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.

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