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Elizabeth Wells, 2019 Curt Sachs Award Recipient

By Kathryn L. Libin

Chair, 2019 Curt Sachs Award Committee

In May 2019 AMIS honors Elizabeth Wells with its Curt Sachs Award, which recognizes individuals who have made significant lifetime contributions to the goals of the Society. As curator of the Royal College of Music Collection of Instruments for over forty years, Ms. Wells headed the development of a museum for display, conservation, and documentation of the instruments; expanded the collection through important new acquisitions; produced catalogues of wind, keyboard, and stringed instruments in the collection; and made the collection accessible to the public and to scholars through concerts, lectures, study visits, instrumental plans, and recordings.

Elizabeth Wells began her association with London's Royal College of Music as a student of cello in the 1960s. Working as a part-time assistant in the college's Parry Room Library, she was given the task of answering research inquiries about the college's instrument collection, which at that time was dispersed in corridors throughout the building, and of cataloguing it. She quickly discovered that the long-neglected instruments were in urgent need of proper attention and housing, and with the cooperation of the College's director began to lay plans for a conservation program and museum. The new museum opened in 1970 with a festive concert in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and thus began a new chapter in the history of the collection. New copies were made of certain important instruments, such as the unique ca. 1480 clavicytherium and the beautiful 1531 Trasuntino harpsichord, and instrument plans were commissioned for the use of scholars and builders.

Elizabeth Wells with the Queen Mum in 1970

The publication of a catalogue of the collection became a high priority for Ms. Wells, and the first volume, Part I–European Wind Instruments, appeared in 1982. Subsequent volumes include an Addenda to Part I (1998), Part II–Keyboard Instruments (2000), and Part III–European Stringed Instruments (2007). The development of the museum also entailed significant new acquisitions, and the collection grew from the 261 instruments present in 1964, to some 900 instruments by the time Ms. Wells retired. The collection was enriched by gifts from notable collectors and also by important purchases, such as the Broadwood and Bertsche grand pianos, and the harp ledgers from the London firm of Erard.

Musical Instruments gallery at the Royal College of Music

As Ms. Wells herself has written, "The collection was a catalyst and enabled us to bring together different disciplines and cross boundaries between musicology, organology, art history, science, and performance practice. It has made a far-reaching contribution to the education of RCM students, to scholarship and museology, and to the historic performance movement." As the collection is about to embark on yet another exciting new phase of its history, with the opening of a new museum at the Royal College scheduled for 2020––fifty years after that of its forerunner––it seems a propitious moment to honor Elizabeth Wells, who first saw the collection's potential and dedicated her career to bringing it to fruition.


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