The Renascence of a Violoncello
A short story by William Selway Robson from the collection 'Midnight Mess'

South Africa is one of those countries where the very poor co-exist with the very rich, often oblivious of each other. But sometimes there is envy and I suspect that this envy is not always in one direction. The person, usually male, who wanders the streets, homeless, "of no fixed address" with his worries distilled to the essentials of life – food and shelter – but otherwise as free as the air he breathes, can attract the envy of many of us. Even if we don't like to admit it.
    Such people, they live off the land in various ingenious ways and are exempt from the tedium of paying taxes, nevertheless having access as citizens to the full medical resources of a sophisticated State, although they have usually to put up with the ignominy of a pauper's grave.
    But in some ways they perform a useful service for Society – they are, for instance, dedicated to re-cycling. The rubbish of the rich can often be transmuted into the essentials of life for the poor.
    And so, it is a common sight, on rubbish collection days in the City, to see these interesting characters working their unhurried way from house to house, diligently and expertly combing through other people's trash in search of sustenance. They become expert recyclers, and we can envy them that ability rather than pity them – and sometimes be grateful too.
    The musical world in particular can be grateful to a certain unknown tramp from a small town called Paarl, in the Cape, who, 30 years ago (in 1975) found something which, though plainly inedible and valueless, nevertheless seemed to him worthy of preservation. He must have recognised it as part of some sort of stringed musical instrument and so took it carefully to people whom he knew to be musical. There is no trace now, alas, of his identity, and perhaps he has even died – buried no doubt in a pauper's grave. But whoever he was, he will forever be immortalised by his discovery and his inspired intuition!
    The recipients, Reg and Yvonne Weiss, recognising that it was the body of a 'cello in an advanced state of dilapidation, decided to pass it on to the only person they knew who might be mad enough to try and piece it together again. I have always had a reputation for, let us say, a slight mental deficiency which often manifests itself as a unique obsession of one sort or another, not shared by normal people. Some of my relatives, as a result, are careful to deny any direct blood relationship, in case it should prejudice their standing in Society. So I was, in fact, the ideal recipient for the damaged remains of a 'cello found in a dustbin. However, even I was not too impressed, though my habit of accumulating rubbish ("in case it may be useful") despite several house-moves over the years was distinctly to the advantage of the apparently useless remains of this 'cello. In its plastic bag, it was dutifully stored in whatever house we inhabited, and thus protected from the extremes of climate for nearly 30 years.
    Occasionally, when the mood took me, I would show it to various musicians and assure them, with more confidence than I actually felt, that "one day" I would restore it to working order. This usually confirmed what they already knew – that I was, to be blunt, mad, in a harmless sort of way. I remember once, quite late at night, taking a delightful girl up into a dark corner of my loft to show her "my 'cello". Jennifer, (that's her real name) an excellent and beautiful flautist, had foolishly expressed a desire to learn to play the 'cello, and so I thought I would improve my standing with her if she were to know that I actually possessed such an instrument. Despite my fertile imagination, I have to admit that she was not seriously excited by the discovery — although that is not what I tell my friends.
    Early in the year 2005, after a concert of Bach Cantatas using modern instruments, I suddenly, in a flash of enthusiasm, decided that, in order to do justice to this beautiful music, the group would have to play on genuine instruments of the period, that is the early 18th century.
    In Europe, or the U.S.A. (or even Japan) this would have been sensible, obvious and fairly straightforward. There are many instruments there from the Baroque period, and they are used now more than ever to play the music they were designed to play. But I live at the Southern tip of Africa, a long way from the source of our culture. Here it is rare just to find players willing to step back so far in time, and rarer still to find original instruments for them to play. But my madness engenders optimism – somehow we would do it! Then I realised that I already owned an early 18th century violin, modernised, it is true, and another old violin which could surely be adapted to Baroque style. And I once acquired, from a distant cousin, a beautiful 18th century viola – in original condition! All I needed was a baroque 'cello. Then my thoughts turned to the 'cello pieces resting patiently in the loft.
    With more care and interest than ever before, I fetched the plastic bag and spread out the parts onto the workbench. It was immediately apparent that this 'cello was indeed from the 18th century – the construction clearly showed that! One could see that it had been played gripped between the knees in the 18th century manner, not using a supporting "end-pin" – the hole in the lower block was too small to admit an endpin assembly. I checked all the pieces carefully, assembling them with tape like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and the entire body was there, save for one fractured corner and several chipped edges of various widths. This was exciting! What I had was one entire 'cello less its original neck and scroll. But the parts themselves were badly split and warped, and most of the thin "lining strips" were broken or missing. (These are there to provide a wider edge for the glue joints between sides, back and front). The "belly" (or, front) had one huge, wide open split as well as many cracks and several very crude repairs which would have to be redone. From a distance it looked alright, but close up one could see it was a wreck! To any layman, indeed, (excepting that anonymous tramp!) it was simply insubstantial firewood – no wonder it had been thrown away!
    But I could sense that its musical soul was intact – it only needed painstaking repair to bring it to life again! I gazed at the pieces and thought of the original maker who had, so long ago, carefully created a beautiful musical instrument, now hideously ravaged by time and neglect, and I resolved to pit my skill against that neglect, and to restore this 'cello to something close to its former beauty! I knew very well (having been told by experts) that the task would be ridiculously uneconomic. But sometimes time itself can be unimportant. After all, how much time do some of us spend, for instance, sitting inertly in front of a television screen?
    So, I mixed some old-fashioned "hide" glue with water (the sort made from the skins and hooves of horses and cows – in use for thousands of years) and put it on the stove to heat over a double-boiler. This, by the way, is the only acceptable glue to use for stringed instruments.
    I then started patiently piecing together the first of many, many fractures. At this point, starting a task which I knew would take a considerable time to complete, I thought, as I always do in such cases, of that wonderful Chinese proverb: "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step!" And that is the way to approach anything which seems impossibly daunting – just one small step at a time, and, inexorably, as if by magic, the huge task gets completed.
    And now perhaps the most unbelievable part of this story must be told.
    When I first decided to try and rebuild the remains of this 'cello, I resolved to turn it into a very special type of 'cello called a "'cello-piccolo," which was apparently an idea conceived by the great J. S. Bach. He needed an instrument to more effectively bridge the gap between an ordinary 'cello and the next size up – the viola, exactly an octave higher. So, early in his career as a composer, he suggested an extra top string tuned to e' a 5th higher again than the other four strings – and only an octave below the top string of a violin. This would enable the 'cellist to play comfortably up into the tenor, giving a new range of some three octaves.
    It was possible to modify an ordinary 4-string 'cello without too much trouble, and that was what I proposed to do – we needed a 'cello-piccolo for the many parts written for it in the church cantatas.
    And so I felt justified, since I had to make a new neck and peg-box/scroll anyway, to transform my antique 'cello into a 'cello-piccolo. To do this I would need space for 5 tuning pegs and also a wider fingerboard. (This is the black piece of wood under the strings on which the player "stops" the notes with the left hand.) Also, the bridge over which the strings are supported on the belly would have to be wider.
    And so the remains of this 'cello came to be referred to as a "'cello piccolo," although I had a slight twinge of conscience so doing since it was, after all, only my selfish intention. To thus modify an historic instrument was perhaps unethical.
    Then came the astounding bombshell.
    Prior to any glueing, I again assembled the various parts together and especially noted and documented the area where the neck used to join onto the body. With a little detective work, it was possible to see exactly the cross-section of the original neck at this point and thus, by extrapolation, the exact width at this point of the original fingerboard. And then I stared at the results of my calculations in disbelief! It was clear that the fingerboard of this 'cello had been a good 10 mm wider than normal! The inference was staggering – this 'cello had, there was no doubt, been designed for FIVE strings! Also, the space between the "f" holes on the belly was significantly greater than normal, an indication of a wider bridge than normal, thus confirming the extra string.
    My wishful thinking had miraculously been transmuted into cold fact! This instrument was indeed originally made as a five-string 'cello-piccolo. I was stunned. It was beyond belief, but it was an unavoidable conclusion from the evidence in front of me. There were other subtle factors, too, which confirmed the status of this remarkable instrument. An expert in Germany had pointed out that the original (and unusual) method of attaching the neck was typical of 18th century makers in Saxony – where J. S. Bach lived and worked all his life! And, on the remains of the printed label was a hand-written date – just legible – 1707! This fitted neatly with the fact that Bach had, at an early age, suggested the construction of a 'cello-piccolo. He was then 22, newly married at Muhlhausen, and had just started writing his famous church cantatas, for which he needed a specially tuned 'cello, with 5 strings.
    There are probably very few original 5-string 'cello-piccolos in existence. This special type of 'cello was used exclusively by Bach, and hardly ever again. Probably very few were ever made, and how one of those ever came to South Africa is an unsolved mystery. The unknown tramp who found it is probably dead now, so even the hallowed dustbin cannot ever be traced.
    Eventually, after months of work, the restoration was complete. The gut strings had come from a specialist maker in the U.S.A., the bridge, made specifically for this 'cello, from France, and the missing parts – the neck, fingerboard, pegs, peg-box and scroll I had myself made here in South Africa. All this, we must remember, some 300 years after the original maker had completed the instrument!
    Finally, the time came for an expert baroque 'cellist to play the instrument, and assess its character. Had all my work been justified? Hans Huyssen, who had studied baroque 'cello in Germany, was invited to come and play, using a special baroque 'cello bow I had made. So, for the first time, on 29th May 2005, the 'cello was played after its latest and, I hope, final restoration. On that day, at an informal gathering of musicians in my "voorkamer" (parlour) this lovely instrument sang sweetly again as Hans joyfully played parts of an unaccompanied 'cello suite by Bach to inaugurate its new life here at Noordhoek, at the southern tip of Africa, so far from its original 18th century home in Saxony, Germany! In that moment, the intervening 300 years seemed to shrink to a mere instant in time, as this venerable 'cello exulted in its renascence, a tribute both to the original builder and to the inspiration and music of J. S. Bach!