Sound universe

British politicians whinge on about "reining back" public expenditure, while French governments (at least until the austerity of the ill-fated Juppe administration) have regularly poured money into cultural projects. The latest example of enlightened profligacy is the Musee de la Musique in Paris, the latest addition to the urban park at La Villette.

A permanent collection of instruments from the Renaissance to the present day has been selected from the museum's 4,500 acquisitions, many appropriated from aristocrats during the French Revolution, and displayed on eight levels in calm, restrained rooms which underscore the warmth and colour of the exhibits. Set on discreet stands in minimalist glass cases, the instruments seem to float magically. They are not simply displayed as beautiful objects. Paintings, models and other artefacts place them in their social and historical context.

The key to the unique experience offered by the museum is the state-of-the-art infra-red, cordless headsets, the only visible sign of the sophisticated technology which lies behind the reticent design of the displays. The headsets pick up commentary and musical extracts at strategic listening points, enabling you not only to see the instruments but to hear how they sound and learn about their changing role in the history of musical performance.

The commentary guides you through musical epochs from Baroque Italy, the court at Versailles, Paris opera, the Romantic orchestra, rounding off with an intriguing contemporary collection with Moog synthesizers, Messiaen's weird keyboard instrument, the Ondes Martenot, and Frank Zappa's E-mu synthesizer. Some of the more exceptional exhibits include 17th- century Venetian arch lutes, Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins, pianos crafted by Pleyel and a fine display of brass instruments made by the Belgian, Adophe Sax.

Characteristic extracts from works such as The St Matthew Passion, Parsifal, The Rite of Spring and some jaunty tracks from Django Reinhardt recordings are used to capture the musical flavour of each historical period. Contemporary experimentation is represented by Mauricio Kegel's Exposition performed in Paris in 1978 at the opening of Pierre Boulez' subterranean music studio, IRCAM, under the Pompidou Centre.

The designer of the museum, Henri Loyrette, now director of the Musee d'Orsay, says: "The goal is not to present a comprehensive history of music, but to use the collection to discuss several main themes, such as the development of the orchestra. The constant intrusion of new instruments and even the arrangement of the instruments in the orchestra, the position of the conductor, as well as the place in which the music was played, were important elements in my decisions concerning the museum organisation." He sees the museum as a "secret universe", a refuge from the vibrancy of the park outside. It is a concept which works to staggering effect.

Morning group visits to the museum can be arranged and for those with a serious interest, there is a research and documentation centre with technical drawings of musical instruments, an archive on instrument makers, 15,000 photographs, together with listening booths and computer terminals.

Musee de la Musique, 221, avenue Jean-Jaures, 75019 Paris. Tel: 44 84 44 84. Group bookings: 44 84 46 46. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 12 to 6pm, Friday until 9.30pm

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