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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of the Bate Collection in Oxford

What is the Bate Collection?

The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments in Oxford University’s Faculty of Music is the most comprehensive collection of European woodwind, brass and percussion instruments in the UK.

Entrance to the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments

Bate Collection History

This small, fairly unassuming building in the shadow of Christ Church houses the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, the largest collection of its kind in Britain. In 1968, Philip Bate, the distinguished Anglo-Scottish musicologist and broadcaster, donated his extensive collection of European musical instruments to Oxford University. They range from the early instruments of the Renaissance through the centuries of canonical classical music, up to the 20th century.

Bate spent his career at the BBC, and it was he who produced the recording of James Blades playing a drumbeat, which during the Second World War was used as the symbol of the BBC European Service’s resistance broadcasts. Yet he always maintained his keen interest in musical instruments, which he had collected and studied since childhood. As a boy, he would visit antique shops and markets to find interesting items. His first item, a flute created by celebrated instrument-maker William Henry Potter, was gifted to him by friends; the next was inherited from his grandfather, a flautist, and thus his collection began. Other early items would be bought by a young Bate from market stalls, where he proved himself adept at a shrewd purchase: one clarinet cost him only a week’s pocket money. He received encouragement from Canon Francis Galpin, a mentor and a keen instrument collector himself. Eventually, Bate used his carpentry skills to restore instruments he bought, and learnt metalworking techniques to make reproductions of ‘draw-trumpets’, used in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

By the time Bate was 60 years old, his collection of musical instruments covered the history of woodwind from 1680 on and numbered over 2,000. Bate was made an honorary Master of Arts by the university in 1973, and after his death and cremation in 1999, his ashes were interred in the Music Faculty garden next to the building housing the Bate collection.

Bate made his donation with the stipulation that all students of Oxford should have access to and be able to play the instruments, and that they should be cared for by a specialist curator who would also lecture on the collection. The Music Faculty at the university runs an annual competition for students, in which entrants must use at least one of the instruments for an original composition.

The collection has grown since Bate’s original donation, with the support of individuals and groups such as the Friends of the Bate. Today, it also includes non-musical items, like printed instructions for musical instruments from the 15th to the 20th centuries, musical treatises, and a series of paintings of composers and musicians. Among them feature Elizabethan and Jacobean composers Orlando Gibbons and John Bull, and the influential 17th-century Italian composer, Arcangelo Corelli, whose works inspired Locatelli, Vivaldi, and Handel.

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