The Recordings Archive at the RNCM

The RNCM Reveals Its Treasures For Heritage Open Days

August 9, 2023

The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) is known globally for the excellent musical education that it delivers and has a reputation for filling its concert halls in Manchester with fabulous performances, but what is perhaps less known is that it also houses its own museum. As part of its 50th birthday celebrations the RNCM is inviting people to discover the stories and treasures held in its museum and archives during Heritage Open Days on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 September (11am to 4pm).

The RNCM’s collection includes pieces that tell the College’s own story and the early story of Manchester music, as an organisation that was formed in 1973 from a merger of the Royal Manchester College of Music (RMCM) which was founded by Sir Charles Hallé in 1893 and the Northern School of Music (NSM) which began its life in 1920. It’s also an internationally significant collection, with pieces that are both extremely rare and extraordinary.

Tibetan Thighbone Flute at the RNCM
Tibetan Thighbone Flute

Not normally open to the public, during Heritage Open Days visitors are invited to enjoy behind the scenes tours of the College, take part in Family Friendly craft activities and relish the chance to explore the museum. The weekend will also see the launch of a new Digital Heritage Booth, which will be permanently located at the College for people to drop in and listen to incredible symphonies and masterclasses that have taken place across many years. All of the activities are free.

Collection highlights from the RNCM

The curious

A lot of the instruments in the Collection of Historic Instruments (of which there are 375!) have to be seen to be believed. Amongst the beautifully ornate marquetry, decoratively carved wood and delicately finished details are some real feasts for the imagination.

One of the favourite objects of younger visitors is an instrument that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale with its fantastical serpent’s head. In fact it is a buccin brass trombone that would have originated in France around 1830 and was designed to be a celebratory instrument, with the head of the serpent appearing over the head of its player parading in carnivals and festivals. Another curiosity dates back to the late 1800s and at some point made its way from Tibet to Manchester. Known as a kangling, which literally translates as leg-flute, it is rather gruesomely made from a human thighbone and is a sacred instrument that would have been used in special spiritual rights.

The priceless

The shining jewel of the RNCM’s collection is a piccolo violin made by Antonio Stradivari himself in 1685 in his home town of Cremona, Italy. It is in fabulous condition despite its age and even though it shows some signs of wear and damage it is still on occasion used in very special performances at the College. A little more challenging to play, but possible in the right hands, is a 1901 violin made by John Shaw of Manchester, which measures just over 10cm long. It is believed to be the world’s smallest playable violin and is perfect in every detail.

The Strad

Perfectly composed

They are some of the finest composers the world has ever seen, but perhaps less well known is that Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Brahms were also friends who regularly corresponded with each other sending letters back and forth. These fascinating letters now form part of the RNCM’s collection and place history within your grasp.

There many composers represented in the collection. Some in rather unusual ways, and this includes a cast of Chopin's left hand and a lock of Mendelssohn's hair.

Picture stories

The archives include thousands of photographs, with the earliest dating back to the 1880s, capturing performances, special appearances and historic moments. Amongst them is an image taken on 28 June 1973 of eight year old Jeremy Sassoon who was given the responsibility of presenting HRH the Duchess of Kent with flowers during the official opening of the RNCM and its Oxford Road building. He was selected for the honour because he was the youngest student studying at the Junior School at the time and is returning this year to join in the celebrations. Jeremy entered into a medical career at the age of 18, but has returned to music and now performs as a jazz singer and pianist.

Italian Polygonal Virginal at RNCM
Italian Polygonal Virginal

Recording history

Recordings of large-scale concerts, master-classes and student recitals fill up vast shelves of the RNCM’s archive and exist in many different formats to reflect the technology used at different times, including magnetic reel to reel tapes, VHS, DAT tapes, mini disks and CDs. However, thanks to a project being funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund these are being digitalised, which will not only ensure they are preserved, it will also make them more accessible. One of the most exciting ways that visitors to the RNCM will be able to experience them is via the new Digital Heritage Booth which will be launched during the Heritage Open Days weekend.

The RNCM museum and archives are open to the public for Heritage Open Days on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 September from 11am to 4pm. Entry is free and no pre-booking is required. For further information on the RNCM’s museum and archives CLICK HERE