A memory of John Henry van der Meer

Some personal reminiscences concerning the prehistory and the history of CIMCIM

by John Henry van der Meer

The prehistory of CIMCIM has been written up in much detail by Alfred Berner in CIMCIM Newsletter IX (1981), the prehistory and history in the article above by Jeannine Lambrechts-Douillez. I cannot write on the subject more competently than these authors, for which reason the following remarks will be no more than a few glosses on the articles by Alfred Berner and Jeannine Lambrechts.

In 1954 I became curator of The Hague Gemeentemusum, consisting among other things – a library, archives and iconographic collection – of a musical instrument collection. I had studied musicology at the State University of Utrecht, but I had no specialized organological training. Therefore, I had to work unspeakably hard to build up a certain preparation, however primitive, for the task that lay before me. At an early date the international contacts presented themselves that were to become so important to all those whose task it was and is to look after a collection of musical instruments. The first contact was still in the framework of the Benelux: Jeannine Douillez (still unmarried), just appointed curator of the Museum Vleeshuis at Antwerp, came to see me at The Hague in 1955 in order to learn the nomenclature of musical instruments and their part in the Netherlandish language, a term which is the common denominator between the Flemish and the Dutch versions of this language, which are no further apart than Oxford and Bostonian English. I am afraid that I was still wrestling with the linguistic problem of nomenclature myself, so that I could not be of very great help to Jeannine, but her visit was the beginning of a life-long friendship.

In the ensuing years I felt the need of an international organization, as it already existed for libraries in the AIBM, more and more strongly. In 1956 or 1957, while spending a month working on my dissertation in Vienna, I made the acquaintance of Victor Luithlen, later to become a dear friend, too; I made the proposal to organize some musical instrument committee within the framework of AIBM; as there were obviously no signs of a committee for musical instruments being founded. Victor was not enthusiastic, because – as he rightly pointed out – the necessities of an instrument collection were quite different from those of a library.

In 1958 Alfred Berner – whom I had not known beforehand – invited me to participate in a meeting of the working group for organology, founded by him in 1953 in the framework of the German Gesellschaft für Musikforschung, during the congress of the International Society for Musicology at Cologne. The colleagues present (inter alia Ernst Emsheimer, Henrik Glahn, Walter Nef, Luisa Cervelli and Emanuel Winternitz) agreed unanimously that it was necessary to found some kind of international committee for musical instruments. Walter Nef accepted the task to invite the colleagues to a symposium at Basle in 1959, but unfortunately Nef fell ill, after which the task of inviting such a symposium was shifted onto my weak shoulders.

The symposium took place in July 6 to 10 in the Gemeentemuseum at The Hague. It was, I suppose, a success; in the first place I met with far less administrative difficulties in organizing it than I had met in my organizational work beforehand; in the second place the weather gods belied the traditional definition of the Dutch climate (“mild and humid winters, especially in summer”). In fact, the weather was so sunny and warm that we often fled into the Museum’s garden. I had also organized an exhibition of the instruments of New Guinea, of which the Western part at that period was still a Dutch colony (“Het muzikale hart van Nieuw-Guinea”) and an excursion to Amsterdam, where the Christian Vater 1724 organ in the Oude Kerk (old church) was visited, and to Utrecht, where a performance was given by the carillon player Chris Bos on the beautiful beiaard by François and Peter Hemony in the tower of the “Domkerk” (still with that name, although the Dutch reformed church does not have an episcopal organization).

For the meeting at Paris from June 27 to July 1st 1960 we can largely follow Alfred Berner’s and Jeannine Lambrechts’ articles. After the sessions of June 30 and after the wonderful reception at Mme de Chambure’s house in Neuilly, George Henri Rivière, Director of ICOM invited a number of members to an unofficial meeting at Claudie Marcel Dubois’s house. I think that those present were, apart from George Henri Rivière and Claudie Marcel-Dubois, Ernst Emsheimer, Henrik Glahn and myself. In any case NOT present Alfred Berner, Roger Bragard, Mme de Chambure, Jeannine Douillez, Victor Luithlen and Emanuel Winternitz. George Henri Rivière made the observation that on the final day of the meeting there was to be an election of the board; therefore, said George Henri Rivière, in order not to lose too much time in endless discussions, it might be useful to make concrete proposals, which could be voted upon.

This seemed a good idea. We were all agreeable that Victor Luithlen should be our first president, as he had four languages at his disposal – among which the two ICOM languages – and was the curator of the oldest collection of musical instruments still in existence (Ambras and Catajo). As secretary Alfred Berner was proposed, who had done more work than others for the formation of an international committee for musical instruments. This was heatedly opposed by Claudie Marcel-Dubois: “On ne peut pas avoir le secrétariat à Berlin!” When asked, why not, the answer was: “Puisqu’ils ont tué mon père”. I was so flabbergasted by this answer – after all, we were trying to create a mode of international cooperation – that I missed the next few minutes, in which Georges-Henri Rivière’s proposal of Claudie Marcel-Dubois as “secrétaire général”, as she in the coming years titulated herself, was accepted. I always found the “général” for a club of about 70 members was slightly ridiculous, however. I was proposed as treasurer, which I declined on the grounds of the terrifically complicated administrative structure of the Gemeentemuseum. I proposed Jeannine Douillez, always with four languages at her disposal, among which the ICOM languages, which was accepted. George Henri Rivière finally pointed out that it would perhaps be practical to have a few vice-presidents in case the president in future should be prevented; so the eldest colleagues Emsheimer and Winternitz were elected for this function. After all this Henrik Glahn in his humane way remarked: “Poor Berner”. So in the end Berner was proposed as “conseiller technique”, felt by all those present to be a kind of a consolation prize.

Thus the first board of CIMCIM came into being. Unfortunately, it did not always function too well. The reasons for this would require an article at least as long as the present one is up to now, and I have already exceeded the limits imposed on me.

I emigrated from the Netherlands to Germany in January 1963; for a number of years I worked at and for the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. The management of the department of musical instruments has entailed a large amount of hackwork, which also goes for the period before the official inauguration of the musical instrument hall on 7 July 1969. I am thankful that my esteemed co-worker from 1964 onwards, Friedemann Hellwig, often took upon himself elements of hackwork in order to alleviate my task.

In 1965 I was elected secretary during the congress at New York. It goes without saying that, as the election took place in my absence, I could have refused, but I thought that I should have a try, as my CIMCIM colleagues had obviously put their trust in me. Indeed, the cooperation with many colleagues was generous and from time to time I was able to pocket some small satisfaction. At that period I often visited the annual Händel festival at Halle (Saale) in the bygone German Democratic Republic. I had a very good contact with the late director of the Händel house at Halle, Konrad Sasse. One day I pointed out that it was a shame that not one of the four important instrument collections of the DDR (Leipzig, Halle, Eisenach, Markneukirchen) was represented in CIMCIM, to which he answered that the decision to have the DDR represented would be a political one and that there was very little money. During the performance of Händel’s operas Konrad Sasse introduced me to Mrs Gysi, who worked at the ministry and shortly after the Händelhaus was allowed to become a CIMCIM member.

The reverse of the medal was that in all three years my letters to France remained unanswered. I am still not a subject of the German Federal Republic, but, of course I represented a museum in this country and Germany had lost two world wars… This attitude of unwillingness to cooperate on an international basis exasperated me and in Cologne I resigned the position of CIMCIM secretary.

Since 1972, after an unspeakable offense by the then “secretary general” for which no excuses was begged, I left CIMCIM, which does not mean that I lost contact with my generally very dear colleagues. For the friendship offered me by those of my generation and those that came after – especially of this last category – I am more thankful than I can express. I am old, but nostalgic after former decades. On the contrary, I have the impression that with the present members the situation of CIMCIM has changed for the good. I wish CIMCIM a series as long as possible of peaceful and productive years.



BERNER, A, 1981. On the Prehistory and Foundation of CIMCIM. CIMCIM Newsletter IX, 1981, pp.4-14.

ICOM News: news bulletin published by the International Council of Museums, XIII, nr 4-5, pp.17-20 for the French version, p.39-41 for the English.

A Survey of Musical Instrument Collections in the United States and Canada. Music Library Association, 1974.


Updated on Nov. 2017