Vermillion, S.D. —
If I were to ask you where you might find the largest collection of musical instruments in the United States, what would you guess? Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles? I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t guess Vermillion, S.D.
Is the National Music Museum there the largest? I’m not sure — there are some things Google just doesn’t tell you. But I guarantee the collection here, if not the largest, has got to be close to the top. A beautiful stone building, a former 1908 Carnegie Library, on the campus of the University of South Dakota, houses more than 15,000 instruments from many parts of the world and spanning many ages. Nine galleries with 20,000 square feet display pieces from the collection.
It’s here because of a band director and musician, Arne B. Larson (1904-1988). He began collecting instruments when he was in his early 20s, buying them up cheaply when Congress legislated the pitch standard for “A” to 440 vibrations per second. Older instruments, tuned higher, became obsolete.
During World War II, Larson provided foodstuffs and necessities to Europeans who bartered their instruments. He contacted missionaries who sought out unusual and exotic instruments for him. Even Lowell Thomas, a world traveler and commentator, contributed, sending him a cobra-inspired horn from India.
His collection filled rooms in his house in Brookings, S.D., and he began to look for a permanent home for the instruments. An offer from the University of South Dakota to teach in the Department of Music put Arne and his instruments in Vermillion. In 1979, Arne and his wife, Jeanne, donated the aggregation, to be housed at the university, to the state of South Dakota. His collection comprised more than 2,500 instruments.
Since that time, the museum has acquired other instruments, including a number of collections — making the museum a collection of collections. Among these are the C.G. Conn Company’s collection of American band instruments, the Alan Bates Harmonica Collection and the William F. Ludwig II collection of 19th and 20th century drums.
For a former music teacher — me — this was Nirvana. And, like every press trip I’ve ever been on, there was not enough time to see even a third of the displays. But even in a short time, I saw amazing things. Here are some of my favorites.
The Rawlins Gallery features a permanent exhibition, “The Genius of North Italian Stringed Instrument Making: 1540-1793.” It blew my mind to see not only a Stradivari violin, but a Stradivari guitar, one of only two in museums, and a Stradivari mandolin, one of only two known to exist. In addition, there were instruments made by Guarneri and by members of the Amati family.
The Abell Gallery is dedicated to keyboard instruments and houses a number of early harpsichords and pianos. One of the largest instruments in the room is an 1808 Pennsylvania pipe organ built by Christian Dieffenbach.
The Lillebridge Gallery celebrates American guitars. One end of the room is the recreated D’Angelico/D’Aquisto/Gudelsky Guitar Workshop. The firm was noted for its excellent archtop guitars. In a nearby case stands a 1978 resonator guitar. The instrument is now commonly known as a Dobro. The name comes from Ján Dopyera, a Slovakian who moved with his brothers Rudi and Emil to the U.S. in 1908. Ján designed and patented the instrument and the brothers started a company to produce them. The name is a blend of Dopyera and brothers.
The Beede Gallery features musical instruments of Africa, Asia, India and Oceana. Most of the room is taken up by a Javanese gamelan — a whole orchestra of instruments tuned to one another. They range from strings and drums to metallophones and knobbed gongs. The stands are made of teak and highlighted with gold leaf and elaborate carving.
My favorite instrument in the Everist Gallery, spotlighting the American music industry, is the Sgt. Pepper, heart-shaped trumpet, one of two created by master trumpet maker Dominick Calicchio. Twenty years after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” this trumpet turned up on eBay. A generous donor made the purchase possible.
One of the biggest instruments is on display in the lobby. The glaw’ng ae’, or goblet drum, is made from one piece of wood, hollowed out and carried on a cart. The 10-foot-long, half-ton drum is used in Buddhist temples in northern Thailand. This one dates back to the late 19th century.
This museum is not a hands-on museum, although accomplished musicians like Eugene Fodor have been allowed to play some of the rarest and most valuable instruments. For the general public, there are frequent opportunities to hear concerts at the museum and the self-guided audio tours provide examples of the sounds of music. While anyone can enjoy seeing the exhibits — for musical hardcores, this museum is heaven.
The museum, on the corner of Clark and Yale Streets in Vermillion, is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 2-5 p.m. It is closed on New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adult admission is $10 with a $2 discount for seniors. Children are admitted free. For more information, visit www.nmmusd.org or call 605-677-5306.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond resident.