Apparently I’m not the only one who had an appointment to try out the Jay Haide 7/8 cellos at the Soundpost last Tuesday. This was slightly… I’m not sure what it was. Odd, to say the very least. The Soundpost is a lovely shop, occupying three floors of an old house in downtown Toronto, right next to the Women’s College. As there were no practice rooms available (or 7/8s, as someone else was playing them) I went downstairs to dig through the racks and drawers and piles of sheet music. I scored a copy of the Position Pieces for Cello Vol. 2 and a copy of Beethoven’s third cello sonata. (Technically I own the sheet music to all six Beethoven sonatas, but they’re in a single book which is great for reading along with a CD but lousy for playing, because the music is tiny and two out of three systems are piano, after all.) When I went back upstairs I tested the two 7/8s and as I noted before they were lovely and balanced, smooth, and very easy to play in the higher positions. I would be happy to own either of them. But I didn’t fall in love with them enough to rent one.
Part of this has to do with the cello that I’d already met on this trip. And on the practical side of things, I didn’t know how I’d fit two cellos in our trunk, despite it being a Trunk of Extended Holding. And the cello I’d already met had a wee bit more priority.
Sunday afternoon we went over to my cousin’s house in Dundas. He and his wife and daughter usually come out to my parents’ home when we’re visiting, but they wanted to do dinner for us this time so over we went. They have a lovely little home dating from the early twentieth century, with striking crown moldings and hardwood floors. Anyway, between dinner and dessert I stepped inside to help get the whipped cream on its way, and mentioned to my cousin that I had an appointment with a luthier in Toronto in two days’ time, and if he liked I could bring his grandmother’s cello in with me to get a quick estimate on the necessary repair work. He’d inherited this cello from his grandmother (on his father’s side, not my grandmother) and had crossed the country with it a few times as he went back and forth between the west and east coasts. On the last trip into Ontario a couple of years ago there had been a car accident and the cello had been damaged. I hadn’t asked the extent of the damage; I only knew it needed to be fixed in some way. He agreed that it would be a good idea, all the more so because he really didn’t know where to bring it, and brought me upstairs where he took it out of a closet. The soft case was flopped over: the neck had broken off in the accident. I had no idea seeing a cello without its neck — not even out of the case yet — could make me feel that sick inside. We put it down on the central landing and eased it out of the case.
Gentle readers, it’s beautiful. It’s a burnished light chestnut brown, with a deep grain; no shiny varnish fills these ridges in. The bridge and tailpiece were off so I picked up the body and angled it, peering inside for a label. The only one in it is a handwritten slip of paper that says RÃ©parÃ© par H. Gagnier, 1915 in slightly blurry ink. My cousin found the neck and brought it out too. The scroll is a beautiful glowing honey colour, and three of the four tuning pegs have tiny mother of pearl circles set in them. Around the pegs are little holes, which puzzled me until HRH pointed out that it must have had decorative plates around them. My cousin says that the cello is supposed to be a turn of the (twentieth, obviously) century German-made instrument. The story goes that his grandmother used to be a violinist, until her arthritis got too bad for her to make the minute movements required for violin playing. She was going to quit entirely but her teacher coaxed her into playing the cello, and sold her a cello she had for five hundred dollars. My cousin received the instrument after her death, and took a couple of lessons, but it didn’t go further than that.
I looked closely at the neck, and at the body of the cello, and at its shape. I glanced at HRH, who was watching me oddly (having suspicions of his own), then I asked my cousin for a measuring tape.
“It’s a 7/8, isn’t it,” HRH said as I took measurements.
“Almost. Not exactly,” I said. “I think it would be classified as a small 4/4.”
And so I explained to my cousin that I’d been looking for a 7/8 cello, and we talked about proportion and such. And then he nearly stopped my heart.
“Well, if you can get it fixed, you can use this one. The idea was that if we had a second child one of them would play the piano and the other the cello. But if we have a second child and they want to play the cello, by the time it’s big enough to use a full-sized one we could just recall it from you. Someone might as well be playing it in the meantime.”
I felt like I’d moved into some sort of alternate reality. We talked about the repairs. Apart from the neck that’s come off the body, there a small dent (almost a hole) in the upper rib, a few inches to the right of where the neck joins, and a few minor surface cracks along both sides of the ribs where they begin to curve down. We agreed that if the repairs could be done and result in a playable instrument, we would split the cost. I decided to bring it back home to my luthier, because I trust him and if this needs to be rebuilt then there’s going to be some amount of back and forth, and it would be better to be in the same city for that.
So I have an antique German cello sitting in my office, in two pieces. I measured every inch of it the night we came home and it’s proportionally smaller than my current 4/4 by a few millimetres here and there, almost a centimetre in places (not hard to be smaller, as mine’s an oversized cello!). It’s especially smaller in the upper half, which is where I need the daintier 7/8 proportions. Comparing the two sets of measurements with the standards, it looks like the German cello is a small 4/4 or a large 7/8. To be honest, I think it’s what was called a lady’s cello back then.
My luthier isn’t back in town till mid-August. I’ll call and set up an appointment with him to look at it and evaluate the extent of the damage, and give me an estimate. If it’s the size I need, and he thinks the sound will be decent once it’s patched, then I’m all for using it. My budget for a new 7/8 would more than cover half the repairs, unless they are astronomical. I tried to explain to my cousin how special this was, how I’d rather play something that had been in the family than a newer instrument, but I don’t think I was very coherent.
He brought out an old suitcase of his grandmother’s music for me to take home too, but I forgot it there when we left. I’ll have to e-mail him and tell him to send it back with my parents the next time they go over, and I’ll pick it up when I go down for the Hamilton event in September.
Here’s what it will look like in one piece. I think it’s beautiful. But then, I am biased.
I honestly think these are (relatively!) easy repairs. I’ve read enough about lutherie to know what’s a dangerous crack and what isn’t, and some of the techniques involved for fixing cracks and dents. There are no visible cracks to the belly or back of the instrument, which would be much more dangerous and tricky to repair, because they bear a lot of pressure. As drastic as it looks, the neck is the easiest issue to address; it needs to be glued back on, and a bit of cosmetic touch-up done. The angle may need to be adjusted. To fix the dent and the cracks in the upper ribs the top will have to be taken off, and either thin strips of wood or linen soaked in glue applied to the inside to patch and strengthen the existing wood. There may be things I can’t see that will need attention as well, of course. Apart from those, the soundpost will have to be reset and possibly replaced, and there will almost certainly be a new bridge, and it needs new strings. It will always be delicate and in need of cosseting; any instrument that has cracked does. If the luthier’s estimate is too high, or if the news is bad right off the bat, I’ll contact my cousin and we’ll decide what to do next. And in the meantime, I have my 4/4 to play, and I’ll keep testing 7/8s as they come.