might effectively be invisible are brought out into public view.  The project digs deeply into previously obscure collections: the most striking example is the National Trust for Scotland’s Canna House, on the island of Canna in the Inner Hebrides.  The house holds 27 historic instruments, more than one for every person living on the island!  Now our own collections form part of this huge pool of data, share in this visibility, and sit alongside similar instruments for comparison.

The Red House instruments now visible on MINIM include, of course, those central to Britten’s career: the pianos and violas, the latter including his childhood instrument and the one presented to him by Frank Bridge when he set off for the USA in 1939.

Frank Bridge’s viola

There are also the recorders that he and Pears played in the Aldeburgh Music Club: part of the story of the instrument’s revival in the twentieth century, driven in large part by Imogen Holst.

Britten and Pears’ recorders

And there is a surprising number of non-Western instruments, gathered by Britten and Pears on their travels, building a bridge between the Red House collections and those of a more explicitly ethnographic nature such as those at the Horniman Museum.  Importantly, items that might be a one-off in our holdings now sit beside similar instruments from around the country: the Sho, or Japanese pipes, with which Britten was presented on a visit to Tokyo, now sits alongside similar instruments in four other locations, making it available for comparison to scholars of Japanese music.

Japanese Sho

Similarly, the camel bells that hang by the Red House staircase (and whose ear-splitting jangle was unleashed in the early morning by Rostropovich whenever he stayed there) now sit alongside eleven other traditional Iranian instruments, including a similar bell – but a smaller and presumably quieter one – in the Horniman Museum.

Iranian Camel Bells

We’re delighted to have added our holdings to this important resource, bringing them to the attention of researchers and providing them with context that helps explain them.