The Warden – a cellist’s view

Cellists were not uniformly well-treated by nineteenth-century authors. I’m sure that there are many examples of them within the vast range of Victorian literature; but the two that spring instantly to mind are distinctly unimpressive.

Harold Skimpole, a deeply slimy character in Dickens’ Bleak House, plays the cello; and we are told that a character in one of Wilkie Collins’ (otherwise) finest late novels, Heart and Science, ‘amuses himself in his leisure hours by playing on that big and dreary member of the family of fiddles, whose name is Violoncello’. No comment (except to mention that the cello was known until fairly recently by the more formal name of violoncello).

It is left to Trollope – as so often – to come up with a convincing defence of a maligned sector of society; this he does in fine style in The Warden, assigning to his much-beloved hero, Septimus Harding, a deep passion for the cello. Mr Harding’s relationship with the instrument is first mentioned in Chapter 1, during which we hear that he ‘has played the violoncello daily to such audiences as he could collect, or, faute de mieux, to no audience at all’. This sounds poignant; but to be realistic, no-one can hope to maintain a decent level of skill on any instrument without constant private practice – and this is presumably what Mr Harding is doing when he plays to himself. There would be no point in anyone listening; to do so would be no more interesting than watching someone else clean their teeth.

On only two occasions do we actually see the warden playing his cello. The first occurs at the beginning of Chapter 3, when we come upon (or rather, John Bold comes upon) Mr Harding giving an evening concert to ten of his almsmen. ‘The musician was seated in a garden-chair just within the summer-house, so as to allow the violoncello which he held between his knees to rest upon the stone flooring.’ This is slightly puzzling: it sounds as though he is not using the endpin, or spike, at the bottom of the cello that is customary today. Fair enough: the endpin did not come into general use until quite late in the 19th century, and one would expect the warden to adopt an old-fashioned approach. But in that case, the cello should have been held firmly between his knees, and would not have touched the floor at all. Otherwise, the point of contact between the bow and the strings would be too far down for a normal pair of arms to reach; it would involve stooping to a most unnatural degree, and would give the warden a bad back. Well, perhaps he was using an endpin after all – it is possible. Far more worrying, however, is Mr Harding’s careless disregard for the health of his (supposedly) beloved cello. We are told that the performance is taking place between 7 and 8 in the evening on what has been an unseasonably cold June day. Even though the evening is apparently ‘mild and soft’, it can hardly be warm; furthermore, it is bound to be humid. If this outdoor entertainment is a regular practice of Mr Harding’s, he will have endless trouble with unglued seams, with the cello going out of tune, and with the saturated strings’ response to the bow. (I speak with feeling, having played at several outdoor concerts at American summer festivals; my cello has refused to speak to me for days afterwards – and that is after just one night.)

The warden’s choice of repertoire is unusual, too. He is playing, without accompaniment, extracts from his own edition of some English church music. It can hardly be the most exciting of performances. Admittedly, the Bach suites – by far the greatest works for unaccompanied cello – were little-known at that time; and when extracts from them were performed, it was often with added piano accompaniment (sacrilege). But one does wonder whether the listeners can really have been enthralled by Mr Harding’s choice of music; it is perhaps not the best of reviews when Trollope describes his hero drawing his bow ‘slowly across the plaintive wires’. The piece is ‘a favourite piece of Bishop’s’. Henry Rowley Bishop (1786-1855) was apparently a composer and conductor of renown in his day, the first musician to have been knighted; but his reputation has long since vanished, this reference in The Warden and his song ‘Home, Sweet Home’ now his only claims to fame.

The second occasion on which we see Mr Harding playing his cello is during chapter 6, ‘The Warden’s Tea Party’. One of the entertainments at the party is a performance by a piano-duet team, a flautist, a violinist and Mr Harding on the cello. This would have been a fairly common type of ensemble; in those days before recordings, there were many arrangements of famous symphonies made for such combinations, allowing both players and listeners to become better acquainted with these masterpieces outside the rare chances of hearing them in their full orchestral glory. It is altogether a more promising event than the warden’s al fresco performance. At the outset, however, there is a delay before ‘the work of the evening’ can commence: Mr Harding has to tune the strings of his cello. ‘How often were those pegs twisted and retwisted before our friend found that he had twisted them enough; how many discordant scrapes gave promise of the coming harmony!’ Most annoying for the expectant audience; but hardly surprising, given the treatment to which the poor cello had been subjected just three chapters earlier. There is, though, a more positive aspect to this episode (to me, at least): it reminds us that the warden is using – like all players in those days – gut strings. It is an unfortunate fact of string-playing today that, during the last 60 years or so, steel strings – more brilliant and reliable, but far less lyrical or human-sounding – have all but taken over from old-fashioned gut. These wiry strings are tuned by nasty metallic adjusters set at the bottom of the tail-piece, at the base of the instrument. The fact that the Warden is turning his pegs is a pleasant reminder of the time when gut strings reigned supreme (when it took guts to be a cellist, as it were). Indeed, Mr Harding’s nickname among his more recalcitrant almsmen is ‘old Catgut’ – catgut being the material at the core of gut strings. (Curiously, catgut is derived from the innards of sheep, not cats; these days, I am told, the only suitable guts are those from sheep in Australia or New Zealand – British sheep are too fat.)

But I digress. The concert eventually begins; it sounds quite exciting: ‘And now the crash begins: away they go in full flow of harmony together – up hill and down dale – now louder and louder, then lower and lower: now loud, as though stirring the battle; then low, as though mourning the slain. In all, through all, and above all, is heard the violoncello. Ah, not for nothing were those pegs twisted and retwisted – listen, listen! Now alone that saddest of instruments tells its touching tale. Silent, and in awe, stand fiddle, flute and piano, to hear the sorrows of their wailing brother.’ Ha! Here Trollope assigns a proper importance to the cello (even though to describe it as ‘the saddest of instruments’ is to describe just one facet of its endless expressive potential). One cannot pretend that the passage is on a level with Trollope’s descriptions of fox-hunting; but at least we have seen the warden in his musical element.

Aside from these two scenes, Mr Harding’s playing is confined to an imaginary air-cello. (I don’t think he is ahead of his time, anticipating the air-guitar used by would-be pop musicians – but one never knows.) It is not an activity common to cellists; but somehow Trollope makes it quite convincing for the warden to react to stress by recourse to his inner cello. In these scenes, sadness is expressed by the right-hand alone, drawing an imaginary bow (a ‘fiddle-bow’ as Trollope wrongly refers to it – a fiddle is a violin, and a violin bow is considerably longer and lighter than a cello bow) slowly across the air. In these dark moments, the warden doesn’t employ his left hand at all – curious, since it is the left hand that produces the expressive vibrato most closely associated with tragic emotions. In his moment of glory, however, when he is defying the celebrated lawyer Sir Abraham Haphazard, the warden’s imaginary cello-playing attains impressive heights of virtuosity: ‘his right arm passed with bold and rapid sweeps before him… and with the fingers of his left hand he stopped, with preternatural velocity, a multitude of strings, which ranged from the top of his collar to the bottom of the lappet of his coat’. It is a striking performance, undoubtedly the finest playing in the book; even the imperturbable Sir Abraham is taken aback. Unencumbered by mere reality, the warden has become the cellist of his own dreams, fiery, impassioned and irresistible. The whole incident shows how deeply his relationship with the cello is entwined with his sense of self. And this reliance upon his wooden companion makes all the more significant his decision at the very end of the book to keep his cello, not at his own lodging, but at the house of his daughter Eleanor and her husband, Mr Harding’s former tormentor John Bold. What more convincing demonstration could there be of the deepest trust and love?

© Steven Isserlis 2008