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History of the collection

The Collection of Historic Musical Instruments can look back on a tradition that spans over four centuries. Archduke Ferdinand II set up his collections at Ambras Castle prior to the death of his wife Philippine Welser in 1580. They were viewed as being among the richest and most valuable collections of the late Renaissance, and encompassed a library, an Armoury and a Chamber of Art and Curiosities. The objects of the Art Chamber consist of coins, works of goldsmithery, bronze figures, clocks and a discriminatingly chosen collection of musical instruments. The lion’s share of the musical instruments consisted of elaborately worked pieces that were specifically dedicated to the art and music-loving Tirolean ruler. In 1596, following the death of Archduke Ferdinand II, the collection of the Chamber of Art and Curiosities was documented in a detailed inventory. This makes it possible for us to trace the history of many items back to the collection’s formation. Over the centuries that followed, the Ambras Collection remained in Innsbruck until the situation became dangerous due to the Napoleonic Wars, leading to the objects’ finally being brought to Vienna in 1806. From 1814 onward, this collection was displayed at the Lower Belvedere.

The second core group in the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments consists of objects dating back to the late Italian Renaissance and the early baroque period. These objects are here thanks to the musical interests of the Obizzi family, which took up residence at Catajo Castle near Padua shortly after the year 1000. Under Pio Enea II, born in 1592, there began a surge of cultural activity which particularly involved the areas of music and theatre. Pio Enea had a theatre built with sixteen boxes, two galleries and an excellently equipped stage. He simultaneously expanded his collection of music and musical instruments. While the collection interest in Ambras centred primarily on unique collector’s items, the instruments in the collection of Catajo Palace were intended for practical use. The instruments of this group are typical of the transition period between the late Renaissance and early baroque. Family-related events were responsible for the transfer of the Obizzi Collection to Vienna in 1870, where it was displayed at Palais Modena for a time. In 1914, the Obizzi items were taken over by the Imperial Collections, which created the opportunity of bringing them together with the Ambras items to form a unified collection of early musical instruments. Part of this new collection, which by then encompassed over 400 instruments, was displayed starting in 1939 at Palais Pallavicini.

This period also saw the first in-house concerts—billed as "Hausmusiken"—take place, concerts which included some of the items from the collection. In order to complete the preliminary work necessary for such demonstrations, a restoration workshop was set up. The focus of the collection's expansion during this period was on the area of the Viennese fortepiano, a category of instruments which has since claimed a central position with regard to both quantity and quality. After a period of closure necessitated by the war, during which the collection stored outside Vienna, the spring of 1947 saw the new presentation of the collection in the rooms of the Neue Burg. Following a modest beginning, in which the development of keyboard instruments was demonstrated in one room, further rooms were set up. After several years, a full range of instruments was finally on display. This process was completed in 1964.

Deficiencies with regard to technical and climatic conditions forced deep-reaching renovations and alterations—requiring temporary closure of the collection—in 1988. In setting up the collection again in 1993, the concept pursued took a chronological approach to music history. Each of the twelve rooms is now dedicated either to an era of music history or to a musical personality. This concept allows the presentation both of ensembles of related instruments from the most diverse instrumental families and of typical forms of music making.

In the period since the 1980s, the collection has been expanded by a further 400 items. Particularly noteworthy are the four stringed instruments by Jacob Stainer and Giovanni Battista Grancino donated in 2003/04 by Dr. Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod, as well as the high-profile loans of the violins “The Sunrise” and “Ex Hellier” by Antonio Stradivari together with the violin “Ex Ebersholt, Ex Menuhin,” which was on display until April 2008. These instruments represent a special attraction for visitors.

The audio guide, produced in 2001, takes exhibition visitors through the display collection in several languages, explaining organological details, affording insights into Austrian musical history and offering numerous listening examples related to the historical instruments on display.

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