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Introduction to the AE Smith collection

Robin Tait, National Museum of Australia, 17 November 2008

ROBIN TAIT: Good evening everyone and welcome back to the second part of tonight’s concert featuring David Pereira playing the National Museum of Australia’s AE Smith cello. My name is Robin Tait and I work here at the National Museum in the conservation department. We have the rather wonderful job of looking after the Smith quartet instruments, particularly before they go out and come back from their concerts.

The AE Smith quartet of instruments was purchased from Ernest and Ruth Llewellyn in 1978 by the Commonwealth Government and came to the National Museum after that. The four instruments are all crafted in what is termed ‘Smith’s golden period’, being from the mid-1940s to the 1950s. Each of the quartet instruments is a copy of a Stradivarius instrument. The exception is the viola which is modelled along Brescian lines, meaning that its construction follows the ideas of the early Italian makers who immediately preceded and were also contemporaries of Stradivarius.

The first violin - the ‘little brown hen’, as it’s known here - was copied directly from the Le Maurin Strad which is now owned by the Royal Academy of Music in London. The second violin - the ‘red rooster’ as we call it because of its good projection - was copied from the Alard Strad. And lastly the cello, which we hear here tonight, was copied from the Haussmann Strad.

The AE Smith cello was made in 1953 from traditional timbers of flamed maple and spruce. Smith was able to copy the Haussmann Strad when it came into his workshop for repairs during a concert tour by the cellist Edmund Kurtz. Kurtz did a number of tours in Australia and on one occasion played the Smith cello in one of his concerts, as he considered it to have qualities similar to his own Stradivarius.

Playing any historically significant musical instruments adds to the objects and the audience appreciation of them in many often ephemeral ways. Hearing the sounds that AE Smith heard during his lifetime gives us an insight in what he as a maker strived for. In addition, engaging a Museum object not only for its form and beauty but as a functioning object adds an extra dimension to our viewing of it.

The Birtles Bean car, for example, which is another functioning object in the Museum collection, is on display at the moment. Its achievements can be appreciated by the wear and tear on the vehicle and the photographs that were taken during the trip. Nothing, however, compares to seeing it driven and hearing the loud raucous unrestricted exhaust. Birtles’ achievement comes sharply into focus through sound, movement and the smell of the hot engine.

While there is no hot engine oil smell associated with the AE Smith instruments being played, the extra dimension of hearing their functionality brings vivid focus to AE Smith’s achievements as a maker. The National Museum of Australia has adopted a strategy of display and occasional use, particularly for functional objects. This means that the AE Smith instruments will continue to be heard, their rich heritage celebrated, and their beauty and craftsmanship admired for a long time to come. I now ask you to welcome David back to the stage to resume the concert.

Date published: 21 January 2009