When I enter a museum I don’t expect to be given a one-on-one display of how the historic and valuable artefacts can be used. At the National Army Museum I don’t expect to be shown how an original Lee-Enfield rifle is cocked and fired. At the Dickens museum I didn’t expect to leaf through a first edition of Oliver Twist whilst cosying in Dicken’s own chair. Hell, I’ll be surprised if I see an old sewing machine going through the paces once I 101londonmuseums reaches Balham’s own museum to that particular object. However at the Royal Academy of Music museum I was treated to my own personal display on the various pianos and harpsichords, historic ones at that, courtesy of Aleksandr, a very friendly and helfpul student from the academy.
Aleksandar was at pains to remind me he didn’t really play the piano, as he effortlessly played scales and tunes, and was in fact a mere composer. He talked about stuff I didn’t really understand, like minims and octaves and things. I probably should have told him my musicianship extends to no more than grade zero trumpet (and it took me four years to get that far) plus a currently dormant career in Bishop Stortford and Broxbourne’s premier rap outfit. Anyway, his passion was enough to keep my interest and I was delighted to see and hear these instruments still carry out their true purpose delightfully.
I asked Aleks if there was always someone hear to carry out this function, to see if I was getting special service, he said there normally was, and that is what lifts the museum from ‘standard’ to ‘worth visiting’.
It’s a three floor museum and on each floor there are very well natured students to talk with enthusiasm or just welcome you. The ground floor is about the history of the academy, and also houses rotating exhibitions whilst music plays all the while. The very thing which was conspicuous by its absence when I visited #7 The Handel House Museum. The history of the academy is standardly interesting, founded in 1822 to promote music knowledge, it was originally a school for talented children with pre-existing musical prowess. Paying 5 guineas per year, the requirement was that:
“they must have received such previous instruction so as to be able to read and write with tolerable proficiency.”
So says an original advertisement in John Bull magazine. From its early days there were distinguished guests of the like of Mendelssohn and Liszt visiting the academy to mentor, a letter from Liszt describes his delight at the honour of being made an honorary member. As you would expect the students began to appear wherever there were top rate musicians in London, at the original run of “The Mikado”, for example, another the pianist Harriet Cohen seems to have inspired Vaughan Williams. In fact he dedicated a concerto to her.
The academy has come a long way since the days when masters had their own napkin rings to use at formal dinners. Nowadays it has its own record label and the likes of Elton John is a long standing patron. But don’t hold that against it, it does a lot of good, such as outreach work in schools and prisons.
So, with the historic bit and the piano bit done, that leaves one floor, with the string instrument bit. Lutes, a double bass and a number of violins of fantastic craftsmanship are on display – though not being played this time, given the fragility, value and stealabilty that’s quite understandable. Two of the violins are Stradivarius and very readable panels will explain why that makes them special. I’ll be honest I visited a while ago and forgot, so go and visit yourself to see why.
Considering the museum is a bonus to what is one of Britain’s great musical institutions, it is good. The three rooms are all spacious and uncluttered, allowing either a quick or lengthy visit according to your desire. And it is freeeeeee.
Location: The Royal Academy of Music York / Marylebone Road (It’s too prestigious to have a number)
Opening Times: 11.30am – 5.30 pm Monday – Friday, 112-4pm Saturday
Entry is Free.