Fiddlers Errant

I

MUSICAL adventures largely depend on your instrument. Go traveling with a bassoon or clarionet packed in your trunk, and romance will pass you by. But far otherwise will events shape themselves if you set forth with a fiddle.

The moment I turned my back upon the humdrum flute and embraced the ’cello, that instrument of romance, things began happening thick and fast in a hitherto uneventful life. I found that to sally forth with your ’cello couchant under your arm, like a lance of the days of chivalry, was to invite adventure. You tempted Providence to make things interesting for you, up to the moment when you returned home and stood your fat, melodious friend in the corner on his one leg — like the stork, that other purveyor of joyful surprises.

One reason why the ’cellist is particularly liable to meet with musical adventures is because the nature of his talent is so plainly visible. The parcel under his arm labels him FIDDLER in larger scare-caps than Mr. Hearst ever invented for headlines. It is seen of all men. There is no concealment possible. For it would, indeed, be less practicable to hide your ’cello under a bushel than to hide a bushel under your ’cello.

The non-reducible obesity of this instrument is apt to bring you adventures of all sorts: wrathful sometimes, when urchins recognize it as a heavensent target for snowballs; or when adults audibly quote Dean Swift’s asinine remark, ‘He was a fiddler and therefore a rogue.’ Absurd, sometimes, as when the ticket-chopper in the subway bars your path under the misapprehension that you are carrying a doublebass; and when the small boys at the exit offer you a Saturday Evening Post in return for ‘a tune on that there banjo.’ But more often the episodes are pleasant, as when your bulky trademark enables some kindred spirit to recognize you as his predestined companion on impromptu adventures in music.

I was at first almost painfully aware of my ’cello’s conspicuousness because I had abandoned for it an instrument so retiring by nature that you might carry it till death in your side pocket, yet never have it contribute an unusual episode to your career. But from the moment when I discovered the exaggerated old fiddle in the attic, slumbering in its black coffin, and wondered what it was all about, and brought it resurrection and life, — events began. I have never known exactly what was the magic inherent in the dull, guttural, discouraged protests of the strings which I experimentally plucked that day. But their songs-without-wordsor-music seemed to me pregnant with promises of beauty and romance far beyond the ken of the forthright and obvious flute. So then and there I decided to embark upon the delicate and dangerous enterprise of learning another instrument.

It was indeed delicate and dangerous because it had to be prosecuted as secretly as sketching hostile fortifications. Father must not suspect. I feared that if he heard the demonic groans of a G string in pain, or the ghoulish whimperings of a manhandled A, he would mount to the attic, throw back his head, look down upon me through those lower crescents of his spectacles which always made him look a trifle unsympathetic, and pronounce that baleful formula: ‘ My son, come into my study!’ For I knew he labored under the delusion that I already ‘blew in’ too much time on the flute, away from the companionship of All Gaul, enteuthen exelaunei, and Q.E.D. As for any additional instrument, I feared that he would reduce it to a pulp at sight, and me too.

My first secret, step was to secure a long strip of paper to be pasted on the finger-board under the strings. It was all pockmarked with black dots and letters, so that if the music told you to play the note G, all you had to do was to contort your neck properly and remove your left hand from the path of vision, then gaze cross-eyed and upside down at the finger-board until you discovered the particular dot labeled G. The next move was to clap your fingertip upon that dot and straighten out your neck and eyes and apply the bow. Then out would come a triumphant G, — that is, provided your fingers had not already rubbed G’s characteristically undershot lip so much as to erase away the letter’s individuality. In that case, to be sure, all your striving for G might result only in C after all.

It was fascinating work, though. And every afternoon as the hour of four, and father’s ‘constitutional,’ approached, I would ‘get set’ like a sprinter on my mark in the upper hall. The moment the front door closed definitely behind my parent I would dash for the attic and commence my cervical and ocular contortions. It was dangerous, too. For it was so hard to stop betimes that one evening father made my blood run cold by inquiring, ‘What were you moaning about upstairs before dinner?’ I fear that I attributed these sounds to travail in Latin scholarship, and an alleged sympathy for the struggles of the dying Gaul.

The paper finger-board was so efficacious that in a week I felt ready to taste the first fruits of toil. So I insinuated a pair of musical friends into the house one afternoon, to try an easy trio. They were a brother and sister who played violin and piano. Things went so brilliantly that we resolved on a public performance within a few days, at the South High School. Alas, if I had only taken the supposed rapidity of my progress with a grain of attic salt! But my only solicitude was over the problem how to smuggle the too conspicuous instrument to school, on the morning of the concert, without the knowledge of a vigilant father. We decided at last that any such attempt would be suicidal rashness. So I borrowed another boy’s father’s ’cello, and, in default of the printed strip, I penciled under the strings notes of the whereabouts of G, C, and so forth, making G shoot out the lip with extra decision.

Our public preformance was a succès fou, — that is, it was a succès up to a certain point, and fou beyond it, when one disaster followed another. My fingers played so hard as to rub out G’s lower lip. They quite obliterated A, turned E into F, and B into a fair imitation of D. These involuntary revisions led me to introduce the very boldest modern harmonies into one of the most naïvely traditional strains of Cornelius Gurlitt. Now, in the practice of the art of music one never with impunity pours new harmonic wine into old bottles. The thing is simply not done.

Perhaps, though, we might have muddled through somehow, had not my violinist friend, during a rest, poked me cruelly in the ribs with his bow and remarked in a coarse stage whisper, ‘Look who’s there!’

I looked, and gave a gasp. It might have passed for an excellent rehearsal of my last gasp. In the very front row sat — father ! He appeared sardonic and businesslike. The fatal formula seemed already to be trembling upon his lips. The remnants of B, C, D, and so forth suddenly blurred before my crossed eyes. With the most dismal report our old bottle of chamber music blew up, and I fled from the scene.

‘My son, come into my study.’

In an ague I had waited half the evening for those hated words; and with laggard step and miserable forebodings I followed across the hall. But the day was destined to end in still another surprise. When father finally faced me in that awful sanctum, he was actually smiling in the jolliest manner, and I divined that the rod was going to be spared.

‘What’s all this?’ he inquired. ‘Thought you’d surprise your old dad, eh? Come, tell me about it.’

So I told him about it; and he was so sympathetic that I found courage for the great request.

‘Pa,’ I stammered, ‘sometimes I think p’raps I don’t hold the bow just right. It scratches so. Please might I take just four lessons from a regular teacher so I could learn all about how to play the ’cello?’

Father choked a little. But he looked jollier than ever as he replied, ‘Yes, my son, on condition that you promise to lay the flute entirely aside until you have learned all about how to play the ’cello.’

I promised.

I have faithfully kept that promise.

II

Fiddlers errant are apt to rush in where angels in good and regular practice fear even to tune up. One of the errant’s pet vagaries is to volunteer his services in orchestras too good for him. Not long after discovering that I would need more than four lessons to learn quite all there was to know about the ’cello, — in fact, just nine months after discovering the coffin in the attic, — I ‘rushed in.’ Hearing that The Messiah was to be given at Christmas, I approached the conductor and magniloquently informed him that I was a ’cellist and that, seeing he was he, I would contribute my services without money and without price to the coming performance.

With a rather dubious air my terms were accepted. That same evening at rehearsal I found that the entire bass section of the orchestra consisted of three ’cellos. These were presided over by an inaudible, and therefore negligible, little girl, a hoary sage who always arrived very late and left very early, and myself. I shall never forget my sensations when the sage, at a crucial point, suddenly packed up and left me, an undeveloped musical Atlas, to bear the entire weight of the orchestra on one pair of puny shoulders. Under these conditions it was a fearful ordeal to read at sight ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound.’ The trumpet sounded, indeed. That was more than the ’cello did in certain passages! As for the dead being raised, however, that happened according to programme.

After this high-tension episode, I pulled myself together, only to fall into a cruel and unusual pit which the treacherous Händel dug for ’cellists by writing one single passage in that unfamiliar alto clef which looks so much like the usual tenor clef that before the least suspicion of impending disaster dawns, you are down in the pit, hopelessly floundering.

I emerged from this rehearsal barely alive; but I had really enjoyed myself so much more than I had suffered, or made others suffer, that my initial impulse to rush at sight into strange orchestras now became stereotyped into a habit. Since then what delightful evenings I have spent in the old Café Martin and in the old Café Boulevarde where my ’cellist friends in the orchestras were ever ready to resign their instruments into my hands for a course or two, and the leader always let me pick out the music!

But one afternoon in upper Broadway I met with the sort of adventure that figures in the fondest dreams of fiddlers errant. I had strolled into the nearest hotel to use the telephone. As I passed through the restaurant, my attention was caught by a vaguely familiar strain from the musicians’ gallery. Surely this was unusual spiritual provender to offer a crowd of typical New York diners! More and more absorbed in trying to recognize the music, I sank into an armchair in the lobby, the telephone quite forgotten. The instruments were working themselves up to some magnificent climax, and working me up at the same time. It began to sound more and more like the greatest of all music, — the musician’s very holiest of holies. Surely I must be dreaming! My fingers crooked themselves for a pinch. But just then the unseen instruments swung back into the great opening theme of the Brahms piano quartette in A major. Merciful heavens! A Brahms quartette in Broadway? Pan in Wall Street? Silence. With three jumps I was up in the little gallery, wringing the hands of those performers and calling down blessings upon their quixotism as musical missionaries. ‘Missionaries?’ echoed the leader in amusement. ‘Ah, no. We could never hope to convert those down there.’ He waved a scornful hand at the consumers of lobster below. ‘Now and then we play Brahms just in order that we may save our own souls.’ The ’cellist rose, saluted, and extended his bow in my direction, like some proud commander surrendering his sword. ‘Will it please you,’ he inquired, ‘to play the next movement?’ It pleased me.

III

Fiddlers errant find that traveling with a ’cello is almost as good — and almost as bad — as traveling with a child. It helps you, for example, in cultivating friendly relations with fellow passengers. Suppose there is a broken wheel, or the engineer is waiting for Number 26 to pass, or you are stalled for three days in a blizzard, — what more jolly than to undress your ’cello and play each of those present the tune he would most like to hear, and lead the congregational singing of “Dixie,” “ Tipperary,” “ Drink to me only,” and “Home,Sweet Home?” A fiddle may even make tenable one of those railway junctions which Stevenson cursed as the nadir of intrinsic uninterestingness, and which Mr. Clayton Hamilton has recently glorified with such brio in the Unpopular Review,

But this is only the bright side. In some ways traveling with a ’cello is as uncomfortable as traveling, not only with a baby, but with a donkey. Unless indeed you have an instrument with a convenient hinged door in the back so that you may pack it full of pyjamas, collars, brushes, MSS, and so forth, thus dispensing with a bag; or unless you can calk up its F holes and use the instrument as a canoe on occasion, a ’cello is about as inconvenient a traveling companion as the corpse in Stevenson’s tale, which would insist on getting into the wrong box.

Some idea of the awkwardness of taking the ’cello along in a sleeping car may be gathered from its nicknames. It is called the ‘bull-fiddle.’ It is called the ‘dog-house.’ But, unlike either bulls or kennels, it cannot safely be forwarded by freight or express. The formula for Pullman travel with a ’cello is as follows. First ascertain whether the conductor will let you aboard with the instrument. If not, try the next train. When successful, fee the porter heavily at sight, thus softening his heart so that he will assign the only spare upper berth to your baby. And warn him in impressive tones that the instrument is priceless, and on no account to touch it. You need not fear thieves. Sooner than steal a ’cello, the light-fingered would button his coat over a baby white-elephant and let it tusk his vitals.

I have cause to remember my first and only holiday trip with the Princeton Glee, Mandolin, and Banjo Clubs. My function being to play solos and to assist the Mandolin Club, I demanded for the ’cello an upper berth in the special car. But I was overwhelmed with howls of derision and assurances that I was a very fresh soph indeed. The first night, my instrument reposed in some mysterious recess under a leaky cooler, where all too much water flowed under its bridge before the dawn. The second night it was compressed into a straight and narrow closet with brushes and brooms, whence it emerged with a hollow chest, a stoop, a consumptive quality of voice, and the malady known as compressio pontis. Thereafter it occupied the same upper with me. Twice I overlaid it, with well-nigh fatal consequences.

Short-distance travel with a ’cello is not much more agreeable. In trolleys you have to hold it more delicately than any babe, and be ready to give a straight-arm to any one who lurches in your direction, and to raise it from the floor every time you jolt over crosstracks or run over pedestrians, for fear of jarring the delicate adjustment of the sound-post. As for a holiday crush down town, the best way to negotiate it with a ’cello is to fix the sharp steel end-pin in place, and then, holding the instrument at charge like a bayonet, impale those who seem most likely to break its ribs.

After my full share of such experiences, I learned that it is better for fiddlers errant to leave their instruments at home and live on the country, as it were, trusting to the fact that they can beg, borrow, or rent some kind of fiddle and some sort of chamber music almost anywhere, if they know how to go about it.

IV

Only don’t try it in Sicily!

For several months I had buried the fiddler in the errant pure and simple, when, one sunset, across a gorge in Monte Venere, my first strain of Sicilian music floated, to reawaken in me all the primeval instincts of the musical adventurer. The melody came from the reed pipe of a goat-herd as he drove his flock down into Taormina. Such a pipe was perhaps to Theocritus what the fiddles of Stradivarius are to us. It was pleasant to imagine that this goatherd’s music might possibly be the same that used to inspire the tenderest of Sicilian poets twenty-three hundred years ago.

Piercingly sweet, indescribably pathetic, the melody recalled the Largo in Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Yet, there on the mountain-side, with Ætna rosy on the right, and the purple Mediterranean shimmering far below, the voice of the reed sounded more divine than any English horn or Boehm flute I had ever heard singing in the depths of a modern orchestra. And I began to doubt whether music was so completely a product of the last three centuries as it purported to be.

But that evening, when the goatherd, ensnared by American gold, turned himself into a modern chamber musician in our hotel room, I regained poise. Removed from its properly romantic setting, like seaweed from the sea, the pastoral stop of Theocritus became unmistakably a penny whistle, with an intonation of the whistle’s conventional purity. Our captured Comatas seemed to realize that the environment was against him and that things were going ‘contrairy’; for he refused to venture on any of the soft Lydian airs of Monte Venere, and confined himself strictly to tarantellas, native dances, which he played with a magnificent feeling for rhythm (if not for in-tuneness) while, with a pencil, I caught — or muffed — them on the fly. One was to this effect: —

Greek city of Taranto over yonder in the heel of the Italian boot; that dancing it was once considered the only cure for the maddening bite of the spider known as the Lycosa Tarantula; and that some of the melodies our goatherd was playing might possibly be ancient Greek tunes, handed down traditionally in Taranto, and later dispersed over Calabria and Sicily.

This all sounded rather academic. But his next words sent the little professor soaring in our estimation. He disclosed himself as a fiddler errant by wistfully remarking that all this made him long for two things: his violin, and a chance to play trios. Right heartily did we introduce ourselves as pianist and ’cellist errant at his service. And he and I decided to visit Catania next day to scout for fiddles and music. We thought we would look for the music first.

Next day, accordingly, we invaded

Presto vivace

While this was going on, a chance hotel acquaintance dropped into the room and revealed himself as a professor by explaining that the tarantella was named for its birthplace, the old the largest music store in Catania. Did they have trios for violin, violoncello, and piano? ‘Certainly!’ We were shown a derangement of La Somnambula for violin and piano, and another for ’cello and piano. If we omitted one of the piano parts, we were assured, a very beautiful trio would result, as surely as one from four makes three.

Finding us hard to please, the storekeeper referred us to the conductor of the Opera, who offered to rent us all the standard works of chamber music. The ‘trios’ he offered us turned out to be elementary pieces labeled ‘For Piano and Violin or ’Cello.’ But nothing we could say was able to persuade our conductor that ‘ or ’ did not mean ‘ and.’ To this day I feel sure that he is ready to defend his interpretation of this word against all comers.

We turned three more music stores upside down and had already abandoned the hunt in despair when we discovered a fourth in a narrow side street. There were only five minutes in which to catch the train; but in thirty seconds we had unearthed a genuine piece of chamber music. Hallelujah! it was the finale of the first Beethoven trio!

Suddenly the oil of joy curdled to mourning. The thing was an arrangement for piano solo! We left hurriedly when the proprietor began assuring us that the original effect would be secured if the piano was doubled in the treble by the violin and in the bass by the ’cello.

This piano solo was the nearest approach to chamber music that we could find in Trinacria, though the island was gone over with a fine-tooth comb before we departed. But afterwards, recollecting the misadventure in tranquillity, we concluded that it was as absurd to look for chamber music in Sicily as to look for ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’ among the idylls of Theocritus.

V

SCENE: a city composed of one department store and three houses, on the forbidding shores of Newfoundland.

TIME : one of those times when a fellow needs a friend, —when he’s in a stern, strange land on pleasure bent — and has to have a check cashed. I don’t know why it is that one always runs out of ready money in Newfoundland. Perhaps because salmon flies are such fleeting creatures of a day that you must send many postal orders to St. Johns for more. Perhaps because the customs officials at Port au Basques make you deposit so much duty on your fishing tackle. At any rate, there I was penniless, with the burly storekeeper scowling in a savage manner at my check and not knowing at all whether to take a chance on it. Finally he thought he wouldn’t, but conceded that I might spend a night under his roof, as there was really nowhere else to go.

At this pass something made me think of music. Perhaps it was the parlor piano which, when new, back in the stone age, had probably been in tune. I inquired whether there were any other instruments. The wreckage of a violin was produced. With two pieces of string and a table fork I set up the prostrate sound-post. I glued together the bridge and put it in position. The technique of the angler proved helpful in splicing together some strange-looking strings. An old mandolin yielded a wire E, while the A was eked out with a piece of salmon leader.

When all was at last ready, a fresh difficulty occurred to me. The violin was an instrument which I had never learned to play! But necessity is the mother of pretension. I thought of that check. And placing the small fiddle carefully between my knees, I pretended that it was a ’cello. So the daughter of the house seated herself at the relic of the stone age, and we had a concert. Newfoundland appeared not to be over-finicky in the matter of pitch and tone-quality. And how it did enjoy music! As the audience was of Scotch-English-Irish descent, we rendered equal parts of ‘ Comin’ Through the Rye,’ ’God Save the King,’ and ‘ Kathleen Mavourneen.’ Then the proprietor requested the Sextette from Lucia. While it was forthcoming he toyed furtively with his bandana. When it ceased he encored it with all his might. Then he slipped out storewards and presently returned with the fattest, blackest, most formidablelooking cigar I ever saw, which he gravely proffered me.

‘We like,’ he remarked in his quaint idiom, ‘to hear music at scattered times.’ He was trying to affect indifference. But his gruff voice shook, and I knew then that music hath charms to cash the savage check.

VI

This essay has rambled on an unconscionable while. The shades of editorial night are already descending; and still I have not yet described one of those unexpected and perfect orgies of chamber music, — one of those little earthly paradises full of

Soul-satisfying strains — alas! too few, —

which true fiddlers errant hope to find in each new place they visit, but which usually keep well in advance of them, like the foot of the rainbow.

One such adventure came to me not long ago in a California city, while I was gathering material for a book of travel. On my first evening there I was taken to dine with a well-known writer in his beautiful home, which he had built with his own two hands in the Spanish mission style during fourteen years of joyous labor. This gentleman had no idea that I was to be thrust upon him. But his hospitality went so far as to insist, before the evening was over, that I must stay a week. He would not take no for an answer. And for my part I had no desire to say no, because he was a delightful person, his home with its leaf-filled patio was most alluring, and I had discovered promising possibilities for fiddlers errant in the splendid music-room and the collection of phonograph records of Indian music which mine host had himself made in Arizona and New Mexico. Then too there were rumors of skillful musical vagabonds in the vicinity.

Such an environment fairly cried aloud for impromptu fiddling. So, armed with a note to the best violinist in that part of California, I set forth next morning on the trail of the ideal orgy. At the address given I was told that my man had moved and his address was not known. That was a setback, indeed! But determined fiddlers errant usually land on their feet. On the way back I chanced to hear some masterly strains of Bach-on-the-violin issuing from a brown bungalow. And ringing at a venture I was confronted by the very man I sought.

Blocking the doorway, he read the note, looking as bored as professionals usually do when asked to play with amateurs. Just as he began to tell me how busy he was and how impossible, and so forth, he happened to glance again at the envelope, and a very slight gleam came into his eye.

‘But you’re not by any chance the fellow who wrote that thing about fiddlers in the Atlantic, are you?’ he inquired. At my nod he very flatteringly unblocked the doorway and dragged me inside, pumping my hand up and down in a painful manner, shouting for his wife, and making various kind representations, all at the same time. And his talk gradually simmered down into an argument that of course the only thing to do was to fiddle together that very night.

I asked who had the best ’cello in town. He told me the man’s name, but looked dubious. ‘The trouble is, he loves that big Amati as if it were twins. I doubt if he could bring himself to lend it to any one. Anyway, let’s try.’

He scribbled a card to his ’cellist friend and promised, if I were successful, to bring along a good pianist and play trios in the evening. So I set forth on the trail of the Amati. Its owner had just finished his noonday stint in a hotel orchestra and looked somewhat tired and cross. He glanced at the card and then assumed a most conservative expression and tried to fob off on me a cheap ’cello belonging to one of his pupils, which sounded very much as a three-cent cigar tastes. At this point I gave him the secret thumb-position grip and whispered into his ear one of those magic passwords of the craft which in a trice convinced him that I was in a position to dandle a ’cello with as tender solicitude as any man alive.

On my promising, moreover, to taxicab it both ways with the sacred burden, he passed the Amati over, and the orgy of fiddlers errant was assured.

And that night how those beautiful Spanish walls did resound to Beethoven and Dvořák and Brahms, most originally interspersed with the voice of the Mexican servant’s guitar, with strange, lovely songs of the aboriginal West and South, — and with the bottled sunshine of Californian hill-slopes; while El Alcalde Maiore, the lone gnarled tree-giant that filled the patio, looked in through the open windows and contributed, by way of accompaniment, leafy arpeggios sotto voce. And sometimes, during rests, I remembered to be thankful that I had once snapped my fingers at the howling wolf, and at fat pot-boilers, while I scribbled for the Atlantic that little essay on fiddlers which had gained me this priceless evening.