"Something we're incredibly lucky to have is this huge array of Stradivari instruments," explained Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum. "Of course, his violins are very famous – everybody knows his name ��but when you come here, you can actually see instruments of different flavors that are extremely rare. Something that was extremely out of the blue was the acquisition of this viola da gamba."
The instrument, later converted to a cello, was made around 1730 in the workshop of the Italian Antonio Stradivari, perhaps the world's most famous maker of violins and other stringed instruments. The better-known latinized form of his name, Stradivarius, is often used to refer to his instruments.
In all likelihood, the viola da gamba, converted to a cello roughly a century after its creation, was made toward the end of Stradivari's life, possibly by one of his sons.
As baroque instruments fell out of favor, many were converted to forms better suited to what was then a more contemporary sound ��that of classical music. While some music historians might insist that such instruments were "butchered," it is probable that they owe their continued survival to having been converted. Many instruments such as Stradivari's viola da gamba would almost certainly have been discarded as musical fashions changed, so visitors to the museum are indeed fortunate that the conversion occurred.
The more modern of the two instruments, dated circa 1894, is the lyre-mandolin, hand crafted by Orville Gibson, a maker of guitars and mandolins in Kalamazoo, MI, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"He may have only been a footnote to history – he came up with a patent for an arched-top mandolin," Sheets said, "but his ideas were purchased by the group of investors who formed the Gibson company, who started the iconic guitars that we think of today as being typically American."
The company is now world famous for the manufacture of electric guitars such as its Les Paul models, but fewer than 20 of Orville Gibson's original instruments are known to have survived.
The lyre-mandolin, which was depicted on early Gibson Guitar-Mandolin Company labels, is notable in part because of its highly unusual shape. The hollow lyre arms have been carved into intricate, stylized forms. Another interesting feature is the presence of a mysterious inlaid star and crescent on its peghead, something common to other early Orville Gibson instruments. A guitar bearing this design is displayed adjacently.
While the lyre-mandolin is in remarkably good condition, it is clear that the instrument has been played. "This isn't just a showpiece," added Sheets.
Both instruments are on display at the National Music Museum, 414 E. Clark St., Vermillion. Although a specific admission fee is not charged, donations are encouraged. The museum is a nonprofit institution, dependent in large measure on private support. Visitors are asked to make a suggested donation of $7 for adults, $3 for students. Members of the museum and USD students and faculty enter for free. Interested persons may obtain more information by calling (605) 677-5306.