Friday, October 10, 2014

@ Museum of Musical Instruments, Brussels

by Christopher Brent Murray

Two hundred years ago this November, Antoine-Joseph Sax, called Adolphe, was born in Dinant. Today, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels, or MIM,<1> has devoted an entire floor of its complex to celebrating his bicentennial in an exhibition titled “SAX200.”

Adolphe Sax, 1844
after an engraving by Charles Baugniet
MIM, Brussels

Although Sax lived in Belgium from its foundation in 1830 until relocating to Paris in 1843, defining his nationality is a refreshingly delicate task, given that we was born during the Congress of Vienna. His case was briefly debated on the MusiSorbonne listserv (the Francophone equivalent of AMS-L) at the time of the call for papers for the international Sax conference held at the MIM in July 2014. Nicolas Meeùs offered the comfortable conclusion that Sax’s confusingly stateless status is, in fact, typically Belgian. (Claims of belgitude, are a sort of local sport, with past musical targets ranging from Josquin to Beethoven to Franck.) A part of Sax’s vast personal collection of musical instruments ended up in Belgium following an auction of his effects that resulted from his declaring bankruptcy. They form an important part of the MIM collection and have been supplemented here by numerous loans from outside institutions.

Sax is of course best remembered for creating the saxophone. Simply put, this was achieved (around 1840) by transforming the clarinet, with its wooden cylindrical bore, into a new instrument with a conical brass bore. Sax’s first great success, however, was the saxhorn, an instrument that changed the face of nineteenth-century military and amateur brass ensembles, and caused Sax no small amount of worry from jealous competitors. SAX200 crafts the portrait of an restlessly inventive man, a sort of musical Edison, difficult to imagine existing outside of the nineteenth century with its increasingly efficient factories, industrial exhibitions, and international patents aimed at protecting intellectual property.

Trombone with six valves
and seven bells, 1876
MIM, Brussels, 1288
Visitors to the exhibition are equipped with headsets (included with admission) that allow them to hear descriptions of the presented objects and iconography in a range of languages. Most interesting are the musical excerpts performed and recorded on a selection of the some 200 instruments on display, including exotic creations for use on stage in operas like Aïda and Sigurd. It is a pity that more of these were not, I suppose, in good enough condition to be played, because such recordings truly bring the display case to life. My personal favorite was the bizarre Swanee-Sax, a 1927 creation crossing the slide whistle and the saxophone. The instrument, with its timbre situated somewhere between that of a kazoo and a theremin, immediately transports the listener to a jazz-age nightclub.

The SAX200 exhibition runs until January 11, 2015, and is well “worth the detour” as the Michelin guide would say, especially as it is only a short train ride for those who might find themselves in Paris, London, or Amsterdam in the coming months. The museum’s entrance is housed in an art nouveau monument, the extravagant shell of the former “Old England” department store. Built in 1898, its vegetal filigree ornaments a forward-thinking iron-and-glass structure that makes the most of its view from the Mont des Arts. A rooftop restaurant-café makes for pleasant contemplation of the city below.

Museum of Musical Instruments, Brussels

Christopher Brent Murray is a postdoctoral chargé de recherches with the FRS-FNRS (Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique) at the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is also in charge of undegraduate analysis instruction.

<1>MIM (pronounced “meme”) results from the happy possibility of a common acronym in both French and Flemish: Musée des instruments de musique or Muziekinstrumentenmuseum.

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