How do you get porcelain to make sounds and musical instruments to tell stories?Article
“Porcelain and Music” is a program of events organized in an unusual collaboration between the Kunstgewerbemuseum and the Musikinstrumenten-Museum. Claudia Kanowski from the Kunstgewerbemuseum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Benedikt Brilmayer from the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung explain how the two fields are related and why it is such a fantastic idea to think about the connection more closely.
Ms. Kanowski and Mr. Brilmayer, what do a ceramics expert and a musicologist have in common?
Benedikt Brilmayer: Images of musical instruments are an important source of information in musicology, especially in the study of instruments. And instruments also occur in the field of ceramics – as part of porcelain figures. These are particularly exciting because the instruments are depicted in three dimensions, not in two dimensions as in paintings.
Claudia Kanowski: Musical instruments in general are also are branch of handicrafts, and are often of incredibly fine workmanship, with inlays. That’s one reason why I am very interested in the collection of musical instruments. If you look at the two collections in historical terms, by the way, you find common roots for arts and crafts and for the instruments. The Prussian Cabinet of Art and Curiosities contained musical instruments that were also present in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in its early days.
Violin, clavichord, and cello players. Porcelain group from Ludwigsburg, around 1766 © SPK / Friederike Schmidt
What exactly did you want to achieve with your project?
Kanowski: Our “Porcelain and Music” project centers on a series of events in both collections: in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) and in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Museum of Musical Instruments). To start with, five events are planned for this year, which are funded by the Kuratorium Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). Among them are guided tours, a family afternoon, and three concerts that each take place in both buildings. The series kicks off on May 23 with “ensemble voces berlin” in a concert of music spanning various periods from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. In addition, there are two instrumental concerts, featuring the very same instruments that can be seen in the porcelain objects. In all three concerts, the pieces of music performed come from the corresponding period.
Brilmayer: The synergy aspect is especially important to us: by linking the two collections, we want to give the visitor a closer view of the whole cultural environment within which the instruments or the porcelain objects were created. If you only visit one of the collections – ours for example – you only think of making music when you look at the musical instruments. It is not immediately apparent, for example, that lavishly decorated harpsichords were prestigious items of furniture in interiors, or what making music meant to people in a broader sense at the time. But if you then go into the Kunstgewerbemuseum and look at a picture of the same instrument and see how it was played, you gain a completely different awareness of it; you really broaden your perspective.
Kanowski: For art historians too, it is worth taking a look at the ‘other’ collection. The Rococo porcelain objects show aristocrats playing the violin, viola or cello, and it would be interesting for us to know what pieces of music would have been played. In this respect, the two collections complement each other perfectly. Furthermore, both collections have the problem that the objects must be kept behind glass in display cases, because they are very sensitive. You can’t simply take out an old violin or viola and play it, just as you can’t simply take a piece of porcelain out and look at it from all sides. To this extent, the content needs to be communicated actively. And that was exactly the starting point of our idea: you listen to music in front of the porcelain items and you go to the musical instruments knowing the historical context, because you have seen beforehand what it looks like when those particular instruments are played. That is why the events in the program take place in both buildings. To put it in a nutshell: we want the porcelain to make sounds and the musical instruments to tell stories.
The Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) is the oldest of its kind in Germany. It houses world-famous examples of European arts and crafts, including magnificent reliquaries made of gold, exquisite vases of glass and porcelain, finely embroidered textiles, and classic examples of modern industrial design.
The permanent and special exhibitions hosted by the museum can be seen at two locations in Berlin: at the Kulturforum near Potsdamer Platz and in the picturesque setting of Schloss Köpenick, which features masterpieces of interior design from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Website of the Kunstgewerbemuseum of the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
Ms. Kanowski, what is special about the porcelain and faience collection in the Kunstgewerbemuseum?
Kanowski: The collection of porcelain and faience from the Baroque and Rococo periods is an extensive one, which I have recently restructured in the museum. It comprises around a thousand objects from various European manufacturers. Although China was the birthplace of porcelain, the “white gold,” as it was called, experienced a kind of rebirth in Europe in the eighteenth century. In Europe, porcelain was first produced in Meissen in 1710. It was expensive and reserved for the wealthy and powerful, however, so at the same time, porcelain was imitated in faience, a manufactured material that had long been used in Europe. The porcelain and faience items in our collection are now presented according to themes – “from Asia to Europe,” tea, coffee, chocolate, dining culture, fashion, et cetera – and are no longer just arranged according to the manufactory or the technique. This makes them more easily accessible for non-specialists. Depictions of people playing music had an important role in Rococo porcelain art, be they aristocrats dressed according to the fashion of the time, shepherd figures, or allegories. We have around thirty objects on display that are about music.
Brilmayer: In fact, depictions of musical instruments can be found again and again – often relatively hidden. That’s the exciting thing.
Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung
The Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung is the largest nonuniversity research center for musicology in Germany. It is dedicated to historical and theoretical reflection on music and making it accessible to a wider public. In its Musikinstrumenten-Museum it collects instruments of the European classical music tradition from the 16th to the 21th century. Founded as early as 1888, the museum contains over 3.000 historical instruments and provides an ideal forum for hosting various events, from academic symposia to lecture recitals with Early Music performances on period instruments of the museum’s collection to interactive sound installations.
What about the Musikinstrumenten-Museum? Have you limited your selection for the project to a specific part of the collection?
Brilmayer: Actually, we’ve only selected instruments that can also be seen in porcelain, so that people can make direct comparisons. What is the difference between the way an instrument looks in porcelain and the way the original instrument looks? A one-to-one comparison often isn’t possible, so you have to add a little explanation because, for example, there are no surviving original instruments of the kind of violin that is shown in our porcelain. There is an enormous number of things to discover, nevertheless: both in the porcelain figures and in the musical instruments themselves. For example, the socio-cultural aspects become clear. That’s very interesting and it really broadens the perspective.
You mentioned “communication” earlier. What will visitors see and hear?
Brilmayer: In addition to the events, there will be many interactive elements for children and families. What the visitors see and hear are, for one thing, instruments that they would seldom or no longer experience in normal concert programs. For another thing, in the Kunstgewerbemuseum they can look at pictures of the instruments while hearing instrumental music from the corresponding period and region. This allows them to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the music culture of the time. We also cast light on the question of how music was made back then. The porcelain figures feature a wide range of different depictions, including the kind of musician who obviously belong to the aristocracy, but makes music outside the sphere of official obligations, as an intimate pursuit in his or her free time. And in the ‘Fulda group’, we have a small family that is shown making music together, so to speak a house concert by the nobility. Our series of events allows you to immerse yourself in the situation.
Bringing it all to life plays a big role. In fact, we often get complaints that the instruments are silent. There are reasons for that, of course, to do with conservation and restoration requirements. But just by pointing things out and explaining them, we can bring the objects to life for visitors. In fact, we have noticed that this can make groups of visitors interested in the other collection too.
And inspire a lasting interest in the two museums?
Kanowski: Exactly, that’s an important point: We want to motive people to become repeat visitors and to come several times. The permanent exhibitions remain, they don’t disappear after three months like the temporary exhibitions do. The Kulturforum in particular has an incredible wealth of valuable objects in the collections and permanent presentations, which can be activated by specific projects like ours, so that maybe visitors have a look around later on with their families and explore it further.
Brilmayer: People normally come to a museum with fixed expectations. If they don’t go on a guided tour and don’t really make use of the reading material, then what they learn often stays within the limits of these expectations. When you bring together two different collections, it is a perfect opportunity for making visitors aware that there are many things waiting to be discovered in museums, which they would not find by themselves.
When did you have the first idea for the project and how did the collaboration come about?
Kanowski: In fact, the project as a whole is related to the restructuring of the porcelain and faience collection in 2019, when I was preparing the concept for presenting it thematically. At that time, I noticed that certain aspects of porcelain overlap with a variety of other subject areas. When it came to music, I thought of the Musikinstrumenten-Museum. In Benedikt Brilmayer I immediately found an ally who supported the idea. We have now been able to turn the idea into reality, thanks to funding from the Kuratorium Preussischer Kulturbesitz.
Brilmayer: Interestingly, the first basic idea was that porcelain objects originated in Asia, as did many of the musical instruments depicted, except for the keyboard instruments, of course. That is a common root shared by these two forms of culture. So actually they aren’t really European in origin, but rather show how much cultural exchange was taking place around the globe many centuries ago. Each culture then took the ‘imported’ ideas and developed them further.
Kanowski: These are precisely the topics that we want to explore on family afternoons and in one of the concerts. Interestingly enough, the “Hamburger Ratsmusik” ensemble has, in its repertoire, a specially researched program of pieces relating to the subject of chinoiserie – meaning the imitation of Chinese products and styles – in eighteenth-century music. Of course, that fitted perfectly with what we had planned.
Your project is an example of greater cooperation between individual players at the Kulturforum. What opportunities do you see opening up for the location in the future?
Kanowski: I see enormous potential in the Kulturforum as a location because there are so many different cultural institutions situated close together.
Brilmayer: You don’t often get such a range of different collections in such close proximity, especially not ones as large as these. Even if, at first glance, you think that certain things don’t go together, you notice many similarities as soon as you start digging deeper. Many of our ideas only came when we took the time to walk through both the musical instrument museum and the porcelain collection. That’s how we learned from each other. For example, it wasn’t really clear to me that porcelain comes from Asia.
Kanowski: And for my part, I didn’t know that the guitar also originated in Asia.
Brilmayer: Through day-to-day work and your academic background, you usually end up with blinkers on – and deliberately taking them off can be a lot of fun! The people who have come on the tours so far have noticed this too. The potential is really huge.
Are there any ideas as to whether the project idea will be continued?
Brilmayer: We hope for a continuation in any case, but we haven’t yet talked about what it might look like in detail. For example, we really hope it will be possible to hold a family afternoon again.
And finally the question: do you have a favorite object, one that you have become especially fond of?
Kanowski: We both ended up choosing the same group, independently of one another. It consists of three figures made of porcelain in Ludwigsburg: a violinist, a clavichord player, and a cellist. Although they are obviously aristocrats, they are dressed casually and have let their stockings down – they are in “house dress” so to speak.
The figures are shown very lively and relaxed. They are playing the instruments in ways that you would never play them, but that just enhances the sense of light-hearted enjoyment and vitality, which in the Rococo period was reserved for a tiny section of society: the very same people who could also afford porcelain. Music was a very exclusive pastime. This group expresses that attitude to life so well that we both took these figures especially to heart.
Brilmayer: Musical education was very strict at that time, so the pupils would certainly have been taught not to play in the manner shown in the porcelain figures. All of the nobility, especially those in the higher ranks, had a musical education. It was part of growing up, like going to school is today. Music was an intellectual, after-work activity for aristocrats. And that is precisely what the ceramic modelers sought to express.
Kanowski: Exactly, for example the violinist has taken off his officer’s tunic. Perhaps he was even involved in military activity beforehand, because his rapier is lying on the floor. So he has just discharged his official duties and come home, then he picks up the violin and plays.
Brilmayer: That reminds me of something really special at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum: the flutes and a travel harpsichord that once belonged to Frederick the Great of Prussia. We know from his correspondence that he took the instruments with him on his military campaigns and played them – and immediately sent them back if they got damaged. In modern terms, it was really a kind of work-life balance. That is exactly the kind of story or anecdote that we will include in our event program for visitors to enjoy.