With very few exceptions, musical instruments never bear the mark of their owner, even if well-known. Most often, after the owner's death, the instruments are sold and their sense of belonging is quickly forgotten. Consequently there is no known harpsichord which belonged to Bach or Couperin, and no traces of a violin from either Vivaldi or Leclair. From the nineteenth century, however, with the appearance of the cult of the virtuoso artist, a fetishistic value was given to any objects these individuals had owned, thus materialising the artist’s aura. This trend was developed and amplified in the popular music of the twentieth century and the instruments of rock bands, for example, are now sought as iconic objects. The few celebrity instruments we know provide us with significant examples of the sonority and the opportunities they could offer in their time.
An instrument that belonged to a particular composer or was once played by a great performer is now of particular significance. Beyond the anecdote or totemic, these instruments, like the Erard piano played by Liszt during a series of concerts in Lyon in July 1844, or the zither on which the famous Christmas song "Silent Night" was composed, feed the imagination of the person who sees or hears them today. Put into context, these memorabilia can also provide information on the tastes of the artist and perhaps help to understand the circumstances in which a work was created.
Jazz & Pop Stars
The development of media (radio, records, TV) and the global extension of popular music have given to artists a status of living icons, revered and celebrated worldwide. It is therefore not surprising that the instruments they played or the artefacts belonging to them have become objects of worship, envied by museums and collectors.
Some traditions, like those of the gypsy community, give these objects a mythical value, as, for example, the Django Reinhardt guitar that cannot be played after his death. The popularity of a person or group continues through the objects they left behind, such as ABBA’s synthesizer seen by visitors indulging in nostalgia, from the time when the Swedish pop band was at the height of his fame. At the same time, these works provide valuable evidence on the relationship linking these musicians to their instruments. Frank Zappa, for example, was a tireless music researcher and became attentive to the developments in electronic music, which he managed to use in some of his most experimental works.
Kings & Queens
Musical instruments that belonged to a crown or high-ranking officials are often outstanding objects. Whether they have been received in homage or have been acquired by a monarch for his or her own use, they are most often of exceptional quality of manufacture. They demonstrate the ability of the makers as much as their inventiveness, the magnificence of the object being at the level of the rank of the recipient. The presence of one of their instruments in royal collections was an undeniable honour for the maker, who never failed to invoke it. The decorative aspect of the object could then take over the musical functions, as evidenced by the marble dulcimer attributed to Michele Antonio Grandi and which belonged to the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici.