VERMILLION, S.D. — When the University of South Dakota's Shrine to Music Museum paid $3 million two years ago for 75 violins, cellos, lutes and guitars, it was the largest sum ever paid for a collection of antique musical instruments.
An anonymous wealthy Southern California alumnus of the nation's smallest state university put up the money.
For those familiar with the square neoclassic building on the University of South Dakota campus which houses the Shrine to Music Museum, the purchase of the rare stringed instruments did not come as a surprise.
Leading instrument makers and music scholars from across the nation and worldwide have been beating a path to this tiny Midwestern plains town for years to see the Shrine to Music, which is dedicated solely to the documentation of the history of music and musical instruments.
When the historic purchase was announced, the 96-year-old prestigious London-based music journal, The Strad, reported:
"The Shrine . . . has acquired the world's finest assemblage of Baroque violins in original condition, as well as some of the earliest and best-preserved historically important instruments."
Included in the $3-million Witten-Rawlins collection, as it is known, are five of 16 instruments constructed by Andrea Amati (1505-1577), the 16th-Century master whose violin patterns became the world standard.
And so here in this little-known, wind-swept settlement, a town of 10,000 residents--half of them students--a place without a first-rate restaurant or motel, is one of the world's greatest collection of musical instruments.
The University of South Dakota boasts the only music department in the country offering a master's in music degree in the history of musical instruments. Though it is too small for a doctoral program, Ph.D. candidates in the history of musical instruments come here to do their research.
Thesis on Mandolin Orchestras
Joseph Johnson, 31, of Titusville, Pa., is here doing his thesis on mandolin orchestras from the 1880s through 1920.
"There were hundreds of mandolin orchestras all over America. It was a vogue like rock 'n' roll," explained Johnson. "By the end of World War I, most of the mandolin orchestras were disbanding. They could no longer compete with jazz."
In addition to musical instruments, the Shrine to Music has an excellent music library.
"Here at the shrine, you do more than just read about the history of musical instruments," said Johnson. "You see the original old instruments. You touch them. The instruments are here, more than 4,000 from all over the world, going back to the 1500s."
To demonstrate his point, he went to a display case and picked up one of two surviving guitars made by Antonio Stradivari. The other is in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.
The guitar was made by Stradivari in Cremona, Italy in 1680. It appears almost new. It has five double strings typical of the 17th Century rather than the six single strings found on modern guitars. The shrine paid $165,000 for the instrument, which many scholars claim is the finest guitar ever constructed.
Also part of the collection is one of the few Stradivari violins in existence with an original neck, an instrument made in 1693 that cost the Shrine to Music $550,000.
How did tiny University of South Dakota become the repository for such an outstanding musical treasure chest?
It happened because of a smalltown high school teacher's obsession with musical instruments, explained his son.
"My father was a pack rat," said Andre Larson, 43, professor of music and director of the shrine. "I grew up in a house that had little room because musical instruments were cluttered floor to ceiling. Dad's collection really took off in 1920 when Congress passed a bill establishing A440 as this country's official pitch."
Until that time all musical instruments in America had a pitch (A466) that was higher than the pitch in other nations.
Arne B. Larson, 81, music professor emeritus at USD, picked up the story:
"When American military bands went overseas in World War I, they were unable to play with British and French bands. It was the difference in pitch in their instruments. It was a horrible racket when they played together.
"So, the pitch was changed and all the American musical instrument factories had to gear up. Times were booming for the instrument factories, for me, too."
Sold for a Pittance
People either gave the music teacher their instruments or sold them to him for a pittance. He especially searched out instruments that had been in families several generations.
At the end of World War I, recalled the founder of the remarkable collection, many Britons suffering hard economic times sold family heirlooms, including musical instruments, for very little money.
He collected instruments from Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the islands of the Pacific. In 1966 he came to USD as a music professor, bringing his collection of instruments with him.