The Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, which comprises some 1,500 pieces, is housed in the second-floor lobby of Hill Auditorium. Until new or different accommodations can be obtained the collection may be visited only during such times, as the building is open for public functions.

The main body of the collection was a gift from Frederick Stearns (1831-1907), a Detroit manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, whose philanthropy greatly benefited the University over a period of many years. The instruments were first offered to the University in October, 1898, and the gift was gratefully accepted by the Board of Regents at their January, 1899, meeting:

Resolved, That the thanks of this Board be returned to Frederick Stearns, Esq., of Detroit, for his gift to the University of his very valuable collection of musical instruments, which represent the musical art of several centuries and of many lands, and that we have pleasure in complying with his request to place the collection in a fire-proof room in the Museum.

Resolved, That we also thank Mr. Stearns for the further gift of new cases in which to install the collection.

(R.P. 1896-1901, p. 342.)

At that time, the exhibit numbered 904 pieces and was described as "one of the best classified collections in the possession of any institution or individual in any country" (Angell Papers, Vol. 24). Stearns estimated the value of his instruments to be at least $25,000. Since the collection was established, it has been enlarged by further gifts from Stearns and other individuals.

The collection, first exhibited in the University Museum, was moved to Hill Auditorium in 1914. During the next several years Professor Albert A. Stanley (1851-1932) performed a monumental task in developing the present display, reclassifying the instruments, and publishing a catalogue of the collection. The exhibit has remained almost untouched since Stanley's time.

Although the group was once considered one of the world's most important instrument collections, its reputation has diminished in recent years. Lack of upkeep, of use, and of important additions has contributed to this.

The collection is often criticized for its failure to include "genuine" antiques and outstanding instruments of certain types. It should be noted that Stearns's intention was to illustrate the evolution of musical instruments and to present the amazing varieties and forms that were created by peoples from the past. That Stearns was not primarily concerned with establishing a museum of priceless antiques is revealed in his letter of presentation. He stated: "While none of the instruments is of especial interest historically … the collection very completely represents all classes, genera, and species" (Angell Papers, Vol. 24). Although Stearns succeeded admirably in his aim, some of the pieces, which were accumulated, are frankly freaks, curiosities, or hybrids, a fact, which he himself recognized.

Outstanding among the instruments is an early seventeenth-century Italian octavina (No. 1334), designated as "Spinetta. Eighteenth century." Professor Stanley's description says, "The instrument proper lifts out of the beautifully decorated case. An artistically cut rose ornaments the sounding board. Compass: three octaves and one note…

This beautiful instrument was at one time erroneously attributed to the celebrated maker, Hans Rücker, of Antwerp." John Challis, a famous American harpsichord maker, restored this octavina in 1950. At present, it is the only keyboard instrument in the collection in condition to be used for performance. A letter by Challis, included with the instrument on its return to the display, provides further description and documentation:

Like many old musical instruments, this one has been through many repairs done by oftentimes unskilled or careless workmen. Fortunately, no serious damage was done to it and the results of bungling workmanship could be removed and carefully restored.

The instrument is of Italian workmanship style and wood. It was constructed around 1600. The outer ornamental case is of recent construction (c. 1900). It [has been] carefully cleaned and covered with two coats of varnish to protect the painting and gilding.

The sides and soundboard of the instrument itself are made of Italian cypress. Several replacements had to be made where earlier repairs were badly done. The keys of boxwood and walnut are mostly original some having been replaced by earlier workmen. The old jacks were so badly damaged that they were not usable. New ones had to be made.

Certain compromises in the interest of future upkeep and stability in the American climate were considered advisable such as drilling the tuning pins, long hitch pins, and keying the fragile corner joints of the instrument.

No name or date of the original maker could be found on either interior or exterior of the instrument. Craftsmen's names in those days were considered of little interest or value.

This instrument is a virginal or spinet and more accurately called an octavina because it is to be tuned an octave higher than regular pitch. Modern pitch of A-440 fits its scaling and stringing.


John Challis
1 August 1950

Catalogue descriptions of other instruments worthy of note include:

768. OLIPHANT. Carved ivory.....France The surface is covered with beautiful carvings, including medallion portraits of Francis I, Henry II, and Francis II. It has a cup mouthpiece. It is too large to have served as an actual hunting horn.

1037. LIUTO.....Italy Pear-shaped body of fluted strips of red wood. Flat sound-board, with ornamented rosette sound-hole. The neck — flat and inlaid with ivory — bends at an acute angle. Nine pairs of fine wire strings. A type made familiar by the great Italian painters.

1277. VIOLINO.....Italy This differs from the usual type in that the strings are tightened by a metal device. A similar device in use on other bowed instruments may have suggested its application, but whether by the maker whose name appears below, or by some other, is an open question. Signed — "Nicolaus Amatus, Cremonen. Hieronyme filius antonii nepos, fecit, 1670."

1296A. VIOLA D'AMORE.....Italy, or France This beautiful instrument, of the seventeenth century, exhibits the rare workmanship characteristic of early Italian and French makers, and is the choicest example of its type in the Collection. The top of the body — with C sound-holes — is purfled with ivory and ebony inlay, and the back carries a representation of a shepherdess surrounded with scrollwork designs. The curved peg-box ends in a carving of a man's head. Six bowed strings run over a finger-board of ebony, inlaid with boxwood in an artistic design, to a tail-piece of like material and decoration. Six sympathetic strings occupy their usual positions.

The most popular single piece, an automatic clarinet player (No. 644) from Germany, more logically belongs in a mechanical exhibition. This curiosity, once the property of J. P. Barnum, is one of the many mechanical music-makers created by nineteenth-century technicians. Stanley comments:

The original gay habiliments vanished in the fire, which destroyed its home, Barnum's Museum, New York, and, as the mechanism was wrecked, it is impossible to give any information as to its repertoire. The brass clarinet, in three sections, is 36 cm. long, and the diameter of the bell is 12.5 cm. The wind was furnished by a bellows run by clockwork, which also governed the movement of the keys, of which two are in the bell section.

Friedrich Kaufman, of Dresden (1785-1866), invented a number of such automatic players, and it is probable that this automaton was made by his son, Friedrich Theodor (1823-1872), who developed the Orchestrion — in 1851 — from an earlier instrument devised by his father.

The collection still successfully accomplishes its main objective: to exhibit musical instruments of all times and all peoples. In particular, the primitive types and the brass and woodwind groups are well represented. The recent growth of musicological studies has created an interest in the principal performance mediums of past ages and, in turn, in the collection itself. As a consequence certain weaknesses, such as the lack of viols and certain keyboard instruments, have become apparent. The chief needs are playable pieces of the following kinds: viols (all sizes), vielles, viola d'amore, clavichord, and a piano suitable for performance of late eighteenth-century music. The acquisition of these would aid in restoring the Stearns Collection to a position of importance and usefulness.

Future plans call for the adoption of more modern methods of display and for the reconditioning of most of the instruments, at least of their visual features. When this is accomplished, special exhibits can be inaugurated so that this valuable resource will be more useful as an educational force in the University and in the community.

Marion E. McArtor

[Died January 13, 1956.]


The James B. Angell Papers, MS, Vols. XV, XXII, and XXIV.

Guide to the Michigan Historical Collections. 2 vols. Detroit, 1941-42.

In Memoriam Frederick Stearns. [n.p., 1907?]

MS, Letter from John Challis, dated August 1, 1950.

Proceedings of the Board of Regents …, 1896-1901.

Stanley, Albert A.Catalogue of the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1918. Second edition in 1921.

Stanley, Albert A."The Value of a Collection of Musical Instruments in University Instruction,"Proceedings of the Music Teachers' National Association, III (1908): 78-95.

Stanley, Albert A. Papers.

The University of Michigan, an Encyclopedic Survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor. Pages 1521 - 1523.

History of the University of Michigan

Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments