By Emily Wright | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Sometime in late 1938, an elderly luthier, or perhaps his assistant, deemed the cello finished. I imagine a smoke-filled shop with a bell over the door, a local professional coming in to try the new instrument and remarking on its exaggerated, curved face and honeyed varnish. It must have been a wild time: Mirecourt, in the last few months before another world war would decimate Europe again.
I have not yet divined the facts of its journey to the United States, and wonder if it was a treasured possession, stowed in a first-class state room on a steam ship, or perhaps sent as cargo, the plaything of a young hobbyist who would move on to other pursuits once her parents stopped reminding her to practice. What I do know is that I am not the first to love this cello, and that, in the last ten years, someone to whom it belonged died. It went into a trust, and from there it arrived, on consignment, at the violin shop where I was working at the time. Like an idiot, I fell instantly in love with the thing—a cello so far out of my price range, I felt pain even knowing it existed.
I was without a cello at the time, surviving by borrowing the spare instruments of bold and generous souls who trusted me to take good care of them. At every opportunity, I would visit the French cello, going so far as to refer to him as Henri (silent h, please), annoyingly insisting others do the same. I’d never felt like an instrument had a name before, even instruments I’d loved. But there was something conversational about playing him: it wasn’t just me speaking. He had his own ideas about how things should sound. In fact, one local professional to whom I took Henri remarked upon this phenomenon, quipping that the cello was “too idiosyncratic” to consider taking on. It was in this moment, perhaps more than any other, when I felt an indelible bond form. I had to make Henri mine.
In those days, my bank balance was usually a three-figure affair, so a five-figure instrument was a pipe dream in terms of conventional purchase. Someone suggested a crowdfunding campaign, and I quickly set off on the now-common but still-embarrassing task of asking friends and family for money on the internet. The shop had every confidence that I would meet the goal, and we’d worked out an arrangement that any shortfall would be financed over a period of a year or two.
Fall short, I did. I raised about half of what was required, and in the intervening months, a series of surprise medical expenses and turns of rotten luck saw me tearfully returning Henri to the shop, leaving with a perfectly fine instrument that was generously offered to me for exactly what I had paid thus far. An instrument I would have to sell two years later, when more medical bills laid waste to my finances once again.
For four years, I played on a student-level cello that retailed for less than $5,000. As an aside, this was a strangely edifying experience. While it was not as rewarding to play as more expensive examples, it worked just fine. Occasionally, I’d be at a gig and would swap with other cellists, confessing that it was a high-end Romanian shop cello. Multiple people took me into their confidence with similar secrets. Their burden was usually the result of city living coupled with massive student loans, but at the end of the day, we were professionals who were unable to afford the tools of our trade. It felt subversive and radical to hold our own and sound good with these allegedly meagre instruments.
At some point, I stopped emailing to check whether Henri had been claimed. Even when I’d take my students by the shop for their first instrument purchase, I would not allow my eyes to scan the top row in the cello room. But I still thought of Henri every day.
Years passed. Old injuries flared up and decimated my ability to perform. I played less and less, and then not at all. After a failed surgery to heal my injuries and a brief foray into winemaking, I spent the next few years plodding ahead. I’d never stopped teaching privately, and on low pain days, I’d play during lessons. I found a pain-management doctor who matched my feelings of defeat with his own outrage that I was not playing more regularly. “You’re a musician. You need to play,” he admonished. “Go home and play, even if it hurts. Let’s figure this out.” I went home and played, and it hurt.
But we did start figuring it out.
I applied for my dream teaching job when it came up again, and against all odds, got it. There was an audition portion, and I sat in front of a half dozen amazing musicians and played a movement of Brahms on the Romanian student cello. It sounded great, and I enjoyed playing for other people, even with the pressure of the occasion. I started arriving on campus an hour or two before class to get some practice in, and I slowly started to feel like a cellist again.
Unbeknownst to me, the game was afoot. My partner and my father (with whom I am cordial, but not particularly close) had been inquiring with the shop about whether Henri was still there, and if the estate had any flexibility on the price. Henri had been out on trial several times, but he kept coming back. Perhaps it was his idiosyncraticbearing that gave people pause. By the summer of 2020, there was a different person handling the estate, someone who wanted to make a deal. At one point during these secret machinations, the shop owner asked my partner, “Are you sure she still wants this cello?” He wasn’t sure. He sat me down one evening.
“So, what would you say if we could afford Henri?”
“I’d say stop thinking about it.”
“I’m saying we can afford Henri, and your dad is willing to help”
Yes. Yes, I did. Yes, I always have. How was it possible that he wasn’t gone? How was he now affordable? I called up the shop owner, shaking. He was waiving his entire fee. Thousands and thousands of dollars, during a pandemic that had decimated the fine-instrument market. After our conversation, I closed the door to the bedroom and sobbed while one of the cats tried to comfort me. With this act of generosity, my father—who is by no means wealthy, but mightily thrifty—could pay the lion’s share of the cost. My partner’s bonus would cover the rest.
On a windy winter day, I packed up the wonderful Romanian cello for the last time. I welled up again, thanking it for being my trusty companion through some pretty grim moments. It had been brand new when I bought it, and I was cheered to think of the next owner who would benefit from these years of breaking in and adjustment.
I got to the shop, and one of the luthiers sat with me while I played Henri a bit, and I’m not sure what he said, or what I said, but somehow I ended up at home with this marvelous cello that is now mine. I can see him as I write this.
There have been times when it seemed the universe was sending clear messages that the cello—any cello—was not for me. But each time I reached a new low point, people in my life found new ways to lift me up. I feel their love and support acutely, a warm place between my chest and throat. This wild ride, though paved with all manner of ups and downs, has left me convinced that I really am, at the end of the day, on one heck of a lucky streak.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Cellos series gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.