Tuesday, September 08, 2009

story of an old cello

(last updated 10.8.2021)

The young cellist in my family has recently moved up from the 3/4 size instrument to the full size one that my great-grandfather used to play many decades ago, so I’ll take this exciting coming-of-age moment as an excuse to write up the story of this instrument.

In fact, we don’t know when and how it came into the family. The violinmaker who restored it to its former glory, Helmut Pöser at Regensburg, Germany, said it is from Saxony, and was built at the beginning of the 20th century.

Max Heinrich Groß was born in 1882 and served as a military musician until 1918. His official job title was hoboist, but this doesn't mean that he played the oboe - in the infantry all musicians were classed as hoboists. In 1919 he took up a civilian job in the local council administration of Elberfeld (then a city of 157,000 inhabitants, which in 1929 became part of Wuppertal). So I reckon that at this point, missing the professional music-making, he may have started playing the string quartet, of which we know that it was an established habit in the 1920s and 30s (see photo below, dated 1927). He may have bought the cello second hand, as it probably dates from before WW1, and it is a nice instrument which he may not have been able to afford brand new.

Legend -- as I remembered it -- has it that one of the members of his string quartet was a Jew and was deported in 1939 or shortly after, and that our cellist wrapped up his instrument and never touched it again. Older family members tell me, though, that Max Heinrich's boss at the city administration admonished him in the mid-1930s already not to spend his free time with Jews, whereupon he sulked and said "If I can't play music with whom I want to play, I won't play at all." So we don't really know what happened to the Jewish musician. Max Heinrich put the cello on top of the cupboard in the living room at Wuppertal, where it remained until 1961, when his widow died (he had died three years earlier).

It ended up in the attic in my grandparents’ house, where we retrieved it in the summer of 1980 in a sorry state. There were gut strings on it (you can see two of them here), but the bridge was missing, there were two ugly cracks in the front of the body and one in the side, and part of the inlay around the edges was missing. For some reason the inside was stuffed with old newspapers. The bow didn’t have a single hair left.

At that point I felt inspired to learn the cello (not just because of the battered old instrument, I also was and still am a great fan of Dvorak's cello concerto), but during a visit to the local council music school, they persuaded us that at 16 I was too old to start such a difficult instrument, and that I should learn the double bass instead. (I later realised that this advice may also have been based on the fact that they had too many applicants for cello and not enough for double bass.)

But anyhow, I did learn the bass for a few years, although it soon became obvious that I couldn’t do much with it, as the bass normally serves the rhythm section (especially in jazz), and my timekeeping isn’t all that good. Starting at Marburg University in 1984, with a student room that was only marginally larger than a double bass, my musical career petered out.

Meanwhile, the cello had pride of place in my bedroom back home (with a bass, cello, and several guitars in the room, you couldn’t cough in this room without getting a resonance from some corner!) . Fast forward to 1991, when a new generation of my family made its arrival, and thus the hope for new musicians. At that point, we lived in the heart of the historic centre of Regensburg, and there was a violinmaker’s workshop on the opposite side of the square, so I took the cello over and asked whether it was worth restoring it, and Mr Pöser said yes, so with generous financial support from my father we had the instrument restored to perfect health.

Matching children to instruments requires some thought (think of how many unhappy pianists there are in this world!), and after some consideration we worked out that our firstborn didn’t have the temperament suited to a cello (as you can put quite some energy in and can get a big sound out, you want an assertive kind of person to play it). Being very attracted to all things that glitter, she was easily persuaded to learn the flute, though. Number two didn’t qualify due to his disability and associated problems, leaving number three who luckily did bring the temperament to match the instrument.

Using the beautifully restored old instrument as the carrot dangling before her nose, we enticed her to start learning the cello, even though she had to go through a sequence of “fractional” cellos, from the eighth up to the three-quarter size one. Apart from the temperament-matching, and the carrot-dangling, the fact that she really enjoys ensemble playing and that her services were much in demand in school orchestras has helped to keep the motivation going.

And now she really does get to bite that carrot that’s been dangling for over 7 years. In celebration, I have had the hairless old bow re-haired, which has a wonderful deep groove where Max Heinrich’s index finger used to go, wearing the wood down over decades. Although she may end up using a different bow, it is nice to see the old pair reunited. And it sounds just great.

Talking bows with her teacher, I was reminded of Harry Potter’s experience buying his wand. “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr Potter,” the shopkeeper said, if I remember correctly. Probably true for bows and cellists as well. And more generally for instruments and children. It’s just magic.

PS I haven't got a clue who the other musicians in the quartet were, so if anybody recognises any of them in the pictures, I'd be grateful for a hint! The complete set of three photos we have of the quartet is reunited here.

Update 2021: A book-length version of this story is taking shape here, and an appreciation of the city of Elberfeld, where Heinrich's quartet played, is here.

1 comment:

ruth said...

a lovely cello story indeed!