fixing a cello

When I was eleven I learnt the cello from an old Czech. He was disconcertingly foreign, and quite unlike anyone I’d encountered before. He seemed remote and a little intimidating, though when I met him again many years later I could see he was a passionate and kindly old soul. At first I found his accent hard to understand. His v’s and w’s were reversed, and he pronounced finger to rhyme with singer. He was teaching us in a class, a mode he obviously thought unsatisfactory, and I think he found us all disappointing.

Ten years later I was in the last stages of realising that I was unlikely to become any sort of useful cellist, but I was yet to decisively give it away. I was still studying, with the cellist from a visiting quartet. Another Czech. He’d told me the fingerboard of my cello needed to be lifted by a tiny amount, and he sent me off to my childhood teacher to have it fixed. I’d no idea the old man was still alive.

What was needed was a tiny fillet of wood to run under the whole length of the fingerboard, not much more than a couple of millimetres at its thickest. It would need to be a fine piece of joinery.

My flatmate took me on the back of his motorbike, cello on my back, on his way to hunt deer in the foothills of the Southern Alps.

The old man greeted me with old-fashioned courtesy. He obviously didn’t remember me, but he spoke admiringly of my teacher, and my privilege to be learning from him. In the ten years since I’d seen him he’d become frail, and was subject to a continuous vibrato of the limbs I took to be Parkinson’s disease. Even when he held my cello to examine the problem, the shaking didn’t stop. I couldn’t imagine how he would be able to do the job. While his wife, who said little but had a warm serene presence, made tea, he brought out a cello he’d made to show me.

‘A nice cello’, he said, ‘nice tone, but too small. A cello to learn on. I have made much better ones.’

Wondering about his age and where he came from, it occurred to me to ask him if he’d ever seen Mahler.

‘I did’, he said after a long pause. ‘I played the cello when he conducted his Third Symphony in Prague. I was very young to be in the orchestra. As well, I played the bassoon.’

He slowly sat down in an ancient armchair, leant his head back and closed his eyes. His wife came in with cups of tea, put one on a table beside him, passed me mine, and indicated that I should sit. She cast her eyes over both of us, nodded her head and left the room.

The old man sat silent except for a slow asthmatic breath. An old wooden mantel clock ticked loudly. The room was dark, with half-drawn curtains. It had a rich and intricate smell from another time and place. Still he sat silently. I wondered if I should discreetly leave him to his memories, and started to stand up. His eyes opened but at first he didn’t look at me..

“He was a very great man, Mahler, a great composer and a great conductor.’

‘Yes’, I said. ‘I know a bit about him.’ I was doing a paper at university. A long way from this room.

‘The Third Symphony is long and difficult. He was very strict about how it should be played. We played it well enough and he was happy. I think’.

Then he started to talk. He brought out an old greenish photograph of a group of students in rococo costume, knee breeches and stockings, buckled shoes and pig-tailed wigs, performing the Schubert octet. He was the earnest figure playing the bassoon, his mouth tightened in that odd way of bassoonists. He named each of the other players. A couple had died in World War 1, a couple more of Jewish lineage in Hitler’s death camps. Maybe he was the last survivor. He told me about his workshop in Prague, about the smell of wood-shavings and linseed oil, about his father and grandfather and further back laying down the wood to be seasoned for sons and grandsons. When the Cossacks came through on their way to Berlin they burnt the wood to keep themselves warm and heat their samovars. He came to New Zealand. Played the bass in Ozzie Cheeseman’s 3YA Orchestra.

‘There was not much here for people like me’, he said. It didn’t sound like a complaint. But he got quite animated about the national obsession with rugby, which he thought hard and violent, and even more so about the destruction of music by drums and electric guitars. ‘Dancing monkeys’, he said scornfully, hauling himself to his feet and miming a startlingly unmistakable Mick Jagger. The effort exhausted him, his face became even paler, and he fell back in his chair, gasping for breath. His wife came in, quickly and calmly, and held his hand while he gradually recovered.

‘I won’t fix your cello today’, he said. ‘I have got angry and I can’t see.’

He laid his head back, and closed his eyes. His breathing settled into a slow even rhythm. He might have been asleep. His wife ushered me out.

‘Come back at this time in a week,’ she said. ‘He will have finished your cello.’

When I came back, the work he’d done was perfect. He showed it to me with quiet pride. You couldn’t see where the fillet tapered off into nothing. But his hands still trembled as he held the cello.

My life was changing. I’d started working on plays. The theatre seemed surprisingly forgiving of my musical limitations. I fell for its roughness and its insolent extravagance, playing the trumpet with more energy than skill. A little later I sold the cello to a younger student, who I hope did more with it than I could.

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