Monday, September 19, 2011

The Yellow Cello: A Mystery

The yellow cello is a big-bottomed narrow-waisted lady with an elegant hand-carved maple scroll. It was probably made in the mid-nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Johannes Brahms, in Germany. It has a spruce table, a maple back and ribs. Its fingerboard and purfling, the thin strand which outlines the top, are made of ebony. June, the woman settling the estate, did not know what to do with the cello, which had belonged to her friend and neighbor, Norma.

Certainly the instrument wasn’t much to look at, with deep cracks all along the belly, a patch on the front, a deep gouge made by the bow, a badly warped bridge and rusty strings. Through the slightest of contacts—the aunt of a fellow cellist learned about the cello when she struck up a conversation with a perfect stranger in her old neighborhood-- Nicodemus heard about the orphan instrument and went to look at it.

June, herself a lively and alert woman in her nineties, said she had often carried the cello to jobs for her friend, who had died, unmarried and childless, at the age of 94. “I guess that part of my life is over,” she said sadly.

Although the instrument hadn’t been played in ten years, “it was the light of her life,” June said. The yellow lady had been left to Norma by her own cello teacher.

Instrument makers and lovers joke about the Strad in the attic. Such is the mystery of stringed instruments that innocents cannot avoid hoping the violin, viola or cello they have found is worth a fortune. In this case, despite a paper stating the modest replacement value of the cello for insurance purposes, the obvious damage made it seem unlikely that the instrument had any value...

Until Nicodemus played it. And fell in love. And gave June a thousand dollars on the spot and brought the cello home.

Even with the rusty strings and the dreadful cracks (they had been patched from the inside and someone had sprayed lacquer on the face to try to make them blend into the wood) the cello had such a big, warm voice that Nicodemus could hardly bear to stop playing. He played and tweaked, tuned and peered, changed a string and played some more.

He took the cello to Carlos, the fine instrument maker in San Francisco. Carlos took in the condition of the cello at a glance, unscrewed the end pin and looked inside. “Not too bad,” he said, though the accumulation of dust showed how long it had been since the top of the instrument had been removed for what Nicodemus called brutal repairs. Carlos played the cello a little. “Beautiful,” he said.

Sleuthing out the history of a musical instrument is usually difficult if not impossible unless the instrument is famous. In this case, June said her friend had played the cello as principal cellist of the Peninsula Symphony, but even the old-timers at the orchestra had not heard of Norma. The cello teacher who willed the instrument to Norma supposedly was principal of the Oakland orchestra, but the orchestra’s archives do not go back very far. The only other clue to the instrument’s history was the figured maple bridge, stamped with the name Salchow, a New York firm.

June believed the cello had been played in Mexico at one point. She said Norma had sold a different cello to someone in the San Francisco Symphony and that she had given another cello to a student. The yellow lady was the one she kept until the end.

Why was the cello’s label removed? Where has it traveled since 1850? All we really know about it is that at least two cellists loved it and played it all their lives, and that despite its age and trauma, it still sings with a beautiful voice.

Friday, September 9, 2011


“Try To Remember” is the first song in The Fantasticks, the long-running musical show.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That no one wept except the willow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That dreams were kept beside your pillow.

Try to remember when life was so tender

That love was an ember about to billow.

Try to remember, and if you remember,

Then follow....

We try to remember all of our lives: words, faces, names, times tables. But there comes a time when remembering becomes harder. We apologize for our Senior Moments and worry about Alzheimer’s. And by now we all know or have heard of someone actually stricken with severe memory loss and have heard of the anguish this causes them and their families.

We work at remembering. Mnemonics, named for the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, help us to name the colors of the rainbow, the order of the planets, the music lines and spaces, the Great Lakes: Roy G. Biv for red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet. Mary’s Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights Pondering for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto (lately demoted, but still part of the mnemonic.) FACE, Every Good Boy Does Fine. HOMES.

But maybe we should take another look at forgetting. A touching moment in the original Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuseleh” ( has Dr.McCoy saying of Kirk’s grieving “I do wish he could forget.” And Spock, placing a Vulcan hand on the head of the sleeping Kirk, says “Forget.”

Mnemosyne was a Titan, a predecessor of the Greek gods and goddesses, and the mother of the Muses. Her counterpart, Lethe, was only a river god in charge of forgetting. However, the shades of the newly dead were required to drink from Lethe, the stream of oblivion named for the god, in order to forget their earthly lives before passing into the afterlife.

When the subject came up last week, Bruce, a brilliant young violinist who never forgets anything, said that in the Chinese culture, not so much urgency was attached to the memory facility of the old folks, or even to their behavior. We hold them in high regard for who they are to us, great-grandfather, great-aunt, not for anything they do or did, he said.

Maybe we cause our forgetful family members unhappiness by urging them to remember, I thought. I thought of conversations centering on some symptom of forgetting which caused sadness on both sides. “She couldn’t even remember her brother’s name.”

Shared memories are integral to our relationships, and yet we loved little children before we had any common memories.

Sometimes I think of my friend Arlene as the Defender of the Aged. She has worked with old people for most of her adult life and once did a study where she played music to nursing home patients believed to be in a persistent vegetative state, the end-stage of forgetfulness. Measurable brain wave activity arose in some of these patients after they heard the kind of music they had liked when they were younger.

“You remember Ram Dass’s book, Be Here Now?” Arlene asked me. “We thought that staying in the present moment was philosophically and psychically something we should strive for. Remember how we all worked so hard at our yoga so we could stay in the Here and Now? Well, these old folks, the ones who can’t remember, they are there, right in the middle of Here and Now.”

Mosaic from the first century B.C. depicting symbols of Apollo (center) Mnemosyne (top) and the nine muses. Clockwise: Calliope, Urania, Polyhymnia, Erato and Terpsichore, Melpomene, Thalia, Euterpe and Clio.