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Viennese Museum Curator Preserves History of Sound: The Kunsthistorisches Museum

Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum contains treasures of the great composers. For classical music lovers, curator Gerhard Stradner has created a museum like no other.

Dr. Gerhard Stradner, Curator of the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum at the Neue Burg, has had a tremendous impact in the music world.

Professor Stradner, who joined the Kunsthistorisches Museum as the collection's Director in 1981, imbues the collection with a substance and vitality that holds the interest of anyone who experiences it. In keeping with his character, he makes a subtle but very important contribution to the musical history of Austria generally and of Vienna specifically - and, by extension, to the musical world at large.

He presides over an assemblage of instruments, chronologically displayed and many in playable condition, that are not mere antiques but which literally have direct historic connections.

His acquisition for the Museum of historic keyboard instruments provides an essential link in a chain of composers reaching as far back as Haydn. The collection includes instruments owned or played by a mouth-watering roster of "blue chip" composers, including Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, Liszt, Schubert, one whose ownership is attributed to Haydn, and a J.B.Streicher piano played by Clara Schumann for the consecration of the Brahms Saal at Vienna's great concert hall, the Musikverein. (A similar Streicher grand piano was for many years in Brahms' Karlsgasse 4 apartment in Vienna; the still-privately-owned instrument was exhibited at the Brahms Festival in Mürzzuschlag in Sept.1996). Also in the Kunsthistorisches Museum's collection is the oldest Bösendorfer piano (Tafelklavier) in existence, made in 1828; a series of Graf pianos, one with mother-of-pearl keys; and an Anton Walter Hammerklavier with knee levers, similar to the instrument Carl Czerny saw in Beethoven's Tiefergraben residence in Vienna. Also displayed is the earliest known oil portrait of Schubert, a painting Dr. Stradner acquired in the USA.

Mahler's massive jet-black grand piano, its size befitting the magnitude of his symphonies, was made by Julius Blüthner of Leipzig in 1902 and has a surprisingly smooth and mellow tone. It was donated in 1948 by Mahler's sculptress daughter, Anna. Schumann's Viennese Graf Flügel was in his workroom at Bilkerstrasse 15 in Düsseldorf, and is the very instrument the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms played when he first visited the Schumanns in October, 1853. Also in the collection is a Viennese Walter & Sohn table-piano, so-called because of its configuration, that was not owned but often played by literally poor Schubert. This instrument, and some others in the collection, is on loan from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.

The collection's oldest-object is a prehistoric bone flute about 16,000 years old.

Visitors from other countries and cultures have approached Dr. Stradner with serious requests to buy a composer's piano. "Money plays no role," they assured him. His reply, polite and sound but disappointing, was that the Museum by definition is not an antique instrument shop and that its holdings are not for sale.

To say Prof. Stradner has made important contributions to his field of expertise would be understatement epitomized, and his achievements give new significance to the word credentials. His numerous writings, encompassing dissertations on historical instruments and related matters, have been translated into various languages including English, Italian, French and even Japanese. Anyone can report facts, but Dr. Stradner's aim is to share available information while telling a fascinating story in an intriguing way, to offer not just the shadow but the substance of the subject. He contributed to the brochure that accompanies the museum's Klangführer CD recording; the project took an entire year and offers a sonic sampling of some of the collection's instruments.

Music runs in the Stradner family. Dr. Stradner's wife Friederike, is a flautist and music teacher. Their daughter, Agnes, is a violinist and studied in Detmold, Germany, where the young Johannes Brahms once directed a ladies' choir; she is married to a cellist and lives in Vienna. Their son, Christoph, is a solo cellist for the NiederÖsterreichisches Tönkunstler Orchestra, and has performed at Vienna's Musikverein.

Born in Klosterneuburg, Austria, Dr. Stradner first studied mathematics and geometry, but music ultimately chose him as much as he chose music. The interest of his father, Friedrich, a musician, teacher and expert in instrument construction, was the light-switch that illuminated the dark room through which the young Gerhard had been cautiously maneuvering. He plays the viola regularly in a string quartet and performs in ancient music ensembles, including Renaissance music on the recorder and cornetto. He finds alpine and cross-country skiing enjoyable relaxation.

Dr. Stradner's home is fittingly furnished. It represents not only the Museum's collection in microcosm but clearly reflects his personal, professional and artistic tastes: antique string instruments throughout the house, a clavichord in his study, and a Hammerflügel and a harpsichord in the living room, which is dominated by a 1726 organ.

The composers closest to Dr. Stradner's heart span centuries, like his collection's holdings: Gesualdo, J.S.Bach, early Schönberg (i.e., Verklärte Nacht), and Shostakovich. Dr. Stradner has performed with Paul Badura-Skoda and Friedrich Gulda, and he most enjoyed meeting Carl Orff, with whom he discussed the use of historic instruments. Asked if he has personal favorites among his instruments, Dr. Stradner replied, "I'm interested in all of them, but especially those of the 16th century, for their many innovations."

When the Pope visited Vienna, his presence in front of the Neue Burg seemed to generate in the crowd a kind of "music," impossible to define and difficult to explain, but very easy to recognize. Dr. Stradner, observing, described it as one of his most fulfilling personal experiences.

Among Dr. Stradner's activities in Vienna are special guided tours of his collection, the organization of special conferences, and lectures at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft at the University of Vienna and at the Viennese Academy of Music. He often travels to special exhibits, conferences on performance practice, for scientific research and for the acquisition of more instruments for the collection.

One of Dr. Stradner's goals is to engage a collaborator to restore some of the instruments. Two special exhibitions brought much professional and personal fulfillment to him: The Viennese Violin (1985) and Die Klangwelt Mozarts (1991). He feels that among his most significant achievements is his acquisition since 1981 of about 350 new objects for the collection, including Joseph Lanner's violin, the world's second oldest trombone (1557), the oldest Viennese harpsichord (by Johann Christoph Pantzner, 1747), and the oldest preserved Viennese fortepiano, ca.1770-80.

In 1988 the collection was closed to the public for several years. After complete renovations of the Museum, the historical instruments were re-exhibited starting on November 28, 1993. "This interval provided the opportunity of reorganizing the collection which now provides a chronological placement of the instruments belonging to a particular period," Dr. Stradner said.

What's most obvious, by its nature, often escapes our attention, so it may be worth noting that these objects, particularly the keyboard instruments, produce the very sounds the composers expected to hear. "We must become aware of our responsibility to protect and preserve original materials, the traces of the past, and allow the remnants to live on," Dr. Stradner has written. Through his efforts, some old instruments in other hands have been rescued and preserved. He hopes the collection's primary contribution will be to preserve musical culture through the sounds of period instruments. To this end, he foresees at his retirement the time for more practice and performance, and for more research on musical instruments in Austria. These are admirable qualities consistent with the character of an admirable man.

Jeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher, journalist, essayist and author. Born in New York, he studied at the Juilliard School (composition) with Stanley Wolfe, Peter Schickele, and Hall Overton. His chamber music has been performed at New York University on commission from the American Music Festival. In Europe, he spent time in several of the continent's musical centers, and has researched in Germany (Leipzig and Weimar), Switzerland (Zürich), and Austria (Salzburg, Bad Ischl, Gmunden, Baden, Mürzzuschlag, & Vienna, his favorite European city). His most recent book, Beethoven's Piano, was published by New York's Museum of the American Piano. Some of his many articles can be seen at http://www.inkpot.com, http://www.brahmsmuseum.at/, http://www.noveladvice.com, http://www.filmscoremonthly.com, http://www.amazon.com, and http://www.inditer.com, http://www.austriaculture.net

Some of Dr. Stradner's comments were translated for the author from German into English by Jutta Ross, a musician and professional translator.


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