What horrors it must have witnessed: Steven Isserlis on how a Trench cello found its voice again

Two instruments with fascinating owners feature on Isserlis’s new album of music from the first world war. The cellist tells their stories

Can objects have souls? Or can they imbibe particles of the souls of those who have created, owned or touched them in the past? Collectors certainly seem to think so: why else would they pay fortunes for original manuscripts and letters that could be faithfully reproduced in facsimiles? With musical instruments the question is more complex. The great bygone string players owned great instruments, naturally, and we expect those instruments to sound beautiful, but could the virtuosi have left traces of their personalities indelibly etched on those instruments?

A related thought came to me recently when I made a disc of music dating from the first world war. If a musical instrument has sad or even tragic associations, if it can be haunted by unhappy ghosts, is one risking one’s wellbeing by playing that instrument? I do hope not.

I used two cellos for the recording. The first, on which I played the three major sonatas that make up the bulk of the disc, is the Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius of 1726, which has been loaned to me by the Royal Academy of Music. I know nothing about the life of the original Marquis de Corberon (perhaps a debauched aristocrat with a taste for music?), but I know that the cello was played for most of its career by the great Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova. I visited Zara during the last few months of her life, in 2002, and even when confined to bed she kept the much-loved instrument next to her, always in her field of vision. It felt strange to be playing the same cello not long afterwards. But it also felt good, because I hoped that Zara would be happy it was being played by someone she knew.

The other cello on my recording, the Trench Cello, has a far stranger history. I first learned of its existence a few years ago, over lunch with Charles Beare, the doyen of violin specialists. Charles told me how he had received a visit in the early 1960s from an elderly gentleman called Harold Triggs, who was carrying an odd-looking object that looked more like an ammunition box than a musical instrument. It was, in fact, a “holiday cello”, made by the firm of WE Hill & Sons, probably around 1900. Inside the hollow box were kept the neck, the fingerboard, the bridge and so on. In the hands of an expert it takes only a few minutes to transform the contraption into a working cello. Even the bow is special: its “frog” or “heel” contains a small hole through which one can blow and produce an A – a good way to check the tuning.

Triggs could no longer play this cello and wanted to sell it, but, Charles told me, he had the impression that it was not the money that interested Mr Triggs – he wanted to be reassured that his cello would be looked after properly when he was gone, and he told the story of this unusual instrument.

During the first world war, the young Harold served in the Royal Sussex Regiment. Like several other musically inclined soldiers, he had taken his instrument with him when he went to war, and played it in the trenches, presumably to alleviate the hours of stultifying inactivity, as well as providing entertainment for official occasions. The insignia of his regiment are painted on the front of the cello and on the inside is a note scrawled onto the wood at the back written in 1962 by war poet Edmund Blunden, expressing his pleasure at being reunited with the cello, almost 50 years after hearing it in the trenches.

Steven Isserlis plays Jerusalem on the Trench Cello, from his Cello in Wartime CD.

I begged to be allowed to meet the cello, but on first sight my heart sank slightly. How could this little box, with sound-holes painted on (like the black keys of Schroeder’s piano in the Peanuts comic strip), produce any sort of tone?

From the first notes, however, I fell in love. The sound is small, naturally, but so sweet, so special, and I felt the cello was somehow enjoying being brought to life again, after so many years of sleep. Later, I got the chance to play it at a remembrance service at Westminster Abbey; and now I’ve recorded on it, four short pieces that I imagine that Harold Triggs possibly played in the trenches to soothe the nerves of his comrades – as well as his own. What horrors this cello must have witnessed! But yet, one can feel that its spirit is calm, gentle. It must have felt like a small voice of sanity in a world gone mad. Actually, it still does.

Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih’s The Cello in Wartime is out now on Bis.


Steven Isserlis

The GuardianTramp

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