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The Annual Conference focused on metals using in musical instruments, and included talks, visits and an oportunity to play instruments and a recital.

Metals in Musical Instruments

HMS Annual Conference 2008

12th–14th September

Oxford, UK
Organised by Eddie Birch and Louise Bacon

The conference was based in the Holywell Music Rooms where there was a harpsichord recital and talk by Steven Devine. Saturday morning and Sunday there were  lectures. With a visit on the Saturday afternoon to the Bate Collection of Historical Musical Instruments, where some of the instruments were made available to us to ‘play’ if we wished.

There was a visit to the gamelan at the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of the History of Science and the Ashmolean Museum. In addition Crispian Steele-Perkins gave a recital and talk on brass instruments on Saturday evening, accompanied by Leslie Pearson.


The 2008 Annual Conference was held in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, the oldest surviving purpose-built concert hall in Europe, having been built in 1742. This wonderful room provided an apt setting for a truly remarkable conference. Accommodation for the conference was provided by Wadham College (to which the Holywell Room is attached). The conference organisers, Eddie Birch and Louise Bacon, had set themselves the ambitious task of running a conference which would not only have a rich and full programme of talks, but also concert-lectures in which exponents of historic musical instruments would demonstrate and explain their instrument using performance. To add to the task of the organisers, the concert-lectures would be public events, adding ticket sales to the conference income, but also adding another dimension to the administrative task.

The conference programme on started on Friday evening with a presentation about the Holywell Music Room itself by John Melvin which described both the history of the building and the somewhat controversial plans for its future development. This was followed by the first of the concert-lectures, a delightful blend of performance and of explanation of the harpsichord by Steven Devine.

The Saturday morning lectures commenced with a presentation by John Berry and others concerning the tonal quality of brass instruments, and its relationship to both materials and the effects of time. The talk highlighted the difficulty of reconciling the scientific approach to the subject with the experience of performers. The second talk described the Europe-wide investigation of corrosion in lead-rich organ pipes by Carla Martini & Christina Chiavari, driven by a need to conserve the 15th-century pipes of the Stellwagen organ of the St. Jakobi Church in Lübeck , Germany. The “culprits” were eventually identified as organic acids derived from the wooden (particularly oak) components of the organs. Raul Ybarra then described experimental reconstruction of the casting of PreHispanic bells, using small ceramic furnaces and bamboo blowpipes. Investigations into the nature and possible origins of a newly-discovered pre-1606 trumpet mouthpiece from Jamestown, , were the subject of the following presentation by Sabine Klaus. Martha Goodway then talked on the metallurgy of overspun strings in English square pianos; these turned out not to be of the brass compositions claimed. The final presentation for the morning was an examination of 150 years of brass instrument manufacture at Boosey & Hawkes and associated companies by Bradley Strauchen. This talk demonstrated the wealth of data available from company archives and from the museum established by the company in the late 19th century and now housed in the collections of the Horniman Museum.

Saturday afternoon was spent visiting various museums and collections, with the highlight for many being the opportunity to participate in playing a Javanese Gamelan. Even the initially reticent were encouraged to show respect to the instrument by removing their shoes and then to join in the action themselves!

The second of the concert-lectures was held on Saturday evening, with Crispian Steele-Perkins (accompanied by Leslie Pearson) demonstrating the history of the trumpet from earliest times to the present. This wonderful evening ranged from simple the simplest of instruments (demonstrated by an excerpt from Handel’s Water Music played on a piece of garden hose!), through explanations of how the various tones were added, and overall size reduced, by increasing complexity of the plumbing, to some sublime performances of music played on both modern and contemporary instruments.

The presentations on Sunday morning continued with the description of the metallography of a Byzantine trumpet by Killian Anheuser and that of medieval music wire by Justine Bayley & Sharon Penton. Ny Björn Gustafsson then spoke on a copper alloy Gotlandic string bridge with a review of some other similar bridges and a discussion of the type(s) of instrument they might represent. Tim Young described experiments to reproduce the brazing used in the fabrication of early Christian handbells from Ireland. Louise Bacon & Brian Gilmour presented a review of “German silver”: Brian describing the evolution of the nature of 18th- and 19th-century nickel brass from Chinese paktong though to European copies and then Louise illustrating these changes with reference to the instruments manufactured by the Pace family in the 1830s and 40s. Mike Dobby provided the final paper, with a description and demonstration of a handheld XRF device. In the following public demonstration several attendees bravely offered their family heirlooms for analysis, fortunately without any major disappointment! The concluding remarks on the conference were made by Prof. Arnold Myers, who commented on the desirability of cross-disciplinary research in organology, with the potential for projects involving historical metallurgists in collaboration with members of other groups and disciplines.

To achieve such a well-themed and coherent programme was a remarkable achievement. The weekend was a great success, not only for providing a forum for those directly involved in such an interesting area of the application of historical metallurgy, but also for those, like myself, who are not specialists in the field, but left the meeting having been both educated and entertained! Eddie and Louise are to be congratulated for achieving a wonderful balance with the meeting and for demonstrating, once again, the great diversity of interest that is embraced by historical metallurgy.

Written by Tim Young for The HMS Newsletter 70
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