Through Hungarian and Transylvanian archives, all sorts of myths can be traced about the cello’s origin. Conrad had talked so passionately about The Countess, once going so far as to claim that his concert successes were due to the cello-maker’s ingenuity rather than to his own playing. And there were special reasons for her tone. Some sources claimed the wood was spruce, maple and willow, all rich in forest magic; others that it was fashioned from the remnants of the Tree of Life, a seed hidden in Adam’s mouth which sprouted after his death. Nothing that an enlightened age could take seriously. But, as the Reverend could have told them, they were living through an Age of Endarklement: snows in midsummer, wormwood in the rivers. The Tree of Life was heated over moulds, its wood stretched until the cello achieved its distinctive timbre – so like the human voice but a voice of sadness: discursive, self-pitying, flowing backwards and forwards through time like the river that ran through Eden.
The most enduring myth about the instrument’s origin was that it was made from the wood of the True Cross, a wild story given credence by the cello’s long association with evil and further substantiated by the reclusive author Ferenc Gabor. In his History of the Magyars: their customs and peculiarities, Gabor is at first mystified that the cello’s wood, seasoned with Christ’s blood, has not been a power for the good. But when those dark streaks ran into the wood’s veins, Christ’s suffering soaked into the grain and warped it, swelling all its sapless cells with blood until the colour changed from a pale insipid blonde to a deep mahogany.
Gabor based his research on the apocryphal gospel of St Diodatis, patron saint of agriculture and syphilis, who, according to legend, witnessed the death of Christ and helped with the removal of the Cross from the Place of Skulls to a sepulchre where it was preserved as a relic. Earthquake and plague struck the church built over the sepulchre, the sacred wood buckled and sweated droplets of blood. From the wood Diodatis fashioned a stringed instrument, an early form of viol which imitated the lower registers of the human voice. Diodatus believed that no instrument could sing so sweetly of Christ’s suffering, and that, when played, the Holy Spirit would, through it, convert Jew and pagan alike. But when he removed it in the dead of night his hands blistered.
Later, the viol became the property of the Magyar Prince, Count Vladislav The Unsteady, won in a campaign againt the Turks. The Prince sought the thickest skirmishes and most harrowing scenes to cure him of his congenital sickness. Dipping fingers into wounds he examined the bright jewellery of intestines, unwinding them slowly while the soldier groaned, begging for death. All the while he wondered about the invisible wound he suffered from, the bloodless wound that could not be staunched or dressed or cured.
The tone of the captured viol soothed his awful insensibility—he no longer drove pins into the arms of servant girls or sat sleepless in his rooms of blue watered silk waiting for someone to break the spell of the tall mirrors he stared into. Refinements were made to the viol, the core smashed open, its body lengthened until its range increased.
The Countess’s cruel spike and greater emotional register enslaved her possessors. An imperious mistress with a resonant belly, beautiful and alluring, despite her complexion of brown, varnished wood. Nothing could quench her thirst: she drank varnish and linseed, resins and perfumes, all that the boyars could bring and she sang her song, one that she never tired of—through suffering mankind can be redeemed. The music critic EH Munby states: ‘her bewitching tone makes suffering a source of incredible sweetness and redemption, the palest of afterthoughts.’
So much is hearsay and local colour – uncorroborated research with a Magyar bias. A narrative imposed on haphazard events – an urge to fashion the forests into something useful—an instrument that reveals humanity to itself. Whether true or not (and Gabor like many others is clearly hedging his bets) the neccesity of those myths tells a truer story, perhaps the only story left to tell. This is the story.