Dr Erin Helyard, from the ANU School of Music, with one of the school's classic pianos. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Dr Erin Helyard, from the ANU School of Music, with one of the school's classic pianos. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Restoring former musical glories

Historical instruments collected at the ANU School of Music are undergoing a transformation that will bring music from the past to life and inspire students. SIMON JENKINS reports.

Most of the musical instruments played in the ANU School of Music today have very few resemblances to their predecessors from 400 years ago.

With the exception of the violin, most instruments have been radically redesigned to create different sounds and looks.

Even the way the instruments feel under the fingers of those playing them has changed.

But the School's collection of historical instruments - some more than 200 years old - is being dusted off to bring the sounds of the past to students of the future.

"Hearing the sounds of these instruments and knowing that they represent a close approximation of the very sounds that might have been heard by composers like Bach, Mozart and Chopin, can be a highly rewarding emotional, as well as intellectual, experience," says Head of the School, Professor Peter Tregear.

The School has one of the largest collections of historical instruments in Australia and a restoration project to get all 50-plus instruments in working order has begun in earnest.

"In certain aspects, it is the best [collection] of its kind in the southern hemisphere and gives both students and the broader community an opportunity to understand in the best most visceral way possible, the history of the ballad, the pianoforte and its antecedents," Tregear says.

"And really you can't understand a lot of the music we take for granted...without appreciating how it operated on musical machines that had fundamentally different properties."

The collection includes a clavichord, a harpsichord and early and modern pianos.

Most of the instruments, acquired during the past few decades, are copies that are 20 to 50 years old, while others are originals dating back to the 1790s.

The School's most recent acquisition was an 1847 piano, the instrument of choice for Frederic Chopin.