There are pianos. Then there’s Mahler’s piano. Or Liszt’s. Or the one they say Haydn and Beethoven might have played. All these unique pianos live in the historical musical instrument collection in Vienna’s Hofburg palace complex. And they’re not even the focus of the displays.
- Large collection of authentic old instruments from the 16th century onwards
- Numerous unique items with connections to monarchs and famous musicians
- Airy, modern displays with information in English and German (albeit using fairly technical vocabulary)
- Housed in the Weltmuseum; free entry with a Vienna Pass, Skip-the-line online tickets* available
- See also: Kunsthistorisches Museum & guides to Vienna locations for Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss & Schubert
The instrument collection
As you might imagine, Vienna has one or two historical musical instruments within the city limits. And a large number of them form the special collection housed in the Weltmuseum, itself a part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum group of institutions.
(Entrance to the musical instrument collection)
The setting mirrors the collection’s
The rooms housing the musical instruments begin at one end of the Neue Burg and stretch across to the other end, creating a linear journey through time that the contents mirror. At one end, 16th-century instruments; at the other, those of the late Romantic period and 20th century.
(The Neue Burg at night)
The main thread running through the collection is the evolution of musical instruments and technologies, and the work of such names as Graf, Streicher, and Bösendorfer. Various instruments fill display cases or stand free for even closer observation.
Further themes are music and court life, as well as the instruments of famous composers and musicians (Vienna has rather a lot of these, too).
So, for example, the collection begins with images of the triumphal entry of Emperor Maximilian I into Vienna, with real examples of the 16th-century instruments found in the illustrations. These cover a rich diversity of names and forms. Discover the Spinet and Regal or the Chitarrone, or shaped wind instruments that look as if a hallucinating student of Greek mythology designed them.
My favourite name is the C
As you progress, the focus increasingly shifts to stringed instruments and keyboards, inevitably ending with the great grand pianos of the early 20th century.
The main items of interest for the casual visitor are, perhaps, those instruments that once passed through the hands of some of the world’s greatest musicians and composers.
I will never cease to marvel at being able to stand next to pianos that the likes of Gustav Mahler or Ludwig van Beethoven once played. As in many museums in Vienna, you feel an almost physical connection to such historical figures of the past.
The collection includes, for example:
- A fortepiano believed to have been played by both Haydn and Beethoven
- A square piano that Schubert used when composing
- An 1839 grand piano that once felt the touch of Brahms
- The Érard piano used by Franz Liszt for compositions, lessons and private concerts while in Rome
- A 1902 piano owned by Mahler
However, the beauty of the instruments lies not only in their associations but in the workmanship, artistry and innovation of their designs. For example:
- Dual purpose instruments, such as a glorious 17th-century lacquered and mosaiced cabinet with a built-in keyboard, or a table inlaid with ebony and ivory that turns out to be a pipe organ
- A Bösendorfer grand piano built in the 1860s for the Paris World Fair. Imagine an opulent salon in a majestic palace. Now imagine that salon in the form of a grand piano – all neoclassical wood inlays, decorated scrollwork, and gilded female figures
- A double guitar from 1690, almost 300 years before the likes of Jimmy Page would make double-necked guitars famous
- Fortepianos from the late 18th century; the kind that Jane Austen’s heroines (or Jane Austen herself) might have played on
- Gorgeous harps with golden scrolling and covered in delicate paintings
- A travelling clavichord complete with quill holder for those last minute changes to the sheet music
- Gilded mid-18th century trumpets used at court occasions during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa
There are one or two highlights away from the instruments, too. For example:
- The room at the centre of the collection (the Marble hall), filled with marble columns, stucco decoration and ceiling paintings
- A coloured wax bust of Joseph Haydn, created while he was still alive in around 1800
- Portraits of Beethoven (1823) and Schubert (1814)
- An 1898 bust of Brahms by Ilse Conrat (who also designed his gravestone)
Those with a greater understanding of the history and technology of musical instruments will also value the way the items on display illustrate the progressive instrument design.
And those of a creative bent will appreciate the simple artistic brilliance of many of the items, as seen in the twists and curves, the patterned inlays, the careful decoration or the glorious aesthetics of the physical designs.
Tickets & visitor tips
To access the instrument collection, you need a Vienna Pass or an entrance ticket for the Weltmuseum. At the time of writing, adult tickets cost €12, with concessions available and skip-the-line tickets purchasable online*.
Some quick tips:
- Almost all written information is in German and English. Sometimes the language used goes over the heads of anyone not familiar with the vocabulary of musical instruments, e.g “The Shawm was built from the decant register to the great bass.”
- My floorplan leaflet guide used a different numbering system to the rooms themselves, so don’t let that confuse you
- You go up two floors and pass through the Imperial Armoury section to reach the instruments. I’ll admit I got a little confused trying to find the way in, but then I’m an idiot when it comes to navigation. There were plenty of staff around, so you can always ask if you get confused
- The ground floor (and magnificent atrium) has all the facilities: cloakroom, lockers, shop and cafe. The latter two you can even go into without a ticket
- As a modern museum of ethnology, the Weltmuseum offers numerous fascinating exhibits on world cultures, with regular temporary exhibitions
- The same part of the building housing the Weltmuseum also houses the Hofburg info centre and Imperial shop, so you might want to look at them while you’re there
- If you want to hear some instruments, rather than just look at them, pick up an audioguide. Or can I make some concert recommendations?
How to get to the instrument collection
It’s central and easily accessed on foot or by public transport. See the Weltmuseum article for details.
Address: Heldenplatz, 1010 Vienna | Website