Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

18th- and 19th-Century Musical Instrument Makers in the Archives: A Personal View

Academic journal article Fontes Artis Musicae

18th- and 19th-Century Musical Instrument Makers in the Archives: A Personal View

Article excerpt


'It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there's too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.' Jacques Derrida (2)

Archival research, as Derrida suggests, can be addictive. We drive ourselves to follow up every lead, to go off on every possible tangent and to trudge on to the end of all accessible roads. We build up a one-sided personal relationship with someone long dead, someone who cannot answer back except through the traces they have left behind. We in some sense control them through how we choose to interpret the information we find; we exhume people; we speak on their behalf. And yet we have little control over what we do find. Archives are unpredictable: what survives is rarely complete and usually fragmentary. The questions we bring determine what we look for; what we find determines our next question. As Hill states, 'Archival work is never the safe road, because we know not where it leads'. (3) But it's this sense of adventure, of exploring the unknown, of discovery, that makes it so compelling.

This paper discusses some of the archives available to those working on aspects of musical life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, particularly focussing on musical instrument making. As a result, it is London-centric, reflecting the positioning of this industry at the time. Although there were individuals based in provincial towns, the majority of firms were in London and even those who were elsewhere were very much focussed on the latest developments and trends emerging in the capital.

The significance of archival research to organology can be best understood when one realises that this is a relatively young academic area (4) that has hitherto largely relied on surviving musical instruments as its primary source of information when constructing biographies and chronologies. (5) Although this is undoubtedly an important resource, using instruments alone only brings to light the people whose names appear on those objects.

Archives, on the other hand, bring to light anyone who describes themselves or has been described by others as an instrument maker within the areas of society for which the sources were generated, thus giving a much fuller (albeit still incomplete) impression of the industry as a whole. The information held within archives, as well as giving us the names of previously unknown makers, enables us to make links between individuals and firms, to see how firms operated in terms of location, personnel and finances, and to build a picture of musical-instrument making businesses of different sizes and types.

Although archival research can be fruitful and exciting, researchers need to develop a fluidity of spelling, grammar and punctuation that may not come easily to all. This is important both in transcription and when using a search engine. Search terms need to be tried in any possible variant or mis-spelling: for example, the piano appears in many different ways including piano forte, piano fort, pianoforte, forte piano, fortepiano, piano, piana forte and even piannaforty. Clothes appear as cloathes; colour as color; and so on. There are words that have fallen out of general use, such as 'messuage' (a dwelling house with its outbuildings), and 'buck house' (the outhouse used for cleaning and dying) that appear regularly in certain types of document. In addition, the description of instrument maker Charles Pinto as a 'bachelor and a bastard deceased' could easily be misconstrued. (6) The further back in time one goes, the more extreme this gets with abbreviations being commonplace and knowledge of the protocols for each type of material being a necessity. …

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