Live from RISD: It's the Meissen Monkey Band
By Elizabeth A. Williams
With outstretched arms, the band’s conductor exuberantly holds one hand aloft, conducting his 19 musicians and singers, while his other hand clutches a rolled-up sheet of music. The conductor is appropriately dressed in fine clothes, sporting an elaborate powered wig, but he is not human. He is a monkey, as are all the members of his band. Made by the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in about 1753, the Monkey Band was marketed to a French audience familiar with this simian twist on mid-18th-century aesthetics. Monkeys dressed as humans and engaged human activities are known as singeries, from the French word singe, meaning monkey.
No matter animal or human, this sizable band comprises horns, trumpets, drums, stringed instruments, a bassoon, and five singers. While the male musicians share four music stands, the seated female chanteuses follow along with open song books. It could be easily assumed that the porcelain replicas of the musical scores are simply decorative and not representative of actual music, but these minute musical depictions are indeed complete with the clef, key and time signatures, and notes accurately arranged on a five-line staff with measure bars.
And what might a band of monkeys play circa 1753? One music stand depicts the opera Lucio Papirio Dittatore, composed by Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783), a well-known 18th-century German composer of Italianate operas. The opera premiered in Dresden in 1742. Attending a production of the opera that same year, Frederick II of Prussia soon counted himself among the many devoted fans of Hasse, who was immensely popular during his career.
Knowing the exact opera depicted on the Meissen stand leads to the next question: could the musical notes depicted actually be played? The answer is yes, as demonstrated by this recording kindly produced for the RISD Museum by the Community MusicWorks Players. Enjoy!
Special thanks to Community MusicWorks and the Community MusicWorks Players.
Elizabeth A. Williams
Curator of Decorative Arts and Design