One of my all-time favorite movies is Parent Trap- not the remake but the original starring Brian Keith, Maureen O’Hara and Haley Mills. In the movie, the very wealthy grandmother of Haley Mills’ character, used one sentence to summarize the extreme wealth of the family and the large size of their house. She said to a servant “Put both Steinways at the north end of the drawing room”. To this day, this is one of my all-time favorite sayings; it expresses so much information in just 11 words.
I have never had a chance to use that phrase, however. The closest I came to it was when I attend a 2 piano/4 hands concert at my Musicians’ Clinics of Canada’ partner’s house where he indeed has two full sized grand Steinway pianos in the same room. Of course, at his house, this occupies most of the first floor.
But what is the largest musical instrument ever built?
There are several candidates such as the four story tall harp that was constructed at a recent Burning Man festival and the tuba that my friend had to drag home from school in grade 8. (He later switched to the piccolo).
Over the years, musical instrument builders have competed silently among themselves to create a very large version of their typical smaller-scale instruments.
Eight German violin makers were responsible for this rather large sized violin in the picture below.
Large tubas have been created and even the “octobass” has been created.
But the largest (so far) of any instrument is the Stalacpipe underground organ at the Luray Caverns that takes up about 3.5 acres. This was the brainchild of mathematician Leland W. Sprinkle (that’s really his name!). When spelunking in a cave one day, his son hit his head on a stalactite, only to hear a distinct ring. Where other dads may rush to see if his son was OK, Professor Sprinkle began to examine the distinct rings that other stalactites appeared to have, when hit. I hope he didn’t continue to use his son’s head!
In any event, because stalactites (and presumably stalagmites) tended to have a resonant frequency that was a result of their size (length and mass), in order to have a full representation of the notes on an organ keyboard, he needed to search about 3.5 acres of cave to come up with a sufficient assortment of stalactites to cover the musical range. An array of electronic hammers were set up that could be enticed to hit any number of individual or combinations of stalactites to achieve any note or chord.
Clearly this professor was tenured and didn’t need to publish-or-perish!
To date, this underground organ is the largest musical instrument ever built. But tomorrow is another day!