Opus: The making of musical instruments in Canada

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The foremost collections of musical instruments in the world are made up of historic and ethnographic instruments. The systematic collection of such vestiges of musical life began only in the nineteenth century, when François-Joseph Fétis François-Joseph Fétis established the core of the Musée instrumental de Bruxelles collection. At the turn of the century, two Englishmen, Arnold Dolmetsch and Francis W. Galpin, assembled large collections of instruments, along with historic documents and details concerning the making and use of the instruments. These and other collections in European and American museums gave impetus to research in organology, the study of musical instruments. They are valuable sources of documentation for luthiers and other instrument makers.

There are several hundred musical instruments of ethnographic interest in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Over the past seventeen years, newer instruments have been added to the collection, which now ranges from reproductions of medieval instruments to modern ones. These additions to the Museum's collection were prompted by the widespread interest in early music that arose in Canada and North America in general in the late 1960s. At the same time, the need for period instruments burgeoned, with the result that interest in the making of stringed and other instruments has grown steadily since then.

The more than fifty instrument makers featured in this study approach their art in different ways. Some have adopted a scientific, methodical, orderly approach, while others are more empirical, relying to varying degrees on intuition. Some instrument makers have received professional training at major schools or from master luthiers. Still others are self-taught and have acquired extensive knowledge by conducting research in museums, archives and libraries the world over. Opus deals with two types of instruments: European instruments used in the performance of "art music,"and ethnocultural instruments used in the performance of traditional music. The first type includes reproductions of instruments from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the baroque and classical periods, as well as modern instruments. The other type encompasses instruments from within and outside the Americas.

The study focuses on four themes-the making, history, aesthetics and symbolism of musical instruments--each illustrated by particular instruments. Special emphasis has been placed on the various stages in the development of instrument makers, their sources of documentation and inspiration, and their concerns in light of the changing needs of modern society. In particular, the chapters devoted to aesthetics and symbolism provide fresh insights into the art of luthiers and other instrument makers by highlighting a number of little-known facets of this art. It is hoped that Opus will contribute to a fuller appreciation of the fine work of luthiers and instrument makers in Canada.


Instruments can be classified in one of four categories, depending on how the sound is produced. Victor Mahillon, a musicologist at the Musée instrumental de Bruxelles, devised this system, which was refined at the turn of the century by musicologists Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs. It includes:


idiophones, such as cymbals and bells, in which the vibration of the instrument itself produces the sound;


aerophones, such as flutes and trumpets, in which sound is produced by air, usually in a tube;

Baroque Trumpet

chordophones, such as violins and harps, whose strings vibrate when plucked, struck, rubbed or strummed; and


membranophones, such as drums, in which a membrane vibrates.