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Digging the Fifties | Part 10

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"

To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out 


Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

Before the 50th anniversary year ends, the NMM wants to share a bit more about the final five instruments that made the cut in this special curatorial series. Read on to find out more about eye-catching instruments such as a “fully dressed” bell-lyra (NMM 14350) and a double-bell euphonium (NMM 05950) that can surely leave a lasting impression. And let us not forget that the NMM is also home to many European and American stringed keyboard instruments that span from the early 16th to the late 20th century. Two examples, an early American square piano (NMM 14650) and a Viennese grand piano (NMM 13550) were also featured in the article. The last (but not least) is an Edison phonograph (NMM 00850), which is a representative of recording devices collected during the formative years of the NMM.

A bell lyre on a white background.
Bell-lyra, Josef Klier, Germany, ca. 1948–1952. NMM 14350. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The following instrument may not be as unusual to the eye of percussionists, but it sure strikes the eye of anyone who sees it. NMM 14350 is a form of glockenspiel known as bell-lyra, which is basically a percussion instrument with tuned metal bars (metallophone) assembled in a lyre-shaped frame. It is an instrument mainly used in military and other marching bands because it is meant to be portable. The frame is held upright and fixed to a staff that is carried by a player's belt. In earlier and lighter models, it could be handheld. When “fully dressed” the bell-lyra can have horse-hair tassels like the ones seen in this example. The frame of the lyre is made of brass, with a texturized decoration in the form of a hand-hammered, honey-comb design, and the top ends of the arms finish with eagle heads from which the tassels are suspended. At the crossbar on the top, there are remains of soft solder, which are indicative that another decorative element (perhaps a perched eagle with spread wings) is missing. This type of design and decoration is seen in other bell-lyras of German manufacture, particularly the choir bell-lyras made by the company Josef Klier in Diespeck, Germany. Since the NMM example does not bear any maker's mark or stamp, further communication with the company that still exists today confirmed that Klier manufactured this style of bell-lyra most probably after 1948, when the company was located in Birkenfeld. The two-octave range (C–C) tuned bars are arranged chromatically in two rows, in keyboard style, and bear English system key notation (letters of notes stamped on the bars), which means this instrument was probably made for the international export market. The NMM received this bell-lyra from Vernon Clyde Harp, Jr. (1919–2011) in 2008, who said it had been used in the Bohemian Grove (Bohemian Club, San Francisco, CA) Bavarian Band since about 1977.  

A silver double-belled euphonium on a white background.
Double-bell euphonium, C. G. Conn, Ltd., Elkhart, IN, ca. 1924. NMM 05950.

Another oddity that used to be popular throughout the first half of the 20th century were double-bell euphoniums, like NMM 05950. First produced in the U.S. by C. G. Conn in the late 1880s, it was created both as a novelty instrument and to give an extra sound variant to a band without having to increase the number of players. The larger bell produces a baritone-horn or euphonium warm sound, whereas the smaller bell produces a tenor-horn or trombone brighter sound. The player could easily switch bells to make two different sounds (and echo effects) or play one or the other throughout a single piece. The instruments could have both detachable and directional bells, or be like this NMM example, with the larger, upright, default bell fixed, and the second smaller bell directional, meaning one could adjust the position to which to point the bell. This five, front-action, valve cluster model was typical of Conn's designs. The fifth valve would give access to the extra bell, and the fourth valve would extend the lower register of the instrument and simplify fingering. The interior of both bells on this silver-plated brass euphonium is gold-plated, and the serial number 217979, places manufacture circa 1924. The popularity of this instrument incited by professional soloist players during the Golden Age of Bands led to its mass production by many instrument manufacturers in the U.S., but unfortunately that popularity and usage declined throughout the years, with production ceasing in the 1960s. Perhaps one of the last popular references to “double bell euphoniums” was in the lyrics of the song “Seventy-Six Trombones” from the 1957 musical The Music Man, by Meredith Willson (1902–1984). More recently, the double bell euphonium has seen a rebirth in interest through the modern “Duplex” B-flat euphonium made by Wessex Tubas in the UK.

The NMM is also home to many European and American stringed keyboard instruments that span from the early 16th to the late 20th century. In the collection of square pianos—so called because of their rectangular shape and square corners—NMM 14650 is an early 19th-century piano made by John Osborne (c.1792–1835), one of the finest early American makers who was active in Boston, and later in New York. This example is a representative of Osborne's culmination style of early square piano manufacturing before he introduced a more massive style around 1824. However, according to Kuronen, Osborne incorporated considerable variety in the decorative elements of his instruments, so one seldom finds two alike (Kuronen, 2016). It is made in the standard English style with double action, in which there is an intermediate lever that pushes the main hammer towards the string, and an adjustable setoff in the hopper (or jack) that provides escapement (mechanism that permits the hammer to disengage and rebound away from the string). In this action, there is no check (or back check), which is the mechanism that catches the hammer to prevent its rebounding against the string. It has a keyboard with 68 keys and a compass (range) from FF to c4. The mostly mahogany-veneered case has rounded front corners, with two drawers between the front legs, and an inlaid brass nameplate. The instrument has six turned legs with brass casters and top collars, and one pedal in the form of a slender lyre for the damper mechanism. It came to the NMM in 2012 via the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

A square piano on a white background.
Square piano, John Osborne, Boston, MA, ca. 1823. NMM 14650. Photo by Byron Pillow.


The next keyboard example, NMM 13550, is a Viennese grand piano made by Ignaz Bösendorfer (1794–1859), who established a distinguished firm of piano manufacturing in 1928 that still exists today and makes prime instruments. One of the most eminent artists of the 19th century who endorsed Bösendorfer pianos was Franz Liszt (1811–1886), and many of their early instruments, like this NMM piano, were designed with Liszt and his passionate playing in mind. As expected, this piano uses the Viennese action (Prellzungenmechanik), in which the hammer is assembled to the key lever by a hinged mechanism called kapsel, the escapement mechanism is built separately at the back of the keyboard rail, and there is a check to catch the hammer. It has a keyboard with 85 keys and a compass from AAA to a4. The case is veneered in mahogany and has the typical grand-piano, S-shaped bent side incorporating the tail. The inside of the fallboard is painted black and bears the maker’s inscription and decoration in gold. There are three hexagonal-shaped legs with brass casters, and two brass pedals are assembled in a wooden lyre-shaped frame. One pedal is for the damper mechanism, and the other is for “una corda,” or keyboard shift. The latter shifts the whole piano action sideways so that the hammers only strike “one string,” instead of all three strings this piano has per note. While this instrument shows elements of the increase in size and weight, compass and stringing, the simpler Viennese action, which was more sensible to the player’s touch and expression, could not keep up with the desire for more volume as musical tastes changed and concert halls became bigger during the 19th century. As such, it gave way to the complex English action that continued to evolve into the modern piano action of today.

A brown grand piano on a white background.
Grand piano, Ignaz Bösendorfer, Vienna, Austria, ca. 1845–1849. NMM 13550. Photo by Bill Willroth, Sr.


To complete the article, the author chose an example of a recording device that is also represented in the collections. Although the NMM no longer actively pursues collecting recording/reproduction devices, it retains selective examples from its formative years like NMM 00850, which is an Edison phonograph. American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1837–1931) unveiled his cylinder phonograph in 1877, a device that could record sound and play it back. Despite his congenital deafness, Edison's vision of the phonograph would redefine the recording industry, but it was a flawed novelty at first, and the “Wizard of Menlo Park” turned his focus on electric light and the electrification of New York. Partially influenced by others who were making improvements to his invention, and determined to make those himself, Edison only resumed his work on the phonograph when he organized his own recording company in 1887, The Edison Phonograph Company. This model, the Edison Home Phonograph, was first introduced in 1896, the same year Edison started the National Phonograph Company, which would manufacture phonographs for home entertainment use. Built into a “new style” oak case with a carrying cover and decorated with the trademark golden banner decal in black lettering, the mechanism is a Home model B, serial number H171619, dating ca. 1905–1910, retrofitted with an improved gearing lever to play both 2- and 4-minute records that were wax cylinders. Before Edison released the Home model D in late 1908 (the same year he introduced the 4-minute Amberol cylinders) that came with a 2/4-minute combination gear mechanism from factory, previous models could only play the 2-minute speed. Therefore, many machines were retrofitted with various gear mechanisms afterward. The mechanism in this example was an improved version of earlier designs that made use of a casting accessory with a lever switch, assembled in the set-screw pillar of the back-rod. Although this NMM example does not have an original horn associated, the case is also fitted with a bracket accessory that allows installing a crane to suspend horn resonators of a larger format than the standard 14-in size.

An antique wax cylinder playing machine, with the top removed to see the mechanism, on a white background.
Phonograph, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., Orange, NJ, ca. 1905–1910. NMM 00850. Photo by Dara Lohnes-Davies.

The author hopes this article was interesting enough to illustrate how the NMM's vast and diverse collections are fundamental for documenting and preserving history, and tell many different stories of music, culture, and people. One could look at it as a small virtual catalog of musical instruments. The author tried to select as much as possible for a varied representation of musical instrument types but recognizes that many were not featured at all—an oboe or bassoon being a few examples—which merely happened because their catalog number did not end in 50. One must, however, keep in perspective that the featured 50 objects constitute less than 0.5% of the entirety of the musical instrument collection at the NMM.


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Kuronen, Darcy. “Early Pianomaking in Boston, 1790–1830.” In Boston Furniture, 1700–1900, edited by Brock Jobe and Gerald W. R. Ward, 315–334. Boston, MA: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2016.

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Thanks for reading, and for joining us on this anniversary journey through "Digging the Fifties!"



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