A Living Museum of Music

A harpsichord from Versailles, Chopin's canapé, Rasputin's harp zither and Grieg's fur hat are among the many objects that bring their own special history to Ringve, Norway's unique museum of musical instruments.

“Gentlemen, these instruments are my children. I must think of my children's future. At Ringve they can live on. I accept your offer.” With these words, the Italian professor of music, Adolfo Morpurgo, transferred his collection of 130 instruments to Ringve's Director for NOK 400 000 in Buenos Aires in 1966. The collection was worth NOK 1.3 million.

When the agreement had been signed, investigations were made as to whether old instruments from Argentina were subject to any export restrictions. They weren't, but the professor took no chances at such a politically unstable time. He sent three enormous containers - comprising, among other things, twelve violins, fourteen guitars and several pianos - stamped “Household goods”.

That's how they arrived in Norway and became part of the current collection of 2000 instruments and objects, covering 1000 years of musical history, now located at the Ringve Museum on the Lade Peninsula, just outside Trondheim. Ringve is the final destination, not only for a number of baroque instruments but also for a considerable number of baroque itineraries. Nearly every object in the museum has found its way there in an unconventional, labyrinthine manner.

Here you will find a Clementi-built square piano from London, 1810; from the Morpurgo collection there is a hammer piano from Mozart's age that belonged to Wanda Landowska, the harpsichord player who initiated the harpsichord renaissance; an organ that was stored in pieces on a neighbouring farm; bow harps from Burma and juke boxes from Chicago; twenty Hardanger fiddles of various sizes; a famous English Kirkman harpsichord from 1767, a French troubadour instrument from 1539, an Amati violin from 1612; a famous Tielke gamba from about 1700; and one of Eberle's masterpieces - a viola d'amore from 1755.

The museum is full of curiosities, like Edvard Grieg's fur hat - and the hat's journey to Ringve is curious too. In need of money, one of the composer's nephews asked for a bank loan and offered his uncle's fur hat as collateral. The bank agreed. The nephew never redeemed the loan and the fur hat remained in the possession of the bank manager. He gave it to his son, who moved to Trondheim and in turn donated it to Ringve.

The driving force behind Ringve Museum was Russian born Victoria Bachke, who had married a Norwegian, Christian Anker Bachke in 1920. He was the owner of Ringve Manor, which had been worked as a farm, with arable land and livestock, for hundreds of years. Although the museum was opened in 1952, the estate was farmed until 1960; the quill pens in the Beethoven Room originated in Victoria's hen house.

Ringve Manor has a long, dramatic history. The Lade Peninsula is believed to have been inhabited for over 2500 years, and the mighty Earls of Lade ruled large areas of the country from here in the Viking Age. Close to Ringve, the Viking King Olav Trygvasson is said to have built his legendary, awe-inspiring longship Ormen Lange (the Long Serpent). Today the University of Trondheim's 33-acre botanical gardens are located at Ringve.

The naval hero and adventurer Peter Wessel is believed to have been born at Ringve in 1690, the fourteenth of eighteen children. He ran away from home before his fifteenth birthday and ended his spectacular life in a duel at the age of thirty, as Vice-Admiral Tordenskiold of the Royal Danish Navy. Since then, Danes and Norwegians have argued about whether this Norwegian was Danish or Norwegian. Last year he was resurrected in a Danish musical in Copenhagen - with a Norwegian playing the leading role!

Victoria Bachke and her husband had two interests, or rather passions, in common: Ringve, including the Wessel period and the history of Tordenskiold, and music. Victoria published a large book, Tordenskioldiana, in 1958 and always honoured the memory of this naval hero. She originally lived in his childhood home, which is today the old Ringve Museum, housing the Mozart Hall and the Beethoven, Chopin and Grieg Rooms.

The Wessel Building dates from about 1700 and was built in the typical regional Trønder style. Directly across the farmyard lies the main building, erected in 1860 in typical Swiss style. Victoria wanted a home of her own at the end of the farmyard, and she almost drove the architect mad at the planning stage. Nothing found favour in her eyes.

On a visit to Stockholm, she saw Eugen Onegin at the Royal Swedish Opera. When the curtain rose on Prince Gremin's palace in the sixth scene, Victoria Bachke burst out, “That is what my house must look like!” She stormed backstage, talked to the scenographer, acquired a photograph of the set and built her house from there. The farmyard has been paved in the Viennese style with cobblestones from the old streets of Trondheim. The barn has been converted into a concert hall, the pigsty a ballroom, the stable an entrance hall and cloakroom. The pig swill was cooked in the wash-house, now the Green Room.

Christian Anker Bachke died in 1946 and from then on Victoria threw all her energies into the collection. She was a colourful personality with an irresistible charm, she was ingenious, tenacious and had the necessary quota of good luck. Victoria called herself a “professional beggar” and stopped at nothing, particularly a refusal. The farmer with the decimated organ had no desire to sell. After discussing the matter all night and all day, his hair had turned white and he no longer owned an organ...

When Victoria heard that Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset's son owned his mother's dulcimer, she went to Lillehammer, knocked on the door and said that she wanted to buy it. The son wished to keep this memento of his mother, but Victoria did not give in. “My dear, dear sir. Ze taxi wait for me. Sooo expensive if we discuss too long. How much you say?”

Rasputin's harp-zither, made of ivory, gold and ebony and inlaid with silver, was first stolen from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg by some marines and sold to a Serbian diplomat, who smuggled it to Vienna. It hung there in an old lady's house until Victoria tracked it down. Now it is hanging at Ringve.

On her many long collecting trips, this untiring woman was always on the lookout for a baroque harpsichord. At the beginning of the 1950s, she saw one in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and immediately fell in love with it. “Nuzzink is impossible for a voman in love!” stated Victoria. Consequently, the harpsichord is no longer at Versailles, where it had been deposited. Victoria befriended the owner's widow, and soon this beautiful instrument, built around 1740 by Antoine Vater and probably decorated by Hilbert Robert, was on its way to Ringve.

When she was stopped at the border and confronted with the customs restrictions, she managed to gain audience with the rather grumpy Minister of Culture, Malraux, and soon afterwards emerged from his office with his personal signature on the customs papers. “Cher, cher ministre!” said Victoria, in her most charming Russian accent, “In France you are so reech and have so many treasures. In Norway we are poor and have so little. Let us share and be good friends!”

Her vision of a living museum of sounding instruments has become a reality, to such an extent that there are door harps hanging on the lavatory doors. At Ringve the various rooms reflect the atmosphere of their age as well as the contemporary instruments. Every single guide plays for the visitors, all the instruments are in use, and concerts are arranged regularly. Vladimir Ashkenazy plays here on the Graf grand piano from 1827, local girls' choirs sing here. Many excellent recordings have been produced at Ringve and, for fifteen years, summer courses in baroque music have been held for young people from all over the world.

The newest part of the museum includes a hall with ethnic instruments from countries and tribes all over the world, and folk instruments from Norway and abroad. The original sound of the instruments accompanies the visitor from pavilion to pavilion; Tibetan temple music follows you to the sounds of the Navaho Indians, the Burmese bow harp (which had to have its own seat belt on the plane) accompanies you on your way to the African jungle drums.

Contemporary music is represented by a Hammond organ, synthesizer, computer piano and Norwegian pop star Åge Aleksandersen's Fender guitar, the one he used for recording his top hit Mykje lys og mykje varme. Also a large selection of radios, phonographs, gramophones and original music, including music by Kurt Weill from his co-operation with Berthold Brecht and by many contemporary composers.

The first musical guide was actor, dancer, film and TV star, choreographer and producer Jan Voigt. He made his debut at Ringve as a rococo dancer at the opening in 1952. He started working there in the summer holidays when the theatres were closed, and soon became Victoria's closest ally. His position as assistant was formalised in 1963 and on her death he was appointed Director of the museum.

Having being schooled by Victoria for ten years, he was just as good at persuading, charming, nagging and begging as she was, and it was during his period as Director (1968-1993) that the museum achieved its strong growth and international reputation. After Voigt's retirement, Søren Hjorth became the new Director, and from 1995 Ringve will enjoy the status of a national museum.

Jan Voigt must have been destined for Ringve. As a ten-year-old, he put knitting pins and scissors on the strings of the family's grand piano to produce a harpsichord sound, and while his friends saved their money for ice-hockey skates, he hoarded his to buy a small Venetian rococo table he had seen in an antique dealer's window. There were other ties too, which came to light later. Voigt's great-grandmother, Alexandrine, was lady-in-waiting at the court of Kaiser Wilhelm I. In 1848, at a grand ball in Cologne in connection with the 800th anniversary of laying the foundation stone of Cologne Cathedral, Alexandrine danced all night with Jacques Offenbach. He wrote a tarantella, a circular canon, in her album. A copy hangs in the Offenbach Museum in Cologne. The original hangs at Ringve, a gift from Voigt's father.

Ten years ago, Director Voigt had one of his most nerve-racking experiences ever in connection with the purchase of an instrument.

He subscribed to the catalogues of the major auction houses, and on the cover of one of Sotheby's New York catalogues was a four-colour illustration of a wonderful Kirkman harpsichord with a double keyboard, from 1767. Jacob Kirkman, who was born outside Strasbourg, became one of England's most important instrument-makers from the 1730s onwards, and his company existed right up to the end of the 1800s. An instrument like this would complement the collection admirably.

The sale price of the harpsichord was estimated to be NOK 200 - 300 000. Voigt telephoned the Chief Curator of the Metropolitan Museum and asked him to have a look at the instrument on behalf of Ringve. The Curator rang back and told him enthusiastically that every bit of the instrument was original, that it was unique, perfect - a jewel. Voigt went on his usual begging round of Trondheim's banks and was promised NOK 300 000.

Three Stradivari and two Guarneri were also on sale at the auction, but the bait was Lot no. 38, the Kirkman harpsichord. On the day of the auction, at 7 p.m. Norwegian time, Jan Voigt rang Sotheby's and heard his representative bidding at the other end of the line. He had instructed him to bid $ 2000 at a time up to NOK 250 000 and thereafter to consult with him. As the agreed sum approached at worrying speed, the line went dead. Voigt desperately phoned again and was connected to the departments of silver, paintings and fine wines, and when he finally got through to the musical instrument department and asked what the situation was with the Kirkman harpsichord, he was told: “It's gone!”

With a sinking heart, Voigt asked what price it had been sold for. The equivalent of NOK 280 000. Suddenly the Sotheby's representative asked where he was calling from, and when he answered “It's something called Ringve
Museum, Norway,” she shouted, “But you got it!” A real happy ending, which became even happier when the banks waived interest and the Friends of the Museum paid the loan!

Just like Victoria, Jan Voigt didn't take no for an answer. That's why Chopin's sofa ended up in Norway. The Polish composer's only connection with Scandinavia was that he had a pupil from Trondheim, Thomas Tellefsen, and when Chopin died his sister Ludovica gave a few mementoes to his former pupil. Among them were an Empire style card table and a small sofa, a canapé. It had two cushions, hand-embroidered by George Sand, the authoress who adopted a man's name to get her books published and was Chopin's mistress.

In 1958, Victoria heard by chance that the sofa and cushions were in private hands in Bergen. She went there immediately, but the owner was as determined as she was. This time no meant "No!" Ten years later, on a visit to Bergen, Voigt went to see the owner's widow to beg for at least a photograph of the sofa for the archives, which did not present a problem. A further ten years later, he read in an Oslo newspaper that Chopin's inedible canapé bad ended up in the lighting booth at Bergen's new concert hall, the Grieg Hall, and asked the Bergen Philharmonic if they could possibly deposit it at Ringve. They could.

On Victoria Bachke's birthday, 7 July 1978, fifteen years after her death, the sofa was unpacked, placed in the Chopin Room and inaugurated with a Chopin concert, candles and champagne. On the wall hangs a watercolour by George Sand, with a guarantee of provenance and a greeting from her grand-daughter, Aurore, on the back. Victoria met Aurore Sand, then aged 84, in Paris in 1951. Due to this friendship, Ringve also has George Sands cast of Chopin's left hand.

Many visitors are so enchanted that they donate objects to the museum. One English priest's deceased mother had been a nurse for the opera diva Adelina Patti. In her will, Patti had left her a specially built Erard grand piano that had been on tour in the USA with her 27 times. On donating the piano to Ringve, the priest whispered, “If you ever get anything from Dame Melba, you must never put it in the Patti Room. It will only lead to trouble!”

Tens of thousands of visitors flock to the Ringve Museum each year. It's a long time since the following conversation took place as Victoria Bachke and Jan Voigt sat at the kitchen table and looked unhappily out at the summer rain.

“Look, there are two tourists!” said Victoria. “No, they're going to the gardener,” said Voigt.
Long pause.
“But now there's a man coming!”
“No, Victoria. That is the gardener!”

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 3
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