La Philharmonie and a Musical Museum for London

There was exciting news for London music lovers this week as the City of London announced plans to create a new concert venue on the present site of the Museum of London. This follows the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle (surely to be a Lord sometime soon) as leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017. Rumours previously had been that the government might seek to host the new development in the Olympic Park as part of a new major cultural hub. However, it seems that City intends to replace the grubby-sounding Barbican Hall with a world class venue.

I can’t help thinking that backers of the Olympic Park move must have looked over the Channel at La Philharmonie and had second thoughts. While the acoustic of the Parisian venue has been acclaimed the years it took to get built, its various problems – spiralling cost (finally coming in at €386 million) and the continuing conflict between its architect and client (Jean Nouvel and various branches of the French state) – paint a very sorry tale.

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La Philharmonie

On a visit to Paris this weekend too I had mixed feelings about the site. The Philharmonie forms part of a musical complex (La Cité de la Musique) which combines the functions of a variety of concert venues, conservatoire and museum. It was the museum that I was there for. I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket to a concert, both times I’ve tried the venue has been sold out. This is an encouraging thing given that the Philharmonie is in La Villette on the outskirts of central Paris, in a traditionally working class area and home to many first and second generation immigrants.*

This shouldn’t discourage visitors to Paris from visiting (although it was practically empty the day we visited, which is a shame). The Musée de la Musique is a thing of wonder. Over the course of 1,000 objects and 5 floors it tells the story of Western music from the 17th Century to the present day, as well as giving an overview of the multitudinous diversity of music around the globe today. Being in Paris for just a day I only had time to explore the first three floors, which tell the story of Western classical music from the Baroque to Romanticism. What did I like?

Well, I’m now a big fan of the serpent.

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The Musée de la Musique, snake-infested.

I’d heard of the serpent but had no clue what it was or what it did. I’d assumed that it was something that died out in mediaeval times, but no! They were blowing serpents till the nineteenth century in some regiments of the French army. Now I want a serpent.

As a trumpet fan (and sporadic learner) the many exotic lumps of brass had a particular appeal. Some kind of Darwinian process is in evidence with offshoots and variants finding themselves ill-adapted to survival falling out of use to become mere echoes of what might have been in the relentless march of technical innovation.

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A whole lotta horn.

And after these tasty treats there were other delectable morsels like Chopin’s Erard piano, Stradavari by the number and a whole bunch of Lisztian memorabilia. One of my favourite details of the museum was the way in which they clumped together a group of instruments in a case to show you the orchestration of individual significant pieces in musical history, such as a Rameau opera or a Beethoven symphony. These would then play for you through earphones as you stood in front of them giving, if not a concert experience, at least an intimate glimpse into past performance practice.

So yes, I was enthused. But what has this got to do with London?

The building of a new concert hall in London is surely the opportunity to do something similar. London has excellent bijou music museums and I urge people to visit them.** As I wrote in a previous post the Royal Academy’s collection is worth an hour of any music fan’s afternoon. But London lacks a museum that tells the tradition of music-making in London, if not the whole of the United Kingdom. While our pop music is rightly celebrated (even if museums about it don’t seem to be able to take off) the classical tradition seems to be something for specialists and doesn’t have a place in the centre of our cultural landscape. London’s music scene is outstanding (as I’ve remarked previously) and the establishment of a museum at the heart of a new concert venue in the City of London would be an outstanding contribution to cultural life in the city as a whole. We should celebrate London’s past and continuing role as a vast entrepot, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its classical music scene.

 

*A bit like my home in Haringey. I urge people to go to Paris for a day, for the weekend, for however long you can. The city was distressingly un-busy. I want Paris to be full of good people, just as I wish good people to come to London.

** I wrote about one in a previous post (The Royal Academy of Music Museum) but there is also Handel House and the Foundling Museum (with its collection of Handel memorablia) that I know of off the top of my head but I’m sure that each of the major music schools has its own.

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