At first glance, my great-grandfather Heinrich Groß (1882-1958), who played oboe and tuba in the military until 1918 and then the cello in an amateur string quartet until the mid 1930s, looks like a one-off on that side of the family tree. His only child, my grandfather, didn’t play anything (although he left a modest record collection including several recordings of Dvorak’s cello concerto). My father only found out about his grandfather’s musical past when another cellist turned up at Heinrich’s funeral to play the Ave Maria.
But stepping sidewise and looking at the (half-) siblings of both the cellist and his wife as well as their offspring, we find an astonishing number of people who played or worked with music in some form or shape. The cellist himself had one sister, with three great-grandchildren (ie my generation but younger), one of whom studied singing and early music and now works as a soprano and music educator.
Heinrich also had a half-brother from his mother’s previous marriage. His niece (the half-brother’s only child, I think) married into a dance school, a tradition which is now running in the fourth generation.
The cellist’s wife, Maria Pfersching (1881-1961; see also this entry on the origins of her paternal ancestors), was also from a relatively small patchwork family, with three half-siblings from her father’s subsequent marriage after the early death (in 1886) of her mother. Her two half-brothers, Heinrich and Fritz Pfersching, were amateur musicians who used to play for local dance events, although we’re not sure what instruments they played.
Among the descendants of her half-sister, Anna Pfersching, we have three professional musicians, with instruments including viola da gamba, bass trombone and cello. I understand they credit their talents to the Pfersching lineage, as the family of Anna’s husband reportedly had no musical inclinations.
Although, considering how Heinrich wrapped up his cello and never played again nor mentioned it to his grandchildren, I would argue that you can never know if you had some cryptic musicians in your family tree. I find this more shocking the more I find out and think about it. Surely, with the number of musical people on both sides and some variety of serious music-making happening in all five branches of the extended family, it is fair to assume that some kind of musical interest must have played a role when Heinrich and Maria got together. (They had a double wedding together with Heinrich's sister, and there are plenty of songs in the "wedding journal" of which I have a copy.) A musical family just falling into silence is a scary thought.
All’s well that ends well, though: Heinrich’s cello (now also known by the name of Heinrich) has seen a lot of excitement since the young musician in my family grew into it in 2009, including everything from quartets to barn dances. I will write up its adventures some other time.
Heinrich's string quartet, photo by his son who was a keen photographer. We still don't know who the other members were.